Students help police with their inquiries

Ella Rhodes reports on an unusual collaboration.

A psychologist and her team of student sleuths have been assisting police in trawling archives for information on a 42-year-old murder investigation. Dr Penny Woolnough (Abertay University), who has worked with police for 14 years specialising in missing people, organised for the 12 forensic psychology students to get involved.

Norfolk Constabulary and Police Scotland asked for help in finding information on the unidentified headless body of a woman that was found in Norfolk in 1974. The badly decomposed body had been found wrapped in a plastic sheet and clothed in a pink Marks & Spencer’s nightdress.

Thanks to forensic evidence police found that the string binding her hands was manufactured in Dundee, and nowhere else in the world. Students involved in the case, known as Operation Monton, spent weeks trawling through daily newspaper articles to find reports of missing women in the area creating information logs of any useful pieces of information, which were passed on to police.

Dr Woolnough was approached by a Dundee police officer for help in compiling evidence in this case, she said she was keen to have the third- and fourth-year forensic psychology students see what real investigative work required.  

She said: ‘The students have been raking through newspapers dating back to 1973 and ’75 to identify who was reported in the papers as missing around that time or other potentially interesting pieces of information police could follow up on. Students were given three months’ worth of daily newspapers to read through and they had to be very meticulous.’

She added that while many students have a media-fuelled view of what it is to do investigative work, she wanted them to understand that investigations are thorough and steady processes that can often be a little boring. Woolnough said she hoped students could be involved in projects like this in the future: ‘Police in Norfolk and Scotland are now going through the students’ evidence to see if any of it could be used and whether it has value for further investigation. We’re just waiting to see if anything came out of this that could help solve the mystery.’ 

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