’Real people with real lives who deserve justice’: U.K. scholar investigates unsolved murders

Beth Norfolk hopes to launch a new project solving cold cases in the U.K. Her re
Beth Norfolk hopes to launch a new project solving cold cases in the U.K. Her research has uncovered dozens of unsolved homicides of older women. The victims’ names are reflected in the poster on her computer. (Beth Norfolk photo)
University of Leeds researcher learns from Western criminologist in hopes of launching cold case society

Beth Norfolk hopes to transport a unique Western society solving cold cases across the pond, replicating the justice-seeking effort in the U.K.

University of Leeds researcher spent a month at Western on a prestigious leadership award from the Laidlaw Foundation , learning from Michael Arntfield , criminologist and professor of English and writing studies.

Norfolk already has a collection of cold cases: a 90-year-old woman found dead in her home across the street from a police station. A shop owner strangled to death, but nothing taken. A string of ax murders.

She found a distinct trend emerge in her research.

"I quickly realized there are a disproportionate number of unsolved cases in my country that involve older women, age 60 or older. The number that goes unsolved is on par with unsolved gang-related killings, which really surprised me," Norfolk said.

"Some of the women in my study were 90, 92, 95 years old. I had assumed there would be enormous press interest, enormous police interest. But that just wasn’t the case. And the more I looked, the more such cases I found."

Now she wants to find answers.

"These were people with full lives, who have been, from what I can see, dismissed because of their age - even in death. The primary feeling for me is sadness, but it’s one that motivates me. I really believe we can make progress on some of these cases and solve them." – Beth Norfolk, University of Leeds researcher

She learned the methods of Arntfield’s Cold Case Society during her visit to Canada. Under his direction, students and researchers from Western faculties tackle unsolved murders and other failed investigations to seek justice.

The inspiration

" When I was reading Michael’s book, How to Solve a Cold Case, I was thinking, ’we could do this in Leeds.’ We have students who are invested and interested. I went with the intention of picking up a bit of advice on how to start it," Norfolk said.

She came home with much more.

"He let me take charge of an investigation, deal with the families, interrogate the database. He really gave me a grounding in what you need to do, from the bottom up, and how I could replicate it," she said.

The Cold Case Society is identifying and correspondingly solving more cases than ever, Arntfield said, thanks to dramatic leaps ahead in genetic genealogy, using DNA collection and comparison to track down killers.

Norfolk hopes to launch the U.K. version of the Cold Case Society, a group that could partner with Arntfield’s group and others across the globe, such as the Murder Accountability Project in Washington, D.C. " She really immersed herself in the Western experience and is now going back to Leeds armed with the knowledge of our methodologies, our data acquisition methods and our fellowship to create a facsimile over there, that would work with Western, ideally hand in glove. The idea is we work as collaborative institutions rather than as franchises," Arntfield said.

Norfolk studied English literature before embarking on the unsolved homicide research for the Laidlaw Scholars Leadership and Research Programme. But she was always interested in true crime, recalling her bookshelves stacked with grisly reads.

The work is now personal.

"Nobody else is doing this. I know these women’s names now; I feel like I know them. If I just dismiss them as well, that’s everybody that has ever been involved who’s dismissed them," she said.

"If you can shine a light on some of these cases, it’s worth doing if you can get justice for even one woman or her family."

Norfolk first saw the name Annie Elizabeth Nichols on a gravestone in a cemetery she walked through every day on her way to school in Bramley, an area in Leeds.

Nichols was a store owner found beaten and strangled in 1945 after she failed to open her shop for the day. Nothing was stolen. Two weeks later, there was a similar homicide in a town about 30 minutes away. Norfolk wondered if there was a killer who committed other crimes that went undiscovered.

The Nichols case is etched into her memory.

"It’s always stuck with me."

Technological advances

Few police forces expressed interest in re-opening investigations or providing case files to help Norfolk’s efforts.

"They’ve said the materials that would go into the case no longer exist. One said they can’t be found," she said.

Norfolk and Arntfield - a former police officer - know that opportunities abound with academic and law enforcement partnerships. The U.K. was an early adopter of collaborative research between police and higher education institutions, Arntfield said.

"They recognize they can’t do all of their own research so they would frequently rely on academic partners to work collaboratively with them, rather than jealously guard their data, as has often been the case in Canada," he said.

Those agreements allow the Cold Case Society and other groups like it to explore theories and leads outside bureaucratic restraints, which also helps amplify public interest in those cases and finding justice, he added.

"I see these groups really as incubators of future investigators and subject matter experts," Arntfield said.

New technology is changing the game, using DNA to crack decades-old cases and more recent ones.

"We’re at a very exciting inflection point," Arntfield said.

"Since 2018 when this methodology was spearheaded, law enforcement agencies and other groups investigating cold cases have been solving, on average, a case a week using DNA databases - whether it be bringing a name to an unidentified John Doe or Jane Doe, identifying a set of skeletal remains or identifying a suspect in a cold case homicide." – Michael Arntfield, criminologist and professor of English and writing studies

Big developments in "investigative genetic genealogy" boost interest in historical homicides, Arntfield said, but they also reveal disparities in the solve rates for homicides among specific populations. He hopes to encourage under-represented groups to use genealogy tools and databases by explaining how further participation can help solve crimes.

At a recent conference for GEDMatch , which compares DNA data from genetic testing companies like Ancestry DNA or 23AndMe to give users access to more than a million profiles, Arntfield’s team was able to pinpoint a connection between an attendee and a killer.

It’s part of what gives Norfolk hope about solving some of the cases she’s uncovered back at home. She knows more families will come forward with additional cases if a team is created to solve them.

"There are people who have committed horrific murders who may still be out there," she said.

"The willingness is there to look at the cases - we just need buy-in from police or from families. In a lot of cases, they can be solved, it just takes somebody putting new eyes on it. With a bit of effort, people can help solve these crimes."


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