Mystery of headless torso murder still unsolved after 30 years

·4-min read
A forensics officer in Haywards Heath Cemetery in West Sussex in 2009 when the body of an unidentified man exhumed by Sussex Police (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)
A forensics officer in Haywards Heath Cemetery in West Sussex in 2009 when the body of an unidentified man exhumed by Sussex Police (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)

A gravestone without a name lies in a quiet cemetery surrounded by trees, a small but poignant monument to a grisly murder that has gone unsolved for 30 years.

Three decades have passed since a headless and handless torso was discovered in the small West Sussex village of Bolney but police still do not know who the unfortunate victim was.

Theories about the killing have ranged from London gangsters to East German fraudsters to construction workers.

The murder was made even more puzzling when police discovered that the body had been dressed after death in a shirt and trousers belonging to someone else.

Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the unsolved killing and another year without a name for the victim.

Local resident Penuel Ellis-Brown, who has lived in the village for 32 years, said it is “very sad” that nobody has ever been brought to justice.

The area in Haywards Heath Cemetery, West Sussex, where a headless and handless body known as the Bolney Torso was buried (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)
The area in Haywards Heath Cemetery, West Sussex, where a headless and handless body known as the Bolney Torso was buried (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)

The mystery began on October 11 1991, when a body was found in undergrowth in Broxmead Lane.

The victim’s head and hands had been removed, perhaps in an effort to obscure his identity.

Police were only able to identify him as a white male with a small star-shaped mole on his right thigh and a protruding belly.

Word quickly spread through Bolney, with the murder prompting curiosity and shock among residents, Ms Ellis-Brown told the PA news agency.

She added: “With hindsight I wonder whether whoever disposed of the body knew it was a fairly quiet, off-the-beaten track area so had been in the area before.

“It is very sad that no-one was ever caught for the murder or that the body has never been identified.”

An initial murder inquiry was led by then detective chief inspector Peter Kennett, who would later become known for catching Sarah Payne’s killer, Roy Whiting.

It was a fluke miracle that he was found so soon

Retired detective chief inspector Peter Kennett

Speaking to PA in 2019, the retired Mr Kennett said he had been about to set off for a colleague’s retirement party when the phone rang to tell him of the grim discovery.

“I lived a short drive from Bolney and drove straight to the scene.

“By this time it was dark and tipping it down with rain. Because of the atrocious weather, there was not much that could be done other than secure the scene and wait for the morning.”

Mr Kennett had never had to investigate a torso murder before, as such things were uncommon in Britain at the time.

“Not knowing who the identity of the victim is a serious drawback to a murder investigation.

“All we had was a body, and a deposition site in the middle of nowhere. No nearby houses. No passing traffic. It was a fluke miracle that he was found so soon.

“The public, i.e. witnesses, solve murders. We had no-one to ask.”

Despite extensive efforts, the inquiry went unsolved and lay dormant for years until new evidence was uncovered.

The case was looked at afresh in 2008 and taken on by Andy Griffiths, who was in charge of Sussex Police’s major crime team.

The decision was taken to re-examine the body and so it was exhumed from its grave in Haywards Heath Cemetery in 2009.

Forensics officers in Haywards Heath Cemetery in 2009, when the body of the unidentified man was exhumed by Sussex Police (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)
Forensics officers in Haywards Heath Cemetery in 2009, when the body of the unidentified man was exhumed by Sussex Police (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)

Mr Griffiths previously told PA: “We got a full DNA profile from the body which was used to confirm identity in the future.”

Fresh analysis revealed that the victim was aged between 30 and 40 and was about 5ft 6in to 5ft 8in.

Using cutting-edge forensic tools not available in 1991, Mr Griffiths’ team were also able to establish that the victim had a link to Bavaria in Germany

He and colleagues went to Germany and put out appeals for information, but, despite three trips to the country, the identity of the Bolney Torso remained a mystery.

One possibility was that the murder was linked to East German criminals who had emerged from behind the Iron Curtain when the Berlin Wall came down, Mr Griffiths said.

Indeed Sussex Police confirmed that the widely publicised theory has never been satisfactorily resolved: the body was found just a mile or so away from a house being rented by a German fraudster.

But without a positive identification for the murder victim, Mr Griffiths said the case may never be solved.

“It is solvable but it needs that step forward.”

Sussex Police said there have been no recent developments in the 30-year mystery but that the case is assessed every two years (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)
Sussex Police said there have been no recent developments in the 30-year mystery but that the case is assessed every two years (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)

And even if there was to be any progress, Mr Griffiths said getting enough evidence to charge someone with the killing “is another story”.

Mr Kennett said the Bolney Torso is “one of those cases that never goes away”.

He added: “Do I think it will be solved? It’s still possible.

“As I always say – it’s only a phone call away.”

Sussex Police said there have been no recent developments in the 30-year mystery but that the case is assessed every two years.

A force spokesman said: “This case has been exhaustively investigated over many years; there are no current lines of inquiry and no further investigation is taking place.

“Of course we would always consider any new information that might lead to new lines of inquiry.”

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