Emma Faulds murder: How forensic experts traced the ground in the wake of a muddy boot to catch a killer
They were old and battered, the soles cracked, the laces dirty… but Timberland hiking boots had to catch a killer.
Today, the forensic scientist who led the team that identified tiny traces of plants and soil trapped in the soles of the £ 80 boots reveals how those footprints would lead to a remote forest where the calculating killer had left the body of his victim up to his door.
Former prison officer Ross Willox, 42, was convicted last week of the murder of his friend Emma Faulds, of Kilmarnock, after taking elaborate steps to cover up his tracks.
Professor Lorna Dawson, who heads the forensic team at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, explained how microscopic traces of soil recovered from Willox’s boots were seized by police.
The Aberdeen team’s work was essential in helping search teams find the body of youth worker Emma, 39, in Glentrool Forest, Dumfries and Galloway, in April 2019, six weeks after her death , then to relate his murderer to the scene.
Prior to the forensic breakthrough, police had scoured a different part of the 500 square mile forest landscape. They knew that Willox, the last person to see Emma alive and the prime suspect, had previously worked on wind farms in the area. And, 24 hours after the Aberdeen team delivered their analysis, the search team found Emma’s body.
Samples from his boot linked Willox to the crime scene and were instrumental in his conviction on Tuesday after a six-week trial.
Dawson explained, “One of the police officers on the research team was a mountain biker and was familiar with the topography (the physical features of the landscape) and suggested areas to prioritize based on the description of the soil and the terrain. vegetation that we found on Ross Willox’s boots. .
“It was clearly a peat over a swampy upland area. The composition of the foams on the accused’s boots was consistent with that observed at the location where Emma was found. Seven of the 12 plant species seen in the area where Emma was found were recovered from Willox’s boots. Our institute botanist identified the moss species found on the boots using high power microscopy.
Emma had been reported missing by her parents when she failed to show up for work two days after going to Willox’s home in Monkton, Ayrshire. He did nothing to aid the search and, it appeared, had already led his body into the forest.
As police teams methodically searched the area, Dawson’s team used science to restrict the hunt.
She said: “We used gas chromatography (the process by which the different elements of a compound are separated into their distinct parts for individual analysis) in the proof-of-operation phase and have shown that the peat moss on the soles of the Timberland boots also had the same organic profile as found at the scene.
“Our botanist identified the mosses collected individually. From this we knew that the person wearing the boots had likely stood in the area where Emma was found. There was also an organic peat stain on the boots that showed they had been partially submerged in peat water.
“Puddles of peat-containing water were in the hollows between the tufts of moss and rushes on the scene. Trees had been planted around 2016 in this general area and may not have been felled for 40 to 60 years, which could have left Emma hidden in the undergrowth.
“She was covered with tufts of moss and rushes that had been torn from the ground a few feet from her body in an attempt to hide it.
“Soil can be distinguished by a range of chemical, physical and biological characteristics, including the organic profile of the soil, the elemental composition of the soil and the mineralogy of the soil. Depending on the type of soil, different methods are used in forensic case work. In this case, due to the organic nature of the soil, an organic vegetable wax marker analysis was used. In addition, the distinctive plant community added another link to the scene.
Without the efforts of the police and forensic experts, Emma’s body may never have been found and her family would not have known whether she was alive or dead. Dawson added: “What the police search did was bring Emma back to her family and at least give them that. It would be extremely painful for them to find themselves without this knowledge.
A jury found Willox guilty of murder and attempting to conquer the ends of justice after a trial at the High Court in Glasgow where Lord Mulholland told him: ‘You know what the penalty is for murder – it will be life imprisonment. .
“Make no mistake, this is a foul crime against a young woman loved by her family. You would have visited them a lifetime wondering if she was still alive if her body had not been found thanks to the work of the police and experts.
“It was in such a remote place and you wanted her body never to be found.”
After testifying, Dawson returned to his Aberdeen labs to analyze the ground evidence in another murder case, this time for the defense.
“In this case, I could tell that the soil on the suspect’s boots did not share the characteristics of the crime scene,” she said.
“My job is to help the criminal justice system find the truth using the latest advances in forensic soil science and that can mean telling if a suspect has evidence of that particular area of interest on him… or no.”
Dawson’s previous case includes helping solve the mystery of the World’s End murders in 1977, a case she had been following since she was a geography student at the University of Edinburgh. Using soil samples taken from the feet of one of the victims, the professor was able to show that her body had been in contact with a wheat field and a grassy margin through organic profile analysis.
Angus Sinclair had previously been tried for the crime after his DNA was identified on the victim’s clothing, but insufficient evidence led to the collapse of the case.
Dawson’s testimony established a theoretical timeline that refuted Sinclair’s alibi and led him to be convicted of the double murder of Helen Scott and Christine Eadie, 17, who were last seen alive on the move. to leave The World’s End pub in Edinburgh in 2014.
The 37-year sentence was the longest in Scottish law history and was made possible in part by Dawson’s vital contribution.
How scientists got guilty verdict on forest floor
After hiding the body of victim Emma Faulds in a vast and isolated forest, Ross Willox, who had gone to great lengths to cover his tracks, hoped to escape justice.
However, Professor Lorna Dawson explained that each sample of soil and vegetation transferred to her boots had distinctive organic profiles connecting the killer to where Emma’s body was found.
She said: “The soil in one area may be different than the next because of its different ground cover history, so we can test if a suspect has been somewhere they deny being.
“We also use what we call multi-proxy geographic signatures for soil to help find a probable location for unknown soil by comparing the results of a sample interviewed with the James Hutton Institute database, and can establish a link to a probable location.
“It also allows us to test alternative propositions as to the origin of the unknown sample.”