The Murder Mystery of Elizabeth McCabe
In February 1980, Elizabeth McCabe, a 20-year-old woman from Dundee, Scotland, fell victim to a heinous crime that shook the nation. This tragic incident, known as the murder mystery of Elizabeth McCabe, remains one of Scotland’s most notorious unsolved cases, prompting an extensive and widely-known manhunt. After a night out at Teazer’s Disco in the heart of Dundee city centre, McCabe vanished without a trace. Sadly, her lifeless body was discovered two weeks later in Templeton Woods, situated on the outskirts of the city, revealing that she had been brutally strangled.
Merely 11 months prior to this incident, the lifeless body of an 18-year-old sex worker named Carol Lannen had been discovered just 150 yards from the same woods. The proximity of these tragedies prompted the media to coin the term “Templeton Woods murders,” evoking widespread apprehension that a serial killer roamed free in the city. It is important to note that while these cases shared similarities, law enforcement authorities have not established a connection between the two murders.
The case was re-opened with advances in DNA profiling in 2004, and was briefly one of seven cases officially linked to serial killer Angus Sinclair as part of an inquiry named Operation Trinity, before Sinclair was conclusively eliminated from the cases. However, a taxi driver and criminal who had been a suspect in the original McCabe inquiry and who admitted to being a “peeping Tom” in Templeton Woods was tried for the murder in 2007, after it was heard that DNA was found on exhibits that had only a 1 in 40 million chance of belonging to anyone else. He also admitted being in the woods that night.
However, he was found not guilty by a majority decision at the conclusion of the trial. Afterwards, police said they were not looking for anyone else in connection with the murder. In 2004, both the Lannen and McCabe cases featured on the STV documentary series Unsolved, which focused on some of Scotland’s most notorious unsolved murders.
Elizabeth McCabe, a reserved and introverted 20-year-old trainee nursery nurse, led a predominantly quiet and unassuming life. She seldom indulged in drinking or socializing until approximately three or four months preceding her tragic demise. On the evening of Sunday, February 10, 1980, she departed her residence on Lyndhurst Avenue in Lochee to join her friends for a night out. Together, they visited several pubs before eventually arriving at Teazer’s Disco located on Union Street in Dundee. It was during their time at the disco that McCabe’s friend, Sandra Niven, recounted an incident where McCabe was discovered tearful in the restroom, expressing feelings of isolation and believing that she was not liked by anyone.
According to Niven, as the night came to a close at approximately 12:30 am and they were preparing to leave, she and McCabe unintentionally got separated. Niven had anticipated finding McCabe waiting for her at the nightclub’s exit, but to her surprise, she was nowhere to be found. Concerned, Niven diligently searched for her companion, even checking a nearby taxi rank, yet McCabe remained elusive. Niven eventually concluded that McCabe must have ventured off on her own.
Her mother later said that she would normally have taken a bus or a taxi home after a night out. Three months before this McCabe had got into a car that she had mistaken for a taxi after a night out. She had also been mistaken for a prostitute by a man who had approached her for sex shortly before she disappeared, something which she had joked about with Niven the very weekend she vanished from the nightclub.
McCabe failed to return home that night and her parents were immediately concerned, since it was out of character for her and as she had work the next day. 24 hours later her mother reported her missing, in the mistaken belief that she had to wait this amount of time before she could do so. It was believed that McCabe had attempted to get home by taking a taxi, since at that time of night she would not have been able to get to her home in Lochee by any other means.
16 days after she disappeared, McCabe’s naked body was found dead in a small clearing in Templeton Woods on the outskirts of the city by two men hunting rabbits with their dogs. She was found with a dark blue jumper draped over her shoulders. A pile of branches had been placed on top of her in an attempt to conceal the body.
A post-mortem revealed that McCabe had died from asphyxia caused by compression of her neck. A professor who was asked to review the evidence again when the case was re-opened in 2005 concluded that her death would have been quite sudden due to vagal inhibition in her neck, and that she had possibly been killed during a struggle or during a sex act.
Between the time McCabe disappeared and late February, some of McCabe’s clothing was found at Coupar Angus Road in the city, near the Kingsway. Two months after the murder, on 2 April 1980, McCabe’s jewellery and a photo belonging to her were also found in Cobden Street. Some weeks later her shoes were also found in this location.
On the night of McCabe’s disappearance, two individuals provided testimonies regarding an intriguing sighting. They claimed to have observed a Ford Cortina, displaying a taxi sign, emerging from a road that led to Templeton Woods. The witnesses noted that the driver appeared to be the sole occupant of the vehicle, with the interior lights illuminated. Furthermore, they observed an unusual manner of driving wherein the driver seemed to be operating the car with his wrists, as if his hands were soiled and he wished to avoid contact with the steering wheel. These two individuals identified the taxi as belonging to Vincent Simpson, who operated a local taxi company in Newtyle, located near Dundee.
He drove a Ford Cortina taxi at that time. As a result, Simpson was questioned by police, and admitted being in the woods on the night McCabe disappeared, claiming he had taken his dog for a walk there at about 10pm and saying he had returned to the woods after midnight on his way to collect a fare in Dundee. He claimed in a statement that he had gone back to try to steal from a car he had seen in the woods before. Simpson had a criminal record dating back to when he was a child and was a heavy gambling addict.
When shown a picture of McCabe he claimed he did not recognise her. He protested that he did not have any convictions for violence or sexual crimes, but in an interview on 3 March 1980 he admitted to being a “peeping tom” who used binoculars to spy on courting couples in Templeton Woods. He also reportedly admitted to other “unpleasant and embarrassing” things in interviews.
Despite a large and widely publicised manhunt for the killer, police failed to charge anyone with the murder of McCabe and late into 1980 the investigation was wound down, but left open.
Previous Templeton Woods murder
A mere 11 months before the tragic uncovering of McCabe’s lifeless body in Templeton Woods, another distressing incident occurred within the same woodland. Carol Lannen, an 18-year-old prostitute from Dundee, was discovered deceased in Templeton Woods in March 1979. Reports indicate that Lannen was last seen entering what was believed to be a Ford Cortina estate car taxi in Exchange Street, the renowned red light district of the city, at 8 pm on March 20, 1979. It is deeply unsettling that both incidents took place in such proximity to each other.
She had earlier been picked up from her home in Hill Street and taken by taxi the centre of the city by Commercial Street, but this taxi driver was never traced. Just like McCabe, she was strangled to death and found naked, and taxi drivers were also the key focus of the Lannen murder inquiry. Both had also last been seen in the centre of the city. The murder led to fears that there was a serial killer at large in the city at the time, and the two cases became known as the “Templeton Woods murders”. However, investigators at the time were said to be keeping an open mind on whether the same person killed both women.
11 days after Lannen was found dead, her handbag was mysteriously found at a remote location on the banks of the River Don in Aberdeenshire, 85 miles away from Dundee. Police therefore believe that the killer had a connection to this area.
In 2004, police linked to the murders of Lannen and McCabe together with five murders across Scotland as part of Operation Trinity, although police subsequently announced that the Templeton Woods murders were not linked to the other five cases and said in 2005 that there was no evidence to link the murders of Lannen and McCabe at that stage.
Cold case inquiries
In 1996, the Tayside Police initiated a fresh examination of the homicides involving Elizabeth McCabe and Carol Lannen, prompted by the reopening of the Bible John case in Glasgow. The year 2004 witnessed a significant development when investigators from three Scottish police forces revealed “strong connections” among the unsolved murders of seven young women. This group of cases included the tragic deaths of McCabe and Lannen, as well as the infamous World’s End murders. Operation Trinity was launched to investigate these crimes, ultimately identifying Angus Sinclair, a notorious serial killer, as the primary suspect in all of the aforementioned murders.
Sinclair was subsequently convicted of the World’s End Murders on DNA evidence and remains the prime suspect in three of the other murders: that of Anna Kenny, Hilda McAuley and Agnes Cooney in Glasgow during 1977. However, it was discovered that Sinclair definitely could not have committed the murders of Lannen and McCabe, since prison records show that he was imprisoned when both of the murders occurred. Investigators subsequently ruled out a link between the Templeton Woods murders and the five other cases, and also ruled out a link between the murders of Lannen and McCabe themselves.
The reinvestigations of 2004 led to the McCabe case being re-opened, and with advancements in DNA profiling (which had not yet been discovered at the time of the murder), items in the McCabe murder case were sent for DNA analysis in 2004. New public appeals were also made, which led to two notable calls from the public regarding the concerning behaviour of an unknown taxi driver who operated in the area at the time in 1980. In 2005 police arrested Vincent Simpson, the taxi driver who had been a suspect in the original investigation, at his home in Camberley, Surrey. He was charged with the murder in 2005 and sent for trial in 2007.
Trial of Vincent Simpson
The trial of Simpson commenced in October 2007 within the city of Edinburgh. Simpson, who had a history of multiple prior convictions primarily related to dishonesty and minor offenses, had previously been found guilty of larceny in 1967, going equipped to steal in 1970, theft in 1974, burglary and theft in 1977, as well as fraud and making a false statement to police in 1981. It is noteworthy, however, that the jury was not made aware of these past convictions, as Scottish legal regulations prohibit the inclusion of previous convictions during court proceedings.
The defence had attempted to get the case against Simpson thrown out in the early stages, but were unsuccessful. They had claimed he could not receive a fair trial due to the fact that some witnesses from the time had either died or could not be traced and because some documents and items were missing, whilst also saying that prosecuting him would “breach his human rights”.
The judge rejected these claims, saying that while the passage of time since the murder had caused some disadvantage, he was not convinced that any trial would not be fair. Simpson also faced two other charges of breach of the peace, on the grounds that he had approached women in Dundee at around the same time as the murder and caused them distress and alarm.
At the trial it was heard that DNA found on the jumper draped over McCabe where she was dumped very likely came from Simpson. Swabs taken from three different parts of the jumper all matched the DNA profile of Simpson. The chances of the DNA found on the right hand side of the jumper’s neck coming from someone other than Simpson were estimated at 1 in 320,000. The chances of the DNA from the back of the jumper coming from anyone other than Simpson were 1 in 105,000. A hair found on the black plastic sheeting used to transfer McCabe’s body to the mortuary in 1980 was also found to match Simpson’s DNA, with the test indicating the chances of it not belonging to him were 1 in 1,300.
Together, the combined odds of the DNA coming from someone unrelated to Simpson were 1 in 40 million, and Dr Jonathan Whittaker who conducted the DNA tests testified under oath: “In my opinion, these DNA profile results provide extremely strong support for the assertion that the DNA recovered from the hair and blue jumper has originated from Vincent Simpson”. On the DNA from the jumper’s neck, Whittaker said: “This result is of particular significance since the DNA profile result is what I would expect to find if Vincent Simpson had grabbed the jumper in the area of the neck, thus transferring his DNA to this area”.
Simpson, who was described as always smartly dressed and well-groomed, refused to give evidence at the trial. However, his defence argued that the DNA evidence must have been contaminated. The defence alleged that the fact that the hair found that matched Simpson’s DNA had not been found in an earlier examination of the sheet in 2003 was significant. The defence claimed the DNA also was tainted because there were (at that time) only around three labs in the world that were advanced enough to carry out the techniques used to analyse the evidence, meaning it was difficult to check the results.
The defence asserted that police had wrongly focused on taxi drivers, claiming that they had done so because they feared that McCabe’s killer had also killed Carol Lannen and that police wrongly feared a serial killer was on the loose (police had actually never linked the murders and had previously said that there was no apparent connection).
Detectives denied at trial that they had ignored other possible suspects, saying that “the investigation was led by the evidence” and “there comes a time when the evidence points to an individual, not police bias”. Simpson himself claimed to have an alibi, saying he was either at home, ferrying fares around the Dundee area or at a local casino when the murder happened. However, police revealed that they had questioned the casino doorman at the time and the man told them he hadn’t remembered seeing Simpson that night, and the casino doorman also testified at trial that Simpson had in fact phoned to pressurise him into claiming to police that he had been there at 1am that night.
The doorman responded to Simpson by saying that he could not do so as did not know him and could not remember seeing him. At trial the detectives on the case denied there had been contamination, with retired Detective Inspector Ian Kennedy saying that police took every step to ensure this didn’t happen. On a video shown to the jury of detectives examining evidence, Kennedy said that “my recollection of that exercise was that we took every possible step to make sure there was no chance of contamination”.
He added that contamination was also not necessarily a problem, if the source of the contamination was known. The jury were shown a video of Simpson in a police interview after he was arrested, in which he said that the DNA evidence was “tainted” but replied when he was asked if he was accusing police of planting evidence: “It doesn’t happen, does it?”.
At the end of the trial, the judge told the jury that they must not convict Simpson on the basis of DNA evidence alone. Subsequently, the jury found 61-year-old Simpson not guilty by a majority verdict in December 2007. McCabe’s mother and other family members had attended the trial almost every day and were reported to have been distressed by the verdict, with Ally Reid of Tayside Police commenting: “Elizabeth’s family are understandably disappointed at today’s verdict… they understand and support the reasons behind the re-investigation of Elizabeth’s death, and appreciate the efforts of those involved in bringing the matter to court”. Detective Chief Inspector Ewen West said that he was disappointed for the McCabe family at the verdict.
The BBC reported after that the trial that “There now seems little hope of closure for the McCabe family, or for Templeton Woods to shed its association with unsolved murder.” Despite the defence questioning the reliability of the DNA evidence, the Crown publicly defended the decision to prosecute Simpson and said that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute him. After the verdict, police said that they were not looking for anyone else in the case.
Tayside Police continued to separately appeal for information on the murder of Carol Lannen in 2008, with police believing members of the public hold information key to solving the case.
Following the revision of the double jeopardy law in Scotland in 2011, which permitted the retrial of previously acquitted suspects upon the emergence of new evidence, the McCabe case underwent a fresh review. In 2013, Simpson, who had since relocated to Camberley and taken up work as a window cleaner, provided a statement to the Daily Record. He expressed his lack of concern regarding the new investigation into the murder, remarking that “the cold case will go on and on. The police have got no avenues to go down.” Simpson also disclosed attending trials as a spectator in the same court where he was acquitted, observing proceedings from the public gallery.
In 2020, a senior investigator involved in the McCabe case conveyed to STV News that there remained a possibility of resolving the murder mystery of McCabe and Lannen, although law enforcement authorities indicated that there were no immediate plans to reopen the investigation.