Cockley Cley: Murder hunt draws a blank

IT is almost 34 years since the headless body of a young woman was discovered beside a lovers' lane near Swaffham, sparking off one of the biggest murder hunts Norfolk has seen.

About 100 police officers, including 40 detectives, were drafted into the area to try to find the brutal killer, who was believed to have decapitated the victim to hamper investigators in establishing her identity.

Tractor driver Andrew Head (19) was on his way to work at Brakehill Farm on Sir Peter Robert's estate at Cockley Cley when he made the grisly discovery at about 7.15am on Tuesday, August 27, 1974.

He found the woman's trussed-up body lying in undergrowth, and covered in a brown National Cash Register plastic dust sheet, about 200 yards from the Swaffham to Cockley Cley road. It was opposite a shooting range used by RAF Marham and close to the present site of Swaffham Golf Club.

Police said it was the body of a well-built woman, aged between 20 and 30, and between 5ft and 5ft 2in tall. She was wearing only a short pink Marks and Spencer nightdress with a frilly low-cut neckline.

As the body had lain amid dense bracken and willow herb for up to three weeks, it was in a decomposed state – further complicating efforts to identify her.

There was no sign of the murder weapon at the scene so police teams, helped by six tracker dogs, began a toothcomb search of the surrounding fields, hedgerows and hollows.

A nearby field of barley was cut at the request of police and a detective rode on the combine harvester keeping a look out for clues.

A helicopter was also used to photograph the immediate area in the hope that it would show up clues not visible from the ground – and police frogmen searched a nearby pond.

Thousands of people were interviewed as detectives carried out house-to-house inquiries throughout Swaffham and Cockley Cley, and it was later widened to include other villages within a ten-mile radius of Swaffham.

An incident room was set up in Swaffham courthouse, and a mobile headquarters in a stubble field close to where the body was found as the search team's base. The vehicle also visited Swaffham Market as part of the police appeal for information from the public.

Help was also sought from courting couples who used the lovers' lane, and police checked out registration numbers of cars passing the scene and searched some vehicles.

Home Office pathologist the late Dr Alfred Lintoft carried out a post-mortem examination and further tests were made – but without discovering the cause of death. Later tests indicated that the victim was about 23 and the possibility of her being a teenager was ruled out.

An unexpected and helpful sideline was that many women reported missing were traced because of the in-depth checks made during the murder hunt.

A number of potential leads were thrown up by calls received in subsequent years, including the possibility that an American serviceman from one of the USAF bases at Lakenheath or Mildenhall might have been involved, but none of these came to anything.