The sidelined woman detective who solved a brutal cold case murder

The woman detective, sidelined by male colleagues, who went on to solve brutal murder that was Britain’s most baffling cold case

  •  Detective Sergeant Julie Mackay, 41, cracked the case after a DNA breakthrough
  •  Melanie Road, 17, was raped and stabbed to death after a night out in June 1984

Theirs was a less than auspicious first meeting. Perched on a chair in her living room was Jean Road, a mother who carried the weight of 25 years of grief from her daughter Melanie’s brutal unsolved murder.

Across from her was Detective Sergeant Julie Mackay, a 41-year-old single mother of three who, despite 20 years of dedicated police work, had struggled to get promoted.

Newly assigned to the cold case, she was there to tell Jean they had another prime suspect for Melanie’s killing.

The bubbly and clever deputy head girl was just 17 when she was raped and murdered on her way home from a night out in June 1984.

But Jean had heard it all before. Although she was unfailingly polite throughout that encounter in October 2009, it was nonetheless clear she held little hope that the police officer would bring her younger daughter’s killer to justice when so many others had failed. Yet in fact, to both women’s surprise, that first encounter would prove to be the beginning of a longstanding friendship that lasted until Jean’s death this year at the age of 88.

Melanie Road, 17, was raped and stabbed to death after a night out in June 1984

Their bond would ultimately transcend all professional constraints, becoming a source of immense solace for both women long after Julie’s painstaking detective work helped secure the 2016 conviction of Christopher Hampton for the teenager’s murder.

‘She helped me immeasurably and I undoubtedly helped her immeasurably as well,’ Julie, now 55, recalls.

‘She saw me through some very tough times, as I did her. We had laughter, tears, and we found a very special relationship in each other. People saw it as a mother-and-daughter relationship but it went beyond that. It was a very deep friendship.’

She adds: ‘It’s funny, through all our time together we didn’t take photos. We just talked.’

Their bond is beautifully captured in Julie’s book To Hunt A Killer, a fascinating insight into not only the volume of detective work required to put a killer behind bars, but also the eviscerating impact of murder on a family.

‘Melanie’s death ripped the heart out of the family,’ Julie says. ‘There was — is — so much pain, not just for her parents but for her sister Karen and brother Adrian.’

It is nearly 40 years since the warm summer morning in June 1984 when Jean, then a 49-year-old teacher, and her civil servant husband Anthony woke to the realisation that their daughter — a sensible girl — had not returned home from a night out with friends at a local nightclub in Bath.

Amid their rising panic, they then heard an amplified voice in the street outside from a police Tannoy, asking ‘does anyone know Melanie?’

63-year-old Christopher Hampton from Bristol, who had lived locally at the time of the attack, admitted to the murder of Bath teenager Melanie Road almost 32 years after she died

Jean rushed out, to learn that the body of her beloved daughter had been discovered in a suburban cul-de-sac, the only identifying object a keyring bearing her name. She had been moments from home.

‘One of the first things that struck me was the terrible realisation that Jean and Tony heard the news of their daughter’s death on a loudspeaker,’ says Julie now.

Melanie had been stabbed 26 times and raped. Her body was discovered by a milkman on his early round.

‘What happened to her was horrific,’ says Julie quietly. ‘The sheer ferocity of the attack will never leave me.’

Melanie’s death sparked a nationwide manhunt codenamed Operation Rhodium. Police hoped her killer would be caught swiftly: a trail of blood led away from the scene and from this and semen swabbed from Melanie’s body they knew he shared a blood group with just 3 per cent of the population.

No fewer than 94 men were arrested, only to be eliminated one by one. And as the years ticked by, Melanie’s murder looked set to join the ranks of unsolved ‘cold cases’ that haunt every police force.

That was until Julie Mackay came to Avon and Somerset Police’s cold case unit in 2009. Julie, who joined the force aged 20, had initially been pegged for greatness, only to find her career prospects thwarted by a combination of domestic pressures and misogyny.

Juggling her career with raising three young children alone following her divorce, she had struggled to break through the glass ceiling. She recalls how, after becoming one of Avon and Somerset’s first all-female patrol duos in the burglary unit in the late 1980s, she was asked by one sergeant, ‘What will you do when you catch a burglar? His ironing?’

Dedicated detective Sergeant Julie Mackay solved the cold case murder of Melanie Road

By 2009 she had been assigned to cold cases, where breakthroughs were being made courtesy of the national DNA database, first established in 1995.

So far, however, it had failed to throw up even the smallest clue to help catch Melanie’s killer.

Yet Julie says that even as she surveyed the mountain of paperwork containing Melanie’s case, she had a gut feeling she would catch him.

‘I can’t explain it, but once I started getting things in order I felt convinced we were going to find the guy,’ she says.

A 25-year-anniversary appeal on Crimewatch yielded 72 new leads, among them a cancer nurse who said one of her patients had confessed to Melanie’s murder on his deathbed.

DNA from the man’s body tissue proved a partial match, so Julie went to meet Jean — her husband Tony was by then suffering from dementia and no longer living at home — for the first time.

‘There was a lot of pain behind her eyes but she was unfailingly courteous,’ Julie recalls.

Weeks later, further DNA testing eliminated the patient as the suspect — another bitter blow.

Mother Jean Road spoke to the BBC after the sentencing of her daughter’s killer 

Undeterred, Julie decided she would leave no stone unturned in her quest to get the family justice, a mission underpinned by the poignant realisation that she and Melanie were not only born in the same year but had a lot in common.

‘We were both sporty and outgoing,’ she says. ‘The difference was that, tragically, Melanie would always be just 17.’

Julie conducted extensive reviews of witness statements and exhibits and continued to investigate new leads, always keeping Jean abreast.

‘I never dressed anything up for her,’ she recalls.

‘When I told her I would find Melanie’s killer, I said it was instinct, that there was no rationale behind it. But she believed me. There was a trust there she hadn’t had before.

‘And that morphed into something else. I’d pick up some shopping for her, or we’d go out for lunch and just talk about mundane things.

‘When I’d had enough at work, I’d say “I’m going to visit Jean. I need to update her on something.” It became a little escape for me.’

Over time Jean opened up, sharing both her memories of Melanie and her feelings of being excluded by the original all-male detective team.

‘She was still savagely angry, nearly 30 years later, about the fact that they felt they could exclude her, and that she’d never been to the incident room [the base used by police throughout a case],’ Julie recalls.

Julie had made another request to access the DNA database — and this time she found a ‘screamer’

‘And I knew exactly how she felt because I had experienced exactly that same culture. I’d been in those rooms where it’s just full of men asking me to make a cup of tea.’

Julie would share her own challenges. She was trying to tackle her workload against a backdrop of near constant pain from ongoing gynaecological issues.

Meanwhile, her live-in relationship with a fellow police officer was deteriorating and her teenage children were pushing the boundaries: one was smoking pot at home, another continually getting into trouble at school. ‘Sometimes it felt like barely a day was going by without a call from the school,’ she says.

Throughout, Jean was a calm confidante. ‘She’d say, “How’s everything at home?” And I would tell her, “It’s a car crash”.

‘And she was completely non-judgmental about it all. She didn’t try to give solutions. God knows, Jean had suffered her own challenges in life, and she just knew and understood.’

Then, in 2015, came a breakthrough. Julie had made another request to access the DNA database — and this time she found a ‘screamer’. ‘It means someone with DNA very similar to the attacker who is screaming to be eliminated,’ she explains.

The screamer was a woman, a Bath local who had been swabbed by police following a row between her and her boyfriend in which she broke his necklace.

Police contacted her and it emerged that her father, Christopher Hampton, was a painter and decorator from Bristol who had lived locally at the time of the attack. He had no criminal record and seemed an unlikely fit.

‘If you met him you wouldn’t think in a month of Sundays he would be capable of what he did,’ Julie says.

She dispatched a colleague to take a swab — and, five weeks later, in July 2015, the results came back: Hampton’s DNA matched the blood at the murder scene.

‘It had taken us 31 years to find who had taken the life of that vibrant teenager — and now here we were,’ says Julie.

Hampton was arrested that night. ‘As he left, his wife said she would see him later. He replied, “No you won’t”. I’ve never forgotten that,’ Julie says.

in May 2016, Hampton was sentenced at Bristol Crown Court to a minimum term of 22 years for Melanie’s murder and remains behind bars

Hampton continued to deny any involvement and Julie recalls trying to goldplate her case while her own life was unravelling. Her continuing pain from fibroids meant she had to undergo a hysterectomy, her relationship had ended and she was still struggling to cope with mothering teenagers. Throughout, it was Jean’s neat home that provided a retreat.

‘It was the one place I could go to get any peace,’ she says. ‘She used to tell me “try not to worry”. She had been through so much that those words meant so much coming from her.’

Shortly before his trial, Hampton changed his plea to guilty but Julie still took Jean through the prosecution barrister’s opening statement — detailing the final moments of Melanie’s life — in advance.

‘Jean knew everything but, over the years, she hid the details deep, and I didn’t want her hearing it again for the first time in court,’ she says.

Finally, in May 2016, Hampton was sentenced at Bristol Crown Court to a minimum term of 22 years for Melanie’s murder. He remains behind bars.

Julie firmly believes that Hampton may be linked to other deaths, among them that of young mum Shelley Morgan, whose body was found in a Somerset copse two days after Melanie was attacked. Shelley, too, had been raped and stabbed.

‘There were other murders in Avon and Somerset with the same modus operandi, too,’ Julie says.

‘There are not many girls who are raped and have multiple stab wounds at an outside scene.

‘Obviously I’ve looked at them all, but while I could put Hampton in the area of where those homicides took place, we couldn’t prove anything further. And I’m really sorry for the families that we couldn’t do that.’ But she takes consolation from the fact that Jean and her family, at least, got justice after years of trauma.

‘I was 49 years old when all this happened,’ Jean wrote in her impact statement. ‘Now in my 81st year, I pray that the family will find some peace.’

Hampton’s incarceration did not mean Jean and Julie’s friendship ended.

‘We’d talk to each other regularly on the phone or go out for lunch. Or we’d sit in her house for hours drinking tea,’ she says.

That continued to be the case even when, in 2018, Julie left the area to move to Gloucestershire Police, where, a year later, she was promoted to superintendent — to Jean’s delight.

She was supportive, too — if bemused — when Julie, who now lives in Herefordshire, announced her decision to write a book.

‘Her first instinct was “what are you doing that for?” She had no desire for the public eye. But she understood why I wanted to do it,’ Julie says.

Jean lived to see the book published before passing away in April aged 88, following a stroke. Not long before, the two had met for lunch, which ended with them eating white chocolate Magnums.

‘I miss her terribly,’ says Julie, smiling at the memory. ‘She taught me so much about resilience.’

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