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Sheila Anderson: The murder which changed the policing of the sex trade

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

1919 Magazine, runs the first of it's three-part feature, recounting my insight into the unsolved murder of Sheila Anderson, back in 1983, when I was a Detective Inspector and deputy Senior Investigating Officer on the Sheila Anderson case.

Read the full article here or zoom in on the below.

Through the drizzling rain it looked like a bag of rubbish, a black bin liner dumped on the puddled track that ran along the south shore of the River Forth near Granton, Edinburgh. The area was known as Gypsy Brae – in the long distant past a resting spot for travellers, but it was now used by dog walkers and the odd car thief intent on torching the evidence. Like the neighbouring Silverknowes Parkway it was also a favourite spot for what was romantically called courting couples, and for prostitutes who were frequent users if their punter had wheels. The parkway was known universally as ‘Durex Drive’ – the clue was in the name.

But close to midnight on Thursday, April 7, 1983 it was two innocent citizens band radio enthusiasts who found their path blocked along the narrow track as they sought the best position for radio reception across the water. In the age before mobile phones citizens band short wave radio was a popular hobby. Reception was best at night, clear sight lines preferable; the wide estuary was ideal. With the bitter east wind, the radio enthusiasts were reluctant to leave the warmth of their car but there was no choice. They couldn’t take the chance of snagging their exhaust by driving over the obstacle. Pulling up his collar, the passenger got out to kick the rubbish bag out of their way. Even in the old car’s faded headlights he saw immediately that something was terribly wrong. It wasn’t a bag of rubbish lying in the puddle, but a body. The body looked very small like it had been flattened, but it appeared to be a young woman lying on her back in the mud. It was difficult to make out her features, but he saw enough to send him running back to the car babbling to his mate to call for help.

Gypsy Brae lay just north of two of North Edinburgh’s largest housing schemes and just two miles west of the old port of Leith – for centuries the haunt of street prostitutes. By 1983 Edinburgh was in the grip of the first heroin epidemic. There were all kinds of theories about how the deadly opiate had arrived in the city just a few years before, ranging from the influx of the drugs being the consequences of the fall of the Shah of Iran and its impact on of the Afghan heroin trade, to the less exotic theory that fishing trawlers were bringing the drugs into the nearby harbour of Granton. The theories, outlandish or not, were of little interest to the besieged families of Muirhouse and West Granton – they feared for their children and watched, helpless, as their community disintegrated around them. It hadn’t taken long for heroin to weave itself into the fabric of their communities. In just a few years it appeared to be everywhere, and the body count was rising. It took the panicked CB radio enthusiasts minutes to find a call box and raise the alarm. Ironically their radios could not contact the emergency services. Within a few minutes a ‘panda’ police car from Drylaw Mains Police Station arrived at the scene. Drylaw had always been one of the busiest police stations in Edinburgh. Now, with the growing drugs problem it was one of the busiest in Europe. For the young police men and women who worked there it was relentless. Moving from call to call they learned to deal quickly with incidents and move on – there was no place for dithering, no time for return calls. Success was about prioritisation and quick decision making. Some could not cope and had to be moved on, but others thrived, for all its remorseless grind.

Drylaw served as a training ground for generations of excellent resilient police offers – if you could do it there you could do it anywhere. First on the scene was a single crewed panda car. It had been a priority call; even for Drylaw a dead body commanded urgent attention. About the same time an ambulance from the nearby Western General Hospital arrived. Ambulances were poorly equipped then, so no one could be sure whether the woman was actually dead. But even the slightest doubt was enough – the battered body was quickly bundled into the ambulance and away with blue lights and sirens to the Western. By the poor light of his torch, the single policeman at the scene ruefully surveyed his crime scene. There was nothing much left to preserve but he parked his car across the track anyway and settled back to wait for the detectives to turn up. It was at least a break from the incessant 999 calls – a breather. Back at Drylaw Police Station the controller still wasn’t sure whether they were dealing with a road traffic accident or a crime but word from the hospital soon answered that question. First, the body was that of a young woman and she was dead on arrival. Despite best efforts she could not be resuscitated. Second, her injuries were consistent not just with being run over by a vehicle, but being run over several times and crushed. There was no doubt a crime had been committed and that meant the Criminal Investigation Department had to be called in. The main office at Fettes force headquarters was the only 24-hour manned CID facility in the city and one of their roles was the response and co-ordination of serious crimes. Within minutes of the message from Drylaw Mains, the main office Detective Sergeant was scanning his duty rosters and calling out a murder squad. There was still a chance this was a road traffic incident, but better safe than sorry. And there was another new piece of information: the uniform cop who had called at the hospital to get details thought that he recognised the body. He had worked the local area for years, the injuries were severe, but he thought the young woman was Sheila Anderson – a local girl, and one of many who had become involved in drugs and then the sex trade. At that time there was no standing murder squad in the Lothian and Borders area – twelve to fifteen murders a year didn’t justify it. Instead, where possible, the local head of CID, a Detective Chief Inspector, took the role of Senior Investigating Officer and if the local DCI wasn’t available then the neighbouring head of CID got the call. In the early hours of 8 April, DCI Jimmy Wilson was wakened from his sleep and told to get to Drylaw to sort out the mystery of the dead woman. Although he was the head of West End CID, the neighbouring division to Drylaw, Wilson was at the scene within the hour. He knew how much there was to be gained and lost in the first few hours of a potential murder investigation – get on the ground quick and minimise cock up.

There were few men better qualified to take on what would turn out to be a complex case. Jimmy Wilson was not only a highly experienced detective, he was a hugely charismatic character. A natural leader, witty and with a huge circle of friends and contacts, he was one of the best-known policemen in Edinburgh. The early reports to Wilson were stark. While the full double doctor post-mortem would take place later, it was confirmed that death had resulted from multiple injuries consistent with being crushed, probably by a heavy motor vehicle. Although it was believed that the dead woman was Sheila Anderson there was as yet no positive identification. There were no identifying documents with the body, no handbag, and some clothing (underwear) was missing. At first light a full search of the area surrounding Gypsy Brae would be made. Even the sea next to the breakwater would be trawled for evidence. But that was for later. In the early hours of the morning a murder squad started to gather at the purpose-built incident suite on the first floor of the CID block of the Lothian and Borders Force HQ at Fettes. Situated next to the offices of the head of CID, the incident suite consisted of two apartments. A small admin room designed for an admin team of three was connected by a hatch to a large conference room where the enquiry teams worked. After a quick visit to the locus at Gypsy Brae, DCI Jimmy Wilson had returned to Fettes to take stock, see who had turned out for duty and establish early priorities for enquiry. He knew that the first 12 hours of an investigation were vital, and he was determined not to waste them. By this time a squad of about a dozen detectives had turned out. It was the usual mix: a detective inspector to act as Deputy Investigating Officer and lead the enquiry officers, an admin team, headed by an experienced sergeant and an enquiry team of ten or twelve detectives. More could be added later if necessary, but it was always best to start small and keep control. Potential for error in these early hours was enormous – if you lost a grip it was sometimes impossible to recover. In the first hours the priorities were clear and obvious: positively identify the body, secure all available forensic evidence and establish immediate lines of enquiry. And of course, there was always the media. Before the days of 24-hour media there was some breathing space, but not much. By first light the well-connected crime reporters from the local paper, the Edinburgh Evening News, would be in full cry. Their connections were legendary. If you didn’t seize the initiative, they would be all over you. In the end, the identification was relatively simple. The cop at the hospital who thought he had recognised the body had been right.

Tom Wood is a writer and former DCC of Lothian & Borders Police. In 1983 he was a Detective Inspector and deputy Senior Investigating Officer on the Sheila Anderson case. He is a columnist with The Scotsman and has written books on the World’s End Murders and the critically acclaimed ‘Ruxton The First Modern Murder’ Sheila’s story is an excerpt from his upcoming book on the sex industry.

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