Babes in the Wood and the cold cases solved decades later

A tribute to the murdered girls

Four of Britain's best-known crime writers turn detective in a brand-new series Once Upon a True Crime. In Episode 1, author Peter James revisits the chilling Babes in the Woods murders from 1986 when two nine-year-old girls, Karen Hadaway and Nicola Fellows, were found dead in a Brighton park.

On 9th October 1986 in Brighton, 10-year-old Nicola Fellows was playing after school with her friend, nine-year-old Karen Hadaway on the Moulsecoomb estate on which they lived. They were spotted together by their neighbours, which was the last time they were seen alive before they were taken, raped and strangled.

Their bodies were discovered the next day, huddled together in the nearby Wild Park. Russell Bishop was tried and acquitted for the murder soon after and Nicola’s father also came under suspicion for the crime and was arrested, but released weeks later. Police said there wasn’t enough evidence for further arrests.

It was longest-running and biggest case in the history of the Sussex Police and a boogieman case for those who grew up in Brighton after the murders took place. The children of Brighton would be warned that two little girls had been killed in the park and they were told never to go near it. The tributes to the girls that could often be seen when driving past the park, as well as banners hung on the anniversaries, were a constant reminder to the residents of Brighton.

For the 20th anniversary, the girls’ friends and family marched to the crime scene, demanding police re-examine the evidence. It wasn't till after the 30th anniversary that the family finally found justice.

In 2018, 32 years after their bodies were found, Russell Bishop, the original suspect (who died in January 2022) was convicted of the double murder. The case was finally closed and that the Babes in the Wood case could be added to the list of cases that have been solved after decades.

Joan Harrison

One such case in the UK is the murder of Joan Harrison in Yorkshire in 1975. Joan, a sex worker, had been brutally murdered. She had been raped (semen was found in her vagina and rectum) and then kicked to death. The killer had bitten her breast so hard, he had left an imprint of his teeth. Her body was left in a garage. For years, it was thought that she was a victim of the Yorkshire Ripper, but the case went unsolved. Then, in 2011, police announced they had solved the murder. The only problem was the suspect, a man named Christopher Smith, had died in 2008. He had been caught drink driving that year and had his DNA swabbed, but died of a heart attack days after. A note that seemed to confess to the crime was also found at his house.

Paul Hutchinson

DNA was also the reason Paul Hutchinson was imprisoned in 2010 for a murder he had committed 25 years before. Hutchinson abducted, raped and strangled 16-year-old Colette Aram in October in 1983. Colette had been walking to her boyfriend’s house from her home in Nottinghamshire. She had stopped to talk to friends on the way and witnesses heard screams and a car driving away soon after. Her naked body was found dumped in a field the next morning. Hutchinson lived in the area and wrote anonymous letters to the police after the murder, but wasn’t found until DNA from the scene was tested decades later. He was given a minimum 25-year sentence but died by suicide eight months in.

'Bayonet murder'

It took 28 years for one particularly brutal case to be solved and though DNA was once again the answer to finding the killer, it was helped along by a journalist writing a biography of a footballer. Peter Law was writing a book about Laurie Cunningham when he learned that Cunningham’s brother Keith’s partner had been murdered in 1982. Keith was away with Laurie in Spain when 27-year-old Norma Richards was followed back to her home in Dalston, where she was raped and stabbed with a 19th century bayonet.

It’s thought the noise woke up her daughters as nine-year-old Samantha was found stabbed with the same bayonet and seven-year-old Syretta was drowned in the bath, her body found under her sister’s. Norma’s four-year-old daughter came home the next day from staying with her grandmother to discover her mother and sisters’ naked bodies. The case was reviewed after Law called the police for an update and DNA led investigators to Wilbert Dyce. He was convicted of the 1982 murders and given three life sentences.

Killed while her parents were downstairs

Then in 2016, the 34-year-old case of Yiannoulla Yianni’s murder was finally solved. 17-year-old Yiannoulla’s body was found in her home, on her bed in Hampshire by her parents in August 1982. She had spent the morning with her family; an hour and a half after she left them, she was found dead. Like Nicola, Karen and Colette, she had been raped and strangled. Witnesses had seen her talking to a man outside her home but despite a reward being offered for information and thousands of eyewitness statements, her killer was never found. Then, in 2011, the case was reopened. Once again, DNA was the answer. After a match was found on the national database in 2016, James Warnock was arrested and later, found guilty for the murder. His DNA had been added to the system earlier that year, after he was found with child porn.

Chewing gum forensics evidence

That same year, Nova Welsh’s killer was charged 35 years after her body was found stashed in a cupboard in Birmingham. Her ex-partner Osmund Bell was found guilty after DNA was found on a piece of chewing gum he had used to secure the cupboard door (needless to say, this was before DNA profiling). He was given 12 years for manslaughter.

Thanks to updates in science and DNA profiling, we no longer have to resign ourselves to cold cases remaining unsolved. Even decades later, we may now be able to get answers and justice for the victims and families. If you’re ever in doubt, look no further than the Golden State Killer case. May the Babes in the Woods case be next.

Once Upon a True Crim will be available to stream on Crime + Investigation PLAY from 26th April.