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Saddleworth Moor, where the body was found on 12 December 2015. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Guardian

Saddleworth Moor, where the body was found on 12 December 2015. Photograph: Gary Calton

The Mystery Body Found on Saddleworth Moor

He mightn’t have known where he was going, but he was going on a journey, and he didn’t want anyone to find him

This is the tale of a man found dead in Saddleworth Moor, in Peak District National Park in Northern England, December, 2015. A cyclist found him in a peculiar position, in clothing inappropriate for a walk, and with no belongings or forms of identification.

Months later, after tracing his final route across England from London to Manchester with CCTV footage, and examining the few clues the man left behind — including a small container holding strychnine, a poison — detectives have been unable to identify him, or figure out why he traveled 200 miles to die on the moor.

Why did the man travel all the way to the moorland track where he was found? Why there? Why poison? Why strychnine?

Some count the area where the body was discovered as being part of Saddleworth Moor.

It is very popular, especially on a bright summer’s day. Not only walkers but cyclists and climbers come here, and sailors on Dovestone Reservoir.

But it is also a place associated with a number of deaths over the years.

It’s almost exactly 50 years since Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were sentenced, but the media still tend to mythologise the region– “the constant reference back to the Moors murders” – and the taint of their crimes persists. As for the man who came here last December, “It’s one of the most unfathomable stories, it really is. He mightn’t have known where he was going, but he was going on a journey, and he didn’t want anyone to find him.

A man walking through Manchester Piccadilly train station who later was found dead on moorland. Photo: Greater Manchester Police/PA

The man walking through Manchester Piccadilly train station who later was found dead on moorland. Photo: Greater Manchester Police/PA

Time / Date: 10:47 Saturday 12 December

Incident Log 936: Man found deceased, approximate age 65 to 75

Location: Beauty spot, Chew Track from Dovestone Reservoir

John Coleman, the Detective Sergeant leading the investigation, was on the scene within half an hour of the discovery. It was clear it was an unusual case. For a start, the man was carrying no ID. No wallet. No cards. No keys, phone, watch or driving licence. “Unless you’re out running, for somebody in the modern age to have no identification on them whatsoever is almost unheard of.”

It was the position of the body which somehow seemed strange. The cyclist who found the man thought he looked like he was having a rest, although it was bitterly cold and the rain was torrential. The Chew Track, which runs between two reservoirs, is steep. The dead man was positioned on his back perfectly in line with the slope.

Stuart Crowther saw the body while out on one of his regular bike rides.

His head was uphill and his legs were straight downhill – perfectly straight. His arms were across his chest.”

He was on a small patch of grass, beneath what is known as Rob’s Rocks. “It just seemed odd he was lying so parallel to the path,” Crowther says.

The area is by Saddleworth Moor, part of the Peak District National Park. Many walkers are attracted by the beautiful landscape, the views, the climbs and the colours.

But this man was not wearing anything approaching the right clothing for the walk or the weather – a jacket, shirt, sweater, corduroy trousers and slip-on shoes.

One of the Mountain Rescue volunteers wondered whether he had suffered a heart attack while coming back down the hill.

But when Detective Sergeant John Coleman saw the body, he immediately thought there was something more deliberate.

It appeared to me that the male had sat down and had taken the conscious decision to lie backwards.”

Coleman is from Greater Manchester Police and leading the investigation to find out who the man was.

More often than not, people are carrying something from which they can be identified – a mobile phone, credit cards, a travel card.

But this man had nothing. No wallet, no keys. No clue to who he was.

Coleman says it is not unheard of to find no forms of ID on a body. But on such occasions, the police usually find it is just a case of matching the body with someone who is reported missing. Not this time.

Eleven months have now passed since the man on the moor lay down by the path and died, and still no-one has even the vaguest notion of who he is.

There is only a description – height 6ft 1in, white, slim build, receding grey hair, blue eyes, large nose which might have been broken.

As each day passes, some might find it tempting to conclude that the man also made a deliberate decision that he did not want anyone to know his identity. The last person the man is known to have spoken to was the landlord of The Clarence pub in the village of Greenfield, where many walkers set off from. He walked in at about 14:00 on the day before his body was found. “He just asked for directions to the top of the mountain,” says Melvin Robinson. “Just the top of the mountain.” From the entrance to The Clarence, it is easy to point to the place where the walk to the Chew Track begins, just as Robinson did for the visitor on that Friday afternoon.

I told him there’s not enough daylight for him to get there and back today. He just thanked me and asked me again for the directions, which I repeated to him. And he just set off.”

The body was found about 21 hours later.

Illustration of a Strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica) (SPL)

Illustration of a Strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica) (SPL)

The cause of death was – for modern Britain – extremely unusual.

The man on the moor had died from strychnine poisoning.

One thing I don’t understand. The man died of strychnine poisoning. When his body was found he was laying peacefully with the arms neatly folded across his chest.

Yet strychnine poisoning causes convulsions prior to death.

If you have heard of strychnine, you may have come across it in an Agatha Christie novel. Or maybe you remember it from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Away from the world of fiction, it was the poison of choice of mole-catchers, until it was banned across the European Union in 2006.

Forensic toxicologist Dr Hilary Hamnett, from the University of Glasgow, says strychnine poisoning is “very unusual – I’ve never seen a case of it in my career”.

It is also what she describes as being “in the top ten of unpleasant poisons in terms of ways to die”, because of the convulsions it causes.

It comes from a family of plants known as Strychnos, which are found in Asia.

While it is no longer available to buy legally in the UK, there are certain countries where it is still in use as a poison for pests. Pakistan is one of them.

The medicine container the man had with him was made out of clear plastic, with a white lid and in a small blue cardboard box.

There was writing in both English and Urdu.

Before the strychnine, it had originally contained thyroxine sodium – a drug used by people with an underactive thyroid.

Since December, 2015, the body is lying on a slab in Royal Oldham Hospital morgue. It is that of a man close to 6ft, aged somewhere between 65 and 75, fair-skinned with blue eyes and receding grey hair.

The technicians have taken to calling him “Neil Dovestone” after the name of the reservoir on Saddleworth Moor near to where he was found. Even those used to bringing out the dead feel uneasy spending so long with an untitled corpse.

All this time on from his death, the man on the moor is still in the mortuary at the Royal Oldham Hospital, where he was taken on the day he was found.

Rebecca Hales and Julie Berry are pathology technicians there. It is very unusual for them to have a body without a name.

“It’s not nice to call somebody an unknown person”, Berry says.

“I think collectively as a department we decided that it would be nice to give him some kind of identity,” Hales recalls.

It was Berry who came up with the name.

“To me, he looked like a Neil. He just looked like a Neil. So I spoke to everyone else and they said ‘yeah, we’ll call him Neil’.” For a surname, they called him Dovestones, after the reservoir close to where he was found. That is how, for now at least, the man on the moor became Neil Dovestones.

Packaging found on the dead man's body. Police contacted the thyroxine manufacturers, GlaxoSmithKline. The batch had been manufactured and distributed in Pakistan.

Packaging found on the dead man’s body. Police contacted the thyroxine manufacturers, Glaxo Smith Kline. The batch had been manufactured and distributed in Pakistan.

Three post-mortems have now been carried out on the body.

The first established the cause of death. It also found he had no life-threatening illness.

The second post-mortem explored an injury on his left leg. A titanium plate was discovered attached to his left femur.

The third recovered the plate.

It is that plate and the injury to the leg that could prove to be the biggest clue to the identity of the man on the moor.

The injury was a serious one – caused by “quite a significant impact fall – either from a running or standing position or a collision with an obstacle”, says Coleman. It happened in or before 2013.

Some plates and implants used in surgery have batch numbers, making it easy for them to be traced. Others are stamped with the name of the manufacturer.

On this one, there was not a number but there was a name – Treu-Dynamic, a company based in Sialkot in Pakistan.

It is another and surely the most significant Pakistan connection.

These particular plates have been used by just 12 hospitals, all in Pakistan. Treu-Dynamic supplied about 500 of them each year.

This means the man’s operation must have taken place somewhere in Pakistan. “Is it because he was a national or a visitor to Pakistan at the time of the operation?” asks Coleman.

He says when he first saw him “the male looked white European, he had white skin. He didn’t have the appearance of a gentleman from the Indian subcontinent. However, the line of enquiries to date seem to direct me over into that region.”

Analysis of the injury shows that the fracture was at the top of the man’s leg and Coleman has now been told that the particular procedure and the way the plate was attached to the bone was “very unusual – outside of the norm”.

“We’ve been lucky enough to find a couple of fragments of sutures [or stitches] from the deep tissue of the left leg. We are hoping now to have those sutures categorised and classified, as to their structure material.”

According to Alister Hart, professor of orthopaedic surgery at University College London and the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, “different hospitals adopt different techniques, adopt different suture materials at different times.”

Coleman is now sending the X-rays of the leg to the 12 hospitals which have used this kind of plate and to the Pakistan Orthopaedic Association.

The hope is that the X-rays will be matched with a particular patient’s records.

What began, police presumed, with a simple missing person case on a foul Saturday morning three months ago has since turned into one of the great riddles this desolate landscape has ever witnessed. Detectives have trawled through historical records dating back to 1949 and made inquiries stretching as far as Pakistan, but still they are none the wiser as to who this mystery man was and why his life came to an end on the moors.

“It’s a big why, isn’t it?” Coleman says. “What led him to this? Why that day? Has there been a traumatic experience, or has it been a build up? Why travel in that way? Why Dovestone? Why climb up there, inappropriately dressed for the conditions? All these questions.” Among the first thing Coleman’s office did was cross-reference the man’s DNA against the national criminal intelligence and missing persons databases. Neither provided a match.

But there were clues from the man’s meagre possessions and from the autopsy.

  • Train tickets showed that he had arrived in the area on the day of his death from London – roughly 200 miles away
  • He had an empty container on him – that had contained strychnine. This poison is banned in Europe but available in Pakistan. The container’s label was written in English and Urdu
  • Investigation the London railways station, they found footage of the man on the closed circuit security TVs. He did not seem to be agitated in any way
  • The autopsy showed that he had a metal plate surgically implanted into his leg, presumably after an accident. Plates from this manufacturer are used only in Pakistan
  • The CCTV footage showed that the man did not appear to be Asian
  • He had asked directions at a local pub and spoke perfect English
  • There was no missing-persons report that could be connected with him

The train from London, the 10am service, would have got him to Manchester just after midday, about two hours before he went into the Clarence. How he travelled the 17km from Manchester to Greenfield is unclear.

Also in his coat pocket was a medicine box made of card. Inside was an empty container labelled thyroxine sodium, a drug produced by GlaxoSmithKline for the treatment of hypothyroidism. The label was printed in both English and Urdu.

Police investigated the area of London where the man had started his journey. They checked doctors, dentists, pubs, betting shops and – because the man was elderly – residential homes and hospitals. Not one clue emerged.

A forensic artist’s impression of ‘Neil Dovestone’. Photograph: Greater Manchester Police

A forensic artist’s impression of ‘Neil Dovestone’. Photograph: Greater Manchester Police

His nose, Detective Sergeant Coleman says, looks like it might once have been broken. As is normal, the image has been rendered without colour, meaning that the nuances of skintone are lost

A dental examination showed his teeth to be in poor condition, but the forensic odontologist’s view is that the work that had been carried out is likely to have been done in the UK. At Manchester Royal Infirmary, meanwhile, Prof David Mangham, an orthopaedic pathologist, is working to categorise Neil Dovestone’s femur injury more precisely, age the scar and establish whether any suture material has been preserved that might narrow down the period or place of the operation. “If we’ve got a specific type of fracture, along with a usable image, the surgeon may well be able to recognise their work,” says Coleman. “The scenarios are, a) that he’s a Pakistani national, b) that he’s dual nationality, c) that he’s gone out there and had an accident at work or in the army or whatever, or d) that he was a health tourist.”

By the time the surgical plate was analysed, the story of Neil Dovestone had shifted to a new, more discordant key. On 22 February, a routine toxicology report revealed an unusual alkaloid in his system: strychnine. Strychnine has been banned in the UK since 2006, when its only remaining legal use, in the killing of moles, was deemed unduly cruel. “There are very, very few deaths by strychnine poisoning,” Coleman says. “It’s a terrible death.” As a pesticide, it remains available in other countries, including Pakistan, where it is commonly used to cull feral dogs. When the empty thyroxine sodium bottle was analysed, it bore traces of the poison.

By interfering with neurotransmitters that moderate nerve function, strychnine causes muscles to contract uncontrollably. It is partly the violence of its effects that accounts for the poison’s regular appearance in Agatha Christie’s novels. The ultimate cause of death, which does not come quickly, is asphyxiation.

We can’t say for sure that Neil Dovestone knew what the thyroxine sodium bottle contained, or even that he was alone when he died (although alternative scenarios seem farfetched), but it’s fair to say that strychnine would not be the choice of someone who wished to go gently.

Indian’s Head, Chew valley, the site of a plane crash in 1949. Was ‘Neil Dovestone’ among the survivors? Photograph: Gary Calton for the Guardian.

Indian’s Head, Chew valley, the site of a plane crash in 1949. Was ‘Neil Dovestone’ among the survivors? Photograph: Gary Calton 

The Theories

The police are hoping that finding out the “who” might lead to the answers of some of the “whys”.

Why did the man travel all the way to the moorland track where he was found? Why there? Why poison? Why strychnine?

Some count the area where the body was discovered as being part of Saddleworth Moor.

It is very popular, especially on a bright summer’s day. Not only walkers but cyclists and climbers come here, and sailors on Dovestone Reservoir.

But it is also a place associated with a number of deaths over the years.

Peak District National Park Ranger Andy Valentine was brought up close by and now often takes his 4×4 past the spot where the man walked on that day back in December.

Driving along the bumpy track, he notes that the area is very close to where Ian Brady and Myra Hindley buried their child victims in the mid-1960s.

“If those trees weren’t there, you would be able to see the hillside where the first of the bodies were found.”

Further up, the car passes some ragged rocks jutting skyward. It is known as Indian’s Head.

“There are four aircraft wrecks within less than a mile of this spot,” Valentine continues.

He points out where a British European Airways DC-3 came down in 1949.

One theory, still not completely ruled out, is that the man’s death was somehow connected with that.

Twenty-four people died. Eight survived. For a while, there was speculation that the man could have been one of them, coming back to the area where the crash happened. But the one remaining survivor is alive and well.

Valentine looks out towards a place called Wilderness Gully.

“Just across the valley, probably 200 yards away, is the site of an avalanche, in 1963, which claimed the lives of two of England’s best mountaineers at the time.”

Going back a lot further, to the 1800s, “a landlord and his son were murdered by unknown assailants” and, a few years later, there was the accidental shooting of an MP.

“This area is no stranger to tragedy,” observes Valentine.

For whatever reason, the man travelled nearly 200 miles across England to be there. To go to that place to die.

“Why has he undertaken that journey?” Coleman asks. “Why did he travel on that day? What’s the connection to the area?”

The mother of 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey watches police search Saddleworth Moor for her daughter's body, 1965 (Getty Images)

The mother of 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey watches police search Saddleworth Moor for her daughter’s body, 1965
(Getty Images)

Coleman has been a police officer for about 20 years.

Thinking back to December, he says, even when he realised there were not any possessions which showed who the man was, he still had a “realistic expectation that we would identify the male within certainly a matter of days”.

Months on, he says, in his experience, the case “is unique – I’ve never come across a similar set of circumstances”.

What started as a body on a hillside in the Peak District has become a multi-national investigation.

Coleman says he is now “dependent on the recollections of consultants and hospital staff and on record-keeping in Pakistan”.

He is trying to find out the length of time that records are kept in the 12 hospitals which have used the type of titanium plate found in the man on the moor’s left leg.

If X-rays of serious leg injuries over a number of years can be examined, he believes he will finally be able to give the man his proper name.

Coleman says, no matter what happens, the effort has been worth it.

“We’ve got the family members out there who may not even know that the gentleman has died. I think we have a duty to the family to let them know what has happened.”

Body on the Moor – The Afterword

Who Is the Man on the Moor? : Longreads

Face of mystery man found dead on Saddleworth Moor after travelling …

Image of Saddleworth Moor mystery man ‘Neil Dovestone’ released …

The mystery corpse of Saddleworth Moor – The Telegraph

BBC News – Body on the Moor

The mystery of Saddleworth Moor: who was ‘Neil Dovestone’? | UK …

Police puzzle as mystery man found dead on the moors just hours …

Mystery case of ‘man on the moors’ continues | Saddleworth …

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