The Disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh

A woman vanishes from a busy London street. Has someone just got away with murder? “This is a young lady who disappears from a London street in the middle of a sunny July day and is never seen again, there is no trace of her anywhere and that is quite extraordinary.” Stewart Tendler, Crime Reporter

Suzy Lamplugh is born to parents Diana and Paul on 3 May 1961. She’s their second child of four and her thirst for life is an inspiration to her mother. She’s part of the trendy ‘Putney set’ and enjoys a very busy social life. Her friends describe her as a happy, outgoing and conscientious young woman. A successful career has seen her working as a beautician on the famous ocean liner, the QE2.

It’s Monday 28th July, 1986 and London is bathed in sunshine. Twenty-five year old Suzy leaves the two-bedroom flat she owns in Putney to start work at Sturgis Estate Agency on Fulham Road. She’s been working as an estate agent for just over a year. Today she’s wearing low stiletto heels, a grey skirt and dark jacket. It’s been a fairly unremarkable morning. But this afternoon will soon enter the annals of crime history.

At around 12.30pm Suzy gets ready to leave the office and takes the barest essentials; her house and car keys and a purse containing £15 with some credit cards. She has an appointment booked for 12.45pm to meet a potential buyer, Mr Kipper, at 37 Shorrolds Road. The property has only been on the market for one week, but is conveniently close to the office. Approximately ten-minutes later she’s seen waiting alone.

This is the last time she’s seen. She disappears without a trace. “Just as though she has been erased by a rubber." Diana Lamplugh, Suzy’s mother

Investigation

First to raise the alarm is her manager. He contacts her mother, Diana, and alerts her to her daughter’s disappearance. That evening at 6.45pm he contacts the police. Initially Suzy’s disappearance is logged as a missing person’s enquiry. But as the facts start to emerge, the police begin to fear she’s been abducted.

“Within the Sturgis Estate agency nobody really knew who (Mr Kipper) was. He wasn’t a regular customer. That night we stepped up what would have been a normal missing person to a very high risk missing person inquiry.” Mick Jones, Retired Detective Constable.

One of the first places the police visit is Suzy’s flat. Having to break into the apartment they discover nothing of any consequence. It’s clear she hasn’t returned home. The hope of a breakthrough comes when her company car, a white Ford Fiesta is discovered on Stevenage Road, about 1.5 miles from where she was last spotted. It’s 10.01pm and it’s been found badly parked and unlocked with the keys missing. Due to the position of the driver’s seat, it’s clear she wasn’t the last person to drive the vehicle.

Needing help fast, “Superintendent Carter goes public very quickly on this case and the help of the media is massive.” Mick Jones, Retired Detective Constable. But the large influx of information means the police are struggling to process all the lines of enquiry. By the beginning of August the police have had over 700 calls regarding information about Suzy. One hundred of these are from people who claim to have seen Suzy on the day she vanished. The public interest in this case continues to grow. When shops start to sell out of personal alarms, it’s clear fear is gripping the nation.

As police exhaust all lines of enquiry, the trail goes cold. The Lamplugh’s are without their daughter and without answers. In 1987, a year later the police wind down their investigation. Is this simply a case of a missing person, or has a murderer managed to escape justice?

Fourteen years later

“There were no sort of enemies, there were no major boyfriends who would do this.  They had nobody to pin it on.” Richard Lamplugh, Suzy’s brother

With no body, no motive and no suspect, the Lamplugh’s, seeking closure on their ordeal; decide to go to the High Court to obtain a ruling that Suzy can officially be declared deceased. In February 1994 it’s granted. Now their grieving can begin.

It takes a further six years for the police to reopen their investigation and look once more into Suzy’s disappearance. As it remains one of the highest profile unsolved cases in police history, they are hopeful that advancements in forensics may shed some light.

In 2000 Jim Dickie is appointed the Senior Investigating Officer and given the task of reading through the case-files. It’s a large but crucial task.  There’s one name that came up in the initial 1986 enquiry, which keeps cropping up. John David Guise Cannan. 

Key Figures

John Cannan is born in the Midlands to a middle-class family. Aged fourteen he’s convicted of a sex attack in a phone box. In 1980 he sexually assaults and brutally attacks his girlfriend after she leaves him. He then goes on to rob a petrol station at knifepoint in 1981. That same year he robs a knitwear shop, tying up one shop assistant and raping the other. For his crimes he’s eventually jailed for eight years. Significantly as he approaches the end of his prison term he’s moved to a day-release hostel at Wormwood Scrubs where he works at a prop-hire company. On 25th July 1986 he’s released. Three days later Suzy disappears. Cannan later moves to the Bristol area.

“What is significant is he was released from prison the Friday before she went missing. Now ok people will say ‘what a coincidence’, I don’t believe in too many coincidences not when they all mount up.” Jim Dickie, Detective Chief Inspector

Now aged forty-six, Cannan is once again in prison, but this time serving a full-life tariff, until he reaches 65 years old or possibly longer (if he is still deemed a danger to the public). He’s been convicted of a number of crimes but importantly the abduction of Julia Holman at gunpoint and the murder of Shirley Banks in Bristol on 8th October 1987. Shirley Banks is 29 years old and only recently married. She’s out alone when she disappears from a Bristol car-park following a shopping trip. Shirley’s body is found in the Quantock Hills the following Easter. Sometime after the murder Cannan is arrested in Leamington Spa for attempting to rob and rape two women at a clothes store. It’s while gathering evidence to prosecute him, the police search his car and discover a tax-disc belonging to Shirley Banks. It’s hidden within his briefcase which has been stashed in the glove-box. They also uncover Shirley’s fingerprint in Cannan’s Bristol flat.

The police try to link the Shirley Banks murder in 1987 with the Suzy Lamplugh disappearance in 1986. The police discover Shirley’s orange Mini Clubman in the lock-up garage at his block of flats. He’s crudely painted it blue to avoid detection. Significantly he’s changed Shirley’s number plate to read ‘SLP386S’. “You could interpret that as Suzy Lamplugh 86, the year being ‘86’. It could also be a grid reference on a map because it corresponds very close to the area of Norton Barracks in Somerset. It’s the sort of thing Cannan would do. He would throw in a sweetener to either draw you off completely or to give you a big clue and see if you were clever enough.” Jim Dickie, Detective Chief Inspector

Unfortunately for the police investigating Suzy’s disappearance, Cannan is by now very used to their interviewing techniques. He plays games and enjoys taking control in an interview situation. Because he can do this, he strongly believes he’s much cleverer than they are.

“Cannan was interviewed by us twice. You might find this strange but John Cannan was in the prison in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, yet he denies ever having been to Fulham. He knew where Kensington was, knew where Notting Hill was, he knew where Hammersmith was. But strangely said he’d never been to Fulham. We could prove that he had.” Jim Dickie, Detective Chief Inspector

The Lamplugh family also remember that in the weeks leading up to Suzy’s disappearance she had a boyfriend with a West Country accent and they believe he was from the Bristol area. Having moved to Bristol after Suzy’s disappearance, it locates him in the right place to go onto murder Shirley Banks.

Suzy also revealed to a member of her family that she was scared of a new boyfriend. Was he John Cannan? His previous girlfriends recall that he enjoyed telling people he was a businessman from the Bristol area. They also remember him being an old romantic, always with a bottle of champagne.

They may have a suspect, but there is insufficient evidence linking him to the crime. The police need to find a body and fast. They turn their attention to Norton Barracks. It’s here where former girlfriend of Cannan, remembers a conversation she had with him. It’s enough for the police to take seriously. They search the area, but due to the intervening years the land has been redeveloped, and a housing development built. Nothing is found. Convinced Suzy is there, they revisit the site of the barracks in 2010, but to no avail. Searches are also carried out at Dead Woman’s Ditch in the Quantock Hills, where Shirley Banks’ body was found; and in the Somerset Levels. They are both unsuccessful. 

Evidence

“I didn’t get this feeling of loss because you want to keep your hopes up you know, you think any minute now she’ll walk through that door” Richard Lamplugh, Suzy Lamplugh’s brother

The police decide they either need to implicate or eliminate Cannan as a suspect. “There was massive circumstantial evidence that we uncovered in the reinvestigation that pointed to Cannan.” Detective Chief Inspector Jim Dickie

With advances in technology the police set to work computerising the 26,000 card-index system that was created in 1986. This allows them to cross-check data and they make a shocking discovery. It becomes clear that other estate agents in the Fulham area were also visited by a Mr Kipper. Was Mr Kipper the alter-ego of John Cannan?

A witness comes forward to say that a man matching Cannan’s description turned up at a house for sale in Fulham uninvited and without an estate agent. He chats to the lady owner and gains entry to the house. Clearly he thinks they’re alone. He starts acting strangely, and it’s only when the husband appears, that the man makes a very swift exit.

The police also can’t ignore that Cannan resembles the photofit of the man seen by two different witnesses. Have the police found the elusive Mr Kipper?

Surprisingly, it transpires that Kipper was Cannan’s nickname in prison. 

A jogger remembers seeing a man and woman arguing in a black or dark-blue BMW. Their descriptions match those of Suzy and Cannan. Unusually, the jogger remembers that the car was a left-hand drive. Police are able to prove that Cannan had access to a black BMW as he had used it for crime with a criminal associate, who also happened to be staying at the prison hostel next to Wormwood Scrubs.

When the police start looking into his character, they find a man who thinks he’s a modern casanova. He’s very attracted to women, and appears to have very old-fashioned methods when chatting women up. He uses all the tricks in the book -  chocolates, flowers and champagne. “He comes across as very smooth, very affable, and appears to be a successful businessman. Which he certainly wasn’t. He appears to have a rather nice romantic streak, although there’s something in the background you won’t like, certainly if you’re a woman.” Stewart Trendler

The problem is, he’s a casanova with a very violent streak. When interviewing Cannan’s previous girlfriends it becomes apparent that he doesn’t like rejection. “There is a pattern with former girlfriends where when he feels rejected by them he resorts to violence. Jim Dickie, Detective Chief Inspector

The police believe they have found their man, and release his name to the media in November 2002. Unfortunately there is not enough evidence to bring him to justice.

“I have come across people like Cannan, who I believe is a psychopath -clear and simple.  My view is if he ever was released, he would still be a danger to the female population of this country.” Jim Dickie, Detective Chief Inspector

Aftermath

After quickly realising Suzy’s never coming back, Diana Lamplugh pours her grief into some positive action and sets up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. She becomes a tireless campaigner for the improvement of personal safety training and education for men, women and children. Her work is recognised in 1992 when she’s awarded an OBE.

The Trust becomes a force for good and notches up a number of achievements. Notably it becomes the “driving force behind the 1998 act to license private hire vehicles.” Rachel Griffin, Director Suzy Lamplugh Trust. Its aim to reduce the number of rapes and sexual assaults which are linked to unlicensed and illegal minicab drivers.

In addition it runs the National Stalking Helpline, which has supported 10,000 victims of stalking in the last four years.  It’s campaigned and succeeded in changing the law for stalking to now be recognised as a criminal offence. This is something Diana Lamplugh felt very strongly about. She remains convinced that Suzy, was herself, a victim of stalking.

Sadly Diana dies after a stroke on 18 August 2011. She’s survived by her husband and three remaining children. She will never know what really happened to her daughter on the day of her disappearance.

Despite Suzy’s body never being found, the police name John Cannan as their main suspect and likely killer. To this day they have not been able to obtain a confession or bring him to trial. Cannan continues to deny his involvement.

He has however made this comment to a solicitor “I may well tell all when my mother dies”. Jim Dickie, Detective Chief Inspector. Whether he does or not remains to be seen.