Is the Suffolk Strangler Still at Large?

 Steve Wright

The murders of five prostitutes by the Suffolk Strangler in 2006 set off one of the largest manhunts in British history. DNA evidence led to the arrest and conviction of a man who admitted he had sex with four of the five dead women, but was he the actual serial killer? 

by Siobhan Patricia Mulcahy

During November and December of 2006, five prostitutes were murdered one at a time in Ipswich, England. Although each was asphyxiated and not strangled, the British media dubbed the serial killer “the Suffolk Strangler.” 

Forensic evidence suggested that all five victims were attacked from behind and that the assailant put his arm across the victims’ throats to render them unconscious. The first two bodies were found fully or partially clothed in a nearby river in Ipswich. The last three victims were left naked in woodlands near the same area; no attempt had been made to hide or bury the bodies. Each victim was arranged in the form of a crucifix with her hair extended outwards in the form of a halo. Jewelry and other trinkets were taken from the victims but have never been recovered.

The victims were 19-year-old Tania Nicol, 25-year-old Gemma Adams, 24-year-old Anneli Alderton, 29-year-old Annette Nichols, and 24-year-old Paula Clennell. Clennell, the fifth and final victim, had predicted her own murder during a television interview about the serial killer. She had been friends with the other victims as they worked the same streets touting for passing trade.

At the time of the murders, Suffolk police asked the Forensic Science Service to assist in one of the largest murder manhunts in British history. From the time Tania Nicol was reported missing on November 1, 2006, the police investigation involved 600 officers from nearly every law enforcement force in Great Britain. The inquiry team received more than 12,000 calls from members of the public and almost 11,000 hours of closed-circuit TV footage were scrutinized.

More than 100 scientists spent more than 6,000 hours analyzing “swabs” for body fluids and DNA, along with thousands of fibers from the victims themselves, including the locations where each murdered woman was found. Initially, the surface of each of the victim’s bodies was swabbed to recover foreign DNA. Over 100 swabs were taken and processed using the SGM Plus profiling method.

A DNA Match

Tania Nicol

A DNA match led police to a man named Steve Wright, who at the time of the murders was working as barman in Ipswich's red light district and as a forklift truck driver in the Ipswich Docklands. His DNA profile was held on a police computer database after a previous conviction for theft; in 2002 he was convicted of stealing £80 from a former employer. Investigators said Wright’s DNA was recovered from Anneli Alderton, Paula Clennell and Annette Nichols.

Wright was arrested at his home at 5 a.m. on December 19, 2006 and taken in for questioning. At the time, the police told the assembled media: “This is a significant arrest and the team is feeling quite buoyant.” The police said that they were no longer appealing for information in relation to the murders and that the arrest was a major breakthrough in the case. They were very certain they had the culprit – to the exclusion of all other possible suspects.

When questioned by police, Wright admitted frequently using prostitutes in Ipswich's red light district and also admitted having sex with four of the five victims but he maintained “this did not make him a murderer.”

The police also told the media that the basis of the arrest was closed-circuit TV footage which they thought showed Wright's car picking up the first victim, Tania Nicol. Wright picked her up on October 30, 2006 and her body was not found until December 8. Wright said it was “quite possible” he was the driver of the car seen in CCTV images that showed Nicol getting into a vehicle on the night of her killing but he also said that after he picked her up he changed his mind about having sex and dropped her back in Ipswich's red light district.

Steve Wright’s Background

Gemma Adams

Steve Wright had a troubled childhood and adolescence. His mother walked out on the family when he was 8 years old and he did not see her again for 25 years. He and his siblings lived with their father, who remarried and had a son and daughter with his second wife. At age 16, Wright left school with poor academic results and joined the Merchant Navy where he became a chef. While in the navy, he began to frequent prostitutes and continued to do so throughout his adult life. When he left the navy, he worked as a lorry driver, a steward on the QE2 and as a bar manager in various locations and at one point, he lived in Thailand for a few months.

He was married and divorced twice and fathered two children. His second marriage lasted only a year and he may have had a third wife in Thailand though he has always denied this.

DNA Matches Lead to Conviction

Anneli Alderton

After his arrest, initial examination of over 500 items recovered from Wright’s home and car confirmed the presence of body fluids. Scientists extracted the DNA from these fluids – using SGM Plus methods and obtained profiles matching Paula Clennell, Anneli Alderton and Annette Nichols.

Scientists also recovered fibers from the bodies of Anneli Alderton, Paula Clennell and Annette Nichols using adhesive tape. These were then compared against items recovered from Steve Wright’s home and car. There were other incriminating items uncovered such as fibers matching the carpet of Steve Wright’s car found in Tania Nicol's hair and fibers from a pair of navy blue track suit bottoms recovered from Wright’s home which were found to be “indistinguishable” from those recovered from four of the victims.

During a six week trial at Ipswich crown court, the prosecution used CCTV footage and all the forensic evidence linking Wright to the murders – links so strong that prosecution experts said the odds of being mistaken were one in a billion.  In the end, jurors took only eight hours to convict Wright unanimously on all counts. In summing up, the trial judge, Mr. Justice Gross, said it was an “extremely disturbing case.”

Prosecutor Peter Wright called on the judge to impose a “whole life term.” He said the criteria for passing such a sentence were met because there was “a substantial degree of premeditation or planning.”

Wright was sentenced to life imprisonment with little chance of parole. Justice Gros called him the “epitome of evil.”

Is Steve Wright Innocent?

Annette Nichols

Wright, who adamantly professed his innocence from the time of his arrest, was shocked at his conviction. After his conviction, he said the verdict was like a “knife in the heart” as he had not expected to be found guilty. In a letter dated August of 2008 from Long Martin Prison, Worcestershire to the East Anglia Daily Times, he wrote that he was not the “real killer.” He also said that he was “numb with shock” after being found guilty of the murders and that there “was not one shred of evidence” against him.

“People should believe I am innocent because I have gone through my whole life trying to be as fair and considerate to other people as I possibly could. I don't have a violent bone in my body and to take a life I would have thought would be the ultimate form of aggression…All their evidence proved was that I had contact with the girls but not one shred of evidence showed that I killed them,” he wrote.

Wright is not alone in maintaining his innocence. To crime investigator and writer David Dixon, the forensic evidence linking Wright to the murders does not prove that Steve Wright was the killer. “The forensic experts testified that most fiber deposits would be lost in the wind and rain after a few hours of exposure to the elements, yet a full profile of Wright's DNA was found on three murder victims despite the bodies being exposed to wind and rain for several days, and even though Wright used condoms during sex with the women.”

To Dixson, all the scientific evidence only proves Wright had contact with the victims and that he had sex with four of the five murdered prostitutes – which Wright readily admitted from the outset.

Dixon says: “This CCTV footage, presented at the trial, alleged to show Tania Nicol being picked up by Wright's Ford Mondeo, but the footage was taken at night, and the car might not have been a Ford Mondeo, and if it was, it might not have been the killer's car, or Steven Wright's, and the girl getting into it may not have been Tania Nicol either.”

“Another very important point is that Paula Clennell (the final victim) reported to the police that she had seen Tania Nicol some two hours after this time, talking to a man in a silver car in the red-light district.”

Paula Clennell

Clennell therefore died as a potential material witness for Wright's defense, Dixon says. And another witness also saw Nicol talking to two men in a “posh” car after the CCTV sighting undermines this CCTV evidence completely.

Dixon believes a more obvious candidate for a suspect car is a blue BMW with polished alloy wheel hubs that was seen by several witnesses. Anneli Alderton was last seen alive getting into a dark blue BMW. Gemma Adams was last seen outside a BMW garage, according to Dixon. But this evidence never received an airing in court.

“Annette Nicholls was seen getting into a blue BMW with polished alloy wheel hubs a week before she is thought to have vanished. Tania Nicol was last seen at the driver's window talking and giggling with two men sitting in a “posh” blue car,” Dixon says.

“Another witness, a doorman at an Ipswich massage parlor, saw a driver in a blue BMW with polished alloy wheel hubs behaving very strangely in the car park in early December. The driver repeatedly reversed his car back and forth outside the door, then moved further up into the car park and did the same again, revving up his engine and stopping it repeatedly. He then drove off very fast.”

If we add up all the elements, Dixon says, what we get is “last seen alive,” “seen getting into,” “last seen outside a BMW garage,” “acting suspiciously outside a sex-related venue,” “last seen talking to two men in a posh car” – all of which must guarantee suspicion of a blue BMW.

Dixon believes Wright's defense did not make enough of this during the trial.

Wright also admitted having sex with Adams in his car at around the time she disappeared, and said that at later times he took the other women – Alderton, Clennell and Nicholls - back to his home for sex while his partner was at work. He would take them to his bedroom but would not use the bed in case his partner was able to smell sex on the bedclothes.

Instead, he had sex with them on two jackets on the floor. The court heard bloodstains from Clennell and Nicholls were found on one of the jackets.

Crown Prosecution advocate Michael Crimp said Wright was the “common denominator” linking all five murdered women. He concluded that Wright was the last person to see them alive and the scientific evidence proved he was responsible for their deaths. He said Wright had failed to give a satisfactory explanation as to why blood from two of the victims was on his jacket. This was one of the main factors in Wright's conviction.

Indeed there was no attempt by Wright's defense to investigate the origin of the blood stains. Could they have been menstrual blood? All the murdered prostitutes were drug addicts. Could this blood have been the result of lack of personal hygiene after injecting heroin? Or could the blood have resulted from rough sex with other customers earlier in the night? None of these possibilities were explored by Wright's defense in court.

According to Dixon, the prosecution also failed to explain why no jewelry and clothing from the victims had ever been found – surely if “trophies” had been kept by the murderer, they would have been uncovered in Wright's home or car.

Dixon says: “Wright made admissions that he need not have made, such as his awareness of some of the areas that the bodies were disposed in, where a dishonest denier would always deny if he could. He has had a long history of involvement with prostitutes dating back a quarter of a century with no sign of a psychopathic disposition in his history.”

Dixon also has a problem with the modus operandi of the actual murderer.

“The first two victims disappeared at fortnightly intervals and were found weeks later in a nearby river, in circumstances designed to eliminate the risk of forensic and DNA evidence. The last three were all killed in a single week, and the bodies were laid out on dry land for a quick discovery, plastered in DNA and forensic evidence that implicated the hapless defendant Steven Wright.”

Dixon says the murders can be described as “serial cascade murders” because of the change in timing between the first two murders and the last three. He believes there is also a corresponding switch between the two sets of murders, with the bodies of the first two being found in the east of Ipswich, and the bodies of the last three being found to the west of Ipswich.

Dixon concludes with the question: “Why would a serial killer accelerate the pace of his series so dramatically when the police surveillance of the small district from which he took his victims was at its height?” He may have a valid point.

Dixon is not alone in claiming the wrong man may have been convicted of the Ipswich murders.

Noel O'Gara, owner/editor of Court Publications in the Republic of Ireland has conducted his own investigation into the Ipswich murders, and last year, published an eBook about the case called The Real Suffolk Strangler. He believes the actual murderer is still on the loose.

O'Gara agrees with Dixon on a number of issues. He says: “The evidence that Steve Wright's DNA was found on the victims did not prove that he was a killer. What it did prove was that he had sexual relations with them as he admitted.”

He also agrees with Dixon that the blue car is a major “loose end” in the case, and like Dixon, he believes the existence of this car was not properly investigated by the .Ipswich police.

In his book, O'Gara suggests that a former police officer who worked as a pimp for all the murdered prostitutes was the real killer. He also claims that “the real killer” was the driver of the mysterious blue car seen in the CCTV footage shown in court.

O'Gara's chief suspect, Tom Stephens, was indeed arrested by Ipswich police before Steve Wright and was also named in one of the UK's Sunday newspapers as the potential culprit but O'Gara claims the police “lost all interest” in the ex-cop turned pimp once they arrested Steve Wright. He says Wright was a much “better fit” for the police who then stopped following leads on other suspects.

Though O'Gara spent several years gathering his own evidence in this case, he was unable to interview his chief suspect who (locals say) disappeared from the Ipswich area shortly after Wright's conviction. O'Gara says: “I went to the central police station in Ipswich to discuss my evidence but received a very hostile reception there and a request to meet the chief police officer was dismissed out of hand.”

Appeals

In March, 2008, Wright revealed he would be lodging an appeal against his conviction, as well as the trial judge's recommendation that his life sentence should mean “a whole life.” He has also claimed that the trial should never have been held in Ipswich, and that the evidence against him was not sufficient proof of his guilt. In a letter to the court of appeal, he stated: “All five women were stripped naked of clothing/jewelry/phones/bags and no evidence was found in my house or car.”

In July 2008, Wright renewed his application to appeal which was to be considered by three judges but in February 2009, he dropped this bid without explanation. British media have speculated that this decision was made because of lack of money. Wright’s family has said they hope to convince the Criminal Cases Review Commission to take on the case but they have had no success with this plan to date.

O'Gara cannot explain why Steve Wright has dropped the appeal against his conviction.

“He probably feels the cards are stacked against him. Ipswich police have repeatedly said they will not be reopening the investigation as they are satisfied they have caught the real killer.

If Steve Wright is indeed innocent, then the real killer is still on the loose.

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