A vicious predator visited a park on a summer’s day with the intention of sexually attacking and killing a young woman.
That is the investigating officer’s verdict on Mark Buckley, who is today starting a life sentence for the brutal murder of 18-year-old Ellen Higginbottom.
But Buckley, 52, of New Hall Lane, Preston, had given no previous indication of how dangerous he was.
Although he had a criminal record, meaning his DNA was on the police database, nothing indicated he would carry out such a monstrous act.
An attack of such violence is rare. You can’t compare crimes because they are all bad but this one with young Ellen was a shocker.
Senior investigating officer Bob Tonge said: “I think he was just out to get somebody that day. He has gone out ready to attack someone and Ellen has just been so, so unlucky. If it wasn’t her it would have been somebody else.
“He’s done this in broad daylight on a beautiful summer’s day in a quite well-populated park which is very popular with dog walkers.
“I don’t think this feeling of his has happened in a day. We do know he has been in the park since the early hours of the morning and it’s just a case of wherever he sees the opportunity and has built up the courage.”
The investigation discovered that Buckley had been in the Orrell Water Park, near Wigan, from around 5.30am on Friday, June 16, carrying the bag with the murder implements and other important objects in.
That led officers to conclude he had been scoping out the area, looking to inflict harm on a passer-by who was unfortunate enough to cross his path.
The bag, when police got hold of it, contained the blade, a belt, a rope and condoms.
He had also used a fire to dispose of his blood-stained clothing as well as items belonging to Ellen, including a calculator, laptop, mobile phone and her house keys, which were in a rucksack he had stolen.
Ellen’s body was discovered in a secluded spot near the park in the early hours of June 17. The alarm was raised the previous day when A-level student Ellen failed to return from Winstanley College, an occurrence so out-of-character that the police were quickly brought in.
Her last known position was in the water park at around 1.43pm on Friday, when she sent a joking Snapchat message to her friends, saying she had been in the popular green space for 20 minutes and was already lost.
Detectives found the exact spot where the message had been sent and concluded she could not have been seriously unsure where she was.
A huge search for her swung into action later that day and at around 1.30am a helicopter was sent to the water park.
It picked up a heat source from a man, who ran from the area. Police would later establish that this was Buckley.
The helicopter guided officers on the ground to the area which the man had suspiciously fled from and at around 2.30am on the Saturday Ellen’s body was found with horrific injuries on the edge of a wheat field.
She was lying face-down, partially naked and with what Mr Tonge describes as “unsurvivable” injuries to her neck and throat, inflicted by the blade of a Stanley knife.
Lying on the ground next to her body was a spade.
Also at the scene was a belt and DNA samples taken from it and a couple of other items led the officers straight to Buckley.
He was arrested at his home on New Hall Lane, Preston, and confessed to the murder almost straight away under questioning from detectives.
Mr Tonge says the random nature of the crime, and the appalling brazenness with which it was carried out, makes it hard to come to terms with.
He said: “It is the stranger element of it, that is every parent’s worst nightmare.
“You think you’ve done your job, brought your child up and got them educated. They are doing A-levels and are on the way to the rest of their life. To have an only child taken from them in this way is just horrendous.
“An attack of such violence is rare. You can’t compare crimes because they are all bad but this one with young Ellen was a shocker.
“She was a beautiful young girl in the prime of her life and everything going the right way for her. I feel desperately for her parents and her boyfriend, who is such a nice lad.
“All I can do is reassure people that there aren’t many people like Buckley and he is now out of harm’s way.”
Buckley’s admission of committing such a savage, headline-making crime came as something of a bolt out of the blue.
Mr Tonge says exhaustive work is now being carried out by national agencies to piece together the currently fragmented picture of his background.
Much about the murder also remains shadowy. Investigators still do not know if Ellen was targeted because she was a young woman, or even if he had any particular type of victim in mind when he prowled the water park that day.
Questions of motivation and psychology at the time also remain to be answered.
Buckley himself offered no clue to his actions, he pleaded guilty to the crime but told the courts he could offer no clear explanation for his actions.
However, Mr Tonge said the police would not let the matter drop now he is behind bars but would continue attempting to find out exactly what happened.
He said: “Buckley is on his own, not acting with somebody else, and only he knows what was going through his head.
“He has got an incredible loss of memory when it comes down to the finer details.
“I have thousands of questions for him. Whether he wants to answer them or not I don’t know, but we will have a go.
“We will go to see him in prison, whether it is six weeks, six months or six years, until he tells the truth.”