Who killed Charlotte Pinkney?

The disappearance of a teenager in a small Devonian town still raises questions nearly a decade later, writes Alan White.

The town of Ilfracombe. Photograph: visitilfracombe.co.uk

 

Ilfracombe, on the north coast of Devon, is one of those towns that isn’t particularly beloved by the rest of the county. Like Torquay, on the opposite coast, it’s a less-than beautiful little place, buried among the cliffs of the county’s coastline. Like Torquay, it has something of an edge. In the winter nights, an icy westerly breeze, funnelled by the Bristol Channel, stalks past the white-washed Victorian terraces around the harbour.

It was once a popular destination for tourists or – as the locals call them – “grockles”. Many of them came for the combination of summer surfing at the golden beaches to the west, or for Exmoor to the east, staying in the town’s cheap caravan parks and bed and breakfasts. With the growth of cheap package holidays, this industry faltered.

Unemployment rose, as did tension between the locals and those who’d moved there over the years. In 2001, Ilfracombe Central Ward was designated the most deprived super output area in Devon. And as in Torquay, one of the things left behind by the tourism boom years was drugs. Weed, ecstasy, coke – there’s a nice little market for the dealers to this day, selling to the local youths and the remaining summer visitors.

No, Ilfracombe’s not the most perfect place in the world. But nothing really bad ever happens there. Except, one night, it may well have done. We don’t know exactly what happened. All we have are facts, and gaps between the facts.

*

In the early hours of the morning of Saturday 28th February 2004, a group of young people were at a house party in the Burnside area of town. Among those present was a stocky 22-year-old scaffolder, called Nick Rose. He played in goal for the local football team, and had a five-year-old son. There was a 16-year-old teenager with brown eyes and long, waist-length, dark brown hair, called Charlotte Pinkney. She was wearing a cream coat, black t-shirt, chequered beige trousers, and was apparently carrying a Lonsdale handbag. And there was a local fisherman, called Dean Copp.

The party was raucous. In 2009 the Guardian reported that Charlotte had got into a physical altercation with another girl. The group of young people there often drank and took drugs; Rose and Copp took both that night, while one partygoer later spoken to by police appears to have been on a cocktail of weed, coke, amyl nitrate, and ecstasy.

Charlotte, for her part, was known to have taken ecstasy, cannabis and cocaine in the past. Later, in court, she was described as an “enthusiastic socialiser.” A picture emerged of a Friday night and Saturday morning much like the one before, and many more before that - a number of pubs, nightclubs, and back to someone’s house. As one witness later told the court: “Everyone knows everyone in Ilfracombe.”

Charlotte loved the place. She once turned down an offer to visit Essex, because she knew she’d get homesick. In her diary, she once wrote: “If I ran away, I would go to Combe Martin [a couple of miles away].” She was excited about the future - she had plans to go an Aunt’s wedding in Kent, to visit Portugal for the European Cup, and especially about her upcoming 17th birthday. There was a family gathering organised at her mother’s house, and plans to go out in the evening. A family member would later describe her as “a beautiful girl when she dressed up to go out: vulnerable and intensely private.”

At 4.30am on the Saturday morning, Rose said he was leaving the party, in a red Vauxhall Cavalier he had borrowed from a friend, Helena McKenzie. McKenzie had bought the car for £100 in 2004, and Rose regularly used it, in return for running errands for her. Of course, he wasn’t insured on it – but in rural areas with just a few bobbies to avoid, such arrangements aren’t uncommon. According to Rose, he was planning to leave on his own, and have a spliff back at a friend’s house – Dean Copp asked to come, and he then invited Charlotte. They drove to Helena McKenzie’s house, but there was no answer, so the three went to another girl’s house – Alexa Williams’ – where Charlotte was staying.

She had moved in after falling out with her 41-year-old boyfriend, a man named Gus O’Brien. He was known to the police and had previous convictions, for driving a car connected with a robbery, for battery, and threatening behaviour. Copp and Rose also had more minor previous convictions, but a court would not deem them relevant to what happened next.

Charlotte was a headstrong girl, and she and O’Brien had a rocky relationship. She had a number of one-night stands and a furious argument had erupted between the pair (a few days later he walked into a pub and ranted about it, revealing the embarrassing background to his friends, something he said was one of the worst things he’d ever done). The couple were seen coming to blows on the Friday night: Charlotte slapped him, and they had to be separated.

Normally, she divided her time between O’Brien’s house and those of her parents, who were divorced. But there were a number of occasions when she would stay at Williams’ house after a row. Her family knew O’Brien took and dealt drugs, and did not approve of the relationship. They’d seen a change in her and were concerned, but still looked on her as an intelligent and loving girl. O’Brien had been at the house party, but had told Charlotte he didn’t want to speak to her, and would see her the next day.

Dean got out of the car and called at Williams’ house. He later told police he turned to see Charlotte kissing Rose in the car, though admits he was high and drunk at the time. Rose denies this. He says Charlotte asked for a driving lesson, and moved her leg across the gearstick. He told her she couldn’t have one.

It’s at this point that Rose says he saw a pair of headlights on a road running parallel to the one they were in. He says he assumed at that time in the morning it could only be the police. Two policemen would later give evidence that they were in the general vicinity around that time, having attended to a robbery case elsewhere.

Rose was disqualified from driving and known to them, so says he thought it best to drive the long way home. He did a u-turn and drove off, leaving a bemused Dean Copp on the road. Copp went back to the party. He stayed there until 6.30am, whereupon he, Gus O’Brien and some others went to Alexa Williams’ house. They put a ladder against the window, before her babysitter let them in. They then went on to another mutual friend’s house.

In the mean time, Rose says he dropped Charlotte off at a community centre at the top of the road. The car began to make a juddering sound as if running out of petrol. It had no tax or MOT, so he drove it off the main road and headed towards a reservoir, hiding it in a tunnel so that if the police drove into the car park they wouldn’t see him.

He says he climbed up an overgrown embankment to a hut and then got on the roof for a view of the main road, and fell asleep up there for a while. A cigarette lighter would later be found on the roof of this hut, which had a weak DNA link to him. Satisfied the police had gone, he returned to the car, but found it was stuck in mud under a disused railway tunnel.

What we now know depends on eyewitness testimony. Anthony Woodward, a retired man from Higher Slade, would later say he saw Rose trying to move the car from the tunnel at about 9.20am when walking his dog. Rose asked him if he had a rope. Woodward suggested a man who was building steps further down the path might come, with a tractor, and Rose told him he already had someone coming (Rose denies saying this).

A labourer named Mark Atkinson, who was working at Rose’s house, said he saw Rose return home at about 11am, looking “rough”. He says Rose told him he had been in a police chase and hidden near the Slade reservoir; because the police had lights and dogs (Rose would later claim he said he thought they had dogs).

Back at the car, three women out horse riding would say they saw Charlotte Pinkney’s handbag on the verge of the track leading to the tunnel at around midday. The bag would later be found by a woman who, unsure what to do with it, hung it on a signpost, and it would then be thrown into a bush by three boys who were playing in the area.

At about mid-day, Rose went to Helena McKenzie’s house, where he explained to Copp that he’d left him because he wanted to get away from the police. He was now wearing shorts and a T-shirt. A friend of McKenzie’s said she saw fine scratches on him, and three deeper scratches on his neck. He said he had hidden from the police in the Slade Reservoir, and that the car had got stuck in mud. Copp called him a liar, and said he’d got off with Charlotte. Rose denied this, and said he needed Copp’s help to retrieve the car. Copp told him to fuck off.

Rose went back home. He grabbed a shovel, wrapped in a carrier bag. Back at the car, Darrell Cleary, a young man who was out walking with his girlfriend, was approached by Rose, who asked for help moving the car. It wouldn’t budge, and Rose told him not to worry about it; Cleary and his girlfriend went on their way. He said he saw him holding some sort of rolled up material which he threw in the boot of the car. Rose says this must have been the shovel in a bag. Michael Huntley was out walking with his four-year-old son near the reservoirs at about 12.30pm when he saw the red car from a cycle track above the tunnel. He saw a man on the back seat, kneeling towards the boot, apparently brushing it.

Rose eventually freed the car. McKenzie was at an all-night party on the Saturday. When she got back her car was waiting for her, and a note from Rose had been slipped through her letterbox, apologising for the mess and promising he’d clean it and jet-wash it.

On the Sunday afternoon he phoned the company director of West Country Scaffolding, asking where his tools were. The man told him they were at the yard, and he later received a call from Rose saying he couldn’t find them. From the area Rose was describing, he was clearly at the yard. According to Rose’s casual girlfriend, Rose then took the car to a car wash, and went out with her to Lee Bay, a few miles from Ilfracombe. He says that the reason they went there was because she wanted to tell him she was pregnant. He also looked for a stash of drugs he’d heard was hidden there. She says she spent the night and much of the following week with him, and that his behaviour was normal. That day, a woman named Geraldine Woodward thought she saw Rose in the afternoon, near the disused railway line, carrying a heavy bag.

On the Monday, Helena McKenzie said Rose borrowed the car four times – to take her children to school for her, to collect his Giro, to return a friend to Barnstable, and collect some tools. McKenzie said he returned at 10.30pm, apparently smelling of aftershave, and looking stressed. He’d lost his phone and was panicking about it. The next day, Rose hoovered out the car. He would borrow it again on Wednesday 3rd March – the director of West Country Scaffolding would see him in it, and would help him locate his missing tools.

On 4th March Charlotte’s father reported her missing to the police. On 6th March, Rose was spoken to by police. He told them that he had left Charlotte outside the community centre. He did not give the impression he was driving at the time, but on being assured that the police were not interested in driving offences, he admitted that he had. The policeman who interviewed him said he looked pale, and at one point it looked like his eyes welled up.

On 7th March, in the morning, the police collected the car from another friend of McKenzie’s. It had been used by a local group for a trip to Newquay. Then the police went to Rose’s house. He was arrested, questioned and released. At the time he said “murder?” and “I haven’t done anything”, and his eyes again welled up. He was then rearrested on 31st March, at 7.30am. He said: “It’s ridiculous. Why am I the only one being arrested for this?” and “I take it the boyfriend hasn’t told you about the gyppos after him.”

Police divers had searched the two large reservoirs near Slade where Rose’s car was seen, and officers had searched the undergrowth – but Charlotte was never seen again, despite more than 50 police searches. Rose was charged with her murder.

*

Despite the small window of time within which Rose could have killed Charlotte and hidden the body, the evidence against him was compelling, but entirely circumstantial.

He was examined by a doctor. Bruises on Rose’s upper arm were consistent with grip marks, but it was impossible to date the bruises. Two further injuries might have been caused by fingernail scratches. All other injuries were consistent with moving through bushes or playing football.

A large amount of clothing was removed from Rose’s house. No blood matching Charlotte’s was found. However, some small bloodstains were found in the car - on the roof lining and in the boot, on some jump leads in the car, and on Rose’s trainer. DNA tests showed a match to Charlotte’s profile, and her DNA was also found on a red hooded top in the car. Rose’s family say that the prosecution exaggerated the amount – that there were only tiny specks, which, as a user of cocaine, could have been produced had she sneezed – and stressed that she’d ridden in the car many times before.

A small piece of elastic was found in the car. The prosecution claimed it came from Charlotte’s knickers, but it had none of her DNA on it and it was shown in court that it would have been impossible to break off in such a way during a tussle. On the Tuesday, Rose cleaned the car with McKenzie’s vacuum cleaner, but he apparently left the boot untouched, which is where the prosecution claim he stashed the body. A button found in the vacuum cleaner was also produced in court – it was similar to a button on Charlotte’s trousers, but it had none of the victim’s DNA on it. While Rose was on remand, a brown boot was found near Rose’s house (in an area that had already been searched) - tests revealed moderate support for the conclusion that it was Charlotte’s.

Central to the case was the Lonsdale Handbag. Two witnesses had said Charlotte was carrying it, another had said she wasn’t. It proved, the prosecution said, that Charlotte was in the car with Rose at the time it got stuck in the tunnel. The three girls who were horse riding had seen it, but Anthony Woodward, earlier, did not. The bag was later found, empty. Rose contended it was found in an area that would only be accessible once he drove out of the tunnel – it wasn’t on the route back to his house. Could someone have simply lifted it from the car when it was left unattended?

The scratches on Rose’s neck had apparently been seen by Dean Copp, Helena McKenzie, their friend Cheryl Alderton and (on the Sunday) Helena’s sister. He said the only scratches he had were on his arms and legs, a result of clambering through brambles to get to the hut. In a later appeal to the Criminal Cases Review Commission he would submit that evidence should have been taken from his football team, for whom he played on the Sunday.

A police surgeon who gave evidence did not refer to deep scratches, nor were they shown on photos. Rose would later point out that Copp and McKenzie only mentioned the scratches once the trial began. The Guardian would later claim a police doctor found no evidence of scratches on his neck, but the evidence wasn’t admitted in court. His injuries, the defence said, were consistent with those sustained playing in goal the following Sunday.

The defence also said the sightings of Rose at the reservoir were consistent with his story: it wasn’t rolled up material but the shovel he was seen putting in the boot of the car, while Geraldine Woodward’s sighting of him couldn’t be correct, since she said he was wearing a cream baseball cap, which he didn’t own, Woodward hadn’t seen him in years (she spotted him from an ID parade), and he was clearly with his girlfriend at that time.

The defence raised two intriguing explanations for Charlotte’s disappearance that didn’t involve Rose. They said that Charlotte either died of a drugs overdose at Gus O’Brien’s flat and that he disposed of the body at sea, or that her death was in some way connected to his involvement in the drugs scene. They also said that O’Brien had scattered incriminating exhibits near Rose’s house to throw the police off the scent.

On 17th February 2005, Rose was found guilty of murder.  The jury found Rose guilty by eleven to one, after twenty five hours of deliberations.

Shortly after that O’Brien – who was called as a prosecution witness - was up before Exeter Crown Court on charges of drug dealing. A set of scales with cocaine on and £3,925 in cash had been found at his flat a short time before Charlotte’s disappearance.

The charges were dropped after witnesses ended their cooperation and a bookmaker told the police he could have won the money gambling. O’Brien’s flat had been searched following Charlotte’s disappearance. Police found a book in his possession, entitled Changes after Death. A bookmark was in a chapter relating to death from an overdose, which O’Brien apparently said belonged to his flatmate.

Five years later, the Criminal Cases Review Commission would state that the fact O’Brien was on bail for drugs offences at the time he gave evidence against Rose did not cast his evidence into doubt, because other witnesses had mentioned his drug dealing. But had the trial gone ahead, one wonders what other information might have come out.

There’s a reason this matters. It’s because there’s another dimension to this case, one which is rather hard to ignore. In the week following the alleged murder, Charlotte Pinkney was repeatedly seen around Ilfracombe.

*

In 2009 the Guardian alleged that people interviewed by police at the time of the search said that Pinkney later turned up to another party; their statements weren’t put to the jury. But before then, during the trial, five witnesses said they saw Charlotte after the alleged murder.

The first was a 13-year-old boy, who said he either saw her on either Saturday 21st or Saturday 28th February. He thought it was the latter, because it was a Saturday two days after his birthday, and he was wearing his new tracksuit which had been given to him as a present.

Brett Holford, the landlord of a pub on the high street called The Victoria Inn, said he saw Charlotte enter the bar between 12.30pm and 1pm on 28 February. He says he saw her sitting on Gus O’Brien’s knee and looking upset about something. The date, but not the time, was corroborated by a man called Ronald Townsend, who says he saw her in there at 3pm.

The prosecution said Holford was confused over the date, but Holford was sure it was the 28th, because Townsend, normally an enthusiastic drinker, was drinking orange juice as he had to ferry his daughter and her friends from her birthday party that day at a restaurant. In a subsequent Criminal Cases Review Commission appeal, Rose’s team would produce restaurant records confirming the birthday party to which Ronald Townsend referred.

Martin Watts was driving towards the centre of town when he said he saw Gus O’Brien and a girl whom he was “99% sure” was Charlotte. He was sure of the date because he was travelling to finish work on a stable he was building in Higher Slade.

Charlotte Bettis, who knew Charlotte from school, said she saw her sitting in the passenger seat of a car opposite the cafe where she worked, with a local, Dean Phillips, in the driver’s seat, on March 2nd. She said she had a clear view of the car, four to four-and-a-half metres away. Phillips maintained he had not seen her since the party.

The prosecution insisted all these witnesses were mistaken: they said that the Victoria pub witnesses were confusing Saturday 28 February with Saturday 21 February. On 21 February, Charlotte spent the day in a pub on the other side of town, in the company of Gus O’Brien and a number of others. They were watching Arsenal play Chelsea. Charlotte got locked in the toilet, and the lock had to be removed. All of this was confirmed by the landlord. They then moved on to the Victoria Inn.  

In 2006, the case went to the Court of Appeal. Postman Nick Perrin and 18-year-old Poppy Humphries both said they too saw Charlotte in the Victoria on that day. Perrin told the court that he saw Charlotte in the pub at about 2.20pm. He said she was sitting on the knee of Gus O'Brien and "crying a lot". It was later revealed that Perrin had spoken with Rose’s grandmother (though the judge believed him an honest witness). The court deemed Humphries an unreliable witness, saying her evidence was ‘self-evidently untrue’.

Perrin, however, said he was certain of the date, because he had worked overtime. It was shown that Perrin had indeed worked an early shift on the 28 February (beginning at 3.45am), but that he had worked an early shift on the 21 February too (beginning at 4.45 am). He also maintained he had made a mistake in his original statement by saying he arrived at the pub at 2pm on the 28th - he had actually arrived in the pub at 1.17pm on 21 February and 2.20pm on the 28th February.

Despite the fact the court felt the shift pattern he described was more consistent with 21st February, Perrin stood by his claim that it was the 28th February he saw Charlotte - because he remembered Townsend was drinking orange juice. However, the jury in the original trial had already concluded Townsend was wrong about the date, so his evidence was dismissed.

The defence argued Charlotte and her friends were already in the pub when Perrin arrived, which could not have been the case on 21 February, because he arrived earlier. However, the court of appeal observed a discrepancy between Townsend’s claim they arrived at 3pm on 28th, and Houlford’s claim they arrived at 12.30.

In all there were seven different witness statements taken into account by the appeal court judges. According to the Guardian, one of the sightings should have been picked up on CCTV, but police said the footage had been erased. One of the witnesses claims he had difficulty in persuading the police to take his statement. An officer allegedly said to him: ‘You’ve thrown a right spanner in the works.’

There were a number of other submissions: among them, Rose’s team argued that the judge at the original trial shouldn’t have told the court that “countless other people” would have seen Charlotte if she’d been alive at the time the defence claimed. None of it helped – the case was dismissed.

*

On 20 March 2008, an appeal was made to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). It included these submissions: fresh evidence that she was seen on 28 February; evidence that Charlotte had cut her foot at the party; that there were newspapers in the boot of the car which pre-dated her disappearance (so if the body was put in the boot, there would have been more DNA); and a number of other claims.

The CCRC looked again at the 28 February sightings. That Charlotte was watching football at the Prince of Wales on 21 February was confirmed by the landlord and the televised football match. It meant the 13-year-old boy couldn’t have seen her on the 21st - it must have been the 28th. But then the boy’s evidence didn’t quite square with the Victoria landlord’s, who said he’d seen her in his bar at 12.30pm. The CCRC concluded: “The matter was one for the jury and in the absence of new evidence there is no real possibility that the Court of Appeal might be prepared to entertain alternative hypotheses.”

The CCRC looked at Nicholas Perrin’s evidence. The Court of Appeal had disregarded it because the only thing that made him certain about the date was the fact Ron Townsend was drinking orange juice in the bar. It concluded “evidence that Mr Townsend was drinking orange juice is not the same as evidence that Charlotte was in the Victoria”. It felt the claim originated from a discussion between Townsend and Houlford, and that if they made a mistake, it could have been perpetrated by other witnesses.

Two new witnesses, Alan Jackson and John Comley, both now claimed to have seen Charlotte in the pub. The CCRC decided there was no possibility the Court of Appeal would find it necessary to receive their evidence, on the grounds Jackson didn’t contact the police at the time, and Comley’s original statement indicated he was drinking on 27 February, not 28th. Rose’s team responded by saying that Jackson went on television immediately after the trial to say he had seen Charlotte, and that his wife could back him up.

The CCRC next considered the blood in the car. A bloodstained sock was found at Gus O’Brien’s flat - he claimed she’d cut her foot on some glass. The CCRC felt it couldn’t explain why her blood was found in several places about the car. Rose’s team said that four people had used the car for a trip to Newquay after her disappearance, and none of them had noticed any blood stains, while newspapers in the boot pre-dated her disappearance, and didn’t have any DNA on. The CCRC concluded “there may be many reasons why there was only a small amount of blood in the boot of the car...the fact remained that blood matching Charlotte’s DNA profile was found in the car and Mr Rose could offer no explanation for it.”

According to another section of Rose’s appeal to the CCRC, an investigative journalist had been digging around the case. One girl at the original party, Samantha (name changed), told him she had been offered money by Gus O’Brien to give a statement to police saying that she had refused to have sex with Rose, and if she’d said no, he’d have got violent towards her. The mother of O’Brien’s son admitted to her own mother that O’Brien had offered her money to make a false statement. Another woman told the journalist that Rose would have been too scared of O’Brien to have done anything with Charlotte, but that Copp was ‘all over’ her at the party. She believed Charlotte had a key to Williams’ house, and had stayed the night there.

It turned out that all three of these people made statements at the time of the original investigation - again, they were ruled out as unlikely to provide a fresh perspective. But an entry on HOLMES, the police database, shows that Samantha did indeed give a statement that she had “rough” sex with Rose, that he “didn’t like being knocked back or turned down sexually,”, and that the police who interviewed her believed she’d “been put up to it”. The prosecution didn’t use it. Any possible admission on her part, the CCRC decided, would be undermined by the fact she’d given a false statement at the time. It also wouldn’t show that O’Brien was necessarily implicated in Pinkney’s death - nor would any evidence that he’d offered money to the mother of his son.

Rose’s team also said that O’Brien acted strangely after the disappearance - asking to bathe at Robinson’s home and disposing of his bathroom carpet. Dean Copp, meanwhile, would find himself in prison in 2008 for crimes of violence against women. The CCRC responded that the volatile relationship between Charlotte and O’Brien was revealed at trial, as was Copp’s background.

There were a great many more submissions by Rose’s team – he asked for a review of mobile phone data relating to Gus O’Brien and others, asked the CCRC to look into possible evidence that Charlotte was buried in a field in Stoneybridge, to review the forensic evidence relating to the bloodstains and scratches on him – but all were declined.

*

I’ve simply tried to present the facts of this case as objectively as I can, because I’d rather report than speculate. Those who find it hard to believe that a handful of individuals could collectively confuse themselves over what happened on a given date – which for one was the birthday of a relative - must contend with the fact this aberration contradicts a wealth of circumstantial evidence. Some is extremely strong, some far less so. Those who would point the finger at O’Brien should remember that he has a clear alibi for the time of the alleged murder, and that any evidence implicating him is even more circumstantial than that which convicted Rose, and far weaker.

We don’t know the truth. But we do know there is no body; only circumstantial evidence, and a series of speculative avenues which could be investigated, but are not, because they’re not based on fresh evidence.

The scenes of jubilation outside the Appeal Court this year after Sam Hallam's conviction for murder was overturned remind us of the price paid by those who fall foul of errors in the criminal justice system. In the last 30 years, our prison population has exploded. It’s more than doubled – up to 87,123 last week. In this context, it’s cheering that cases such as Sam Hallam’s garner huge publicity precisely because they are exceptional.

Shortly after the case, the point was recently put to Dr Michael Naughton of Bristol University’s law school. His response should concern even the most hard-line supporters of punitive policies: “That’s what people tell themselves to feel better.” He claims that while there aren’t thousands of similar cases, there are hundreds. And Dr Naughton’s organisation, Innocence Network UK, has recently published a dossier of 45 cases of possible wrongful conviction. Nick Rose’s is just one of them.