The public may hold the vital clue to find the killer of 14-year-old Exwick schoolgirl Kate Bushell 20 years ago and bring them to justice, say detectives. It is impossible to comprehend how Kate’s family feel about not only losing her in such a brutal manner all those years ago but in never bringing her killer to justice.
Devon and Cornwall Police have now launched a major public appeal for information on the 20th anniversary of Kate’s murder as part of an investigative review into her death. See the reconstruction video footage here.
Kate, a bright and popular girl, was killed on Saturday 15 November 1997 as she walked a neighbour’s dog near her home in Exwick, near Exeter. Her body was found in a field off Exwick Lane by her father. She had sustained a brutal knife wound to her throat.
Police are calling on people to come forward with critical information that they may have withheld at the time, either due to misplaced or divided loyalty, intimidation, duress, or simply not thought relevant over the years.
A reward of £10,000 has been offered by independent charity Crimestoppers for information they receive which leads to the arrest and conviction of the offender.
The death of the St Thomas High School pupil is one of the largest and longest-running unsolved murder enquiries carried out by the Force. Despite many high-profile media and public appeals, her killer has never been found.
In June a team of serving and retired detectives and staff, some of whom worked on the 1997 enquiry, began re-examining key evidence in the hope of finally catching her killer.
Retired Detective Superintendent Paul Burgan, who is leading the review team and who worked on the original enquiry, said: “We are examining all relevant evidence as part of this review but we believe that someone out there knows who this person is. For whatever reason they have never come forward – we are now appealing to someone to give us the last piece of the jigsaw.”
In 1997 police pieced together Kate’s final movements with witnesses reporting various sightings of a blue vehicle and unidentified men who they still want to trace.
Kate began her final day like many other Saturdays. She went into Exeter shopping with her mum Suzanne buying a CD at Virgin Megastore and a comic book for her older brother Tim’s birthday, which she never had the chance to give him.
After spending the afternoon doing homework in her room she set off from her home in Burrator Drive around 4.30pm to walk a neighbour’s Jack Russell, Gemma, while her owners were away.
Sighting of a blue car
She was last seen alive at 4.50pm by a layby towards the Whitestone Cross end of Exwick Lane. Witnesses remember seeing her and Gemma but also spotting a small blue car parked in the nearby stables layby with a man stood with it.
Just five minutes later a young couple drove the same route and saw the blue car unattended. They did not see Kate or anyone else in the lane.
More than 2,000 blue vehicles have eliminated from the enquiry over the years but the car and the man have not been traced.
Senior investigating officer Paul Burgan added: “This man has never been identified and this is as crucial to this investigation now as it was in 1997 – he would have been in the line of sight of Kate. Who was he, why has he not come forward and why have we never found him?”
He is described as white, aged between 30 and 40, of average build and height, clean-shaven with dark collar length hair.
The running man
Two separate witnesses saw a man running down the field behind Normans from the direction of the murder scene between 5.10pm and 5.40pm.
Mr Burgan added: “Again this is key. He appeared to be running out of control and very fast down the muddy slippery hill before turning back into the estate. He wasn’t wearing normal running kit and was in an area at a time of night that you wouldn’t expect a jogger to be. It suggests a local connection – did someone came back home dishevelled, muddied, possibly bloodied, or out-of-breath? Did they dispose of clothing? We need someone to tell us who he is.
“Both these men may have been there for a genuine reason. If you know who they are or if either was you and you were there for a genuine reason then please come forward.”
Kate’s body located
At 5.30pm a small dog was seen coming out of a gateway in Exwick Lane at the base of the field where Kate’s body was subsequently found. This was believed to be Gemma but there was no sign of Kate.
When Kate failed to return home her worried parents went out searching in vain for her and then called the police. Her father Jerry Bushell – out searching with police – made the horrific discovery of her body in the corner of a field off Exwick Lane around 7.30pm having seen the dog running loose.
Paul Burgan added: “From a parent’s perspective you cannot imagine what that must have been like for Mr Bushell to find his own daughter. The crime scene was horrendous and extremely distressing for him and indeed the officers on the scene.
“The injuries to Kate were the worst I have seen in 30 years of policing. She was killed by a wound to her neck; the injury was catastrophic and was caused by a significant knife with a blade at least six inches long. Who carried a knife like that around Exwick in 1997? There had to be some kind of pre-meditation; you only carry a knife like that to inflict harm, or worse, on somebody.”
Another critical piece of evidence at the scene was the presence of orange clothing fibres, more than 100 of which were found on Kate’s body and a further fibre was found on a country stile nearby.
Mr Burgan added: “These fibres are completely alien to Kate and her home. They were almost certainly deposited by the offender.
“We have done a huge amount of work on these fibres over the years and they are quite unusual; they are made of a bright orange azoic dyed material predominately used in non-florescent workwear such as boiler suits, aprons and gloves. He may not have been wearing the clothing at the time of the attack but do you remember anyone with such clothing at the time of the murder – maybe they were acting strangely? Important forensic work is ongoing to try and identify DNA from those fibres so if someone does have suspicions, please give us that name.”
The investigation team is convinced that the offender has a local connection due to the location of the murder.
Mr Burgan added: “The significance of Exwick Lane and where Kate was found is critical to this investigation. It is a completely isolated rural spot used as a cut through from Exwick to Nadderwater and Whitestone, and used primarily by local dog walkers. It is not really known to anyone outside of the area.
“Kate’s body was found in a field which leads through to Kinnerton Way. She would have had to go down a country path and cross two stiles to get there.
“Unfortunately for Kate it wasn’t a regular thing for her to walk the dog; she was doing this as a favour. At that time of day and with the light starting to fade I would be really surprised if a 14-year-old girl walking a dog by herself would have gone down that footpath voluntarily. We suspect that something may have happened in that lane that forced her down that path or maybe she was unnerved by something she saw.
“The person responsible for Kate’s murder must have had some local connection to the area. It is just too isolated and too unusual for someone to stumble across that by accident. He may not have lived in the area – he may have had friends or family there, worked in the area or been in relationship with someone.”
Shock in the community
The murder shook the local community and prompted a huge murder enquiry named Operation Deakin, which has continued for two decades.
More than 160 detectives and staff were initially deployed to the case in 1997, with more than 5,000 house-to-house interviews conducted and over 5,000 DNA samples taken from individuals in the Exwick and Exeter area. Three suspects have been interviewed and released with no further action taken.
More than 800 mourners attended Kate’s funeral and a memorial water garden was opened at St Thomas High School, now West Exe School, by her friends on the first anniversary of her death in November 1998.
Mr Burgan added: “Kate was a very bright and well-liked girl. She was studying very hard and at a very early age had aspirations to go to Oxford University. She loved playing basketball and was heavily involved with the church. She was also extremely musical; she played the saxophone, the clarinet and the piano.
“Kate was popular and had a fun side. She was training for the Ten Tors Challenge with friends. She was a pleasant, very talented child and just had all of that taken away from her in a most brutal and horrific way. It is just very sad.”
Can you help?
Police are urging for anyone who has information, however small, not to hesitate and to contact them.
Mr Burgan added: “I am convinced that somebody knows or suspects who is responsible for Kate’s death; I don’t know the reason why they haven’t come forward. Maybe someone had suspicions about someone in their life. They may be protecting that person out of misplaced loyalty. Now is the time for those allegiances to change. If you may have pieced everything together from this appeal and realise the significance of what you have seen then please pick up the phone.
“This is the murder of a 14-year-old child and she was killed in the most horrific circumstances. Twenty years have gone by but that has not diminished the hurt and the rawness of what happened to her that night. Her family have suffered in a way you cannot imagine. They have been very brave and stoic and have gone on with their lives but they have lived with this every single day.
“That one piece of critical information may be just what we need – something which puts the whole thing together to solve this case and ease the family’s suffering. Closure is not the right word; you never get closure when you lose a child but this is about getting justice, not only for the family but also justice for Kate.”
Anyone with information is urged to contact the incident room on 0800 096 1233 or report online at www.dc.police.uk/katebushell.
The Exwick neighbourhood team will also be providing a high-profile presence in Exwick this week to hand out appeal flyers and to talk to local people. A police marquee will be set up outside Tesco Express all week.
Information can also be passed to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or via their non –traceable online form at www.crimestoppers-uk.org
Anyone who contacts Crimestoppers remains 100% anonymous. Only information passed through the charity will be eligible for the reward.
For more information please visit the Kate Bushell murder appeal site www.dc.police.uk/katebushell and follow us on Twitter at @DC_Police under hashtag #justice4kate