Arches, Whorls and Missing Girls — The Case of Colin Pitchfork
The story of the first man whose fingerprints put him behind bars
Everyone’s fingerprints are different, distinctive patterns with unique minutiae. They link people to previously visited locations, unlock phones and identify our bodies when other features fail to do so. Colin Pitchfork, a British murderer, had his downfall due to the rapidly evolving techniques of 21st century forensic science. A prolific woman-hater, local baker and child slayer, he was the earliest case where DNA served as the final nail in his carceral coffin.
At age 18, Pitchfork was arrested for indecent exposure to young girls and sentenced to the Carlton Hayes Psychiatric Hospital with the intention that his time there would reform him. He then worked at Hampshires Bakery in Leicester, starting as an apprentice and working his way up to the coveted position of cake decorator. Pitchfork had hopes to open his own business, was married to a social worker and became the father of two children. Coworkers said he was skilled at the job, but needlessly harassed the female employees until they became uncomfortable. On the surface, that was his sole flaw, but to his victims, it was a fatal flaw.
It was the night of November 21, 1983 when Lynda Mann finished babysitting and spending time with a friend, but opted to take a different route home at the last minute. Her parents were alarmed when she did not make it back to their residence, and her body was soon discovered on the Black Pad footpath in Narborough. The girl, 15, had been raped and strangled with her own scarf. The police were frustrated to have no leads and eventually settled on the theory that only a local man would know how to traverse the pathway. They happened to interview Pitchfork, but he claimed to be with his newborn son at the time of the murder. Mann’s case soon ran cold.
Three years passed with no headway in the senseless murder. Dawn Ashworth, also 15, decided to take a shortcut on her way home from a friend’s house, navigating another footpath known as Ten Pound Lane. Again, no one heard from the teenager, and two days later, she was found dead in a field. Ashworth had been slain in the exact same way as Mann, killed with tightened fabric from her own body and sexually assaulted while alive.
There was a killer on the loose, which now incited terror in the public and quick action from police. A suspect emerged who was an easy scapegoat. Richard Buckland, 17, had learning disabilities and revealed specific case details that seemed suspicious. The boy was an employee of the same psychiatric hospital that Pitchfork had been convicted to earlier in life and the building was conveniently located by both of the crimes. Police were sure they had their culprit, but Buckland, a teenager under pressure and easily swayed, only confessed to one of the murders. He retracted all allegations shortly afterwards. Law enforcement felt their manhunt was over and that his recantation had little significance.
Buckland almost went to jail for a crime he did not commit, but something had shifted in the years between Pitchfork’s two crimes. In 1984, Sir Alec Jeffreys from University of Leicester developed DNA testing by using the “restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) technique” as written in Clinical Laboratory Science; the process examined the repetition of sequences which would generate a unique profile. Fingerprints could now be tied to human beings, genetically linking them to crime scenes or material such as blood, semen, saliva, etc.
Jeffreys ran the test on the crime scene evidence and came back with the results. While the same person had killed both girls, Buckland was deemed not to be the culprit. He went down in history as the first man ever exonerated by forensic efforts, even if the police were bewildered. After three months in custody, they let Buckland go, but only after testing him three times in total to verify the outcome. Still determined to find the real offender, the Leicester force came up with an idea. If new technology could prove someone was innocent of the murders, that same science would condemn the man really responsible for the crime.
And so began the real manhunt. Local men voluntarily gave their DNA to be collected, resulting in a widespread search for the culprit that eventually amassed over 5,000 individuals. Pitchfork had “given” his sample, but still remained under the radar. How?
He forced a coworker, Ian Kelly, to provide blood for him. At a pub on August 1, 1986, a group of men who worked at the bakery alongside Pitchfork were reportedly talking about the man’s sexual conquests. Kelly admitted that he was paid by Pitchfork to pretend to be him and use a forged passport to submit blood, while another worker at the table chimed in saying he had also been approached, but later denied Pitchfork’s request. According to “The casebook of forensic detection: how science solved 100 of the world’s most baffling crimes” by Colin Evans, Pitchfork used his criminal record as a justification to why he should not have to go himself, fearing ill treatment by police. A woman overheard them speaking and felt that she was in a moral conundrum based on the compliance of the other men. After deliberation and six weeks had passed, she went to the police, exposing the fraud.
As described in a Mar 15, 1988 Weekly World News article, when Pitchfork was finally apprehended for the murders at his home, his wife was completely unaware of his complicity in the crimes:
“You didn’t do it, did you?” Carol asked as the police took her husband away.
“Yes, I did,” Colin confirmed. It was the end of his double life.
Speaking to his own twisted sense of truth, Pitchfork was actually with his infant son at the time of Mann’s assault, because the child had been in the back of the nearby parked car during the entire ordeal. DNA testing and fingerprints conclusively proved that Pitchfork had murdered both Mann and Ashworth, making him the first man to ever be sentenced based on forensic evidence. When questioned, he admitted to flashing over 1,000 women in his life, which then progressed to sexual assault and eventually murder. Pitchfork pled guilty and was initially sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of serving 30 years, a move later lessened to 28 in 2009 following a court decision that cited his apparent progress as an individual during his time behind bars. Pitchfork had become a specialist in transcribing printed music into Braille and his artwork was then featured at London’s Royal Festival Hall, where it was bought for £600 (roughly $800 USD). The prisoner received that monetary compensation for his sculpture, horrifying his victims’ families.
The killer has failed several other appeals over the years, but was moved to an open prison in 2017 following correctional accounts of him being a “model prisoner.” More outraged reports from that year gave people cause for worry when he was spotted walking around, apparently unsupervised for day release, in a Bristol shopping center. Officials stated in response to the backlash that they were simply just preparing him for the next stage of the criminal justice process, where he would be allowed to roam the public again without returning to the jail that has been his home since conviction. In 2020, Pitchfork tried to petition for his release yet again. Due to the pandemic, the hearing was delayed, with the results of his plea to be revealed in December.
While Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth’s lives were tragically cut short, their murderer became systemically allowed to prosper as he served time. Pitchfork may even be freed entirely for his crimes. His case precipitated the beginning of an era where science could find answers for victims’ surviving families, and the forensic breakthroughs have been responsible for helping unravel mysteries through evidence collection, fingerprinting, genealogy databases and more.
Colin Pitchfork could be back into the open world at the end of this year. The one consolation for those living in fear is that forensic technology has developed even further than previously conceived, and justice will be lying in wait for him to make another move. Even the most microscopic proof can land someone in prison for violent offenses of the same nature as what happened to the young girls in Leicester. Hopefully, no such crime will occur, but if so, someone will already have Pitchfork’s identity on file, ready to point the finger towards his lengthy history of deadly misconduct.