Preston's most shocking unsolved murder 25 years on

Lancashire Police worker Janet Murgatroyd was killed and left on the Ribble’s banks

Wednesday, 16th June 2021, 12:30 pm

Janet Murgatroyd and her friend Fiona Watson were excited about a dream trip travelling around Europe they were preparing for later in the summer.

They hoped to fly out to the Greek island of Rhodes and spend 10 weeks back-packing around the continent before heading back in time for Janet to resume her studies at the University of Central Lancashire in September.

The highlight of the trip was to be her 21st birthday in September, when the friends aimed to celebrate the big day in Italy.

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Murder victim Janet Murgatroyd
Murder victim Janet Murgatroyd

June 15, 1996, was a sunny day and the pubs were packed as Preston was in a party mood while they wandered from shop-to-shop eyeing up new outfits for their trip.

The nation was gripped by football fever with the Euro 96 tournament in full swing and Preston was no different.

Every vantage point in every shop, home and car was flying the flag of St George as millions of people were swept along with the sporting pageant being staged on English soil for the first time.

On that Saturday afternoon, the home side beat the auld enemy Scotland at Wembley with the nation’s poster boy Paul Gascoigne assuming the starring role with a breathtaking goal late in the game securing a 2-0 victory.

Janet Murgatroyd caught on CCTV on the day she was murdered

In the warm sunshine thousands of revellers were ready to party into the night, and Janet telephoned home to tell her mum she would be staying out to join the fun.

Dressed casually in jeans and a white short-sleeved top, the 20-year-old was not kitted out for the city’s more fashionable bars, so after spending some time at the Wall Street bar they headed for the popular student pubs along Friargate.

Fiona would later recall: “We couldn’t have been happier. We were both on top of the world that day, we thought nothing was going to stop us from here on in.

“We had been in the pub quite a lot of the afternoon and it was going to be our last night out before we went on our holidays, so we were making it a good night.”

Taped-off scene where Janet Murgatroyd’s body was discovered by the Ribble

As the evening wore on the pair became separated and when Janet left the Adelphi pub at 12.30am she made the fatal decision to walk the couple of miles through town back home.

Within an hour she would lie dying on the banks of the Ribble, the victim of a sustained and savage beating.

CCTV footage taken from the Fishergate shopping centre revealed it took Janet 20 minutes to stagger the first few hundred yards.

Witnesses would later describe the blonde weaving along the throughfare past Preston Railway Station wending her way towards her Penwortham home.

Forensic investigator at the scene where Janet Murgatroyd’s body was discovered

It was 1.10am by the time she reached the corner of Broadgate with Penwortham Bridge.

A cab driver reported seeing a man chasing after a woman down the middle of the road across the bridge.

The woman appeared to have been running as well. It was to be the last time the young student would be seen alive. She was just a mile and a half from home.

At 1.30am two brothers crossing the bridge heard a muffled, high-pitched wail in bushes at Priory Park close to the southern banks of the Ribble. They turned to see where the noise was coming from and heard the sound of snapping of twigs being trampled in the undergrowth.

They saw a figure crouching down about 15m away but were unable to get a good look at him because of the darkness.

The last they saw was a man wearing a light coloured, baggy shirt clamber unsteadily down the river bank.

Police at the scene where Janet Murgatroyd’s body was discovered

At lunchtime on Sunday, June 16 a dog walker was ambling along the banks of the Ribble near to the railway viaduct which leads mainline trains out of Preston to the south.

The man spotted what he thought was a body floating face down in the water with long blonde hair. He shouted to a speed boat driver pulling a water skier along the Ribble for help.

A man in his garden nearby was alerted to the unfolding drama and rang the police.

The boat pulled over to the shore close to The Continental pub and dragged the dead woman on board before heading back downstream towards Preston. The body was hauled ashore on the slipway at Preston Sea Cadet Corps, adjacent to corner of Broadgate with Penwortham Bridge – just yards from where she had last been seen alive less than 12 hours earlier.

Janet had been stripped naked and brutally attacked. Her body was covered in scratches caused by being dragged naked through the dense riverside undergrowth by her killer.

A post mortem examination showed she had been beaten and kicked about the head, knocked unconscious and stamped on before being dumped in the river.

She suffered 59 separate injuries mainly to the head and face, including a fractured jaw and a broken nose. Finger shaped bruise marks to her face indicated the killer had clasped his hand over her mouth to stop her screaming.

Although unconscious and suffering from injuries which would have proved fatal, Janet was alive when she entered the water and remained so for at least four hours.

Investigators believe she was probably lying on a sand bank below the high water mark, then when the tidal flow came on she was washed into the river by the incoming tide. Unconscious and unable to move, Janet drowned. Police suspected she had also been the victim of a sexual assault.

Lancashire Police drafted in one of the force’s most senior murder squad officers to head the investigation into the killing. Detective Superintendent Graham Gooch put together a 50-strong team based in an incident room not far from where Janet worked at Hutton headquarters.

It was a photograph taken of Janet for her police security pass which was blown up on a poster and circulated around Preston. With her curly blonde hair and chirpy smile it was to become an enduring image.

A £5,000 reward was put up by the Crimestoppers Trust for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. The sum was later matched by the Lancashire Post.

Anyone with information can call police on 101. Alternatively, Crimestoppers can be contacted anonymously on 0800 5555 111. You can also report through the Major Incident Public PortalBushes at the spot where Janet was dragged down the river bank were cut off at the base, tagged and labelled and sent for forensic examination.

Post photographer Darren Andrews, while taking pictures at the scene, found Janet’s bloodstained blouse and told police about his discovery. The spot was close to where the brothers had heard a disturbance.

Her clothing and jewellery were recovered from the area and hairs found on the top and one of her socks were forensically tested and DNA profiles recorded.

Only her stone-washed, Wrangler jeans were missing despite a call from a group of children who claimed to have found them while playing in bushes near to the murder scene. When officers returned to the riverbank they had vanished.

Experts from nuclear giant BNFL produced a computer model of the Ribble estuary to help pinpoint where Janet’s body had entered the river.

Studying tide times and the moment they suspected Janet was attacked, they worked out where her body must have been dumped in the water for it to have been washed up by The Continental.

Computer profiling was used to probe possible links with 200 other unsolved murders across the United Kingdom stretching back 20 years while experts drew up a profile of the likely killer.

This study was released by Acting Det Supt Colin Maloney, who said: “This man carried out a blitz attack on a very vulnerable victim and the offender had a great rage or anger which was demonstrated by the attack.

“He was disorganised and showed a lack of planning as the attack was so close to the main road. This indicates he is at the younger end of the spectrum.

“It is likely he has a history of violence against women which might have been manifested in previous convictions, although not necessarily. Looking at other murders it is almost certain that this offender has knowledge of the area.

“He will be familiar with or have previous knowledge of the murder scene and it is likely he lives, or did live, in the area.”

In the weeks after the killing police released images of Janet caught on security cameras from businesses around Preston town centre in the hours before her death.

More than 1,400 statements were taken as the incident room phones buzzed with people offering information.

Officers travelled the length and breadth of the country from Winchester to Carlisle and from Hull to Chester investigating possible suspects.

A reconstruction of Janet’s last known movements was put together with a fellow student playing the role of the murdered student.

On June 28 hundreds of friends and family packed into St Teresa’s Church, Penwortham, for a memorial service. Just four days later an inquest hearing was told how Janet was beaten and left for dead by the Ribble until the tide carried her body away. The official cause of death was recorded as drowning.

On September 3, 1996 Janet was buried at Hill Road Cemetery in a private ceremony after a funeral service attended by hundreds of mourners at St Teresa’s RC Church.

The service was so packed some people were forced to sit on the street outside to listen. It was 11 weeks after Janet was found dead and just five days before what would have been her 21st birthday.

The same day the BBC’s Crimewatch programme broadcast a nationwide appeal which attracted more than 50 calls to the incident room.

But none provided the breakthrough police were looking for in the hunt for killer who had taken the life of their popular young colleague, and 25 years on it remains one of Lancashire’s most infamous unsolved murders.

This article is abridged from the book Lancashire’s Most Notorious Murders by Mike Hill and Nicola Adam.

Anyone with information can call police on 101. Alternatively, Crimestoppers can be contacted anonymously on 0800 5555 111. You can also report through the Major Incident Public Portal

Police at the scene where Janet Murgatroyd’s body was discovered