LEICESTER, ENGLAND — On September 19, 1987, police arrested Colin Pitchfork, who brutally beat, raped, and strangled to death two 15-year-old girls.
But the brutality of the murders was not the only reason that the case attained notoriety: Pitchfork would become the first person convicted of a crime based on DNA profiling evidence, and the first to be caught as a result of mass DNA screening.
Pitchfork, who had a previous conviction for indecent exposure, was married to a social worker and had two sons. At the time of his arrest, he had been working at Hampshires Bakery for over a decade. Despite his habit of constantly hitting on female employees, according to his boss he was a good worker and had a special talent for artistic cake decorations.
But his seemingly normal home life hid an unspeakable dark side. His family had no idea of his secret compulsions to expose himself to women, which Pitchfork later told investigators he had had since his teens.
On November 21, 1983, a 15-year-old girl named Lynda Mann left her home to visit a friend’s house. The next morning, she was found raped and strangled on a deserted footpath known locally as the Black Pad.
Using forensics that were available at the time, police took a semen sample from her body and were able to determine that her killer had Type A blood and an enzyme profile that only matched 10 percent of males.
The case was still unsolved on July 31, 1986, when another 15-year-old girl named Dawn Ashworth took a shortcut home — and, two days later, her body was found in a wooded area. Like Mann, she had been savagely beaten, raped, and strangled to death.
Once again, police took semen samples — and found the same type of enzyme present.
In 1985, Alec Jeffreys, a genetics researcher at the University of Leicester, first developed DNA profiling along with Peter Gill and Dave Werrett of the Forensic Science Service. The extraction technique they developed involved getting DNA profiles from old stains, and separating sperm cells from vaginal cells — which would herald a major breakthrough in using DNA in rape cases.
At the time, the main suspect in Ashworth’s murder was Richard Burkland, a 17-year-old with learning disabilities. But Jeffreys was able to compare semen samples from both murder victims against a blood sample from the suspect, and prove that both women were killed by the same man — but the killer was not Burkland.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that he would have been found guilty had it not been for DNA evidence. That was a remarkable occurrence,” Jeffreys later said.
Police then asked over 5,000 local men to volunteer to give blood or saliva samples in the world’s first mass screening for DNA.
On August 1, 1987, investigators got a break in the case after one of Pitchfork’s colleagues from the bakery told a friend at a bar that he had been paid £200 for giving a sample while masquerading as Pitchfork. A woman who overheard the conversation reported it to police.
After Pitchfork’s arrest, he admitted to investigators that he had exposed himself to over 1,000 women since his early teens — and confessed to the murders. He was sentenced to life in prison.
During his time behind bars, Pitchfork has continued to exercise his artistic side. In April 2009, a sculpture that Pitchfork had created in prison, which depicted an orchestra and choir, made “in meticulous miniature detail by folding, cutting, and tearing the score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” was exhibited at Royal Festival Hall.
His talent is undeniable, but, as reported in the Daily Mail, “The Court of Appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice will decide his fate, but for many in the court of public opinion the beauty of a man’s art has no bearing on his soul.”
On April 22, 2016, a parole board heard Pitchfork’s case for early release. On April 29, 2016, the board announced that his petition for parole had been denied — but they did recommend that he be moved to an open prison which he was, a move which outraged the victims’ families.
“Given what he did, it is too big a risk. We were told there could be day trips with an officer and then if he behaves he will be let out on his own with a tag, then there could be longer trips out. It’s an insult. There is no way it is safe to let him out in public,” Mann’s younger sister Rebecca Eastwood told the Daily Express.
The Parole Board may again consider his release in 2018.
Main photo: Colin Pitchfork [Wikimedia Commons]