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Cockley Cley headless body case reopened

PUBLISHED: 16:40 20 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:54 02 June 2010

The pink night dress the Cockley Cley victim was wearing.

The pink night dress the Cockley Cley victim was wearing.

Detectives have exhumed a body and launched a national manhunt as they look to crack one of the longest running murder cases in East Anglian history - the headless woman of Cockley Cley.

The police appeal for information in the headless body case in 1974.

Detectives have exhumed a body and launched a national manhunt as they look to crack one of the longest running murder cases in East Anglian history - the headless woman of Cockley Cley.

The petite body of a young woman was found bound, decapitated and dumped by the side of a lonely and overgrown Norfolk road more than 30 years ago.

Despite extensive investigations over the years police have been unable to identify the victim, establish any suspects, or come up with a watertight theory of how or why she died. The head has never been recovered.

Now police have unveiled their latest attempt to solve the case - launching a public appeal after a news blackout. Officers feared that drawing attention to their work too soon could scare the killer underground.

Meanwhile the man who discovered the headless woman has welcomed the latest attempt to find her killer.

Farmworker Andrew Head made the gruesome discovery in August, 1974, when he was walking alone.

The 52-year-old, who still lives in the Swaffham area, said: “I lifted one corner of the cover over the body and that was enough - I could see what it was. I went home and phoned the police.”

Mr Head, who was 19 at the time of the first investigation, said he was pleased officers were still pursuing the case and hope the latest inquiry would be more successful.

Det Insp Andy Guy, who is leading the inquiry, said: “Usually the first thing an investigation team does is identify the victim - officers working on this case have never had that privilege.

“The original team did a thorough job and we will be revisiting the evidence gathered. But we finally believe we have a chance of establishing who this woman was and, once we have done that, we stand a much better chance of solving this case.

“The tragedy seems to be that this woman went missing and nobody seemed to notice. People don't simply disappear off the face of the earth without anyone knowing.”

The woman, thought to be between 23 and 30-years-old and of petite build, was found concealed in weeds off the Cockley Cley road, near Swaffham, on August 27, 1974. She was badly-decomposed and wore nothing but a pink nightdress. She was wrapped in a rare National Cash Registers sheet.

Hundreds of officers worked on the original case and managed to trace 109 missing women, speaking to thousands of witnesses. But none of this led to the identification of a suspect.

Police quietly re-opened the investigation in November and last month dug up the corpse from an unmarked grave in Swaffham cemetery for re-examination. They hope forensic advances will make it possible to trace the murdered woman's family and in turn snare whoever took her life.

A new post-mortem has been carried out and the body has been inspected by a forensic anthropologist. A DNA profile has been recovered and checked against national databases but no link has been found.

The investigation team is now appealing for anybody concerned about a friend, relative or neighbour worried about a woman who went missing at around this time to get in touch. Technology means they can quickly eliminate individuals from their inquiries.

“We want to hear from anybody with concerns about a missing woman from around this time,” Mr Guy said. “Somebody must have known her and they could hold the key to finding justice.

“We want to know who this woman was and what she was doing in this area at the time of her death.”

Another hope is that after keeping the secret for so many years, the killer or somebody who knows the killer may decide to come forward. Mr Guy said: “That is always a possibility with a case like this. Somebody has lived with this for decades and that is a huge burden.”

One line of inquiry is that the death may have been linked to a domestic incident and the killer could be the woman's partner or a relative. Because of the scale of the investigation in the seventies - officers spoke to 15,000 people - it seems likely that she did not live locally. However, the isolated nature of the location suggests the killer may have had some local knowledge.

“There may still be people in Norfolk who know what happened so we are appealing for them to come forward,” Mr Guy said. “But we are also open to the possibility that she came from further afield which is why we are appealing nationally.

Mr Guy said yesterday: “I'd urge anyone who thinks they may have knowledge of who the woman was or thinks they are able to contribute information that leads to the identity of the woman to get in touch with us. In theory it will be relatively straight forward for us to confirm or eliminate those individuals put forward.

“Is there a female relative, friend, neighbour or colleague who disappeared about this time and has not been seen since? This would apply even if you reported her missing to the police at the time.”

The inquiry team can be contacted on two dedicated hotlines which will be manned from 8am to 10pm each day. Contact 01953 424529 or 01953 424533.

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