Inside the cold case squad

COLD case is a term used to refer to a serious crime, principally a murder, which has gone unsolved and some time later is investigated again. But it’s a misnomer. Such cases are rarely cold. Of course, there are murders that took place so long ago everyone connected with the crime is either dead or in their dotage. In most instances, however, cases remain hot with tears, blood and anger.

The relatives of the victim will never have forgotten what happened, the police will still be troubled that someone got away with murder, and the press won’t let an anniversary pass without some inky and impassioned rehearsal of the gory details. The only truly cold things in cold cases are the body of the victim and the heart of the murderer.

Isobel Ballantine remembers the last time she saw her 20-year-old daughter, Ann. It was November 18, 1986. They were visiting a friend in hospital and Ann made plans to stay overnight with her parents on Christmas Eve.

Police believe that a few days after they said goodbye, Ann was asphyxiated by a ligature round her neck. They didn’t find that out for weeks, though. Christmas came and went with no sign of her. Isobel, who was 39 at the time, says that because they were close in age they were more like sisters than mother and daughter. They could talk about anything. Ann wouldn’t just vanish without a word.

On January 21, 1987, Ann’s body was discovered, naked and bound hand and foot, in the Union Canal, 100 yards from her flat in the Polwarth area of Edinburgh. Isobel and her husband Graham had to wait until February before the police released their daughter’s body for burial – “A bad dream we couldn’t wake up from,” she says – and they have grown used to waiting ever since. Ann Ballantine’s killer has never been caught. Though a suspect was identified, and a report submitted to the Procurator Fiscal, it was considered there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

There are 56 unsolved murders in Scotland, so Ann’s parents are not alone in their frustration and grief, but this is no consolation. The person who killed their daughter took so much more than the life of a loved one. They lost their future, specifically the prospect of Ann one day giving them grandchildren, but also in a more complex and devastating sense. For the Ballantines it is still 1986 and will be until the day someone is sent to prison for the murder.

Eighteen months ago, the Ballantines were informed by Lothian and Borders Police that a new investigation was to begin. Isobel is pleased Ann has not been forgotten, but is also experiencing once again all the hurt and horror of the time; the snowglobe of emotions has been given a violent shake.

“The thing that scares me most,” she says, “is that 20-odd years down the line I had come to the conclusion that my daughter’s dead and nothing was done, and I’ll never get closure and never know what really happened. Now we might find out what happened, we might be in court, and we might face the accused, I’m petrified and I’m going to need support.”

The Ballantines’ living room is dominated by a large photograph of Ann above the fireplace. Isobel, who is 59 with a bobbed hairstyle, speaks freely about her daughter’s death, saying things no parent should ever have to say, such as that by the time Ann was removed from the canal her bodily fluids had begun to mingle with the water. She looks straight at me while saying these things, strong and unafraid. There’s so much emotion and experience in her eyes that it’s difficult to meet her gaze. She even has the strength to make jokes, saying CSI is one of her favourite programmes, and how, at the time of Ann’s death, she and Graham used to say to the police: “Why can’t you get Taggart to look into this? He’ll get it solved.”

Her husband chuckles and delivers the inevitable line: “Therez bin a murrdur.”

Isobel and Graham haven’t kept many of Ann’s things beyond photographs and a few of the heavy metal records she loved. Yet they have found it difficult to let their daughter go. Acceptance is reckoned to be the final stage of grief, but the Ballantines can’t get there. And what has made this crime particularly difficult for them is that they are certain they know who killed their daughter. A man they knew and who, they say, is still around.

I ask what would give them the closure they covet. “That he’ll get banged up and rot in hell,” says Isobel. “I hope he never knows another happy day in his life, because he killed a part of us as well.”

Bert Swanson is the man who has given the Ballantines hope and dread. His Serious Crime Review Unit is based in two small offices in the headquarters of Lothian and Borders Police. Etched into the glass walls of the reception area are the stories of famous Edinburgh murders from the distant past, including those carried out by Burke and Hare, the so-called resurrection men who went from stealing dead bodies to creating fresh corpses of their own. Swanson, 56, is something of a resurrection man himself; his job is to dig deep and uncover the perpetrators of terrible acts once thought long buried.

He joined Lothian and Borders Police in 1972, and by the time of his retirement in early 2006 was detective superintendent in charge of major crime. The idea of having a retired officer working cold cases is two-fold. One, he is an enormously experienced murder investigator; between them, his three-person team have 88 years’ service. Two, he can devote himself entirely to these matters without getting called away to work on ‘live’ cases.

Lothian and Borders Police, like many forces across the UK, has tried over the years to keep plugging away at unsolved murders, but the difficulty has been that new murders take precedence. As a retired officer, Swanson doesn’t have to drop what he is doing every time a new body is discovered in suspicious circumstances. The same is true of retired Detective Superintendent Les Darling, who investigates cold cases for Strathclyde Police. The two forces are the only ones in Scotland with officers dedicated to cold cases. The others do reinvestigate old crimes periodically, but don’t have enough unsolved murders on their books to justify an actual squad.

There are nine unsolved murders in the Lothian and Borders area, though the true figure will be higher if you count, as Swanson does, missing persons who are likely to have been killed, and cases, such as Ann Ballantine, in which the police have identified who they believe to be the killer yet no court case has taken place. Swanson calls these sorts of crimes “unresolved” and considers them as important as those that are, in the traditional sense, unsolved.

Since its formation in January 2006, Swanson’s team has worked on a number of cases, dating back as far as 1966. They reinvestigated the 1995 murder of Robert Higgins, whose body was discovered in a quarry in West Lothian; a suspect was identified and brought to trial last year but the jury returned a not proven verdict. In November 2006, Swanson’s team began to look again at the 1991 disappearance of Bathgate teenager Vicky Hamilton, treating it as a murder inquiry; a year later police discovered her body. As well as looking at historic cases, the unit also undertakes reviews of any ongoing murder investigations that have not been solved after 28 days.

Swanson prioritises cases based on several criteria, asking: “Are there forensic opportunities in this? Are the relatives still alive? Were there any suspects? Is the suspect still alive? If the likelihood of getting a person into court is greater in one case than another, then that’s the one you look at first.”

There is an argument that it’s not worth prosecuting very old people, that there is little point in sending an octogenarian to prison for a murder he committed 40 years before. But Swanson believes that if a person commits a crime they ought to be brought to court for it, regardless of age or frailty.

“You are giving a commitment to the relatives of the victims of these crimes that the case will be looked at,” he replies. “It also sends out a message to the culprit as well – ‘You might think you’ve got away with this, but that doesn’t follow.’ That’s no bad thing. I’m sure if someone feels they’ve got away with murder for the last 25 years and one day picks up a newspaper and realises the police are looking at the case, that must put a wee shudder through them. And hopefully it goes beyond a shudder and they are brought in for it.”

How do the families of victims respond when Swanson tells them he plans to review their case? “In most cases there is joy that somebody is taking an interest. In certain cases, especially rape, if it’s an old case then personal circumstances may have moved on and they may not want memories brought back to the front of their mind. Not everybody welcomes you with open arms… You are opening up all sorts of wounds.”

There is another very serious drawback to cold case investigations. “Families get this false hope that something is going to happen. But you can end up with trials, like some from not so long ago, where cases have either collapsed or been found not proven. We’ve got to manage that disappointment as well.”

Swanson is too discreet to say so, but the collapsed trial to which he is referring is probably that of Angus Sinclair, a convicted paedophile and killer serving a life sentence in Peterhead Prison. In August and September last year, Sinclair appeared in the High Court in Edinburgh, accused of the 1977 rape and murder of Helen Scott and Christine Eadie, the 17-year-old victims at the centre of the so-called World’s End killings. The prosecution case was based in part on new DNA evidence. However, in a controversial move, Lord Justice Clarke said the Crown had insufficient evidence to proceed with the trial and it was thrown out of court without being put to the jury.

On a sunny afternoon in Edinburgh, I speak with Helen Scott’s 77-year-old father, Morain, and her brother, Kevin, who was 11 at the time his sister died and is now 41. We meet in the lounge of a hotel high on a hill south of the city centre.


Morain Scott is a big man in a check sports jacket with silver hair combed back from his face. He cries a little when he talks about Helen, but in a very passive way, the tears rolling out of his eyes and down his cheeks as if following well-worn channels.

I ask what it was like when the case against Sinclair collapsed. “Just absolutely shattering,” he replies, quietly. “I was broken and I’m quite sure Kevin was the same. I strived for 30 years for one purpose only – to get the person in the courtroom. So we were absolutely gutted, bitter and angry. I’m sure the police were shattered as well, when you think about all their years of work.”

The World’s End inquiry had never officially closed. After a huge initial manhunt it was scaled down, but was looked at again periodically. That has put enormous strain on Morain Scott, who has spent three decades seeking justice for his daughter, and had hoped that a conviction would bring him closure. The most recent review of the case began in 1999 and took on fresh urgency in 2004 when a DNA profile taken from a semen stain on Helen Scott’s coat was found to match Angus Sinclair.

“In 2004 things started gathering pace,” says Kevin, “and all of a sudden you think, ‘There’s maybe a light at the end of this tunnel.’ The light got brighter as things accelerated, and then on the Monday morning [when the case was thrown out] we found out the light was a train coming in the opposite direction.”

Asked what it was like to be in the same courtroom as the man accused of killing Helen, both men say they felt a little angry at how relaxed and swaggering he seemed, but they also felt pity for someone capable of monstrous acts. They found it difficult to square the 62-year-old man in the dock with facial composite pictures from 1977 and were surprised by how small he was.

Helen’s mother, Margaret, died in 1989, having never recovered from her daughter’s death. I ask the Scotts to tell me what impact the murder going so long unsolved has had on their lives.

Kevin feels his childhood ended on October 16, 1977, when his sister’s body was found. “The family unit was broken,” he says. “I was sheltered from a lot but what was clear was that I had to play a part in trying to move things forward. One of the things I remember was that Christmas coming up. If I hadn’t driven Christmas, we probably wouldn’t have marked it that year. So I suppose it was me, at a young age, trying to bring some sort of normality back. It was about decorating the house and making sure we had a Christmas tree. I had my Broons annual. Helen had gone out and bought that with one of her first wage packets. So there were actually gifts which she had bought for us which we found.”

Despite their disappointment, the Scotts are keen to emphasise their gratitude for the tenacity of the police. “It is important that while the outcome has not been what we wanted,” says Kevin, “it’s a great message to send out that a crime committed 30 years ago can be brought into the courtroom.”

The World’s End murders are typical of the sort of cold case that ends up in court. The reason so many historic rapes and murders have been investigated and brought to trial in recent years is because new DNA technology, among other forensic advances, has allowed for the re-testing of old evidence. Articles of clothing, weapons, swabs and even old pieces of tape, used originally to locate fibres, are giving up long-held secrets. But as the World’s End case also demonstrates, it’s vital not to regard DNA evidence as a sort of magic key that will result inevitably in the accused being locked up.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of DNA, but in my view the biggest barriers to solving cases are not technological,” says Professor Jim Fraser, director of the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for Forensic Science. “There is a diminishing pot of cases which are unsolved, and we’ll eventually get to a level where DNA isn’t going to solve those that remain. In some instances it’s simply a matter of somebody sitting down, looking at a case and saying, ‘Twenty years ago someone eliminated this as a line of inquiry and it looks to me to be quite productive.’ And you go back to it and that solves the case.”


Fraser is a former head of forensic investigation at Kent Police and head of forensic biology with Lothian and Borders Police. He has been involved with a number of high-profile case reviews, including that of Michael Stone, who in 1996 used a hammer to murder Lin Russell and her six-year-old daughter Megan as they walked along a country lane in Kent. To mark her 21st birthday, Josie Russell, who miraculously survived the attack, met some of the police officers who had been involved in the case.

“What was distinctive about that case was that the DNA technology kept changing during those three or four years when Stone was convicted, appealed, was convicted and appealed again,” Fraser recalls. “The case was reviewed extensively, so there was a constant going over in immense detail items that had been recovered from the scene. Coke cans, bits of paper, old clothes, material recovered from Stone, material recovered from his vehicle, the bootlace which was almost certainly what he used to strangle Megan, and other items. That’s a good example of the new approach to cases. You just keep going back and back.”

Fraser works in Strathclyde University’s Royal College building. High on a shelf there is a piece of soap into which a bullet has been fired in order to demonstrate what a gunshot does to the human body. From its small entry point, the bullet has torn open a ragged chasm. It seems a pretty good representation of the wide impact of murders. They usually begin with two people – murderer and murdered – but soon the pain and stress spreads to the family of the victim, to the police working the case, and so on. With cold cases, this fanning outwards of emotion is even more pronounced, sometimes radiating across decades and generations.

Two years ago Fraser published a paper spelling out the best practice for cold case investigations. “There’s a skill set and a mind set involved,” he says, “and it’s not quite the same as for live investigations. In a live investigation it’s very dynamic. Things are coming at you constantly. It’s hard to draw breath. You find a body. The body is taken from the scene to the post-mortem. Then you find a car. Then you find another crime. This can all happen in less than 24 hours.”

Cold case investigations, by contrast, do not feel rushed. It’s not so much a race against time, trying to catch someone before they kill again, or at least before they establish a false alibi. It’s a distance event, not a sprint, and not every quick-brained detective will have what it takes to solve cold cases. What’s required is imagination – the ability to think your way into the mind of the victim, perpetrator and the police who worked the case before you. Intuitive leaps and hard science go hand-in-hand.

Professor David Barclay has some claim to being the world’s foremost expert on cold cases. He has worked on 235, two-thirds of which have been solved. Between 1996 and 2005 he was head of physical evidence at National Crime and Operations Faculty, an organisation that provides specialist support to UK police in areas including forensics and psychological profiling. Barclay is 64 and retired, but continues to travel the world undertaking cold cases. Originally from Hull, he now lives in Gairloch, Wester Ross. “We don’t get many murders in the north-west,” he jokes. “They just drink themselves to death.”

I meet Barclay in his office in Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, where he is senior lecturer in forensic science. At the side of his chair there are a number of plastic boxes containing folders full of notes from investigations on which he worked. I notice one is marked “Holly and Jessica (Soham)”. He also worked on the World’s End reinvestigation, and shows me, on his computer, crime scene photographs from that case. Ironically, seeing Helen Scott lying face down in a field and Christine Eadie naked on a beach, her left arm bent under her body, brings those women to life, makes them more than just familiar names in a fading newspaper.

To spend time in Barclay’s company is to be exhilarated by his enthusiasm for his subject while simultaneously appalled by what he is saying. At one point he refers to the “beautiful, gentle curving grooves” left by a dead body pushed through sand and, towards the end of our conversation, rolls up the right leg of his trousers and draws on his shin with black pen to demonstrate the scratch marks on a girl found in the woods with her head smashed in.

Barclay explains that the first principle of investigating a cold case is to approach it as if it happened yesterday. You do not start from the point where the failed investigation ended. You go back to the crime scene, you talk to as many witnesses as possible and try to find new witnesses, you re-examine the evidence and, crucially, try to locate evidence which may not have been considered important first time around. It’s also key that the people involved in the review are not the same as those from the original investigation. What’s required is a fresh pair of eyes so that wrong assumptions and approaches are not built back into the case. “My job,” says Barclay, “is to think of the things that haven’t been thought of.”

The aspect of cold cases he finds most interesting is trying to track down evidence from the original investigation. A “treasure hunt”, he calls it. The police have not always been as rigorous at storing evidence as they are now, and often items would be shoved in a box and stuck away in the darkest recess of a station. Items were labelled incorrectly, filed in the wrong place, even destroyed deliberately or accidentally. Finding evidence is one of the biggest challenges facing cold case investigators.

Barclay tells me about the time he was in a huge warehouse full of government files when, by chance, he discovered a pair of pants belonging to a girl who had been raped and murdered in the mid-1960s. A complete DNA profile was obtained from these and the killer identified.

On another occasion, material relating to a pair of sexually motivated homicides, which had been officially recorded as having been destroyed, turned up in the loft of a retired sergeant who thought he had better hang on to it just in case.

Police and forensics experts also find useful material in home-made shrines. “If their child is murdered, a lot of parents will not throw out their stuff,” says Barclay. He was able to solve the sexual assault and murder of a six-year-old Canadian boy by obtaining, from the child’s mother, the T-shirt he was wearing when he died, over 20 years before. She had never washed the garment and it yielded DNA that identified the boy’s uncle as the murderer.

Horrible as this is, there’s something moving about the way items can lie dormant for years before suddenly being tracked down or chanced upon by someone like Barclay. It’s as if they were waiting for their chance to be useful, waiting for science to move forward and the right person to come along and realise their potential. What’s amazing is how things endure; evidence is still around, witnesses remember in surprising detail, the police refuse to give up, and the families of victims, of course, never forget. How could they? An unsolved murder leaves a fingerprint on the heart.

This reminds me of my visit to the parents of Ann Ballantine. On a finger of her left hand, Isobel wears both her late mother’s engagement ring and a diamond ring which belonged to her murdered daughter. Sitting in the living room, the cat lazing on the carpet, Isobel removed Ann’s ring and handed it to me to hold for a moment. This took me by surprise, and I’ll admit with shame, to feeling a brief jolt of horror. I think it was the idea of a physical connection to someone who died violently a long time ago, and it was an unwelcome touch of what it must be like to live with the tragic past as a constant part of your present.

Yet, clearly, for Isobel Ballantine there is also something comforting about this sense of closeness, this feeling that Ann is not quite gone. Her other daughter is getting married soon, and Isobel’s plans for those rings demonstrate that sadness and fear are not the only emotions which last for decades. Love endures, too, and is perhaps the least likely to grow cold.

“I’m going to put the rings on a gold chain and Grace can wear them round her neck,” Isobel smiled, “so her granny and sister are with her on her wedding day.”