An Italian newspaper, a book of finely drawn sketches, a half-remembered photograph glimpsed on social media: these are the fragmented details of lost lives that Scotland’s only student-led cold case unit must make sense of.
The group of criminology students at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) are investigating seven long-term unidentified bodies in partnership with Locate International, a community interest company dedicated to helping the families of missing persons to find their loved ones.
One case concerns the body of a woman that was found washed up on a beach in Port Logan on the south-west coast in 2006. As with all these cold cases, there is no suspected criminality, but many possible explanations remain for how she ended up there: did she enter the water inland and float downriver, or from Ireland or the Isle of Man? Students have been gathering information about boat, shipping and plane accidents, and also learning about drift trajectories while consulting an expert on the Dumfries and Galloway coastline.
The unit has also undertaken an updated facial reconstruction, in consultation with Police Scotland, technology having changed significantly since the last one was created 15 years ago. A new appeal has already garnered a lot of positive responses, and students will now go through them to check every lead.
The unit already has a fruitful relationship with the police, says Lesley McMillan, a professor of criminology at GCU and co-director of the unit. “We’re not trying to do somebody else’s job, but try to bring some added value.”
She describes the unit’s role in terms of a big puzzle: “When we inherit a case, we have some pieces of the jigsaw, so it’s our job to confirm that those are correct, and see what other pieces can we add. We have time to go down lots of different lines of inquiry, some of which may end up being rabbit holes. And even if we don’t complete the jigsaw, we can still pass our reports back to the police, and it might be that five years later they find some other piece that only makes sense because of what we’ve added to the picture.”
Dave Grimstead, a senior investigating officer at Locate, explains: “The police face such a significant challenge. If you look at 2019-20, data shows 154,000 individuals who go missing. There’s a real challenge to meet that demand, and then they’ve got a cohort of about 5,373 unsolved cases that are more than 12 months old, and over 1,000 unidentified bodies.”
This is where Locate has attempted to fill the gap, Grimstead adds, “to advocate with the police and support families to find an answer”. As well as GCU, Locate works with 10 other UK universities and about 150 volunteers.
While the focus is always on finding the missing loved one, Grimstead says that the investigations can bring some comfort to families by “reducing the ambiguity”. “It does make a huge difference for families knowing that [the investigation] was pursued the best it could be, even if they’re not able to get that final answer.”
The unit serves as a talent development programme for students and offers fantastic training in investigation, intelligence and analysis, explains Maureen Taylor, the unit’s co-director, who is a lecturer in criminology and a former forensic investigator. But it also brings fresh energy and inspiration to sometimes decades-old cases, with students drawing on a range of specialisms and experts, from forensic odontologists to oceanographers, who offer their services pro bono.
Another investigation concerns a man who was found dead in woodland near the village of Canonbie in Dumfriesshire, southern Scotland, along with a four-month-old copy of La Repubblica. “So one of the things we’re looking into is why might he have had that newspaper,” says McMillan. “We’ve arranged for the newspaper to be translated and to get an original copy so we can actually see how the stories appeared within the printed copy and if a particular story is prominent … Or is this a rabbit hole, and he’s carrying a newspaper because he wants to stuff his boots when they get wet?”
A third case involves another man found dead in private gardens in Edinburgh carrying a plain paper sketchbook of scenes from Aberdeen, Ullapool and Inverness.
These cases raise broader philosophical questions around what it means to be missing, says McMillan. “To be missing, you have to be missed,” says Taylor. “Someone has to report you missing. And unfortunately, even that doesn’t happen in many, many cases. Conversely, there are cases where a person does not want to be found: people have a right to disappear for whatever reason, for example, a person escaping domestic abuse. Family estrangement happens all the time.”