Narborough, England, Nov. 21, 1983: Fifteen-year-old Lynda Mann left her home to go to a friend’s house to babysit. The friend’s house wasn’t far away — and there was a shortcut through a secluded footpath known locally as the Black Pad.
But Mann didn’t return home that night. Her parents contacted the police to report her missing.
The next morning, her body was found naked near the Black Pad where, presumably, she’d been abducted. She had been strangled to death and raped.
There was little evidence left behind — only semen. But this was before the use of DNA testing in criminal procedures; all police could do was find the blood type of the donor. It was Type A, and contained a specific kind of enzyme, which narrowed it down to 10 percent of the population. Not exactly a smoking gun.
Since the Black Pad was relatively secluded, police surmised that the killer was someone local, who would know about Black Pad. Because the site where her body was found was near the grounds of the local mental hospital, many suspected that a patient had committed the crime. But there was no evidence to support that.
The police conducted an extensive investigation, but turned up no leads.
One man who was questioned by police was named Colin Pitchfork. Pitchfork had a previous record for indecent exposure, but claimed that on the night of Mann’s murder, he was at home watching his two children while his wife was out.
Months went by with no leads. Then years. The Mann case grew cold.
Then, July 31, 1986, another 15-year-old girl from the area went missing. Dawn Ashworth, who lived in the nearby village of Enderby, went walking home from her job, taking a shortcut via the secluded Ten Pound Road. But Ashworth never arrived.
Two days later, her naked body was found in a nearby field, partially covered in brush, less than a mile from where Mann’s body had been found. She, too, had been strangled and raped. She also had bite marks and several defensive wounds, indicating a brutal attack. The semen found on her body was the same blood and enzyme type as that found on Mann’s body.
There were too many similarities to ignore. The people of Narborough and Enderby feared there was a serial killer at large.
So police investigated — and found a suspect. Seventeen-year-old Richard Buckland, who had learning disabilities and worked in the mental hospital’s kitchen, was seen by witnesses on his motorcycle near both crime scenes. When police questioned him, he knew a great deal about how Ashworth’s body was when it was found, including details that hadn’t been released to the media.
Police took him in and interrogated him. After many hours, Buckland confessed to Ashworth’s murder — but refused to confess to murdering Mann. Since police strongly suspected both girls had been killed by the same person, they needed some way to tie him to both crimes.
Luckily, the University of Leicester was only five miles away from Norborough. There, geneticist Alec Jeffreys had developed a kind of test that could extract DNA from samples of blood, semen, or other tissue and create a kind of “fingerprint” or profile. Since every living being has unique DNA (except clones and identical twins), Jeffreys’ DNA profile could, theoretically, match a person to a sample conclusively.
The test had been discovered entirely by accident, while Jeffreys was conducting research into how diseases are transmitted genetically. The experiment he was working on failed. However, according to The Guardian, “He had extracted DNA from cells and attached it to photographic film, which was then left in a photographic developing tank. Once extracted, the film showed a sequence of bars: Jeffreys quickly realised that every individual whose cells had been used in the experiment could be identified with great precision.”
He published his findings in a scientific journal, and shortly, was called on by the Crown to put it to the test. His new technique was used to determine the paternity of several children who were being denied British citizenship.
But when Jeffreys suggested his new discovery could be used to help solve criminal cases, he was laughed at.
Then Norborough police showed up at his lab, asking if he could match the DNA from a semen sample to a suspect. Jeffreys said yes.
He created DNA profiles of the semen samples found on both victims, as well as from a blood sample taken from Buckland. These tests showed that indeed, the semen was left by the same man. But that man was not Buckland, earning him the honor of being the first person to be exonerated by DNA evidence.
That left police back at square one. They decided to take a big gamble: they sent out letters to every man between the ages of 18 and 36, who had lived or worked in the Norborough area during the times of the murders. The letters asked these men — over 6,000 of them — to voluntarily submit a blood sample for DNA testing. They would need to bring their passports to prove their identity as well.
Police figured there were three possibilities: one, that the killer, not understanding how DNA works, would submit his blood and then be caught. Two, the killer would simply refuse the test, which would draw police suspicion. Three, the killer would try to interfere with or manipulate the test.
After the first month of what was dubbed “the blooding,” about 1,000 men had given blood samples. The lab struggled to keep up. Eight months later, over 5,500 men had given samples, but still, not one of them matched the killer. Desperate, the police considered widening the scope of the test.
Then, in August of 1987, a group of friends was having drinks and chatting at a Leicester pub. The topic somehow turned to Pitchfork, who worked at the same bakery they did. One man, Ian Kelly, confessed that he had posed as Pitchfork — complete with forged passport — in order to take the DNA test for him. Apparently Pitchfork had spun a tale as to why he couldn’t submit to the test himself, and Kelly believed him.
The next day, a woman who overheard Kelly called police with that information. Kelly was immediately brought in for questioning, and soon after, so was Pitchfork.
When Pitchfork was arrested, he quickly confessed to the rapes and murders. He told police he had raped and then killed Mann while his son slept in the car.
He went on to confess that he had begun by exposing himself to 1,000 women and girls, a compulsion that had started when he was a teenager. He said that that compulsion escalated to rape, and then, to murder.
In 1988, Pitchfork pled guilty to two counts of murder, two of rape, two of indecent assault, and one count of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. He was sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 30 years.
Since he confessed to the murders, the DNA evidence wasn’t actually used in court. But police quickly grasped how powerful DNA profiling could be. The Home Office (the agency responsible for responsible for immigration, security, and law and order in Great Britain) immediately mandated that forensic scientists and technicians be trained in DNA testing. Police agencies across the world quickly followed suit. Today, DNA testing is a cornerstone of criminal investigations.
As for Pitchfork, he’s been described as a model prisoner. He studied for and earned a degree while behind bars, and even created a sculpture that was exhibited in the Royal Festival Hall. However, under public outrage, it was taken down.
He came up for parole in 2016 and 2018, and was even allowed on a “day release” to go shopping that year. But he was denied parole both times.
Kelly, for his part in helping Pitchfork hide his guilt, was convicted of perverting the course of justice and was sentenced to 18 months, suspended.
As for Jeffreys, in 1994, he was knighted by the Queen for his service to genetics, and to science and technology.