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Whitby: Crime Profile

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When a murder is committed, what’s the fallout like for everyone touched by the tragic turn of events? The true crime series Murdertown draws on the stories from those intimately involved in outrages that stunned communities throughout the UK. Detectives, journalists and victims’ loved ones all provide in-depth insights into every stage of each investigation.

In Whitby, Murdertown host Anita Rani looks at the case of Julie Davison, a 50-year-old woman who was found dead in her own home. Was it simply a burglary that had gone horribly wrong? Or did the culprit already have more than just Julie’s blood on his hands?

A senseless killing

Whitby, a seaside town famed as one of the vampire’s hunting grounds in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is located on the North Yorkshire coastline. Just over 20 miles away sits the market town of Guisborough, in the borough of Redcar and Cleveland. It was here that a particularly gruesome and senseless murder occurred in December 1903. As one local paper put it, 'Christmas and crime have had in the past no affinity in Cleveland but the record was shattered on Sunday night.'

The victim, 12-year-old Elizabeth Lynas, had gone missing while walking home from a church service. A neighbour later recounted that he’d heard someone scream the word 'Mother!', but had assumed it was just children playing in the street. That same night, little Elizabeth’s body was found dumped by a road, with a rag tied around a gash in her neck.

It turned out that Elizabeth’s killer was quite literally close to home. Blood splatters were seen on the door of one of the terraced houses just a few steps away from where Elizabeth had lived with her family. Here, police apprehended James Clarkson, a tailor who was just 19 years old. He’d been remarkably careless about covering up the crime: her hat had been stashed in the coal shed, and a razor still spotted with Elizabeth’s blood was found in the house.

Clarkson denied he had anything to do with the murder, claiming he’d been out for a walk that night. The jury returned a guilty verdict in just a few hours but requested that the judge show mercy in light of Clarkson’s young age. The judge was in no mood to be lenient, however. Clarkson was sentenced to hang, with the execution taking place the following year.

'Kill me'

Located 30 miles from Whitby, the North Yorkshire town of Middlesbrough bore witness to a bizarre murder trial in 1969. In the dock was 34-year-old labourer Frank Hatton, who was accused of killing Brenda Gibson, a 33-year-old woman he’d been seeing. Brenda, who was mum to a teenage boy, had been found strangled in her home in December 1968. A short while later, Hatton had handed himself in, freely admitting to having done the deed.

His defence came in the form of a note which Brenda had allegedly written. The words were simple and stunning: 'I want Frank Hatton to kill me. Brenda.'

Hatton’s story was that Brenda Gibson was in despair over a long term illness relating to her heart. This claim was backed up by a neighbour, who told the press that Brenda had indeed undergone two heart operations. In court, Hatton claimed that she’d been feeling desperate about her predicament, which left her struggling to breathe. As he told the court, 'She said she would be better off dead and would like me to kill her.'

As Hatton told it, Brenda Gibson had first suggested he kill her with an axe, before saying 'Just strangle me.' Hatton had wrapped the tie around her neck and pulled it tight – allegedly just to scare her so she would 'come out of her tantrum' – and wound up killing her.

This was sensationally billed by a barrister as “murder by invitation of the victim”, but the judge was unmoved by Hatton’s tale. 'No one can consent to being murdered,' he bluntly declared to the jury. They agreed, and Hatton was convicted in just over an hour of deliberations. He was sent down for life.

The nude in the nettles

In August 1981, a police officer in Ripon, North Yorkshire received a phone call that heralded one of the most mysterious and enduring murder cases in British history. The anonymous caller was well-spoken and had a short message: 'Near Scawton Moor House, you will find a decomposed body among the willow herbs.' He then gave further details on the body’s location, and said he couldn’t give his name for reasons of 'national security'.

True enough, there was a woman’s body in the area he described. And it had been there for quite some time, with investigators estimating it had been concealed for up to two years. A discarded food wrapped beneath the body indicated she had been there since October 1979.

Little could be determined about the victim, other than that she had dark hair in a short, page-boy style, had pink varnished nails, and had a bone abnormality in her neck which would have meant she suffered back pain. One of the first theories explored by police was that she was Geraldine Crawley, an inmate serving time for manslaughter who’d recently escaped from an open prison in the region. After an appeal was put out, Crawley herself sent officers a letter bearing her thumbprints and signature, to prove it wasn’t her.

The files on other women who had disappeared were looked at, but they were ruled out. International enquiries were made, as far afield as Australia and the United States. Decades later, in 2012, her body was exhumed so that DNA could be obtained and potentially matched, to no avail. Who was she? Was the mystery phone call to the police made by the man who killed her, or by someone who had discovered her body but hadn’t been able to reveal his identity? Hopefully, the riddle of the 'nude in the nettles' will one day be answered.