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25-year mystery of Scarborough harbour body solved by cold case review team

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A 25-year mystery has been solved by North Yorkshire Police's Major Crime Unit with the identification of a man whose body was recovered from Scarborough harbour 25 years ago.

In 2011 North Yorkshire police launched a series of cold case reviews of unidentified bodies reported to the force over several decades. One of them was the case of a middle-aged man who drowned in Scarborough harbour on 2 May1989.

The 2011 review of the case included the extraction of a DNA profile – not available to the police at the time the body was found – from tissues retained by Scarborough Hospital. This would later prove instrumental in the identification of the deceased.

The identity of David Robin Michael Dawes remained a mystery for over two decades until his daughter saw an appeal on the UK Missing Persons Bureau website and contacted North Yorkshire Police on 22 February 2014.

Although she could not be certain, she believed that it could be her father, David, born in September 1933, as the date 1989 and the location of Scarborough were significant to him. At the time he went missing, he would have been aged 56 and living in Bolton.

She was able to provide limited information about her father, in particular, an injury to his leg that he suffered in 1985 that matched an injury recorded by the pathologist.

The original forensic scientist who obtained a degraded DNA profile from retained tissue samples during the cold case review of 2011, was contacted by North Yorkshire Police and made aware that a possible relative of the unidentified man had come forward.

The scientist’s opinion was that although the profile was degraded and somewhat limited, there would be a case for comparing it against the DNA profiles of the woman and her siblings.

Advances in DNA profiling, in particular DNA-17 were employed to obtain a more comprehensive profile from the retained tissue sample.

DNA-17 is the term that has been adopted from July 2014 to describe the next generation of DNA profiling methodologies to be utilised by the National DNA Database.

The DNA profiles of three family members were obtained and compared against the enhanced DNA-17 profile taken from the degraded 1989 tissue sample. The result of that work has identified DNA peaks present in all siblings’ samples consistent with those samples taken from Mr Dawes’ body.

The chances of paternity in the case of all three siblings was found to be 99.34 percent, 97.66 percent  and 98.81 percent, leading officers to believe that he is the father of all three children and could therefore be positively identified as David Robin Michael Dawes. At an inquest held on 6 January 2015, North Yorkshire East Coroner, Michael Oakley, agreed with these findings confirming his identity and recorded an open verdict on the circumstances of his death.

Detective Constable Vincent Morris of North Yorkshire Police’s Major Crime Unit, said: “I hope the successful outcome of the missing person investigation conducted by North Yorkshire Police has answered many of the questions Mr Dawes’ family have been asking for over 25 years.

“To know what happened to their father when he went missing in April 1989, although very sad, will hopefully provide them with some comfort and allow them to come to terms with their loss.

“I would also hope that the successful conclusion of this 25-year-old enquiry, gives hope to other families who may still be looking for their own missing loved ones.”

Mr Dawes was known to have lived in various places all over the country, including Scarborough for a period of time in 1983, for which he had a particular fondness.

Sadly his life was affected by excessive drinking and later, mental health problems.

At the time he went missing in 1989, he was living in a guest house in Bolton.

Background – initial police enquiry after body found in Scarborough harbour

On 2 May 1989, the body of a man was found floating face down in the Harbour on Scarborough’s South Bay.

An initial examination of the body established that the man, who was aged between 40 and 50-years-old, had been in the water for a matter of hours. There were no internal or external injuries and the cause of death was established as drowning. There were no suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.

The man was white, 5ft 10in tall, with brown eyes and a full head of black collar length hair, which was turning grey and may have been parted in the centre.

There were no tattoos on the body to help with identification, but pathologists found a scar and swelling above his left ankle caused by a fracture that had not properly healed and may have resulted in him walking with a limp.

Near to where the body was recovered police found a green anorak on the harbour side. In the pocket of the coat was a Sekonda wristwatch. The deceased was wearing a beige shirt, brown trousers and a pair of slip-on shoes size eight-and-a-half.

He had a few possessions with him; a Greater Manchester Police property bag containing toiletries, a Barclays bank cheque stub and cheque book cover, a newspaper, a used rail ticket from Blackburn to Todmorden and a railway timetable.

At the time, police believed that he may have had connections in Greater Manchester, Lancashire and the Calderdale area of West Yorkshire.

Further enquiries established that the man had stayed at a hotel in Scarborough for two nights prior to his death. He left on 1 May 1989 and was last seen alive early that evening.

At the time of the initial investigation to try and identify the man, DNA profiling was not available to the police and despite other extensive investigative methods being utilised he remained unidentified when he was cremated at Scarborough Cemetery on 10 January 1990.

Throughout the years since his death, North Yorkshire Police continued to try and identify the unknown man. Enquiries centred around missing people from the late 1980s proved difficult due to many police forces and other organisations moving from paper to electronic record systems with many old records being weeded out and deleted.

An artist’s impression, based on a photograph of the deceased was circulated in North Yorkshire, Blackburn, Todmorden and Manchester. As a result of this, people came forward stating they recognise the man but were unable to provide a full name.

Based on partial names, locations and descriptions, several people were identified as possible matches, however, through the process of elimination, these individuals were located and excluded from the enquiry.

6 January 2015

Last modified: May 9, 2018