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Past Times

Was missing Highland woman the victim of notorious 1981 ‘Nude in the Nettles’ mystery? Cold case detectives testing north-east DNA to find out

reports.
Susy Macaulay
North Yorkshire police sculpted this wax model of the unidentified 'Nude in the Nettles' victim. Image: North Yorkshire Police.
North Yorkshire police sculpted this wax model of the unidentified 'Nude in the Nettles' victim. Image: North Yorkshire Police.

Could DNA from two Aberdeenshire men finally put a name to the “Sutton Bank Jane Doe” whose body was found dumped in Yorkshire in 1981?

The case, dubbed “the Nude in the Nettles” by the local press, has remained a mystery for more than four decades.

Now it’s under review and North Yorkshire detectives are looking for possible answers in the north-east.

DNA samples have been taken from Inverurie man Archie Moody, and Aboyne man Jim Lawson, both with long-standing missing relatives.

Mystery body found

The North Yorkshire cold case dates back to 1981, when the naked body of a woman was found in deep vegetation off a road near Sutton Bank.

Dubbed by the local press as ‘the Nude in the Nettles’, the woman remains unidentified to this day.

She was around 5ft 4 inches with dark brown hair cut in a page-boy style and size 4 feet.

Archie Moody with a flyer looking for his mum Margaret, missing since 1977. Image: Kami Thomson/DCT
Archie Moody with a flyer looking for his mum Margaret, missing since 1977. Image: Kami Thomson/DCT

In a macabre detail, it was found that the victim’s toenails were painted with Max Factor ‘Maxi’, a pale pink.

Police were alerted to her presence beneath a bank of willow herb at Sutton Bank Top by an anonymous, well-spoken caller who said he could not identify himself ‘for reasons of national security’ but gave precise directions where to find the body.

It’s thought the woman had lain there undisturbed for up to two years.

North-east connections

The potential north-east connections were brought to the attention of North Yorkshire and Cleveland Major Investigation Team Cold Case Review Unit in Harrogate after a Crimewatch appeal last summer.

Archie Moody’s mum Margaret Bell Poland Docherty Moody went missing from her Motherwell home in the summer of 1977; and Penuel Sheriffs, an Aboyne crofter’s daughter, went missing from her home in Spean Bridge in 1958.

Jim Lawson is Penuel Sheriffs’ youngest brother.

He was four when she disappeared from her home at Auchindaul Railway Cottages in Spean Bridge, leaving behind two young sons.

Coverage of the case of Penuel Sheriffs who went missing from Spean Bridge in 1958.  Image: DCT.

Jim is desperate to find out what happened to his sister, a vulnerable, petite 25 year old who seemed to vanish into thin air one afternoon in October 1958.

Her husband David ‘Sandy’ Sheriffs, a railway signalman, told police he had been on night shift and had gone to bed that afternoon.

When he woke up at 3pm he found she had gone.

One in a million chance

North Yorkshire police say there’s a ‘one in a million chance’ that the so-called Nude in the Nettles is either of the two missing women, but they are keen to help the anguished relatives by taking their DNA.

The Nude in the Nettles, Margaret Docherty and Penuel Sheriffs have certain physical characteristics in common.

They are all petite, have had children and are in the right age bracket.

Jim Lawson contacted Crimewatch after he saw an appeal by North Yorks police to try and identify the ‘nude in the nettles’.

Similarities

He said: “It struck me there were a lot similarities.

“I just want to know what happened to my sister, even if this is not her, at least it’s ruled out.”

Margaret Docherty’s son Archie now lives in Inverurie.

Archie was 10 when she disappeared, and has had a difficult life, tormented with anguish about what happened to his mother.

Cold case detective Max Jowett takes DNA from Archie Moody. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

Archie has spoken to the P&J about his lifelong anguish, and wants to make it clear that there is no payment involved from the paper in his speaking out.

He says his life has been devastated by his mother’s disappearance, and his family torn apart.

His step-father David went off the rails with drink after Margaret’s disappearance and Archie had to shoplift to feed the family of seven children.

This quickly brought him into the path of the police, who he claims seemed more interested in arresting him, and mocking him and his step-dad for Margaret’s disappearance.

No investigation at the time

As far as Archie knows, there was no investigation into Margaret’s disappearance at the time.

He spiralled into a life of drug addiction and crime, much of which was spent behind bars.

He said: “Every night in prison I thought about my mother. Every night I wondered what had happened to her.

“I still do.

“I’m convinced she didn’t just run away.”

“I’m convinced she was murdered.”

Archie, 56, emerged from his old life six years ago and is now clean and settled with a partner.

Archie Moody’s life was devastated by the disappearance of his mother in 1977. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

He recalls the night of his mother’s disappearance.

His step-dad David had just got home from hospital after surgery, and he and Margaret had got into an argument.

“My mum was happy with David,” Archie insists.

“They had been together for about six or seven years, and had three children.

“They had rows but always resolved them in the bedroom.

“No way she would run away.”

“There’s no way she would run away from him and all of us.

“I’m convinced if they had still been together there would have been four more children.”

Archie’s oldest brother Jim always stuck like glue to his mum, Archie says.

“Everywhere she went, there was Jim. But that night, she didn’t take him with her, I don’t know why.

“There are a couple of parks and empty spaces where we lived in Jerviston, Motherwell and I think she went for a walk to clear her head and ended up meeting the wrong man.”

Brother’s tragic end

Jim spoke very little after that night and went on to join the army, dying tragically in the Gulf in 1993.

“No-one looked for her,” Archie said. “The police said they didn’t know she was missing until 2001, no-one had reported her missing.

“But that’s not right. They knew fine she was missing and used to come round and taunt my step-dad about it while arresting me, saying things like ‘you’re stealing because you’ve got no mam’.”

The taunting got too much for David, who took the family up to Wick for the next ten years before eventually returning to Motherwell.

Archie says he put feelers out while in prison to see if anyone knew anything about what happened to Margaret, but nothing ever came back from any of the inmates.

Margaret Moody on her wedding day. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

In 2005, while Archie was in Perth prison, he says prison officers came to take DNA from him and told him police thought that his mother was most likely a victim of Peter Tobin or violent Aberdeen robber and sex offender, John Angus.

They said as both men were convicted, they had the right not to answer further questions, so they asked Archie to write to them.

Amidst devastation and depression, Archie could not find it in himself to do so, wondering why he was being asked to do the police’s job for them.

Appeal to Peter Tobin

But in 2021, when he learned Peter Tobin was on his deathbed, he issued an appeal in a national newspaper for Tobin to come clean.

It was in vain.

At the end of last year, Archie got in touch with CID in Wishaw to find out what had happened to Margaret’s case.

“They told me the case was closed in 2020, but they didn’t tell me why.

“I personally think it’s because they have so much to be ashamed of in how it was handled.”

Margaret finally registered missing

A spokeswoman for Police Scotland said it wasn’t until March 18 2010 that Margaret Moody was registered as a missing person by a family member.

The case has been reviewed, but without new leads is currently inactive.

She said: “Missing person cases remain open until the person is traced.

“There are currently no active searches ongoing for Margaret as we have no new information available, however periodic reviews take place.

“Anyone with information can contact us at any time on 101.”

Max Jowett on his way to take DNA from Archie Moody.<br />Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

Max Jowett is the specialist police staff investigator of the Harrogate cold case review unit.

Depressing picture

His long experience has given him a clear but depressing picture of what happened to missing women in earlier decades.

He said: “I’ve come to the conclusion that a large number of women went ‘missing’ in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

“They were often reported missing by male partners, husbands, and known to be in chaotic, abusive lifestyles.

“Sometimes the women weren’t even reported missing.

“I think the bigger story here is the societal attitude to these women at the time, and the lack of any curiosity on the part of the authorities as to what had actually happened to them.

“What is even sadder is that on many occasions, children of the missing women were split up and placed into care.

“It’s my view that in many of these cases, women left their abusive partner and children to start a new life.”

Max cites the example of a woman he traced who left three young children.

He said: “They believed that she was deceased.

“I traced her to another part of the country years later with a partner and new children.

“Sometimes missing women don’t want any contact with their old lives.

“In other cases, I am convinced that women were killed by partners and disposed of.

“Unfortunately, due to the passage of time, those abusers are generally deceased, even if their involvement could be proved.”

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