A GRIM landmark is reached today in the quest to find Linda Donaldson’s killer.
For it was on October 18, 1988 - precisely 25 years ago - that the prostitute’s naked and mutilated body was found dumped in a Lowton farmer’s field.
The brutal slaying of the 31-year-old remains one of Wigan’s few unsolved murders in recent decades.
But police have not given up the fight for justice and today, on this sad anniversary, made a fresh appeal for information.
Not least because people who may have withheld crucial clues at the time may no longer have cause to hold back.
The gaunt face of Linda, used on many a police appeal poster and in many a media article over the years, was taken just three weeks before she died and tells of a life which had already taken a tragic turn.
Born in Liverpool on January 21 1957, she was raised by her maternal grandma because her mother was only young and had problems of her own. Linda left school to go on a hairdressing course, married at 18 and lived in the Waterloo area. But the relationship, which was childless, didn’t last and the couple went their separate ways.
That break-up heralded a rapid downward spiral as Linda fell in with the wrong crowd, became mixed up in drugs and then began working the streets to feed her heroin addiction.
From then on she lived a transient lifestyle and was sharing a flat with friends in Canning Street - Liverpool’s then red light district - at the time of her death.
She had regular clients but wasn’t averse to getting into cars belonging to kerb-crawling strangers either. Police investigating the killing at the time and those from the Cold Case Review Unit who have revisited the case since say that Linda was not a nasty or violent person.
She was no stranger to the magistrates’ courts, but generally the appearances were related to prostitution, personal possession of drugs and acquisitive crimes committed in order to feed her drug habit.
Neither is there much in the files to suggest that she herself had previously been a victim of crime, not least violence.
The last confirmed sighting of Linda Donaldson alive was at 11pm on Monday October 17, 1988, by a Merseyside Police vice squad officer who knew most of the girls on that patch. She was on Canning Street waiting for work.
Detectives can only assume what happened next in those pre-CCTV days, and that it is that she got into a car - either that of a familiar punter or a complete stranger - was driven away and killed.
It was down to chance that the victim’s remains were found so quickly, even though her killer hadn’t made too much effort to conceal them.
It was at noon the next day, a Tuesday, that an elderly couple pulled up along a remote stretch of Winwick Lane in Lowton.
The man needed to relieve himself so he slipped through a gap in the hedgerow and into a farmer’s field.
It was there that he made the gruesome discovery. In a gully close to the field side of the hedge lay Linda’s body.
A post-mortem examination would later conclude that she had died from multiple stab wounds. The pathologist concluded that the woman was dead before a lot of the injuries had been inflicted.
A murder weapon has never been found; neither, too, Linda’s clothes. When last seen she was wearing a black jacket, black skirt and black ankle boots.
Another investigative frustration is that the murder scene is not known. One thing is clear: She was killed somewhere else and the body only dumped in the field. In fact it had been washed down before it was abandoned, most likely in a bid to remove any forensic evidence of the murderer.
Apart from leaving it behind a hedge, no effort had been made to conceal the remains.
Tyre tracks could be seen coming off the road and up to a wooden gate near the scene. Someone would have had to have got out to open it and indeed close it again after leaving. The tracks travel a short distance to the gully and then loop round to come back out through the same entrance and onto Winwick Lane.
There seems to have been nothing remarkable about the tread that would help narrow down the search for the mystery vehicle; nor were there any mud traces suggesting in which direction it headed after leaving the field.
So from the start it was going to be a difficult inquiry. No murder scene, no murder weapon, no clear motive and no apparent sightings of Linda in the 13 hours between her being seen in Canning Street and the discovery of her body. What was needed was for a witness to come through with a breakthrough piece of information that pointed officers in the right direction. House to house inquiries were conducted, everyone known to Linda was interview and police went through a number of what they call “TIEs” - trace, interview and eliminate. And while they did not find any particular difficulties which might be anticipated over prostitutes and/or their punters closing ranks or failing to come forward, no viable suspects emerged. A week to the day after Linda was found, police set up road blocks to interview people who might have been in the area on that fateful morning.
The murder was also featured on Crimewatch, but the trail went cold.
Then just over two years later, another horror was visited on Lowton which the police and public couldn’t help but think might be linked to the first tragedy.
The dismembered body of 26-year-old Maria Requena was found in bags by two youngsters fishing on the shores of Pennington Flash off Slag Lane on January 6 1991.
It is easy to see why links couldn’t easily be dismissed. Maria too had been a prostitute, albeit from Manchester, and she too had been savagely attacked and her body left not two miles from where Linda’s body had been found. Both had also had drug problems.
But there were also differences which suggest maybe there were two different killers on the loose.
Questions of links were posed again when the naked body of 23-year-old Julie Finley, also from Liverpool, was found in a carrot field off the Rainford bypass on August 6 1994. She had been strangled but her death too remains unsolved.
Cold case unit police continue to examine all of these cases, keeping their options open as to whether they may be connected or not.
Five years ago when the Wigan Evening Post last visited Linda Donaldson’s murder, it interviewed Lyn Matthews who had carried out an extensive study into the links between drugs and street sex work. She had come across Linda 26 years ago while she was carrying out HIV prevention work in Liverpool. She said: “The murder of Linda Donaldson in 1988 brought home to me how dangerous this work is.
“The memory of hearing that her badly mutilated body had been discovered dumped in a field will haunt me forever.
“Linda was not just an unknown face staring blankly out from the front page of a newspaper or a TV screen but someone who had come from my own community, had gone to the same school as me, and knew many of the people I knew.
“I will also never forget the anguish and suffering of her elderly grandmother who had raised Linda.
“The only way she could confirm the lifeless body on the slab was that of her granddaughter was by a scar on her ear lobe.
“Had Linda not been using drugs, she would never have turned to sex work.”
Today there is just as much determination to see justice done for Linda as when the inquiry was launched.
Martin Bottomley, Greater Manchester Police’s force review officer, is in charge of revisiting the evidence and searching for new clues.
The former detective superintendent said: “No undetected murder is ever forgotten and we focus on and strive to solves them. The passage of time is no reason to shelve an inquiry and give up.
“As far as Linda Donaldson is concerned, it is not for us to judge her lifestyle and opinions on such matters should be no barrier to investigating this terrible crime. Murder is murder and this is a woman who had family and who was loved. There are many reasons for reviewing unsolved crimes, not only because of important forensic advances but also because potential witnesses can yet come forward.
“Allegiences change as people get older. They may have felt an urge to protect someone at the time and that has now gone. Perhaps people have information which they did not think was relevant or were too afraid to come forward with.
“But be assured: It is not too late to come forward now. We would be very receptive to anyone’s approaching us with new details and possible lines of inquiry that would lead us to tracking down this offender.”
Anyone with information about the case is urged to contact the Cold Case Review Unit at Ashton-under-Lyne on 0161 856 5961 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.