The Cannock Chase Murders

…never before had children been made so aware of the dangers of speaking to (let alone accepting lifts from) strange men…


The case examined in Pat Molly’s The Cannock Chase Murders is one that had an effect within my own family. As a child of around the same age of the murder victims, I was one of those children warned by parents, about the dangers of getting into a stranger’s car.

Their concern was understandable. We lived less than 30 miles from the place where the victim’s bodies were discovered.

Pat Molloy was an investigating officer during the time of the Cannock Chase murders. At the beginning of the case he was a Detective Sergeant and helped conduct some of the house to house interviews and searches when the first two victims went missing. After his promotion to Detective Inspector he was moved away from the area and the case; however another unexpected promotion a couple of years later brought him back as Detective Chief Inspector, “right at the heart of the Cannock Chase Murder Investigation, ranking next to its leaders…”

Molloy’s book is more than an account of a series of murders. The cases were at a time of change and restructuring within the British police force, when responsibility for serious crime investigation was moving away from the centralisation of Scotland Yard, and Regional Crime Squads were being created. The book places the investigation within that political context.

The scale of the operation is hard to grasp today, when countless records can be immediately accessed and cross referenced with a few key strokes on a computer. Investigators of the Cannock Chase Murders had to store the results of their enquiries on paper forms and index card, cross referenced and filed away in row upon row of cabinets.

Staff numbers stretched into the hundreds of administrative and investigative personnel trying to obtain and keep track of relevant evidence – when often it wasn’t know whether something was relevant or not.

After finding the bodies of the first two victims (Margaret Reynolds aged 6 and Diana Tift aged 5) in the Cannock Chase forest,  little progress was made for a year and a half, until there was a third victim. When the body of missing 7 year old Christine Darby was also found in Cannock Chase, witnesses came forward with a description of a car and its driver seen close to where her body had been left.

Eventually a suspect was arrested to face trial, a man who had already been interviewed on previous occasions and classified as “NFA” (no further action).  Molloy writes at some length about the system that allowed this to happen, essentially bypassing the man, more than once, who was later found guilty. What if he’d committed more crimes after he’d been dismissed from investigation? As Molloy notes, little was learned from the experience and the same mistakes were made again a few years later in the Yorkshire Ripper case where unfortunately additional murders were committed by a man who had been suspected,  interviewed and dismissed on several occasions.

Apart from its account of what was “the biggest child-killer hunt in history”, The Cannock Chase Murders looks at changing police attitudes and procedures.  One of senior investigators was a man with many catch-phrases, one of which was “In a murder you can get away with murder!”; meaning the public were much more forgiving of police overstepping their authority when it came to suspected murderers, allowing a lot of leeway in the treatment of such suspects. The unfortunate outcome of this would be innocent suspects being denied their due rights. This ended in 1984 with the passing of an act that introduced “tighter restrictions on arrest and the length of detention and immediate access to solicitors”. Molloy decries the passing of the act, suggesting it was “the death knell to any attempt at serious interrogation”.

In a more perfect world where the “good guys” could categorically be trusted to BE good guys such restrictions would not be necessary. But as my recent reading has made clear, it’s possible that those with the responsibility of enforcing and upholding the law are occasionally motivated by something other than the desire to serve justice.