Despite the fear and the fanciful warning, that is exactly where they head as night creeps in on Oct 9, 1986. An older girl encounters the pair around 6:25 p.m., and tells them to head home or their parents will worry. The girls ignore the advice. “Come on, let’s go over the park,” Nicola tells Karen, the Independent would later report.
When Nicola and Karen fail to return home, police and neighbors begin a search, frantically poking flashlight beams into the thick fog that has dropped on the working-class area. A police helicopter beats overhead. Only a dirty blue Pinto brand sweatshirt turns up on a nearby footpath.
Nicola and Karen are discovered the next afternoon in a small clearing inside Wild Park. As the Daily Mail would later report, Karen’s head was resting on her friends lap. Both girls had been sexually assaulted and strangled.
The killings quickly became a sensation across England, dubbed the “Babes in the Wood” murders. Within a week, the BBC ran an episode of “Crimewatch” recreating the girls’ last known hours as a way to spark public interest. Police interviewed 10,000 people and knocked on 4,000 doors.
It did not remain a whodunit for long.
Suspicion settled on Russell Bishop, a loudmouth car thief who reportedly unnerved neighbors by staring too long at young girls. The fight to bring Bishop to justice, however, would take 32 years, a journey marked by bungled forensics and courtroom drama, with bizarre detours into stranger-than-fiction coincidences and alleged journalistic malfeasance.
Thanks to new wrinkles in British law and the development of advanced DNA testing, Bishop was finally convicted Monday of the 1986 crimes, the Guardian reported. This week’s courtroom success, however, is underscored by the fact that had the investigation been handled differently decades ago, another attack may have been prevented.
“He is a monster,” the Fellows family said in a statement after the verdict, according to the Telegraph. “Russell Bishop truly is evil personified.”
Bishop’s role in the crime is all the more chilling because of his proximity to the victims' families and the part he played in helping locate the bodies.
He was small, barely 5-foot-5, his face marked with a small mustache in 1986 when he was 20. Bishop’s mother was an internationally renowned dog trainer, the Daily Mail reported. His father was a roofer. In 1978, when a 36-year-old woman was found raped, murdered and mutilated in a Brighton park, Bishop’s father was arrested on suspicion of the crime. He was eventually released, and the “Beast of Stanmer Park” case is still unsolved today.
Bishop followed his father into the roofing business, but he reportedly also turned to small-scale crime, like breaking into cars.
“He was a typical lad around town that time. He’d grown a mustache and he had this car he’d race everywhere and he was always telling lies, trying to big himself up,” a friend later told the Telegraph. “I think he suffered from ‘little man syndrome.’ He was always telling porkies about this and that.”
At the time of the murders, Bishop lived with his pregnant girlfriend and son less than two miles away from Nicola and Karen.
But he also allegedly had an unsavory reputation for eyeing underage girls. According to the Telegraph, Bishop was in a romantic relationship with a 16-year-old girl. Both Nicola and Karen were warned to stay away from Bishop, who played cricket and soccer with Nicola’s father.
Bishop joined the search after the Oct. 9 disappearance. He brought along his dog, Misty, claiming she was a trained tracker. When two young men discovered the girls' bodies in Wild Park, Bishop was nearby.
Bishop’s comments later clued in police to his involvement. The Daily Mail reported that Bishop bragged to friends that he had seen how the bodies were arranged in the wooded clearing, and that he’d seen bloody foam ringing Nicola’s mouth. He also told people he had been close enough to check the girls for a pulse.
But Bishop was kept 15 feet away from the bodies — too far to see their position, much less Nicola’s mouth. When confronted by police, Bishop claimed he lied to sound important. Witnesses, however, put Bishop near the park on the night of the killings. Three weeks after the bodies were found, Bishop was arrested.
When the trial opened in late 1987, though, the prosecutor’s case crumbled — all because of mistakes. The bodies’ temperatures were not taken after the discovery, meaning the government could not accurately say in court what time the girls had been killed. No one measured the strangulation marks on the girls’ necks. They did not search for fingerprints. They also did not test blood found on the bodies.
The blue sweatshirt found by the search party on the first night was a key piece in the case. The state argued Bishop had been wearing the clothing when he killed the girls, then discarded the sweatshirt. His live-in girlfriend told police in an interview she recognized the clothing as belonging to Bishop. But at trial, the girlfriend changed her story, telling the court she did not recognize it.
On Dec. 10, 1987, the jury acquitted Bishop of both murders.
But the case was far from over. In 1990, a 7-year-old Brighton girl was kidnapped, driven to a secluded park and sexually assaulted. The perpetrator then strangled her, leaving the victim behind for dead. But the girl survived, and later identified Bishop as her attacker. In January 1991, he was convicted of kidnapping, indecent assault and attempted murder. Bishop was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 14 years.
Outside the prison walls, the murders continued to shadow the families and community. Both Nicola and Karen’s parents eventually split up.
According to the Telegraph, Martin Bashir — the BBC journalist who would go on to international fame after interviewing Princess Diana and Michael Jackson — contacted the Hadaway family in 1991 about retesting some of Karen’s clothing for a documentary series. The program never ran, and the family would later claim Bashir did not return the items. The journalist later told authorities he could not recall where the items had been placed.
“He genuinely couldn’t remember anything about the case. He said he would do anything he could to find out where the clothes are and cooperate," his manager told the York Press in 2004.
Then, in 1996, the actress who played Nicola in the “Crimewatch” reenactment of the case was herself murdered, the Independent reported. Karen’s father died two years later.
And in April 2009, Barrie Fellows, Nicola’s father, received a knock on the door of his new home in Cheshire. Officers from Brighton were outside.
“When I heard the words ‘Sussex Police’ my first thought was that they had arrested someone for murdering my daughter,” Fellows told the Independent. “One of the officers said ‘No, we’ve come to arrest you.’ ”
Fellows was accused of sexually assaulting Nicola before her murder. The arrest catapulted the “Babes in the Wood” case back into the British press. But 12 weeks later, officials backtracked, explaining the allegation against Fellows had been completely false.
A change in British law would give investigators the avenue they needed to reach Bishop. Under the country’s 2003 Criminal Justice Act, the government could retry “a previously acquitted person for a second time in cases where new, evidence had since been obtained,” according to a statement from Sussex Police.
But police had only one shot under the law to present new evidence to a court of appeal to green light a new prosecution. They had to be sure — no missteps like in 1987.
Technological advances throughout the 2000s allowed for more accurate DNA testing. But the results remained inconclusive. Then, in May 2013, investigators consulted with a private firm. The techs there started the testing that would tie Bishop to Wild Park.
According to the Telegraph, the analysts eventually got a “billion-to-one” DNA hit matching Bishop to the blue sweatshirt. Fibers taken from both girls also matched the clothing. Bishop’s DNA was additionally detected on Karen’s skin.
With the new conclusive evidence, prosecutors were granted permission by the appeals court to retry Bishop on the 1986 murders last year. At his recent eight-week trial, prosecutors not only presented the new DNA material but also told jurors about the 1990 attack that could have been prevented had Bishop been found guilty in the earlier case.
“All the similarities between the events of which he was convicted in 1990 and those of 1986 are such that, together with all the other evidence in the case, they can lead you to the sure conclusion that the defendant was responsible also for the murders of Nicola and Karen but a few years earlier,” said prosecutor Brian Altman, according to the Independent.
Bishop again denied having any involvement in the killings. But on Monday, as Nicola and Karen’s mothers gripped hands in the courtroom, the jury delivered a guilty verdict. The mothers exploded in cheers. He will be sentenced Tuesday.
The verdict arrived 31 years to the day of Bishop’s 1987 acquittal for the same crime.
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