Thirty five years on from crime spree that shook Tring

Today (26 February) marks 35 years since the sentencing of 'The Fox'

Malcolm Fairley, nicknamed 'The Fox', as he built lairs in the homes of his victims and evaded capture by making his escape across rural countryside, Fairley's brazen offending in the summer of 1984 is etched in the memories of those living within the 'offending triangle' of Tring, Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard.

Manhunt for The Fox

Manhunt for The Fox

Retired officers have gathered this week to reflect on their efforts to apprehend Fairley; the armed, masked, intruder whose warped actions targeted both men and women, old and young.

Fairley set out on a string of serious offending from March to September 1984. His reign of terror was finally brought to an end when he was arrested just days after his last attack.

He was handed six life sentences by a judge after his confession to a violent series of burglaries, rapes and serious sexual assaults, which spanned over 80 crimes.

Fairley is still behind bars.

Brian Prickett

Brian Prickett

Now, 35 years on from the day he was sentenced, former officers who worked on the case have shared their memories of how they caught the man who managed to evade justice for so long, and reflected on how the developments in policing and forensic science since the 1980s would likely have led to his capture much quicker.

Ray Wootton, a resident beat officer for the Bideford Green area, in Leighton Buzzard, during the investigation, said: “The fear was very real, you could feel the tension; it was immense.

"People were petrified and didn’t feel safe in their own homes. Residents queued in the high street to buy additional locks and some even had code words for their family before they opened their front door. It was a hot summer yet everyone’s windows were locked shut.

"Being visible in their streets was vital for reassurance. The community were pleased to see me on patrol, either on foot or on my bike, acting as a deterrent and giving advice on security measures.

The Fox

The Fox

"It was a very terrifying time, the community breathed a huge sigh of relief when the arrest was made.”

The rare and complex case was often likened to that of the Yorkshire Ripper, and was on a scale that has not to be seen by the force since.

Officers paraded on the manhunt on a daily basis from a custom incident room setup at Dunstable Police Station, and included officers from neighbouring forces, as well as dog units, firearms officers and, at times, the deployment of the army helicopter.

As Fairley continued his catalogue of offending and his behaviour became increasingly more audacious the case was developing rapidly. Officers were harvesting more and more forensic evidence and quickly learning about the offender.

By September 1984 the search had narrowed to tracing an owner of a car that was harvest yellow in colour, of which there were less than 1,500 in the UK.

When officers arrived at an address of interest in London, they were met by a man who stood alongside a harvest yellow Austin Allegro, he spoke in a north east accent, and wore his wristwatch on his right-hand - these were three of the key elements to the picture detectives had worked painstakingly to fit together.

Senior Investigating Officer on the case, Brian Prickett, said: “This was a very important case to work on, the fear was genuine and the victims were subjected to the most horrendous attacks, he really put them through a terrible ordeal.

"At the height of the enquiry we were getting 300 calls an hour into the incident room and we had to look at all the clues we had to identify and eliminate suspects.

"The operation took two forms, observation and protection of the public alongside the detective work.

"When you saw the type of crimes he was committing you knew you had to put every effort in, the team was totally dedicated to identifying Fairley and bring him to justice."

On sentencing, Fairley’s actions were described by the judge as ‘wickedness beyond condemnatory description’, his run of offending has imprinted on the lives of both the victims and those who worked on the case.

David Toes was a young detective assigned to ‘The Fox’ enquiry at just 26-years-old, he said: “I was quickly exposed to the wider world of policing, and it was enthralling being round the table with so many skilled officers who brought specialist skills and tactics to the case.

"Being on an investigation of such a scale, so early on, shaped my career. It gave me the drive to look for opportunities to work with the very best at their roles and make a big impact to those causing the biggest harm to our communities."

If officers at the time had been equipped with today’s advances in investigative techniques, coupled with the knowledge of Fairley’s low-level offending as a teen, it is unlikely he would have been free to stalk his victims for as long as he did.

But with DNA in its infancy and a lack of CCTV and other digital information to capture his movements, the case relied on the bravery of victims and the bringing together of expert skills from several forces and organisations that unveiled the clues to stop Fairley in his tracks.