DNA ‘cold case’ review catches Nottingham rapist 30 years after attack

Benjamin Whitehead was finally caught 30 years after the rape he committed, aged just 16, in 1988.

A Nottingham man who raped a woman at knife-point 30 years ago has finally been brought to justice after cold case detectives and scientists went to extraordinary lengths with DNA samples from the crime scene – even reconstructing lab conditions from the 1980s to prove they had finally found the perpetrator.

Years of work involving adapting new and old discoveries and techniques left Benjamin Whitehead, 46, of Ashwell Gardens, Radford, with no choice but to admit the offence he committed when he was just 16.

Whitehead threatened to cut the throat of the young woman during the ordeal in her home on Belton Street, Hyson Green, on Friday, September 23, 1988. After carrying out the attack he burgled the property, taking her handbag and jewellery box.

Detectives managed to get a DNA profile of the attacker, even as the science was in its relative infancy, but the profile did not match any of the suspects at the time there was no national database to cross-check against.

In 2013 Nottinghamshire Police carried out a “cold case” review and recovered the archived DNA, which was re-examined using modern DNA profiling techniques and then again in 2014 when the science progressed even further.

Then in 2016 detectives conducted further detailed enquiries and made checks on the UK National DNA database, which by then contained around six million DNA profiles. It led to a major breakthrough – Whitehead was identified as the suspect for the first time.

When police investigated him they discovered he was a Nottingham man – who in 1988 lived in Scotholme Avenue, just two streets from where the attack happened, and matched the physical description of the attacker. Further enquiries revealed Whitehead had been convicted of burglaries in the late 1980s, including houses in Hyson Green.

In 2017 officers re-contacted the victim, who by now was living in Florida, USA, and flew over to see her to update her on the case, take a new statement and take new blood and DNA samples.

Whitehead was then arrested on June 16 2017 and consented to blood and DNA samples being taken, but denied the offence.

The new samples were compared with the DNA profiles using modern techniques which showed they were a match – with only a one in a million chance that the matches had occurred by chance.

But to complete the scientific testing process, officers also returned to the work that had been done on the DNA profile in 1988.

The University of Leicester, where DNA profiling had been discovered and pioneered in the 1980s, was asked to help and scientists were provided with the original barcode-style x-ray image of the rapist’s DNA profile.

They then recreated a 1980s laboratory to test the new samples to see if they came up with the same result. On comparison with the 1988 profile it was found to match. Even by the less sophisticated scientific standards of 1988, the likelihood of such a match having occurred at random was one in 10,000.

Whitehead was re-arrested on February 27 this year and despite being presented with the DNA results he continued to deny rape.

He was later charged and was due to face trail at Nottingham Crown Court – but finally admitted the charges of rape and aggravated burglary on the first day of the trial yesterday (November 26), before today being sentenced to nine years and ten months in prison for the rape and eight years, to run concurrently, for the aggravated burglary.

Speaking at the conclusion of the case, the victim said: “This has been a long time coming and demonstrates that you will be caught. I’d like to encourage any victim of crime to come forward and report it to the police. In my case officers from Nottinghamshire Police have supported me throughout and never gave up.”

Detective Inspector Justine Wilson, who oversaw the investigation, said: “This was an extremely complex DNA investigation which involved re-creating a laboratory as used in the 1980s – which the University of Leicester commissioned – the same laboratory that DNA was discovered under Sir Alec Jeffreys.

“The investigation team flew to the USA to see the victim and ultimately break the news that some 30 years later we had a DNA profile of the suspect. This involved working alongside the US law enforcement police in Florida, the National Crime Agency – seeking approval from US attorney general and homeland security.

“Detective Constable Ellie Langthorne and Detective Constable Karl Aram deserve recognition for their meticulous file submission which left no road for the defendant other than to plead guilty – and for their care and professionalism with the victim and witnesses in this case.

“I would also like to recognise the good work by Victim Support who kept close contact with victim and witnesses and the co-ordination and management which facilitated in the victim flying back to the UK to give evidence at the trial.

“We have worked closely with the Crown Prosecution Service and the forensic science service Eurofins, and it was through good working relations that this case was successful.

“Although the defendant pleaded guilty at the eleventh hour he has spent the last 30 years knowing that he committed this horrendous crime.”

The University of Leicester’s Dr Celia May, who worked with Sir Alec Jeffreys for 18 years before his retirement, explained the university’s involvement in the investigation.

She said: “We had to track down relevant equipment and materials, and then using fresh blood samples taken from the people originally fingerprinted alongside the crime-scene sample back in 1988, went about re-establishing the lab tests.

“It took several months to get to a point where we could replicate as closely as possible the patterns of the victim and others on the original fingerprints, and only then did we test the new suspect for the first time. As soon as we developed the result it was immediately clear that we had a match.”

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