Barbara Harrold was murdered in a parcel bomb attack in 1984. She was sent a package by Kieth Cottingham containing an explosive charge and pieces of shrapnel. Cottingham fled to Spain, but was eventually extradited in 2002.
He died in 2005 in prison while awaiting trial.
John Pearce, a former Detective Superintendent with Kent Police, tells CI about his work on the Barbara Harrold murder case, including what piece of evidence was critical in catching the killer ...
What is your background in the police?
I actually joined Kent police in 1968, eventually being involved in the day to day workings of CID. I got involved in various specialities, one of which involves the forensic science department in Kent police.
Can you recall any crime scenes that were particularly challenging to process?
The most difficult challenge is always when water is concerned. Kent has a very long coastline and obviously deaths on beaches are always a big challenge where there's tidal action. You know before you get there, unless you're very lucky, that most of your evidence is going to be washed away. That's a real challenge.
Have technological achievements made things quicker in terms of forensic investigation?
Oh yes, and not just the technology but the discovery of scientific evidence – the biggest one is DNA. When I was working at Maidstone headquarters in the forensic science unit, DNA was in its infancy and when it was introduced in our work it took anywhere from 7 to 14 days to get a result. Nowadays it's much better and results and the equipment that's used is really speedy. So what I wouldn't have given for that opportunity back in the days, it would've made my life a lot easier.
In the Barbara Harrold murder case, what would you say was the critical piece of evidence?
I can only talk about the forensic evidence that was found. The 'Eureka' moment as I called it was the discovery of part of the packaging material in the parcel bomb had been sent to Barbara.
It was called 'pink string' and it was discovered in a house where the suspect had spent a few days on holiday with relatives with this 'pink string', which actually turned out to be macrame wool. When that was examined and compared with a similar item we found at the crime scene, the forensic scientist told us that the material was identical that was the biggest moment in that investigation.
Keith Cottingham died in prison before he was tried for the murder. Is a case considered closed when something like this happens?
Once he died whilst he was on remand the process that had to be adopted was that he would've had his fingerprints taken post mortem and experts would have had to go before a judge to establish that the person who died in prison was the same person who was due to face the charges of murdering Barbara Howard. Once that had been done that was the end of the case.
Do you think that police work on film and TV has led to a lot of people having misconceptions about what can be done with evidence?
I think there have been some good documentaries on forensic work. What is actually quite significant is the speed at which results are gained in a TV show. Life wasn't really like that for us, I'm not sure it really is today but of course a TV programme is designed to be entertainment as well as educational. When you see fingerprints being identified within about three minutes it's not the sort of experience we had back in the 80s and 90s.