How Suffolk Police Responded to the Ipswich Prostitute Murders

13th Sep 2015

In this second blog former Detective Superintendent Alan Caton OBE outlines how Suffolk police responded to reports of missing persons in Ipswich that subsequently led to the biggest investigation of its type in the UK.

The morning of Wednesday 1st November 2006, was like any other busy morning in Ipswich police station, but it was the discussions at the daily management meeting that were to trigger the biggest police investigation ever seen in Suffolk.

Under the heading ‘missing persons’, we discussed the case of a young 19-year-old woman who hade been reported missing by her mother. It was known that this young woman worked as a prostitute in Ipswich, she was addicted to class ‘A’ drugs and extremely vulnerable.

The missing person investigation was quickly assessed and reviewed by a senior detective. As a consequence an SIO (Senior Investigating Officer) was appointed to investigate her disappearance. A Major Incident Room (MIR) and a HOLMES database were established. This turned out to be excellent practice and enabled a full investigative structure to be put in place early, which laid the foundations for what lay ahead.

On the 15th November 2006 a second young woman, aged 25 years old was reported missing. Again it was quickly established that this young woman was a prostitute, was addicted to drugs and lived a chaotic lifestyle. Again following a review of the circumstances, an SIO was appointed to investigate her disappearance and a second MIR was established.

On that day, chief officers declared the two investigations as critical incidents due to the vulnerabilities of the missing young women. A Detective Superintendent was appointed to oversee and coordinate both investigations.

On Saturday 2nd December 2006, a dog walker made a grim discovery when he located the body of a young woman in a brook on the outskirts of Ipswich. This was the body of the young woman who was the second to be reported missing. A post mortem was unable to determine cause of death, but given that the body was discovered naked, a murder investigation was launched.

Six days later, the police divers who were searching the brook for discarded clothing discovered the body of the young woman who was the first to be reported missing. Her body was located a further three miles downstream. She was also naked and again the post mortem was unable to establish a cause of death. A second murder investigation was then launched.

By this time the media were taking an active interest in this case. The force identified a media spokesperson and a strategy was developed to reassure the community.

On the 9th December 2006 an unrelated death occurred in Ipswich. A young man was shot and killed in Zest Nightclub. This stretched police resources considerably, especially as many witnesses in the club were from South London and the murder investigation was conducted across two forces.

The next significant event occurred on the following day, the 10th December 2006, with the discovery of a third woman’s body in woodland to the east of Ipswich. This woman also worked as a prostitute, but had not been reported missing. This led to another murder investigation being launched.

Later that day we had a report of another woman who worked as a prostitute who had gone missing.

On the 11th December we had yet another missing report of a young woman again who worked on Ipswich streets as a prostitute.

By this time, all of us in Ipswich were shell-shocked by the magnitude of what was occurring in our town. Not knowing if and when there would be more victims. We really needed to catch whoever was committing these dreadful crimes.

On the 12th December a forth naked body was located in small wooded area to the East of Ipswich. Forty minutes later, a police helicopter flying over the scene spotted yet another naked body a short distance away making a total of five victims.

All five murders were subsequently classified as a linked series homicide.

Four days later Steve Wright, a local sex buyer, was arrested on suspicion of murder. He was later tried and convicted on all five counts of murder and is currently serving a whole life sentence.

Operation Sumac, as the investigation was known, encompassed a wide range of investigative techniques. On the one hand was the use of new and cutting edge technology including DNA profiling, the use of ANPR and the multi media presentation of evidence for the trial. On the other hand was the use of basic policing skills, interaction and engagement with the public and local community, seeking their help and their input, offering reassurance, advice and protection.

Some of the following facts highlight the scale of the investigation;

  • 300 officers and staff from forty forces came to Suffolk
  • 176 searches totalling 13000 hours
  • 7500 CCTV related exhibits seized
  • Over 13000 calls received from the public
  • Over 65000 documents examined for disclosure
  • Media requests received from across the world including America, Japan, Australia and many parts of Europe.

The events of December 2006 were unprecedented and clearly highlighted the dangers and vulnerabilities of young women working as prostitutes.

In my next blog I will outline our response to dealing with prostitution in Ipswich following Operation Sumac, with the introduction of a radical new strategy.