The Guardian, Tuesday 30 October 2018
The case of the 25-year-old estate agent, presumed murdered in 1986, still fills me with horror at the dangers women face
More than 30 years after her disappearance, police are carrying out yet another search related to the murder of Suzy Lamplugh. The news will send shivers down the spine of anyone who remembers the headlines in 1986, appealing for help in finding the missing estate agent. Smiling pictures of Suzy, a lock of brown hair falling over her forehead, were everywhere, but days lengthened into weeks and the woman herself was nowhere.
The fact that a 25-year-old woman could leave her office, head for a perfectly ordinary street in southwest London and never be seen again defied belief. On the day of her disappearance, she had been due to show a house to a client, a routine appointment none of us would have thought twice about in those days. It was only afterwards that the man’s name, “Mr Kipper”, started to look like an obvious pseudonym – and one that suggested a twisted sense of humour, assuming it belonged to her abductor.
The last sighting of Suzy was in a street in Fulham, where she seemed to be arguing with a man, and her white Ford Fiesta was found just over a mile away. Since then, nothing, not a single trace, despite police searches of various locations including a disused army barracks outside Worcester. Sixteen years after her disappearance, Scotland Yard named a convicted rapist and murderer, John Cannan, as the prime suspect in what had long been assumed to be Suzy’s murder. The latest search, using specialist forensic equipment, is in the garden of a house in Sutton Coldfield which used to belong to Cannan’s mother.
Even now, I can’t hear Suzy’s name without remembering the growing sense of dread I felt as it became apparent that the most likely explanation for her disappearance was murder. By the middle of the 1980s, many more women were breaking into previously male professions, but no one had given much thought to the fact that our jobs sometimes required us to be alone with complete strangers. I vividly remember being sent to interview a man whose wife was missing, walking into his house on my own and immediately having a gut feeling that he had something to do with her disappearance. I almost ran out of the house and it made me think much harder about the situations my job might take me into.
Suzy’s disappearance brought all our half-formed fears into sharp focus. As women in our 20s and 30s, we wanted to believe we could do our work on exactly the same terms as men, but the Lamplugh case was a terrifying reminder of the existence of sexual predators. The risk of abduction was small but Suzy’s disappearance highlighted gaps in legislation to protect women, including the fact that stalking wasn’t a specific criminal offence at the time.
To her huge credit, Suzy’s mother Diana understood from her family’s dreadful experience that personal safety was a significant issue for women. With her husband Paul, she founded a trust in Suzy’s memory to campaign for changes in work culture and the law. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust now runs the national stalking helpline and has become the country’s leading resource for women and girls who are suffering from harassment. Tragically, Diana Lamplugh died in 2011, followed by her husband in June this year, without ever finding out what happened to their daughter.
In 1986, there was a tendency to treat the disappearance of a young woman as if it was something out of a crime novel, a whodunnit with a neat solution on the final page. There was even some unpleasant speculation about Suzy’s personal life, as though the idea of a woman being targeted and abducted by a complete stranger was outlandish. I would like to think that most people know better than that now, and if Suzy’s remains are found, it will offer resolution of a kind. Even so, few of us who remember the summer of 1986 can read her name without a sense of foreboding and horror.