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John Taylor: Killer in the Woods

Crime Files
John Taylor: Killer in the Woods

Leeds-born John Taylor enjoyed hunting from an early age. He was known to derive pleasure from inflicting pain on small animals. He would catch and torture rabbits; he had been seen stabbing a fox repeatedly, while out poaching; and also enjoyed clubbing pheasants to death.

Taylor had exhibited problems with his personal relationships although he had been married and had a son, born in 1981, and a daughter, born in 1983.

The divorced Taylor was a parcel delivery worker and lived alone in a terraced home in Cockshott Drive, Bramley, Leeds. His neighbours thought of him as trustworthy and described him as ‘an ordinary bloke’. However, under the surface, the troubled Taylor would advertise for female companions and would often travel across the country to have sex.

The Crimes

John Taylor and his crimes

On the evening of 26 November 2000, Leeds teenager Leanne Tiernan, 16, was on her way home when she disappeared. Studying for her GCSEs, Tiernan had been shopping for Christmas gifts in the city with her friend, Sarah Whitehouse. The girls had shared a bus ride into the suburb of Bramley and parted near Whitehouse’s home. Tiernan then continued alone towards her own home but never arrived.John Taylor had been lurking in the woods, waiting for a likely victim. It turned out to be Tiernan. As she walked alone along the unlit path known as Houghley Gill that she frequently used, Taylor grabbed her from behind. Whilst there were no eyewitnesses, it was later reported that someone had heard a stifled scream. Taylor put his hand over her mouth, blindfolded her and led her to his house. There he tied her hands behind her back and during the course of a sexual assault, strangled her with a scarf and a plastic ligature.Tiernan’s parents, Michael Tiernan and Sharon Hawkhead, were divorced and her father was away on holiday at the time. When Tiernan did not return home from shopping, her mother immediately reported her missing to the police. She described her daughter as happy, confident, streetwise and never having gone missing before.

Police InvestigationDetective Superintendent Chris Gregg of the West Yorkshire Police led the investigation into Tiernan’s missing person case. A week after her disappearance, investigators reconstructed Tiernan’s last movements. Her sister Michelle, 19, and friend, Sarah Whitehouse, wearing the same clothing as Tiernan and Whitehouse had on 26 November, followed the same route home. Unfortunately this did not produce any further clues. Tiernan’s parents both made emotional appeals to the public for any assistance they may provide in the search for Leanne. There were several reports of possible sightings of Tiernan, which police investigated, but to no avail.Complicating the police search was the fact that the area in which Tiernan had disappeared consisted of vastly varying terrain. There were more than 700 houses, open areas, woodland, canals, drainage shafts and wells. Police conducted an extensive house-to-house inquiry and the search eventually grew enormous, involving uniformed officers, operational support, the dog section, the mounted section, underwater search and air support.On Monday, 20 August 2001, nine months after she disappeared, Leanne Tiernan’s body was discovered near Otley on the border of North and West Yorkshire, 16 miles from her house and several miles from the scene of the crime. A man, out walking his dog in Lindley Woods near the Warren Point car park, stumbled across her body, wrapped in a floral duvet cover and buried in a shallow grave. It transpired that a few days before the body was discovered, a retired couple had seen a man carrying a large floral-patterned bundle from the boot of his car into the woods.Inside the duvet cover, Leanne’s body had been wrapped in green plastic bin-liners, tied with twine. Covering her head was a black bin-liner, held in place with a dog collar tied tightly around her neck. Her hands had been bound together with cable ties and around her neck were more cable ties and a scarf.The post mortem examination concluded that the degree of decomposition of the body was inconsistent with burial in the ground for the full nine months since Tiernan’s disappearance. Investigators were therefore hopeful that enough forensic evidence would be present to lead them to the killer. Police officers, forensic and scientific experts conducted a fingertip search of the dense woodland where Tiernan’s body had been buried and expanded this to cover an area of 20,000 square metres.Leanne Tiernan’s funeral was held on Friday, 28 September 2001, a day after what would have been her 17th birthday. The service was held less than a mile from where she disappeared and close to her home, at the Sandford Methodist Church in Bramley.About a hundred people packed into the small church, where Tiernan had been baptised, whilst other mourners had to stand outside and hear a relayed version of the service, led by Sister Janet Durbin. Deaconess Durbin said, “Leanne was a normal, happy, fun-loving teenager, half child and half young lady.”Amongst those in attendance were Tiernan’s mother Sharon Hawkhead, her sister Michelle, her friend Sarah Whitehouse, and Detective Superintendent Chris Gregg. The private burial took place at the nearby Hill Top Cemetery.Animal DNADuring their investigation, the West Yorkshire police learned that Taylor had often been seen hunting small animals in Lindley Woods, where Tiernan’s body was discovered and he was placed on their list of suspects. Forensic investigators found dog hairs on Tiernan’s body and needed further information. The dog hair DNA sample was sent to a university in Texas, which had developed a DNA profiling technique for pedigreed pets. The university produced a partial profile for a dog but unfortunately police were unable to link this to Taylor, as the dog he owned at the time of Tiernan’s murder had subsequently died. This was the first time dog DNA had been used in a British criminal case.The knitted scarf found around Tiernan’s neck contained human hair in the knot. Initial conventional DNA tests of the hair roots failed, so forensic experts used Mitochondrial DNA testing. Using these results, they managed to create a DNA profile from the minute amounts of DNA inside the hair shaft and it was a match to Taylor.


Born27 August 1964The Victims26 November 2000 - Leanne Tiernan, 16 (abducted, raped, murdered)Further victims discovered after his imprisonment for murder:18 October 1988 - woman, 32 (raped, released)1 March 1989 - woman, 21 (abused, raped, released)Arrested16 October 2001Convicted8 July 2002Sentenced8 July 2002 - two counts of life imprisonment (without possibility of parole for 20 years)3 April 2003 - life imprisonment (without possibility of parole for 30 years)

The Aftermath

Taylor's life of crime

Police had warned that whilst Taylor had no criminal record before being charged with Tiernan’s abduction and murder, he could feasibly have killed before. In the investigation following Taylor’s arrest, police had embarked on painstaking review of unsolved cases of sexual attacks in the area.By October 2002 Taylor was being questioned in connection with these 1980s assaults. The first occurred on 18 October 1988 when Taylor, armed with a mask and knife, attacked a 32-year-old woman as she walked across some waste ground near Houghley Gill, Leeds. He forced her to commit a sexual act on him and then raped her.The second was on 1 March 1989 when a masked Taylor, armed with a knife, broke into a 21-year-old woman’s Bramley home. It was lunchtime and her baby was in another room at the time. He forced her into her bedroom, undressed her, blindfolded and gagged her, forced her to perform a sexual act on him and then raped her.

On 3 April 2003, Taylor pleaded guilty to the two rapes before the Honourable Norman Jones QC, the Recorder of Leeds, who sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a minimum of 30 years. The sentence was to be reduced by eight months 26 days, which Taylor had already spent in prison.True North Productions made a television documentary about John Taylor, ‘Killer in the Woods’ (2003) produced and directed by Jess Fowle.

The Trial

Time for justice

Taylor’s 2002 trial was held at the Leeds Crown Court and presided over by the Honourable Mr Justice Astill. Taylor was represented by defence lawyer Graham Stowe Bateson and despite the extensive evidence against him, Taylor only admitted to abducting Leanne and not to killing her.His version of events was that she had fallen off his bed and banged her head. Believing she was dead, he had lifted her using the scarf that was around her neck and that must have been when she died. He had panicked and buried her body in Lindley Woods.Results of the post mortem examination on Tiernan’s body had concluded that the degree of decomposition was not consistent with burial in the ground for many months, as Taylor had suggested. The judge therefore concluded that the defendant had kept the body for some time between three weeks and nine months in his deep freeze, perhaps as a trophy or to avoid detection, before burying it in the woods.Judge Astill said to Taylor, “You are a dangerous sexual sadist. Your purpose in kidnapping this young girl was so that you could satisfy your perverted cravings. This was a planned, premeditated encounter. …It was a cold and calculating act and the suffering you caused was immeasurable.”Prosecutor Robert Smith QC claimed that the state of Tiernan’s body when she was found meant that is wasn’t possible to establish for certain whether or not she had been sexually abused. However, Smith claimed that Taylor’s motive for killing her was clearly for the purpose of sexual gratification.

Guilty pleaOn 8 July 2002, showing no emotion, 46-year-old John Taylor pleaded guilty to the kidnap and murder of Leanne Tiernan on 26 November 2000. Taylor stared straight ahead as he was sentenced to two counts of life imprisonment, during which the public gallery cheered and applauded.Judge Astill recommended that Taylor serve 25 years before being considered for parole. Whilst Lord Woolf CJ later reduced this to 20 years, saying this was more in line with current practice, Taylor can most likely expect to spend rest of his life in prison. Taylor was sent to the maximum-security Wakefield prison, home to other infamous criminals Harold Shipman, Ian Huntley and Roy Whiting.Following sentencing, Tiernan’s mother, Sharon Hawkhead, said “Although John Taylor has been locked up, our agony continues. We feel nothing for him. We are pleased that he has been locked up so he can’t do this to anyone else, but life should mean life.”


The Arrest

Extremely dangerous nature

John Taylor, 45, was arrested on 16 October 2001 and taken to a police station in Leeds for questioning. Police immediately sealed off his house in Cockshott Drive, putting up seven-foot high wooden screens and began their search. Investigators dug up the garden and discovered the bodies of 28 ferrets and the skeletons of four dogs, one with a crushed skull. Detective Superintendent Gregg commented, “Taylor appears to have been an ordinary man but he is not. He has a dangerous, extremely dangerous nature. This is displayed in the way in which he treated animals throughout his life.”Further investigation provided more evidence in their case against Taylor. The tan leather dog collar found on Tiernan’s body, had been made by a company in Nottingham. This company sold the collars to wholesalers, including a mail order company in Liverpool, one of whose customers was Taylor.

The twine that had been used to tie the green bin-liners around Tiernan’s body was of an unusual composition. It was traced to a manufacturer in Devon and, having originally been made for the Ministry of Defence, had more recently been sold for rabbit netting. Later, in a search of Taylor’s house, police found an exact march of the twine, as well as a piece of green plastic, identical to the bin-liners used to wrap Tiernan’s dead body.The yellow cable ties, used to bind and gag Tiernan, had been manufactured by an Italian company who sold 99% of them to the Royal Mail. Taylor worked for Parcelforce, a division of Royal Mail.Red nylon fibres were discovered on Tiernan’s jumper and found to have distinctive dye patterns. These fibres were matched to those found clinging to nails in the floor of Taylor’s house. He had previously ripped out a red carpet and burned it, in order to destroy evidence of Tiernan’s presence in his home.Police investigators questioned Taylor’s ex-girlfriends, who revealed similar stories of Taylor’s love of tying up women, unusual fantasies and enjoying sado-masochistic sex. One woman claimed Taylor had told her of his desire to have sex with her 15-year-old daughter.The West Yorkshire police were certain that Tiernan had not been Taylor’s first victim. Gregg’s team were further investigating other major crimes committed over the previous 20 years, to see if Taylor may have been involved in them. They focussed on four in particular. The first was the 1992 murder of Yvonne Fitt, a prostitute from Bradford, whose body as found in a shallow grave in the same woodland where Tiernan was buried. The other three were Lindsey Jo Rimer, who disappeared in 1994; Deborah Wood, whose body was found in 1996; and Rebecca Hall, found in an alley in Bradford in 2001.