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The world's first killer to be caught by his own DNA - a breakthrough that changed policing forever

DNA case
David Baker was struggling to solve the murders of teens Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth – then he read about DNA 

Retired detective David Baker recalls the rural murders solved by a breakthrough that changed crimefighting for good

On the morning of November 22, 1983, I received a call that a body had been found. I was 47 and head of the criminal investigation department at Leicester Police. We had spent the night before, one of the coldest of the year, searching for missing 15-year-old Lynda Mann. Her family described her as a “petite doll with a cheeky face”. 

“She only had to look at you and she’d got you,” says her uncle, Rob. 

There are some scenes that never leave you, and I can still remember Lynda's little body lying in a copse in the village of Narborough. She had been raped, then strangled to death.  

I was determined to find the perpetrator, but it was the Eighties, and we relied on rudimentary investigative tools: eye witness accounts, physical evidence, and fingerprinting. Stranger rapes were among the most difficult to solve. If a suspect didn’t emerge in a few days, it was unlikely they ever would. That said, I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be. 

Narborough is a small village on the outskirts of Leicester, with a chip shop and a newsagent’s. Lynda’s body was found down a secluded pathway a quarter of a mile from her home. I thought the perpetrator was a local, but he left nothing at the scene and inquiries didn’t lead us to any suspects. 

I worried that Lynda would become another of the females murdered in the Eighties whose cases went undetected. 

It would take nearly four years, but we would find her killer – and in the process, change the way police around the world investigate crimes.

We discovered a powerful new tool in the fight against murderers, rapists and burglars: DNA profiling.

The story of how I asked DNA researchers to help solve a live case is one of three featured in new BBC series Catching Britain’s Killers: The Crimes That Changed Us

Sadly, another girl was killed in Narborough before we discovered this key. On July 31, 1986, 15-year-old Dawn Ashworth went missing on her way home to Enderby. Her mother, Barbara, describes her as “a wonderful daughter”, who brought home flowers with her Saturday job wages. 

“Some were in the vase the day she went missing,” says Barbara, in a letter written for the documentary. 

Two days later, her body was discovered in the corner of a field, covered in sticks and nettles, just half a mile from where we had found Lynda. She had been raped and strangled.  

Unlike in Lynda’s case, a number of witnesses had seen a motorbike parked near Dawn’s body, which belonged to our first suspect, kitchen porter Richard Buckland, 17. He knew where Dawn’s body had been left, but didn’t appear to know anything about Lynda’s death. I was sure the killer was the same person, but we had no evidence to connect the two crimes, save for a test that showed both were blood group A (which accounts for a third of the population). 

We had Buckland in custody for one murder and needed to act quickly to connect him to the other. Earlier that summer, I read a report in the Leicester Mercury about DNA testing. Three decades after James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA, Sir Alec Jeffreys at Leicester University had found a way to identify an individual's genetic code from a blood or semen sample. The Home Office had been conducting tests at Aldermaston, but hadn’t used it in a live case. I pushed to accelerate this process, and asked Sir Jeffreys to test samples from Lynda and Dawn’s bodies to see if Buckland was responsible. 

The results shocked us: the murderer was the same, but it wasn’t Buckland. We had to start again. We had already spoken to almost every man we could in Narborough, Littlethorpe and Enderby, and come away with nothing.

I decided to work with what we had – the DNA of the murderer.

Baker retired from Leicester Police on Christmas Eve in 1995, as a national DNA database was created Credit: BBC 

In an unprecedented move, we sent letters to 5,000 men between the ages of 18 and 34, who lived in the three villages, asking them to provide their DNA. Similar tests had been done on fingerprints, but not to that scale. It was labour intensive and expensive – our team worked seven days a week and the Home Office provided funding.

The public was anxious for us to find the killer before he attacked again. We appealed for help on the local radio, TV and in the newspaper, and thousands of men soon came forward. Police surgeons, phlebotomists, and anyone who could legitimately take blood helped retrieve samples. 

We only started using computers in investigations in the months before Lynda went missing. It was a revelation – one mistake could cause a lot of trouble when your evidence was in paper files. Three years later, we were logging thousands of DNA samples into a database and ruling out suspects. 

I knew there was a strong chance the person responsible would take evasive action – and I was correct. 

One of the men we sent a request to was Colin Pitchfork, a baker who lived in Littlethorpe with his wife and two sons. Panicked, he gave his colleague, Ian Kelly, a doctored passport and asked him to give blood in his place. Seven months into the screening, Kelly was on a work night out at the Clarendon Pub when he told people he what he had done. A woman overheard and reported it to us. 

We brought Pitchfork in for questioning and he became the 4,853rd person to take the DNA test. It was a match. He confessed to the two murders and two other sexual assaults, even telling us his baby son was in his nearby parked car when he raped and killed Lynda. 

Not only had we caught Pitchfork, we had created a whole new form of crime fighting. 

Colin Pitchfork, a local baker, might never have been caught for raping and killing Lynda and Dawn without DNA profiling Credit: Rex

In January 1989, Pitchfork pleaded guilty to two counts of murder, two of rape, two of indecent assault and one of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. He was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison. Kelly was convicted of perverting the course of justice. 

Buckland is a lucky man; I fear he would have been convicted on circumstantial evidence if we hadn't found Pitchfork.

News of crimes solved in rural England using revolutionary science spread like wildfire. Soon, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Germany and Slovenia were using it, too. In the coming years, DNA testing was used to identify the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, as well as solve countless cold cases and bring killers to justice decades after the fact. 

If we hadn’t pushed forward in 1986, it could have been another decade before DNA profiling was widely adopted by the police. In that time, more women could well have been killed. 

With an ever-growing database of genetic profiles, acquired by the police and private companies such as 23AndMe, DNA is now an essential tool in criminal investigations. Since 2009, more than 200 criminal cases in the UK have been solved using familial DNA. Last year it helped US police catch the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, who committed at least 12 murders, 45 rapes and hundreds of break-ins in California in the Seventies and Eighties. 

For Lynda and Dawn's grieving families, little can soothe the pain. Pitchfork’s conviction brought a degree of closure, but they are now facing the prospect that he could be released on parole.  

In a letter she wrote for the documentary, Dawn’s mother shows how proud she is that her daughter has had a lasting impact in death. “Having given [Dawn] the gift of life, I think about her every day and what life would have had in store for her,” writes Barbara. “Now, when I hear of a case where DNA has solved a crime, I look up to the heavens and say, ‘There you are Dawn, we’ve caught another one’.” 

As told to Cara McGoogan

Catching Britain’s Killers: The Crimes That Changed Us starts on BBC Two on Wednesday at 9pm