LITTLE MISS NOBODY
In 1989 builders unearthed the skeletal remains in a garden in Cardiff, and so began five months of intensive detective work and groundbreaking tests that revolutionised the way forensics were used in murder cases. Just who was ‘Little Miss Nobody’?
CARDIFF, 7th DECEMBER 1989
Builders working at 29 Fitzhamond Embankment, Cardiff, were excavating the back garden when they unearthed a roll of carpet. It was around 6ft in length and bound with electrical flex, and although rotten in places it was well preserved on the whole. When they began to unravel the carpet they discovered bones and the police were immediately called.
When police arrived and opened up more of the carpet they discovered the decaying bones of a skeleton and a black bag which looked like it contained a head.
With no idea who it was, when they were buried or why, it would become a tough case to crack, but with old-fashioned police work, groundbreaking technology and a few strokes of luck, all the answers were soon established.
Police called in a pathologist, who confirmed the bones were that of a human, and with the body found so close to the rear door of the basement flat, police decided that they would need to find out the identities of previous tenants. This wasn’t an easy task. Fitzhamond Embankment had been known as ‘bedsit land’ with buildings altered to become multi-occupancy. The transient community had consisted mainly of pimps, prostitutes and drug users/dealers.
In the end, 80 police officers were seconded to the investigation with a judge eventually remarking that it was “extraordinarily thorough”.
The pathologist was able to confirm that it wasn’t a recent burial as the bones were clean of flesh. All the bones were present but no trauma site could be seen. There was no flesh but there were some strands of fair hair. They were able to confirm that the remains were that of a female, white, and aged between 15-20 years old approximately.
Using the teeth and jaw, the dentist was able to confirm that the female was 15 1/2 years old. He also discovered blood deposits had been forced into a tooth cavity, which indicated a violent death.
Using entemology, the presence of blowfly pupae indicated that the body hadn’t been buried immediately after death. The girl’s body had been kept in an exposed location after death and buried a few days later.
So, so far, police were able to confirm the body was that of a 15 1/2 year old white female who was the victim of a violent death some years previously. Why didn’t they have any details of someone of that description within their missing persons file? How could a young girl disappear and nobody care?
Police had discovered the remains of a pair of jeans as well as a bra. What remained of the jeans also consisted of a button and zip, and they were able to confirm that the clothes were cheap – so the girl came from a poorer background.
On examination of the bra, it was found the label had the name ‘Mrs Knickers’ on it, and so police used this to find the company that sold it. Incredibly they traced it to a small company that had operated in England in the early 1980s, and were able to speak with the owner. He confirmed that the labels were put on the bras between 1979 and 1983. This now gave police an approximate time frame.
Alongside other evidence the police were able to confirm that no item of clothing was manufactured before January 1981, and piecing that together with the approximate time of death given by the entemologist, they were able to ascertain that the girl died between 1981 and 1984.
THE BASEMENT FLAT
Police decided that they would concentrate their efforts on finding out who were the previous tenants of the basement flat at 29 Fitzhamond Embankment and began with a simple door-to-door inquiry. Incredibly, this led to a stroke of luck when they knocked on the door of one resident.
This resident had formerly acted as a caretaker for some of the properties and so not only had she used rent books, but she had kept them all. They contained names and dates of each tenant, and so police were able to quickly establish vital information.
Police had one more piece of evidence left to investigate – the carpet in which the body had been wrapped. It was decided to photograph it in order to show it to former residents in the hope someone would recognise it.
One male tenant, who occupied the basement flat from June 1981-February 1982 didn’t recognise it. However, when police looked into his background, his previous convictions made him a person of interest.
The next tenant they spoke with occupied the basement flat between 1980-1981 and she did recognise it because she both chose and had it fitted. Unfortunately she couldn’t remember where it was purchased, so police took a look at all carpet shops in Cardiff, visiting every retailer until they found the right one in Clifton Street. In another stroke of luck, the owner had retained ALL his invoices in thousands of brown boxes.
Knowing an approximate time frame, police began the arduous task of sifting through the boxes of invoices, and after three days of non-stop searching, they found it. The carpet had been fitted on 6th September 1980. It also gave them the details of the carpet fitter and he was their next port of call. Unsurprisingly he couldn’t remember fitting the carpet but agreed to help police with a reconstruction.
Using the floor in a police garage, the police marked out the exact dimensions of the flat using chalk. They gave the carpet fitter a carpet the exact same size as that ordered and asked him to fit it. Once finished he was left with a large cut off, measuring 6ft x 4ft 8″ – almost identical to the piece in which the body had been wrapped in which measured 6ft 2″ x 4ft 8″. Police were therefore able to ascertain an offcut was used.
Five weeks after the initial discovery police had exhausted all forensic lines of inquiry and were no nearer to identifying the girl and so made the decision to employ the services of Richard Neave at the University of Manchester, who was pioneering new techniques in facial reconstruction.
With no idea if it would work, in the first week of January the skull was delivered to Neave and he set about taking a cast and rebuilding the face. This procedure took approximately 3 weeks, but due to pressure from South Wales Police, he was given 5 days and on 7th January 1990, not knowing whether it was yield any results, the police published the reconstruction in the press.
WHO WAS ‘LITTLE MISS NOBODY’?
Two days after the reconstruction was published, two former social workers contacted police. They lived in different areas of the country – one in Yorkshire, and the other still in Cardiff – yet both gave the same name. They believed the body to be that of Karen Price.
Police traced Karen’s parents, who confirmed that neither had seen her for a decade but the reconstruction did indeed look like their daughter, and upon seeing some photographs, police were astounded at the likeness of the reconstruction.
THE EXPERIMENT THAT CHANGED WORLD SCIENCE
Scientists knew that extracting DNA from bone wasn’t easy but with nothing to lose, they decided to experiment using DNA extracted from her femur in an attempt to match it with that taken from her parents.
It was an exhausting experiment as the DNA had to be copied multiple times for analysis – and this was the first time it had ever been done – but against all the odds it worked, and not only did it confirm that the DNA was a match and it was Karen Price, but it was also a huge breakthrough in world forensic and genetic science.
Police began to build up a picture of Karen’s life and were keen to establish how a young girl could simply disappear and not be missed.
They learnt that Karen had been a neglected young girl. She’d had a troubled childhood and at the age of 10-years old, had been placed in a care. As had happened many times previously, Karen had disappeared from a council assessment centre in Pontypridd, Mid Glamorgan in 1981.
Police discovered that there was a missing persons form in existence, but they weren’t allowed to recover it, and so the one question about how she was allowed to disappear was never answered.
What they did learn was that Karen had been living just a quarter of a mile away from Fitzhamond Embankment. She had often visited the Central Square area of Cardiff and ‘befriended’ some of the local ‘characters.’ The Central Square area was frequented by undesireables and the vulnerable – of which Karen was one.
Karen was last seen on 2nd July 1981.
On 15th February 1990, police published a photograph in the press and appealed for any information. A number of witnesses came forward and confirmed that Karen was a visitor to the basement flat at 29 Fitzhamond Embankment – at the time owned by a man named Alan Charlton.
At the time of his arrest, police found Charlton at a pub in Tiger Bay and he was working as a bouncer. He was 30 years old and from Bridgwater, Somerset.
Described as a ‘vindictive’ individual, Charlton was known to prey upon the weaker members of society and the vulnerable – especially some residents, whom he liked to exploit.
He was known to prey upon people in Central Square – Karen being one of them.
A man named Idris Ali came forward as a witness. When giving evidence to police, he told them he had acted as a pimp in Central Square and was tasked with obtaining girls for Charlton for ‘parties’ at the flat. He described Charlton as a ‘pimp’ also. To the disbelief of the police, he went on to state that he was there when Karen was killed.
Ali claimed that two months after she disappeared from the children’s home, Charlton had wanted to take “lewd photographs” of Karen, but that Karen had flatly refused. Charlton flew into a rage, and had raped and strangled Karen before asking Ali to help wrap her body in a carpet, which he did. Charlton then buried her body.
Police immediately arrested Ali, 24, from Cardiff for his involvement in Karen’s murder.
Police also questioned a woman but she was not charged.
Charlton and Ali appeared at Cardiff Crown Court in February 1991.
Girl D appeared to give evidence and was the crucial witness in the case against against Ali and Charlton. Just 13-years old at the time, D was also in the same children’s home as Karen and recounted how she lived a life of glue-sniffing and exploitation, with Ali acting as her pimp and taking half the money that she made.
D knew Charlton, and after a glue-sniffing session at his flat in Fitzhamond Embankment in 1981, she described to the jury how she watched as he punched and slapped Karen until she fell. D went on to say that Ali had attempted to pull Charlton off Karen, but Charlton continued to hit her. Too scared to watch, D closed her eyes and when she reopened them, blood was coming from Karen’s mouth and she wouldn’t respond. Charlton then told D that Karen was dead.
Girl D went on to describe how Karen’s body was placed on a bed before Charlton tied her hands and put a bag over her head, and then committed a vile sex act against her. He then ordered Ali to do the same. The pair then wrapped Karen’s body in a blanket and took her outside. When they returned, Charlton warned D that she would “die the same way” if she ever told anyone what had happened.
D’s evidence that Karen knew Charlton was also backed by five different witnesses.
The two men were found guilty of the murder of Karen. Charlton was jailed for life, and Ali – who was 16 at the time of the murder – was detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
TIME AND TIME AGAIN…
In 1994 both Charlton and Ali appealed against their convictions. Charlton’s appeal was dismissed, but Ali’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter. Ali knew that if he then pleaded guilty, he’d be immediately released and so, on 21st December 1994, he did just that, confirming that evidence given by Girl D during the trial had been accurate.
1996 Prison Riot
However, Ali found himself back inside soon after on two offences of wounding and returned to Cardiff Prison where he was an inmate on 30th November 1996 when a serious riot broke out. Ali was accused of inciting the riot and in 1997 he was found guilty of taking part and causing grievous bodily harm with intent, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
2002 Hunger Strike
Ali made accusations of discrimination and interference against authorities at Whitemoor Prison where he was serving time for his part in the Cardiff riot. He claimed that they had interfered with his mail and legal papers, as well as falsely accusing him of being a bully and so he would undertake a hunger strike.
2005 Hunger Strike
Ali maintained his innocence and in 2005 he went on a hunger strike at HMP Dovegate in Staffordshire in protest that he wanted to be moved closer to his family in Cardiff. Writing to a newspaper – Wales on Sunday – Ali, a diabetic, claimed he would refuse food and diabetic medication unless his case was reviewed. He also maintained that he was innocent of all charges. His wishes to be transferred to HMP Parc, Bridgend, were refused on the grounds that two officers who were caught up in the Cardiff Prison riot were employed there.
In 2010, police appealed for information about Ali’s whereabouts after his disappeared from a bail hostel. The public were warned not to approach him as he had previous convictions for manslaughter, robbery, football violence and inciting a brutal cell-block riot. He had been residing at the hostel under the supervision of South Wales Probation Service and his disappearance had broken the terms of his licence. He was found five days later in Ely, Cardiff.
In 2014, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which investigates potential miscarriages of justice, confirmed that both Charlton and Ali’s cases would be referred to the Appeal Court in London.
In 2016 both cases were heard following concerns by the CCRC about the conduct of some officers in South Wales Police force in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Following the Lynette White case, when it was discovered that the three men that had been convicted of her murder were innocent and allegations of police corruption (despite prosecution in 2011, officers were cleared after the trial collapsed), lawyers for Ali and Charlton argued that some of the officers involved in the investigation had been prepared to use unorthodox methods at the time and had been involved in the Lynette White case. They claimed that vulnerable witnesses – such as Girl D – had been pressurised by officers.
Ali claimed that he had only admitted his involvement in Karen’s death to get out of jail. His lawyers said that Ali had “significant intellectual impairment” which contributed to him “making things up” and described him as an “habitual liar.” He also said that he believed Ali knew that if he admitted his guilt, he’d be released immediately.
He admitted that Girl D’s version of events were true and that he had held Karen’s hands whilst Charlton beat her, but claimed he only did so because he was scared of Charlton and never intended for her to suffer serious harm.
However, the judges rejected it on the basis that Ali had “unequivocally” admitted Karen’s manslaughter, and doubts about the reliability of evidence against Charlton had been brought to the attention of the jury by the judge trial. This was referring to the evidence given by Girl D that Charlton knew Karen – something five other people corroborated. The judges pointed out that whereas Ali had changed his story throughout proceedings, despite three days of questioning, Girl D had maintained her version of events and continued to insist that her testimony was true right up to that day. She was also able to give the location of Karen’s body as being just outside Charlton’s back door.
The conviction was upheld.
Karen may have laid in an unmarked grave for eight years after her life was cut unnecessarily short, however her death provided a legacy that has helped to solve thousands of murders thereafter and changed science forever. She may have been missed by nobody at the time, but her name will now always be remembered.
With thousands of vulnerable children going missing every year, how many more ‘Little Miss Nobodies’ are still out there waiting to be discovered?