True crime stories from across Britain are explored in forensic detail in Murdertown. Each episode sees Anita Rani visit a different community to unweave the history of a complex and disturbing case, with detectives, journalists and victims’ families providing their own profound insights.
In the North Lanarkshire town of Wishaw, located 15 miles from Glasgow, Anita looks at the case of Zoe Nelson, a teenager whose body was found burnt on a pyre in 2010. A dogged police investigation ensued, making trailblazing use of social media to encourage the area’s younger people to come forward with clues. The truth about what happened to Zoe, and who else knew the murderer’s identity, would prove more surprising than anyone could have anticipated.
The Beast of Birkenshaw
Lanarkshire is no stranger to brutal crimes. In the late 1950s, the region was terrorised by a savage figure who was dubbed the Beast of Birkenshaw (the latter being a village close to Wishaw). His real name was Peter Manuel, and he is still remembered as one of the worst serial killers in Scottish history.
Manuel was actually born in New York City, where his Scottish parents lived during a stint in the United States. In the early 1930s, the family moved back to the UK, where the young Manuel, who had an American accent, found it hard to fit in. Before long he began to exhibit signs of the monster he would one day become. Aged just 14, he was reported to the police for breaking into a woman’s house while wielding an axe. Manuel would serve time in prison for a number of crimes, including violent sexual assault and rape.
His first known murder took place in January 1956, when he attacked a teenage girl in the Lanarkshire town of East Kilbride. Anne Kneilands, who’d been on a night out, was found in a wooded area. She had been raped and beaten to death.
Manuel, being a known sex offender, was questioned by police, but was given an alibi by his father. Later that same year, the Beast struck again, this time massacring 45-year-old Marion Watt, her 41-year-old sister Margaret Brown, and 16-year-old daughter Vivienne. They had been shot to death in Marion’s Lanarkshire home. The prime suspect was originally Marion’s husband William, who’d been away on a fishing trip. He was actually jailed for months, but fortunately the case was thrown out, and a potentially dreadful miscarriage of justice averted.
Manuel’s killings continued. His known victims include another girl on a night out, 17-year-old girl named Isabelle Cooke, and another Lanarkshire family – 45-year-old Peter Smart, his 42-year-old wife Doris and their 10-year-old son Michael, slaughtered in their home.
It was Manuel’s use of newly printed banknotes belonging to the Smart family that led to the Beast finally being apprehended in 1958. After representing himself in court, much like Ted Bundy would famously do decades later, Manuel was found guilty. He was executed in July of that year, bringing some degree of closure for the communities he’d hurt.
Death in the afternoon
One of the most startling murders in the history of Lanarkshire took place in public, in broad daylight, over the most meagre motive imaginable. The location was John Hathie Park, in the Lanarkshire market town of Strathaven. One sunny lunchtime in July 2017, as kids played and locals walked their dogs, 43-year-old Jason McCue was suddenly set upon by three men. McCue was stabbed multiple times in an attack so brazen that it was almost surreal.
In the words of eyewitness Janet Guy, who was nearby with her dog and grandchildren, 'I thought at first they were mucking about, but then realised it was more serious. I panicked a bit and thought I've got two grandchildren here, I've got to get them out the park.'
McCue, who sustained a knife wound to the heart, died in the attack. His assailants were identified as 51-year-old James Cook, his 28-year-old son Jamie, and their friend Peter Brown, 49. It turned out the trigger for the frenzy of sudden violence was a £20 debt allegedly owed by the victim. The debt was accurately described by the judge as 'miniscule' before all three men were handed life sentences. James Cook laughed as he was led away to the cells.
The Angel murder
Decades before the Zoe Nelson case horrified Wishaw, the town was shaken by another, equally shocking killing. It was in 1973 that a nine-year-old girl, Angela Daly, was raped and murdered by John McLaughlin, a crane operator who was later found to be obsessed with Nazis and the occult. Though this crime has since fallen into obscurity, it was a traumatic ordeal for the community at the time, and was dubbed the 'Angel Murder' because of the victim’s name.
McLaughlin was given a life sentence, yet by 1994 he was being prepared for conditional release back into the community. This idea was overturned when, while out and about with a security escort, McLaughlin started playing with a young girl’s ponytail while queuing in a chip shop.
The incident, which was presumably deeply uncomfortable and embarrassing for the authorities, led to McLaughlin being declared unfit for release. He eventually killed himself in prison, taking an overdose of heroin and leaving a suicide note which complained that he had been 'left without options'. His death, which inspired the headline 'Angel is Avenged', ended a particularly tragic and sorrowful chapter in the history of Wishaw.