Testimony: The Body on Seaham Beach is a new two-part podcast which launches 16 years to the day since the discovery of human remains on the Featherbed Rocks in north-east England.
On 13 May 2006 a man walking on the beach in Seaham, six miles south of Sunderland, made the shocking discovery of human remains.
On the podcast Fiona Thompson, who covered the story as a reporter for our sister title the Sunderland Echo at the time, takes listeners through the actions of police and others in the weeks, months and years that followed, in the exhaustive attempt to identify these remains.
Testimony: The Body on Seaham Beach features interviews with key people and agencies involved in the case.
Listen to episode one now:
‘I still feel this case can be solved’
Fiona Thompson takes listeners through what happened: “This case has stayed with me for the last 16 years. I had never seen anything like it before or since.
“This body washed ashore at Featherbed Rocks and no-one knew who it was. Durham Constabulary set to work straight away and I stayed close to the investigation as they introduced amazing cutting edge science and technology to try to identify this unknown person.
“I got to know some of those involved in the case quite well, such as Cliff Down the Detective Sergeant and Neville Dixon, the Coroner’s Officer, and for all of us this case has always stayed in the back of our minds. By making the podcast we wanted to explore everything that happened and ask the question if something was missed or if more could have been done.
“I still feel this case can be solved. Someone out there knows who this is. The podcast contains everything we know about this man and I hope that something will click with a listener and we can finally say who this person is and return them to their family.”
Testimony: The Body on Seaham Beach highlights the ongoing search for answers and asks whether someone out there may hold the key to solving this case.
‘No stone was left unturned’
Retired Detective Sergeant Cliff Down was the lead police officer on the case and shares his memories about the only case he ever worked on not to reach a conclusion.
“It was the first time I’d ever gone to a body that had been recovered on the beach. There were a lot of inquiries to come which I had never done before and it was a big learning curve for me.
“Like most investigations we started with the basics, we needed to rule out foul play and see if this body matched any missing persons reports from ours and neighbouring forces areas. But after that we needed to start thinking more laterally, we had to use all the forensic evidence we had to try and identify this person.
“We ventured into areas of cutting edge scientific investigations that hadn’t been used before by the force, like isotope analysis. We even undertook to create a full facial reconstruction too in the hope someone would recognise this person. No stone was left unturned but, this case still frustrates me to this day and I hope by contributing to the podcast we can reach someone who has information who can help answer some of the outstanding questions we have.”
How people can just vanish
As well as the specifics of this case, the podcast sheds light on how missing people cases and unidentified remains are treated by the authorities and investigators.
In the podcast, Louise Newell, Operations Manager at the UK Missing Persons Unit at the National Crime Agency, talks about the challenges of identifying some human remains through their DNA database: “Some families might not report somebody as missing for many, many years if their behaviour is completely normal. So cases could sit there for a long time before we are then able to make a match.
“There are quite a lot of people out there who, for whatever reason, there’s some sort of family breakdown or there’s a disconnect between them and family and they don’t have close relationships with people.
“Sadly, when they die, a) we can’t identify them, and b) family or previous friends or partners won’t know they’re missing as that lack of communication is standard.”
Other contributors include Professor Caroline Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University, who worked with Cliff and his team to carry out the facial reconstruction. Dr Wilkinson is famed for doing a similar reconstruction of King Richard III, following the discovery of his remains in a Leicester car park in 2012.
Coroner’s Officer Neville Dixon is another expert guest, who explains how this particular case was so unusual.
Niall Benson of Durham Heritage Coast and DNA expert Dr Steven Darby from the University of Sunderland also feature on the series in order to tackle some of the outstanding questions relating to the case, in the hope of finally giving a grieving family somewhere, some answers.
Testimony is a Laudable production for the Sunderland Echo and NationalWorld. Episode one is available on all podcast platforms from Friday 13 May. Episode two will be available next Friday (20 May). It is presented, produced and edited by Kelly Crichton.