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The crime of her life

Forensic botanist Patricia Wiltshire played a key role in jailing Ian Huntley for the Soham murders. For the first time she talks to Maureen Paton about how her work affects her.

Patricia Wiltshire lives in spotless domestic tranquillity in one of Surrey's chintziest villages, the greatest possible contrast to the muddy soil in which she scrabbles as a forensic investigator for some of the most high-profile murder and stranger-rape cases in the country. Wiltshire, the only forensic ecologist and botanist in the UK to specialise in the location of human remains and the linking of offenders to the scene of crime, first registered on the public radar when her environmental evidence proved crucial in helping to secure the conviction of Ian Huntley for the Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

It was Wiltshire who the police called in after the bodies of Holly and Jessica had been discovered by a gamekeeper. By noticing new sideshoots on a section of nettles leading into the ditch, she was able to identify that as the path the killer took into the ditch. Such sideshoots only grow if a plant has been trampled on, and she was able to work out that the nettles had been stepped on 13 and a half days before - soon after the girls had gone missing.

It was she who established that pollen from Huntley's shoes and his car exactly matched the type found in the ditch near Lakenheath where the girls' partially-burnt bodies had been discovered on August 17 2002.

Wiltshire, a miner's daughter from the Valleys with a slightly subversive sense of humour, sits in her dining room by a painting of a crone in Welsh costume with black stovepipe hat. She giggles and says in her high melodic voice, "Sometimes the police call me a Welsh witch because of the way I process a mass of data and come up with ideas; but it's not intuition or foresight, it's analysis.

"They also call me a cross between Miss Marple and Mary Poppins, and that's because I'm very strict - I have been known to make grown men cry by telling them the truth, being outspoken. My tongue can be like a viper. Being small and vulnerable, it's the only weapon I've got, isn't it?"

Her left foot is currently in plaster after an operation to replace damaged cartilages with an artificial joint, the result of years of wearing high heels to make her look taller (she is only five foot). Although now retired from her main job as a London University lecturer in forensic archaeological science, hardly a week goes by without Wiltshire being called out on crutches to a scene of crime; it happened 40 times last year and her caseload keeps growing.

"I'm the only person in the world, I think, who does what I do to corpses: I sample them and get information from them. I'm looking for clues in the earth surrounding them to work out where they were killed or stored."

The world of forensics is full of women - although most work in the lab. Women, argues this deceptively dainty-looking 62-year old, tend to have stronger stomachs for the messier side of life. "A woman will change a dirty nappy without thinking twice about it, whereas a man goes, 'Errghhh'," she points out derisively. "I got called up to a case in Yorkshire of a person who had been battered to death with baseball bats and a hammer. While three policemen with visors were cowering in a corner, my female student assistant and I just got on with taking samples from the corpse. Women are well suited to minutiae because they're meticulous, neat and tidy, and men sometimes forget the lateral bits that women remember."

Yet though she claims to be less moved than men by the sight of dead bodies, Wiltshire does find herself affected by the tragic stories behind the human remains. "For me, they [the bodies] are not people," she explains, "because the people have gone. A scene of crime is very business-like and you are working against the clock. But when I find out afterwards about the cruelty, pain, anguish and misery that put them there, it upsets me deeply. It's like a dagger, I can't bear it."

Two cases have particularly affected her. Not so much the high-profile ones, such as Sarah Payne and Milly Dowler. And not the mutilated bodies ("When a victim looks as if she is just sleeping rather than dead, that's when it really upsets me.") "One was a 22-year-old prostitute who was abused as a child with the most horrible upbringing. She had three kids and a drug habit, which she fed with prostitution, and she ended up dumped in woodland by her killer. I was heartbroken over that girl because of all that she had gone through.

"The other case was a 15-year-old girl, an utterly perfect physical specimen who was killed because of one man's sexual desires. He was a complete stranger to her. I looked at her on the slab and thought, 'She's so beautiful, so young'."

Wiltshire uses traditional female skills to develop ingenious techniques for extracting pollen from a body: she washes its hair and uses a crochet hook to retrieve fragments clinging to nasal passages, a trick that has earned her the nickname of "the snot lady". Her painstaking work is about to be shown on TV in a documentary called The Body Farm. For it Wiltshire was invited as an expert to Tennessee to watch the crime-detection experiments on decomposing murder victims by American scientists. The scientists in the documentary are demonstrating new methods of dating the time of death, working out the cause of death from clues on the body (strangulation, for instance, causes a blood flow that gives the corpse pink teeth) and showing how insects such as flies are much more accurate than tracker dogs in picking up the odours of decomposition and thus leading to the discovery of clandestine graves. It's not a programme for the weak of stomach.

Back in Britain, Wiltshire's unusual role as what she calls "a jigsaw puzzle-solver" began 10 years ago when police in Hertfordshire rang up Kew Gardens for help in identifying pollen surrounding a murder victim in a ditch. They said they couldn't help - but they knew a lady who could. She had never seen a dead victim of crime till then, and she says that her experiences in forensic investigation have "formed" her: "I don't think I thought at all before; I was in an academic environment and detached from life."

Anxious to avoid causing distress for Holly and Jessica's parents in this, her first press interview, Wiltshire won't talk in detail about the Soham case but says: "When I went to Jessica's home and saw her dog and stroked its head, that really brought it home to me." At first, that sounds eccentric, even for a self- confessed pet-lover. But Wiltshire also lost a little daughter - though to illness. She has found much comfort in animals ever since.

"Having lost a child myself, I'm very acutely aware of what that loss is like. And when I went back to Soham two years later to make [The Body Farm], I was still badly affected by the thought of the agony of the girls' parents.

"Although most murder victims are men, it is the young girls in the headlines because they're so vulnerable," she points out. "When some body loses their little girl, it hits everybody's heart, doesn't it?" Her daughter was just two when she died. "Because my daughter suffered a lot, I have transposed these feelings on to suffering children and animals. I think my daughter's illness coloured my life a lot; unfortunately, I had no other children and it's a big regret."

Wiltshire lives alone now with her "brown boy", her cat Mickey. "He's the love of my life now," she says. "I feel just as acutely for animals as for humans; I don't differentiate. I've just worked on a badger-baiting for the RSPCA, and that to me is as important as any other case."

If she had had more children it might have been more difficult to get to where she is now. It can be hard for women scientists to take career breaks to raise a family because of the constant pressure to publish research breakthroughs in order to be taken seriously in their field. And in Wiltshire's work at scenes of crime, it would have been almost impossible. "I have to think, breathe and eat what I do," she explains. "At a moment's notice I have to fly somewhere, and it's bad enough trying to find someone to look after my cat."

One scientist on The Body Farm jokily warns her not to die alone with her pet, relating the story of an old man who was eaten by his 12 cats, but Wiltshire is so close to nature and its realities that she doesn't bat an eyelid. "I'm sure he wouldn't have wanted them to starve," she chortles.

One thing that makes her furious is the fact that the vast majority of killers are men. "Sometimes I have to fight against feeling angry about that," she admits. "Although there are evil women in the world, there are more evil men. Is it their hormones, their physiology, their genetics or their lack of nurturing? I can't believe there are more abused male children than abused female children, therefore there must be some other factor that makes males the main perpetrators of crime. I think testosterone is the most dangerous molecule in the world, quite frankly, because it appears to be associated with aggression and all sorts of things that probably made men very good hunters and protectors in the past. But now they don't have to be hunters and protectors - so the testosterone is directed towards other things."

She identifies feminism as a kind of special pleading that she doesn't need. "I prefer integration, because I like to see women relating to men and to other women. I think it's pretty rotten if a woman doesn't get a job because she's a woman or gets paid less than a man in the same job, so I'm a feminist to that extent. But should women's rights be more than people's rights? Women have benefited from feminism, but, to be perfectly frank, I don't think about it because I'm treated equally." And not all the results produced by this pioneer are the kind that feminists would welcome: her environmental evidence in three rape cases showed that the women had given false stories. "Evidence," she says, "is genderless."

Perhaps her dogged individualism is down to her unconventional career path. After giving up her job as a medical laboratory technician repulsed by animal experimentation - "I couldn't take it; it finished me" - she finally made it to university at the late age of 28 to study botany and geology. Her education before that had not been conventional either. A double dose of whooping cough and measles when she was six had left her with a chronic weak chest that interrupted her schooling. So instead her parents bought her a set of encyclopaedias which she still loves to wade through - "I like facts" - and which encouraged the eclectic interests that make her such a tireless investigator.

"People are quite shocked when they realise I'm a little old biddy with quite a lot of ill health, because I don't come over like that. I can't stand namby-pamby wimps; it's my working-class background. And if I think I'm right about something, I'll always fight for it."


10th January 2005

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