Slaughter that cast a shadow over the groves of academe

May 13, 2005

Campuses are generally safe places but, as Steve Farrar reports, they've had their share of gruesome killings

As Sir William Curzon strode into the foyer of London's Imperial Institute one summer night in 1909, a 25-year-old Indian student stepped out of the shadows. Madar Lal Dhingra had been waiting for the prominent colonial administrator to arrive. Intent on contributing to his homeland's struggle for freedom, the radicalised Punjabi engineering student fired a single shot. Curzon fell back dead.

Dhingra was apprehended at the scene of the crime and was put on trial at the Old Bailey three weeks later, declaring that he had no regrets and was proud to die for his cause. He was inspired by revolutionaries living in London at the time and he defended himself in court by denouncing British crimes in India. He was found guilty and was hanged at Pentonville shortly after.

The assassination of Curzon is among just a handful of murders to have been carried out on campus, albeit in a building that has since vanished from Imperial College's Kensington site. Despite the many ingenious killings dreamt up for novels and dramas down the years, there have been few genuine cases to blight Britain's universities.

In July 1992, Elizabeth Howe, a 34-year-old English literature lecturer at the Open University, fell victim to an apparently motiveless attack.

Howe, an Oxford graduate who was married with two children, had been at York University for just a few hours ahead of a week of teaching at an OU summer school. But when she missed both dinner and a meeting that first evening, fellow staff became concerned.

The summer school organiser and a porter went up to Howe's room at Wentworth College to find it drenched in blood, with her mutilated body lying on the floor. Later that night, police spotted a heavily built woman acting oddly in a car parked on campus. They discovered that the "woman" was Robin Pask, a laboratory technician with a Bolton plastics firm. He was dressed in Howe's clothes.

Pask had been attending the OU summer school for a science course, had drunk a large amount of alcohol, taken drugs and claimed he had been intending to kill himself with a kitchen knife. Instead, he murdered a woman he had never met before who had the misfortune to have been allocated a college room just metres from his. Pask had no explanation for his actions. He was ordered to be detained indefinitely in a secure hospital after a jury found he was mentally incapable of standing trial.

A trust was set up at the OU in Howe's memory to encourage work in literature and women's studies.

In November 1999, a technician was bludgeoned to death at Westminster University. Elizabeth Stacey, a 24-year-old Cambridge University graduate, had been in her job as an IT technician in the psychology department for nine weeks.

The intelligent and popular woman had befriended Steven Reid, a shy, taciturn 34-year-old PhD student and lecturer. But he had misinterpreted her friendship as attraction and soon became obsessed with her.

In the evenings, he would gaze at a photograph of her that he had downloaded from her internet site and reread her cheerful email messages.

Detectives believe that some weeks before her murder, Reid expressed his unreciprocated feelings for her. He then decided that if he could not have her, no one could.

Reid bought a rolling pin and lured Stacey to his room at the university on the pretext that there was a fault with his computer. While she sat at his desk, he came up behind her and hit her over the head. She fought desperately but eventually collapsed to the floor as Reid rained blows down on her head and face. He left her to die, locking his office door behind him before going on the run.

The police arrested Reid 12 days later, after several people recognised him living in Brighton when his photograph was shown on BBC's Crimewatch programme. He claimed that he had intended to commit suicide after killing Stacey because he would then have a friend in the afterlife. Reid was found guilty of manslaughter on the ground of diminished responsibility and is expected to spend the rest of his life in a secure psychiatric hospital.

The body of Rachel McLean, a 19-year-old Oxford University undergraduate, was discovered under the floorboards of her downstairs bedroom in Argyle Street, Cowley, 18 days after she disappeared in April 1991. Her boyfriend, John Tanner, a second-year Nottingham University classics student from New Zealand, had strangled her and hidden her body.

He then could not accept what he had done. After McLean was reported missing, Tanner wrote her two letters, telephoned her digs, kept in touch with her parents and took part in a reconstruction that showed her leaving with a man after she had kissed him goodbye at Oxford railway station. But when her body was found beneath the house she shared with four other female students, he confessed to the crime.

The relationship between Tanner and McLean was intense, but her diary revealed that he was draining her of emotion. Tanner claimed he had killed her because she had told him she had been unfaithful. The judge in the case suggested that Tanner's "primary love was to himself, and her rejection of him, after he had committed himself to her, fatally wounded his pride".

Tanner was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1994, Michael Meenaghan, a 35-year-old lecturer at Oxford's Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, was shot dead in his home. The crime remains unsolved.

Shortly before his death, the expert in DNA profiling had stepped up security at his home in Oxford's Blackbird Leys estate, switching to an ex-directory telephone number, keeping the curtains drawn and ensuring that his doors were always locked.

But one Saturday afternoon in December, Meenaghan went to his kitchen to make a cup of tea. His assailant smashed a window and a fired a single shot from a shotgun into his chest. He managed to make a 999 call but was unable to speak, dying soon after.

Police investigated the possibility that the attack was a contract killing linked to Meenaghan's "tangled love-life" but concluded that the murder may have been a case of mistaken identity.

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