The mystery of Ruth Wilson

A picture of the view from Box Hill. In the foreground is a viewing platform with a semicircular wall with two steps up; two white women, one wearing a red jumper and white pair of trousers and holding something under her arm, the other wearing a blue or grey top and white trousers. Behind the viewing platform there is a steep downward drop, with a playing field, houses and an office building at the bottom of the hill. It is a misty day and the buildings further away appear whitened, while the greenery in the foreground and the viewpoint are clearly visible.Recently a half-hour film featuring Martin Bright, the former New Statesman, Spectator and Jewish Chronicle contributor, and a retired Northern Irish cop named Liam McAuley, was published on YouTube about the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl named Ruth Wilson from Betchworth, near Dorking in Surrey. Bright wrote an article about the case and the film for the Observer last Sunday and had earlier written a piece for the Observer about various cases of teenagers disappearing and about why some (such as Milly Dowler) attract ample media attention and others attract much less (particularly those who have been in trouble, though boys generally attract less). The film interviews a number of friends of Ruth who shed some light on Ruth’s state of mind in the weeks leading up to her disappearance, but Bright and McAuley were unable to persuade Ruth’s family to participate, and they could not get answers out of people in Betchworth either. (More: Scepticpeg.)

The film glosses over some important facts about the area. It portrays Betchworth as a rural village, and Wilson as a “village girl”. In fact, Betchworth is a commuter village in the Surrey “stockbroker belt” and people living there commute to surrounding towns and the south London suburbs to work, and to London by train. There is a railway line running through the area with a station at Betchworth. The village is equidistant from Reigate and Dorking though it is in the same district as Dorking (Mole Valley) rather than Reigate. Ruth and her sister went to school in Dorking and would not have been unsophisticated ingenues or country bumpkins; they would have had the same access to information and technology as young people growing up in nearby Croydon, as I did. Betchworth is practially suburbia and if it had not been for the green belt, it probably would be.

Second, Box Hill is described as a local beauty spot but it is actually a major tourist trap, popular with day trippers, school trippers, bikers (push and motor), walkers and nature lovers. These days it’s famous as the climax of the 2012 Olympic road race and still features in the London and Surrey “classic” bicycle race each August. There is a pub (as mentioned in the programme), a shop, a National Trust-run cafe and information centre and at least one caravan park in the area. This matters, because if her body had been buried on or around Box Hill, it would have been found before very long as footfall in the area is very, very high. Needless to say, if she had killed herself there, she would have been found. It takes a very clever person to kill themselves and make sure they are never found, especially in a place like that.

At the time, Ruth was portrayed as a happy young girl who was doing well at school and her disappearance was quite out of character. In fact, she was very unhappy, having recently discovered that the story she had been told about her mother’s death (that it was an accident) was false, and that she had in fact killed herself. She had asked a friend, who was leaving the area for a new life in Sheffield, to take her with her but the friend was unable to and they were unable to stay in touch properly after the friend left. She also was known to regularly visit Box Hill after school, which would have been quite common as it is only a short bus ride from both Dorking and Betchworth (and a longish but manageable walk), which suggests that it was thought safe for a woman or girl to visit the area on her own.

Comments on the YouTube video about the case reveal a lot of suspicion about the father’s role, particularly because he will not speak to the investigators about his daughter’s disappearance. It appears she intended to go somewhere (hence the flowers, to be delivered two days later) but whoever she trusted to take her there killed her. There were some supposedly reliable sightings of her in Dorking in the days after her disappearance, but it is odd that nobody thought to approach her despite the claim that they knew her well. Notes from Ruth were found on Box Hill along with an empty packet of paracetamol tablets and a bottle of vermouth, but if she had really used those to kill herself, her body would have been found nearby; if this report is correct, the likelihood is that they were left by her killer. Finally, I wonder if the police investigated the veracity of the cab driver’s story, since he is the only witness to the claim that he left her on her own opposite a pub and that she did not move until he was out of view. Cab drivers were much less well-regulated then, before the Criminal Records Bureau was introduced after the Soham murders, and the number of abusive ones, even those who transported children, was fairly high. There was no GPS tracking or network of number plate cameras and few people had access to mobile phones, so the driver’s opportunity to disappear with Ruth undetected would have been greater than it is now — and certainly far greater than Ruth’s own ability to disappear undetected.

The least convincing theory is that Ruth left the area and made a new life for herself somewhere else. To do that she would have had to know people who could have made that possible; it is not known that she did, and surely whoever those people were would have been investigated following her disappearance. If she had done that, she would not have remained in hiding all her life; she would have been out and about living a life, and would have been seen even if she had changed her appearance. And would she really have not even let her family know she was OK, even if she did not want them knowing where she was? It’s difficult not to conclude that she was murdered that day or shortly afterwards, but the stone wall that Bright and McAuley faced when trying to investigate, and even the suggestion that Surrey Police might not like the suggestion that their investigations were not done properly, really suggests that a lot of people around Betchworth have a lot to hide.

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