The soil sleuth unearthing killers: Childhood on farm set professor up for groundbreaking crime-solving career

Forensics Officer Lorna Dawson at Knockquarn Farm potato field (Ross Johnston/Newsline Media)
Forensics Officer Lorna Dawson at Knockquarn Farm potato field (Ross Johnston/Newsline Media)

SOIL sleuth Lorna Dawson is juggling commitments when we meet.

It’s early evening, she’s had a frantic day and is now taking a call from her husband who wonders what time she’ll be home from the lab.

“He says I work all the time,” she reveals, hanging up with a grin that more than hints at admission.

As head of the James Hutton Institute’s Soil Forensics Unit, Professor Dawson has worked on more than 100 crimes – teasing out clues that have helped to solve notorious cold cases and put some of the UK’s most evil killers behind bars.

But the 59-year-old Aberdeen mum-of-three is showing no signs of slowing up.

Forensic geoscience is gaining great ground world-wide, due in no small part to her. Soil evidence regularly provides a vital piece of the puzzle needed to convict the guilty.

And it all started on a farm near Forfar. The woman who comes from a long line of farmers on both her mother and father’s side remembers: “My dad grew potatoes and I used to go tattie picking in the holidays.

“With tatties you learned that different areas of the farm had different soil, some drained more easily while others were boggy and you had to watch what you grew.”

The former Forfar Academy pupils adds: “I was fortunate to grow up in the country. It was lovely and safe. I’d ride my bike everywhere, go sailing on Forfar Loch.

“I used to love to read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Agatha Christie crime novels and The Sunday Post. We got it every week.”

She laughs: “My brother and I used to fight over who would get The Broons pages. He is a farmer now too.”

The young Lorna gave up her idyllic life for the big city, studying geography and geology at the University of Edinburgh. And it was there that she had her first brush with crime.

On a Saturday night in October 1977 she was in the Halls of Residence when 17-year-old pals Helen Scott and Christine Eadie disappeared after a night out which ended at The World’s End pub.

They turned up dead the next day, six miles apart. Christine was found on a beach and Helen in a wheat field. They had been raped, beaten and strangled.

Prof Dawson remembers: “There was a fear hanging over the city. It made you more conscious about coming home late on your own.”

She graduated and went on to do a PhD in soil sciences at the University of Aberdeen. It led to a job at the city’s Macaulay Land Use Research Institute – now the James Hutton Institute.

It was a turning point in her life that took her into forensic soil science, becoming a world leader in her field.

Years later, in a strange twist of fate, she was asked to re-analyse samples from the World’s End case.

Angus Sinclair’s DNA had previously linked him to the victims but it was not enough to convict him during a trial in 2007 because his defence had successfully argued sex had been consensual and that the girls were alive when he last saw them.

By 2014 things were different. Forensics – especially soil forensics – had advanced. Prof Dawson explains: “There was soil and fragments of grain on the soles of Helen’s feet. Police had preserved those samples. I was asked to look at them and could show Helen had made contact with a grass verge and the field where her body was found.”

Prosecutors used this and other evidence to argue that Sinclair forced her to walk into the field where he killed her. Just over 37 years after the attack, he was convicted of double murder and sentenced to 37 years in jail.

It was a triumph for forensic science, and a landmark case – Sinclair was the first person to be re-tried for the same crime after a change in the double jeopardy law. Prof Dawson remembers: “Helen’s dad had been at the trial every day and you could sense his relief that there was some justice for his daughter and her friend. He thanked me for the work that I did.

“It made me feel privileged to be able to help him to have some resolution, some closure.”

She and her colleagues – who have also been working on the disappearance of little Ben Needham on the Greek island of Kos – also helped to bring to justice Alexander Pacteau. He was 21 when he bludgeoned to death Irish nurse Karen Buckley in Glasgow in 2015, hiding her body in a shed at High Craigton Farm.

Prof Dawson says: “We had helped to reinforce police intelligence that he had hired the shed at the farm. We could show the soil characteristics of that farm on his footwear.

“Then we looked at his car and could show that there was soil on the car from the farm and also from outside the park where her handbag was found.

“We recovered the soil despite him taking the car to the valet – it was under the tyres.”

Pacteau was jailed for a minimum of 23 years for the murder in which he had planned to dispose of Karen’s body in a vat of chemicals. Friends of the killer claimed he was obsessed with hit TV series Breaking Bad, one episode of which featured a body being dissolved in a bath.

Prof Dawson was also a key witness in last year’s trial of taxi driver Christopher Halliwell who was sentenced to a new life term after being found guilty of the murder of Becky Godden in Swindon more than a decade ago.

Despite the horrors of her work, she sleeps well. “I don’t have nightmares,” she says. “But I do feel sad for the victims and their families.”

Could she ever have imagined her career path as a child on an Angus farm?

“I never had any idea what I’d do,” she admits. “It was less of a career choice and more of an evolution.”

Sadly her parents cannot know of the contribution she and her team make to the world. Her father passed away and her mum is living with dementia.

She smiles: “I don’t think my mum even knows what I do, so I can’t say if she is pleased. But I was in The Sunday Post once before – several years ago – and she was very proud of that!”