In Search of a Killer

updated 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

JANUARY 18 WAS A WEDNESDAY, and Claire Denise Hood was supposed to have been in school. But something—perhaps it was the first clear sky after weeks of rain in Cardiff, Wales—led the shy 15-year-old with bright blue eyes and shoulder-length brown hair to play hooky. At around 3:30 p.m., a woman walking her dog saw Hood standing on a footbridge in Cath Cobb Woodlands, a six-acre park near her home in a poor section of Cardiffs St. Mellons neighborhood. It was the last time she was seen alive.

The next afternoon a biker found Hood's body, naked from the waist down, next to the stream that runs under the footbridge. Her pants, underpants and shoes were scattered nearby. She had cuts and bruises around her head and neck, and she had been raped. Her killer left no fingerprints. But he did leave something just as damning: his DNA profile, contained in his semen.

Cardiff detectives are now conducting a highly unusual dragnet in St. Mellons. In a door-to-door canvass, they are requesting that each of the neighborhood's 2,000 males provide a sample of their blood for DNA testing. The hope, as in the O.J. Simpson case, is that a DNA match will finger the killer. Those who refuse to be tested risk being singled out for investigation.

"Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to detect the murderer by traditional methods," says Det. Supt. Colin Jones, who estimates the DNA testing could cost $150,000. "But we are not just going to sit here waiting for the phone to ring and a chap to say, 'Here's your man.' "

In the U.S., such mass DNA screening, which the British call a blooding, would almost certainly run afoul of the search-and-seizure protections in the Fourth Amendment. But it has prompted surprisingly little controversy in Great Britain. Even Liberty, the British equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, announced its support of the DNA dragnet after police promised to destroy their data files once the investigation is completed. "Police have no right to hold files on people who step forward voluntarily to help solve a crime," says Liberty spokeswoman Atiya Lockwood.

Of greater concern to Liberty is a recently enacted government plan to create a nationwide DNA computer data base—the world's first—and a new law that allows police to collect DNA samples from anyone—including, say, shoplifters—arrested for a criminal offense. "We believe samples should only be taken for offenses where DNA is directly relevant to the case," says Lockwood.

Voluntary screening for DNA was first tried in the English Midlands in 1986. And it worked—in a way. In a double rape-and-murder case that became the subject of a Joseph Wambaugh bestseller, The Blooding, police analyzed the DNA of 2,000 men. A baker named Colin Pitchfork, who came under suspicion after detectives learned he had paid another man to take his place in the testing, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the crimes. Police in Cardiff were not so lucky four years later when DNA samples from 5,000 men in another rape-and-murder case failed to yield even a suspect.

Detective Superintendent Jones, 45, was reluctant at first to initiate DNA sampling in the Claire Hood murder. But when weeks of conventional detective work turned up few leads, he decided on the screening. The odds of success are increased, he believes, by the fact that the crime occurred in an area rarely visited by outsiders. "The position where the body was found suggests an intimate knowledge of the woods," he says. "And this was on a cold winter afternoon in an area hardly described as a tourist attraction."

In early April, when tests of a handful of men who had been seen in the park the day of the murder failed to turn up a match, Jones launched the full-scale blooding. At 6'2" and 220 lbs., Jones, the son of a Welsh coal miner, has the build of a very persuasive detective, but his gentle manner indicates that he relies on cajolery rather than muscle to get his way. His effort was aided early on when the World Boxing Organization featherweight champion Steve Robinson, a respected family man who lives in the community, volunteered to be tested. Since then, police have been scheduling up to 60 men a week to leave blood samples at a temporary trailer clinic behind the local police station.

So far no one has refused the invitation, and none, at least publicly, has complained about invasion of privacy. "Why put yourself under suspicion?" says Paul Griffiths, 36, a handyman. "If you don't give blood, they'll just come and look for you anyway. And while they are looking for you, they could be looking for the person who really did it."

Then, too, the investigation enjoys a certain generational egalitarianism. On Griffiths's day for testing, the trailer clinic was also visited by middle-aged workers, grandfathers and boys hardly out of puberty. Christopher Blake, 13, took one look at the needle wielded by a nurse about to take his blood and asked plaintively, "How far are you going to put it in?"

Even neighborhood toughs have been cooperative. After giving his blood sample, Thomas McGrath, 25, who has a police record, proclaimed, "Everyone around here just wants to see the bastard who killed Claire caught."

No one desires that more than Claire Hood's mother, Pam Bennett, 33. "Until we find whoever did this, we can never rest," she says. Bennett and her common-law husband, Kelvin Hood, a carpet fitter, split up six years ago, and she had been raising their children—Claire and Sarah, 12—on her own.

A cleaning woman, Bennett returned to her modest row-house apartment for lunch after the morning shift on Jan. 18 to discover Claire had overslept. Claire quickly dressed and, promising to head directly to school, left the house. "She gave me a kiss on the doorstep, and I watched her from the front door," Bennett says. "She turned and waved."

When Claire didn't return home that evening, Bennett reported her missing and went out looking for her with some neighbors. "When we searched for her in the woods, I passed within a few feet of where she was eventually found," Bennett says.

Since the murder, Sarah has been sleeping in her sister's bed. "She wants to be close to her," says Bennett. But otherwise the room remains exactly as Claire left it, right down to the record she left on the stereo—Smokey Robinson's Tracks of My Tears.

The 30 DNA test results so far have all been negative, and police are prepared for a painstaking search that could take more than a year. Detective Jones has not discounted the very distinct possibility the killer will evade testing somehow. But he is banking on one more theory: that this killer, like many other criminals he has pursued during his 26 years as a detective, thinks he can win a cat-and-mouse game with the police and will stay in the community. "Human nature is a funny thing," he says.

JOHN WRIGHT in Cardiff

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