catching a killer | 

Soil expert reveals how she helped trace Cork student Karen Buckley’s killer

Karen Buckley was 24 years-old and studying in Glasgow when she met the violent Alexander Pacteau at a Scottish nightclub in April of 2015.

Alexander Pacteau was sentenced to 23 years for the murder of Karen Buckley

Karen Buckley. Photo: Crown Office/PA Wire.

Maeve McTaggartSunday World

The soil expert who worked to catch the killer of a young nurse from Cork has opened up about her crucial role in the investigation.

Karen Buckley was 24 years-old and studying in Glasgow when she met the violent Alexander Pacteau at a Scottish nightclub in April of 2015.

She had accepted a lift home from the 21-year-old and was never seen again, later being reported missing by friends.

Police quickly enlisted Professor Lorna Dawson to help them find Karen, in what was then a missing person’s case.

As the Head of the Soil Forensics Group at the James Hutton Institute, she was drafted to help track down the man last seen with Karen on CCTV.

"I was phoned [and told] that poor Karen had gone missing and might still be alive,” Prof Dawson told The Herald. "And we’ve got the boots of the last person she was seen with on CCTV.

Karen Buckley. Photo: Crown Office/PA Wire.

“They had retained one of the boots for DNA.

"You would usually do the DNA first before any soil examination is done, but in this case there was a hope that it might lead to where she might be held captive and she might still be alive.

“Sadly that wasn’t to be and it was a case of doing things as quickly as possible."

The young woman was killed the same night she went missing in Pacteau’s car.

He strangled her before attempting to dissolve her body in a vat of caustic soda in his flat and concealing her body in a barrel.

For Professor Dawson, the investigation continued until her body was found four days later.

“The priority was, can you tell us where she might be and where he had last walked?”

Prof Dawson had an archive of 14,000 soil samples from across Scotland, each analysed for their “elemental composition, their pH, the carbon content, their texture plus lots more information”.

With a tiny soil sample, she can pinpoint the location it came from.

"When we get the samples we give them an anonymised code so that we don't associate with the human story until the very end," she told The Herald.

"I'm privileged to have the job that I do because there is no better thing you can do than seeing the impact of the science and how it impacts on the criminal justice system in getting as close to the truth as we possibly can, to bring some closure to the families who are affected by these tragedies."

The soil samples on the boot brought her to an area around High Craigton Farm in Milngavie, a site “that supported a piece of intelligence the police were investigating at the time,” she said.

At that location on the outskirts of the city, police found a lock-up that Karen’s killer had rented.

“Someone had told them that he kept some equipment in a lock-up at that same farm.

“It’s often supportive information that gives them greater confidence that something has happened at a particular place or not."

There, Pacteau had burned a mattress and clothes before concealing the young Cork woman’s body in a barrel.

Despite attempts to clean his car, soil traces remained on his tyre, leading police to Glasgow’s Dawsholm park: where Karen’s handbag was dumped.

"His car had been seized and we went down and we sampled that car at Gartcosh – the blood and the DNA and any fibres or hairs are recovered.

“We would then look at any soil and vegetation after that.”

The soil expert revealed the evidence was “overwhelming” as she managed to trace his whereabouts throughout the murder.

Pacteau was jailed for 23 years in 2015, with the judge describing him as a “cold and calculating man.”

In September, her was involved in a four hour prison riot when around 40 prisoners refused to lock up in their cells.

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