The way in which Steel became a suspect - in detail.
WHAT THE JUDGE SAID:
The judge’s summing-up mentioned the provenance of the key ring with these words:
"Here comes the most important part of the case from everybody’s point of view. By now the police had come into possession of that fish key ring, Exhibit 15. It had come, as is accepted, from the defendant’s wife. It had been given to her, he says now, by him at about the time of the attack upon Carol Wilkinson."
In fact, the judge’s summing up did not accurately reflect the evidence as it had been presented in the case papers. Michelle Steel did not give the police the key ring, as the judge seemed to imply. It came from Mrs. Vera Smith, the mother of Michelle Steel and the mother-in-law of Anthony Steel. Mrs Smith was not mentioned by name in the judge’s summing-up, she did not give evidence and she only appeared peripherally in evidence. Mrs Smith gave a statement to D.S. Falconer on 19th April 1979. It was this statement which began the investigation of Steel.
VERA SMITH'S DISLIKE OF STEEL.
Mrs Smith made no secret of her dislike for her son-in-law. And her statement covered far more than the key ring. Indeed, the key ring did not figure in Vera Smith's thinking when she told the police Steel had done the murder.
Mrs Smith gave D.S. Falconer a list of items she thought might link Steel to the Carol Wilkinson murder. There was no key ring in the list. What was on the list makes interesting reading - because, ultimately, some of helps to clear Steel of the crime.
This list began with two pink jumpers which belonged to Michelle. Each had a different design on it. Mrs Smith said that Anthony was wearing the jumper with a "cowboy" design on the day of the murder.
She saw him in the jumper at 4 50 in the afternoon of that day. She said she was surprised that Anthony had a newspaper on the day of the murder. But she was not very pleased with Steel that day - he was on his way back to live with Pamela Ward at the time. Mrs Smith cleared out his belongings and threw away a dark green jacket belonging to Steel. It had a button missing.
Steel later had this jacket recovered from where Mrs Smith had thrown it away. However, after a few weeks, Mrs Smith threw it out again. Mrs Smith then noticed Steel was wearing a jacket which was too small for him.
Towards the end of the week after the murder, Mrs Smith was looking through some drawers and she found the "cowboy" jumper - with a tear down the seam.
In the first week of November 1977, Mrs Smith went into the house where Steel and Michelle lived and searched through the drawers. She came to the conclusion that the "cowboy" jumper had disappeared. She told the police that Steel had habitually worn a black donkey jacket which vanished during the same period.
Finally, said Mrs Smith, on October 31st, she saw Steel was spitting blood. He said he had been doing so for three weeks because of an accident.
At Last - The key ring!
Mrs Smith also mentioned a key ring which she had seen in Michelle’s possession sometime in November. She said Michelle handed it to her and she had kept it, saying she got it from Steel.
On May 17th she amended her evidence. She now stated that the pink jumper with the "cowboy" design, which she thought had vanished - and which she said Steel was wearing on the day of the murder - may have been at the house in Cobden Street. Michelle, she said, denied it had ever existed.
The police acted swiftly after they heard all this. Within a day they had taken a statement from Kevin Best and followed it up with the statements from the four youths who identified the key ring.
However, if we go through the list of items, we may deduce why Mrs Smith’s statement was not presented as a part of the prosecution case and why she was not called at the trial.
Certainly the police would have been looking for a man in a donkey jacket - because several were mentioned by witnesses. However, donkey jackets are very common in the area.
However, the other item of clothing that Steel was supposed to wearing on the day of the murder - the pink jumper - would give them some problems. In the tussle that appears to have taken place during this attack, such a jumper should have shed fibres onto the victim’s clothing. No fibres foreign to Carol were found on her - and certainly no pink ones.
As for the bleeding mouth, if Steel’s mouth had been bleeding as Vera Smith said, there should have been some of his blood somewhere on Carol - particularly on her face. They were of different blood groups. No "foreign" blood was on Carol.
The police officers who interviewed Vera Smith and heard this story should have realised this - if they had read the statements from the 1977 investigation.
HOW THE POLICE PICKED OUT THE KEY RING.
Susan Wootton, Vera Smith’s elder daughter, claims to know what happened during this incident. mother. Peter Hill interviewed Mrs Wootton on June 7th 1996 and September 29th 1996. In brief, Mrs Wootton stated that the matter of the fish key ring was not as in the statement Vera Smith made. She said that her mother opened her handbag to get a packet of cigarettes out, whereupon one of the policemen said something like "what’s that?" and picked up the key ring. Mrs Smith then told him the story of how Michelle had given it to her.
Peter Hill related this version of events to Mrs Vera Smith in an interview on 22nd April 1997. She did not deny the order of events.
Why should the policeman pick the keyring out of Mrs Smith’s handbag in this way? After all, there had been no such key ring mentioned in the evidence of the 1977 investigation. According to Susan Wootton, Vera Smith gave the police no reason to connect the keyring with the murder and that is supported by Vera Smith’s own statements at the time - she merely said that it came from Michelle.
One reason may be that the police knew that some keys had gone missing from Carol’s bag. Another reason may be that none of the other evidence Vera Smith gave the police was capable of proving any connection between Steel and the murder. However, a common trinket such as this key ring was capable of such a connection - because many young women owned them at that time.
So the key ring might prove sufficient reason to arrest Steel. Further evidence connecting him might then be obtained by other means - particularly through interview.
VERA SMITH DID NOT KNOW THE KEY RING MIGHT BE USEFUL IN JAILING STEEL.
It seems, from what Susan Wootton now states, that Mrs Smith had no reason to connect the key ring with the murder. Such was not in her thoughts. We might reason that if she was keeping the key ring to use against Steel she would have produced it immediately as a part of her "evidence" against him because it was known from the newspapers that some of the contents of Carol’s purse were missing.
But she appears to have mentioned it last. The section of her statement about the key ring is on sheet 10 of the statement - carrying over onto the last page. It is clearly an addition to evidence after the main evidence has been presented.
As such, it fits Susan Wootton’s scenario of it having been a police initiative.
Is that why the police let the judge think they had got the key ring from Michelle - and not in fact her mother. Why did they not want Vera Smith in court? Would the venom have spoiled their case? As it was, after having done her worst, she left the stage.
The evidence about the enmity between Vera Smith and Steel is considerable. At one stage, long before he was arrested, Steel talked to the police complaining about the rumours she was spreading about him.
It is obvious that if the police asked Vera Smith about the key ring, she would undoubtedly conclude that she was only being asked the question because the key ring might connect Steel with the murder. She would readily supply any connection she could. But in fact the only connection she was able to offer was timing. She alleged, in part on hearsay evidence, that Steel had possessed the key ring in November 1977 and had owned it for a few weeks.
Michelle Steel also said that Steel had given her the key ring. This however, is from a wife who was not only backing up her mother, but who was aggrieved against Steel because he had left her with a baby to go back to Pamela Ward . We might wonder therefore if she would not readily accept her mother’s recollection of when Steel gave her the key ring.
Michelle’s story however differs in one aspect from that of her mother in Steel’s favour. In the statement she made to the defence solicitor she said that Steel had got the key ring originally from Pamela Ward. There seems to be no motive for her to lie about this - if anything she would have kept quiet about this.
Steel, of course, also said in his interviews with the police that he had given the key ring to his wife - though his reasoning was simply that Michelle would not lie about such matters.
IDENTIFYING THE KEYRING.
The moment the police had the key ring they set about connecting it to Carol Wilkinson. In fact it would seem that the evidence they had constituted insufficient to give the police reasonable grounds for putting the key ring to the four youths in case they should identify as Carol’s.
However, they went ahead - and used identification methods used by policemen solving burglaries. They held the key ring up before people and asked if it was Carol's.
The four youths who said yes to that question were immature. They would believe that the police had reasonable grounds - otherwise why were they being shown the keyring?
Moreover, according to Susan Wootton the police picked the key ring out from Vera Smith’s handbag. They chose the evidence to present to the four youths.
It might have been any small item of jewelry that the police had found Michelle owned and had got from Anthony Steel. But there is one distinguishing feature of the key ring which may have prompted the police to choose it. Of all the items Vera Smith could supply, it was the only one where the connection with the murder would be solely on identification evidence, not scientific evidence.
Scientific examination of such a key ring actually connected with such a crime would not be likely to yield much for the police. If the key ring had been on Carol’s bag during the murder attack, there might have been some blood on it, particularly on the inside of the scales, but such would be unlikely.
It seems that even the 1979 team did not think it likely. Although the forensic science officer examined the fish and found nothing to connect it with the crime, he does not appear to have dismantled it to make a search inside it, for it appeared in court completely whole.
The significance of this is that of all the items Vera Smith mentioned, the key ring was the only item which was not capable of being scientifically eliminated from the inquiry.
That the police chose it, as Susan Wootton asserts, suggests they may have realised this significant aspect of the key ring when they took it from Vera Smith’s handbag.
In fact - Vera Smith tends to eliminate Steel!
This may be another reason why the police did not want Vera Smith to appear at the trial.
Her statement is the only one in the entire case which identifies Steel’s clothing at the time of the murder. If we believe Vera Smith, Steel was wearing a pink jumper on the day of the murder. We might also believe from what she told the police that he was also wearing during that period a dark green jacket with a button missing.
If this is so, then it is odd that no trace evidence of pink fibres or dark green fibres was ever found on Carol’s body or clothing.
Moreover, if Steel had been wearing the dark green jacket during an attack on Carol - why did he recover it from the dustbin after Vera Smith had thrown it away? He would surely wish to be rid of it.
The fact that Vera Smith’s statements might have been used to help eliminate Steel may be why she formed no part of the prosecution case.