Victim in headless torso murder probe still unknown 28 years on

It has been 28 years since one of the most grisly murders the UK has ever seen, but police still do not know who the victim was.

A headless and handless torso lies buried in a grave in West Sussex, marked with a gravestone without a name.

The mutilated body was discovered in undergrowth in the small village of Bolney, but the huge murder probe that followed took detectives as far afield as Germany in their hunt for the killer.

Theories ranged from London gangsters to East German fraudsters to construction workers, but nobody has been brought to court for the killing.

And without some new breakthrough in information or technology, the crime may never be solved, according to two detectives who led the murder inquiry.

The case began on October 11 1991, when a body was found in Broxmead Lane, Bolney.

The victim’s head and hands had been removed, perhaps in an effort to obscure their identity.

Police identified him only as a white male with a small star-shaped mole on his right thigh and a protruding belly.

An initial murder inquiry was led by then detective chief inspector Peter Kennett, who would later become known for catching Sarah Payne’s killer, Roy Whiting.

Speaking to the PA news agency, the now retired Mr Kennett said: “I had just got home and had been intending to attend a retirement party of a senior colleague, David Scott, when the phone rang telling me of the grim discovery.

“I lived a short drive from Bolney and drove straight to the scene.

“By this time it was dark and tipping it down with rain. Because of the atrocious weather, there was not much that could be done other than secure the scene and wait for the morning.”

Mr Kennett had never had to solve a torso murder before, but it was clear to him that identifying the body would be likely to lead police to the suspects.

He continued: “Not knowing who the identity of the victim is is a serious drawback to a murder investigation.

“There is an old saying – know how your victim lived and you will find out why they died.

“All we had was a body, and a deposition site in the middle of nowhere. No nearby houses. No passing traffic. It was a fluke miracle that he was found so soon.

“The public, ie witnesses, solve murders. We had no-one to ask.”

Despite extensive investigations, the inquiry went unsolved and lay dormant for years until new evidence was uncovered.

The case was looked at afresh in 2008 and taken on by Andy Griffiths, who was in charge of Sussex Police’s major crime team.

Now retired from the force, Mr Griffiths told PA: “This was an extremely difficult and complex case because it involved international work and inquiries into what was the old East Germany.

“I think if we had a name for the victim then we would have the last sighting of that victim and we would follow that chain.”

The removal of the victim’s head and hands seems to be an attempt by the killer to prevent identification, Mr Griffiths said.

This was a practice rarely seen in Britain at the time.

The area in Haywards Heath Cemetery, West Sussex, where a headless and handless body known as the ‘Bolney Torso’ was originally buried
The area in Haywards Heath Cemetery, West Sussex, where a headless and handless body known as the ‘Bolney Torso’ was originally buried (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Mr Griffiths said: “When we reviewed the case in 2008, we took the decision to examine the body.

“We got a full DNA profile from the body which was used to confirm identity in the future.”

To get the samples the body was exhumed from its grave in Haywards Heath.

Fresh analysis using the latest technology revealed that the victim was aged between 30 and 40 and was about 5ft 6in to 5ft 8in.

To add another unexplained detail to the mystery, police also discovered that the body had been dressed after death in the shirt and trousers in which he was found, and that those clothes belonged to someone else.

Using cutting-edge forensic tools not available in 1991, Mr Griffiths’ team were also able to establish that the victim had a link to Bavaria in Germany.

He and colleagues went to Germany and put out appeals for information, but despite three trips to the country, including one in 2011, the identity of the Bolney Torso remained a mystery.

One theory that police worked on was that the murder was linked to East German criminals who had emerged from behind the Iron Curtain when the Berlin Wall came down, Mr Griffiths said.

Sussex Police confirmed that a widely publicised theory has never been satisfactorily resolved: that the body was found just a mile or so away from a house being rented by a German fraudster.

But without a positive identification for the murder victim, Mr Griffiths says the case may never be solved.

“Without a positive step forward on that victim, the job is stuck where it is stuck really.

“It is solvable but it needs that step forward.”

And even if there were to be a step forward, Mr Griffiths said that getting enough evidence to charge someone with the killing “is another story”.

Mr Kennett said the Bolney Torso is “one of those cases that never goes away” and it still crosses his mind sometimes.

He added: “Do I think it will be solved? It’s still possible.

“There was a full review of the murder where the body was exhumed and the latest DNA evidence obtained. So identification is clearly possible, and in that event – know how your victim lived and you will find out why they died.

“As I always say – it’s only a phone call away.”

A Sussex Police spokesman said: “This is still an unresolved murder investigation and we are ready to follow up any new lines of inquiry.

“We are committed to identifying the victim, establishing what happened to him and bringing the offenders to justice if at all possible.

“We will always do everything we can to ensure that happens.”

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