Home South London Brutal murder of woman, 26, on South London train remains unsolved 34...

Brutal murder of woman, 26, on South London train remains unsolved 34 years later despite killer’s blood found at scene

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In a case that horrified Londoners, a young woman was brutally stabbed to death inside a train carriage carrying nearly 70 people. Few murder cases grip the nation such as the killing of 26-year-old Deborah Linsley, but over three decades later, her killer remains on the loose despite a major publicity campaign and a police reward on offer.

The “savage and brutal” stabbing, which occurred on a busy train service travelling through South London, led to drastic changes in the way British Rail operated. By now, 34 years have passed since the shocking incident, yet the Met Police’s cold case investigations unit remain no closer to bringing the murderer to justice.

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The last sighting

Deborah Linsley, known as Debbie to her friends and family, had relocated from Bromley to Edinburgh in the years before her murder, where she worked as a hotel manager. She had travelled back to London during the week of her murder to attend a hotel management course, and to spend time helping with the preparation of her brother’s wedding, at which she was due to be a bridesmaid.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 23, 1988 she was taken by her brother Gordon to Petts Wood train station at 2pm, where she boarded the Orpington to London Victoria service at 2:16pm. This was the last time she would ever be seen alive.

The train she boarded was made up of a mixture of carriage types, with some being fully open with a central gangway running the length of the carriage, and others being unconnected compartments seating 12. Those compartment style carriages opened directly to the outside, and there was no means of moving between them.

Following her death, Debbie’s mum Marguerite Linsley said her daughter was aware of the dangers of travelling in the closed compartment style carriage, and would usually avoid doing so. However, detectives believed that she had seated herself in the old-style carriage to enable her to have a cigarette, as they were the only carriages where passengers could smoke. It is believed that she had at least one cigarette and had begun to eat one of her sandwiches before she met her killer.

The murder

At some point during her journey, Debbie was viciously stabbed to death. She sustained 11 stab wounds to her face, neck and abdomen, five of which were to the area around her heart. She also had defensive wounds to her hands.

The Metropolitan Police had said it was possible the attack had started as an attempted rape, however there was no concrete evidence of sexual interference. She was eventually found at 2:50pm while the train was at Victoria’s platform two after a British Rail porter walked through the train.

Both the carriage floor and seat were covered in blood, with some of this later discovered to be that of her killer, who had also been injured during the struggle. When her body was found, she was still in possession of her jewellery and a £5 note from her brother, ruling out the possibility that she had been the victim of a robbery gone wrong.

The weapon used was never recovered, although it is believed to have been five to seven-and-a-half inches long with a heavy blade. The police later described it as a good quality kitchen knife, and stated their belief the murder had been premeditated as it was likely the killer had left home and travelled with the weapon.

‘Screams of fear’

The only witness who appeared to have heard Debbie’s gruesome murder was an 18-year-old French au pair, who was seated in the adjacent compartment. She revealed that she had heard screams that lasted for about two minutes shortly after the train had departed Brixton.

She said: “I had never heard such screams. They stopped for about five seconds and started again. She called out as if for help. They were screams of fear and very, very loud. I wanted to use the alarm but I remained glued to my seat.”

During Debbie’s inquest on November 16, 1998, she was criticised by the coroner for not pulling the communication cord, despite believing that somebody was being raped. The coroner stated that despite fellow passengers hearing a “commotion”, nobody thought to investigate and a verdict of unlawful killing was given.

The investigation

A high-profile murder investigation was launched immediately, and 1,200 witness statements were collected and analysed. Debbie was on board the train for 31 minutes, with stops at Bickley, Bromley South, Shortlands, Beckenham Junction, Kent House, Penge East, Sydenham Hill, West Dulwich, Herne Hill and Brixton.

It is believed that 70 people were aboard that train, with ticket collectors saying that between 30 to 40 people disembarked at Victoria. Despite numerous public appeals, the police said that only 26 of them have been accounted for and it is thought that at least 20 people had failed to come forward.

The longest time between stations was eight minutes between Brixton and Victoria, and according to the French au pair, it was during this period that the screaming was heard. The Met Police’s senior investigating officer at the time, Superintendent Guy Mills, described the murder as “savage and brutal” and noted that Debbie had no means of escape apart from through the side doors onto the tracks.

Over the course of the initial investigation, 650 individuals were questioned and ruled out. Certain individuals remained of interest to the police, specifically a “scruffy man with dirty blonde hair” who was seen leaving one of the compartments on the train at Penge East, and was believed to have then re-boarded, possibly into the same seating area as Debbie.

A photofit was also released of a man the French au pair had noticed getting off the train in Victoria, who was described as being aged about 40, well built, muscular and with a moustache and wearing a light sweater and grey trousers. Despite receiving national attention and numerous appeals for information, including a re-enactment on Crimewatch, the police failed to identify her murderer.

Changes to travel

Debbie sat in an old-style carriage compartment with no escape route

In the months ahead of Debbie’s death, British Rail had slowly been phasing out the types of compartment carriages used during journeys. Within a week of the murder, they announced that the number used on off-peak journeys would be reduced in order to minimise the chances of passengers being isolated.

In direct response, they also ordered train guards to proactively patrol train compartments and urged women to be particularly observant while travelling alone.

Case reopened

Debbie’s killer had left blood at the scene after being injured during the attack, which was collected and stored. Due to progressions in DNA profiling, the case was reopened in 2002 with an extensive publicity campaign launched in Victoria station.

A £20,000 reward was offered by the Met to find the murderer in 2013, with the leading officer on the case stating that it was “puzzling” that the DNA had not been matched to anyone on the database. Given the brutality of the incident, it is believed the killer was a “probable repeat violent offender” who is likely to have committed similar crimes.

In 2018, her dad Arthur Linsley made an emotional appeal on the 30th anniversary of her murder, saying: “My daughter was murdered 30 years ago and despite the DNA profile of the suspect being available, the person responsible has still not been found.

“I appealed in 2013 for those who had suspicions about a partner, a friend or a relative to please come forward and I renew that appeal on this anniversary of Debbie’s death.” Tragically, Debbie’s mum Marguerite passed away in 2013 without ever discovering what happened to her daughter.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Met Police on 02072304294 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

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