Fairley set out on a string of serious offending from March to September 1984
Today (26 February 2020) marks 35 years since the sentencing of Malcolm Fairley, whose predatory crime spree shook the region. Dubbed “The Fox,” as he built lairs in the homes of his victims and evaded capture by making his escape across rural countryside.
Fairley’s brazen offending in the summer of 1984 is etched in the memories of those living within the ‘offending triangle’ of Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Tring.
Retired officers have gathered this week to reflect on their efforts to apprehend Fairley. The armed, masked, intruder whose warped actions targeted both men and women, old and young.
He set out on a string of serious offending from March to September 1984. His reign of terror was finally brought to an end when he was arrested just days after his last attack. This followed a development in the case which took Bedfordshire Police officers to an address in London.
Handed six life sentences by a judge after his confession to a violent series of burglaries, rapes and serious sexual assaults, which spanned over 80 crimes, Fairley is still behind bars.
Now, 35 years on from the day he was sentenced, former officers who worked on the landmark case have shared their memories of how they caught the man who managed to evade justice for so long, and reflected on how the developments in policing and forensic science since the 1980s would likely have led to his capture much quicker.
Ray Wootton, a Resident Beat Officer for the Bideford Green area during the investigation, recalled:
“The fear was very real, you could feel the tension; it was immense. People were petrified and didn’t feel safe in their own homes. Residents queued in the high street to buy additional locks and some even had code words for their family before they opened their front door. It was a hot summer yet everyone’s windows were locked shut.
“Being visible in their streets was vital for reassurance. The community were pleased to see me on patrol, either on foot or on my bike, acting as a deterrent and giving advice on security measures. It was a very terrifying time, the community breathed a huge sigh of relief when the arrest was made.”
Complex case was often likened to the Yorkshire Ripper
The rare and complex case was often likened to that of the Yorkshire Ripper, and was on a scale that has not to be seen by the force since.
Officers, often in their hundreds, paraded on the manhunt on a daily basis from a custom incident room setup at Dunstable Police Station. This included officers from neighbouring forces, as well as dog units, firearms officers and, at times, the deployment of the army helicopter.
Investigators worked with a senior scientist from the Home Office who was dedicated to the case. As Fairley continued his catalogue of offending and his behaviour became increasingly more audacious the case was developing rapidly.
Officers were harvesting more and more forensic evidence and quickly learning about the offender. By September 1984 the search had narrowed to tracing an owner of a car that was harvest yellow in colour, of which there were less than 1,500 in the UK.
When officers arrived at an address of interest in London, they were greeted by a man who stood alongside a harvest yellow Austin Allegro, he spoke in a north east accent, and wore his wristwatch on his right-hand – these were three of the key elements to the picture detectives had worked painstakingly to fit together.
DNA testing was in its infancy
Senior Investigating Officer on the case, Brian Prickett, said:
“This was a very important case to work on, the fear was genuine and the victims were subjected to the most horrendous attacks, he really put them through a terrible ordeal.
“At the height of the enquiry we were getting 300 calls an hour into the incident room and we had to look at all the clues we had to identify and eliminate suspects.
“The operation took two forms, observation and protection of the public alongside the detective work. When you saw the type of crimes he was committing you knew you had to put every effort in, the team was totally dedicated to identifying Fairley and bring him to justice.”
On sentencing, Fairley’s actions were described by the judge as ‘wickedness beyond condemnatory description’, his run of offending has imprinted on the lives of both the victims and those who worked on the case.
If officers at the time had been equipped with today’s advances in investigative techniques, coupled with the knowledge of Fairley’s low-level offending as a teen, it is unlikely he would have been free to stalk his victims for as long as he did.
But with DNA in its infancy and a lack of CCTV and other digital information to capture his movements, the case relied on the bravery of victims and the bringing together of expert skills from several forces and organisations that unveiled the clues to stop Fairley in his tracks.