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The Mystery of the Manchester 'Serial Killer' Police Say Doesn't Exist

Over the past few years, an unusual number of bodies have been found in the city's canals, sparking theories about a killer dubbed "The Pusher".

by James McMahon
06 April 2018, 9:29am

Manchester canal photo: 
Chris Bull / Alamy Stock Photo; Clockwise from top left: Souvik Pal, Charlie Pope, David Plunkett, all of whom were found dead in Manchester's canals.

It started as a rumour, but everyone knows how they go. A tall-sounding tale shared outside pubs on Canal Street, by office water-coolers – stories that would become repurposed by taxi drivers to creep out tourists. Eventually, Manchester's new boogeyman made its way into playgrounds – in name, at least: The Pusher, so-called because he allegedly drowns people in the city's vast canal network.

Then, on the 11th of January, 2015, British tabloid The Daily Star took The Pusher – an alleged serial killer walking the line between urban legend and credible threat – to a national audience. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Star's report revealed that 61 bodies had been pulled from the waters of Manchester in the last six years. Talk got louder.

A Channel 4 documentary titled The Pusher: Manchester’s Serial Killer? followed in 2016. The film claimed that the number of deaths was actually much higher: 85 bodies – 72 of them male – had been pulled from the area's canals since 2008. Twenty-eight of these deaths returned an open verdict in inquest. All remain unexplained. The legend of The Pusher grew.

The Pusher is in the news again due to the recent death of 19-year-old Charlie Pope, a Social Sciences student at the University of Manchester, whose body was found on the 2nd of March in a section of the canal just off the city's Whitworth Street. He'd been missing since leaving the Zombie Shack nightclub on New Wakefield Street a few days before, last seen on Whitworth Street at around 4.50AM. His father, Charlie, is now campaigning for barriers to be installed along the canals, with a Change.org petition gaining 35,000 signatures in a matter of days.

A spokesperson from Greater Manchester Police has said there are believed to be no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, yet as Patrick Karney – a city councillor and member of the water safety partnership – told Manchester Evening News, "Each time one of these deaths happens, people are going to ask, 'Is it the Manchester Pusher at work?' It's something that's not going to go away, although I have seen no evidence to suggest there is such a person."

While police say there is nothing suspicious about Pope's death, the same can't be said for many others. One of the 11 who lost their lives in the canals during 2010 – 21-year-old trainee sports teacher, Nathan Tomlinson, from Stockport – hadn't been heard from since leaving a work party, at around 10:30PM, the week before Christmas. He'd left after telling a colleague that he was heading home. Earlier, he'd texted his mum Tina to tell her that he was drinking shandy. His body was found in the River Irwell eight weeks later. His passport, wallet, coat and phone have never been recovered. His keys and a packet of cigarettes were. Police released strange CCTV footage showing a man some believe to be Nathan walking in the opposite direction to his home, at speed, covering two miles in 22 minutes.

Another victim was David Plunkett, who was 21 years old and a month off finishing his four-year degree when his body was pulled from the Manchester Ship Canal in 2004. He’d been out for the night with his friend Michael, to the Budweiser Music Event at the Daytona Racetrack in Trafford Park. He went missing, before his body was found three weeks later. His death was ruled an accident – a verdict his parents have never completely accepted.

"In the early hours of the morning, the phone went and it was David's friend Michael," his mother, Anne, told the documentary makers. "He said he'd lost David and was trying to get in touch with him. He said he and David had lost each other, and I just said to close the phone and I'd try to call David. It took about three attempts before David answered, but he didn't speak. The first thing that struck me was the quietness where David was. It was virtually silent. All I could hear was the sound of him walking, that was evident from his breathing, and I said, 'Do you know where you are? Are you in Manchester? Do you recognise anything?' – but no response. And then, about seven or eight minutes into the call, there was suddenly this ghastly screaming. I started crying, handed the phone to my husband, Mike, and I made a 999 call…"

"The screaming I heard," continues Mike, "made me feel like David had seen something that had terrified him."

"Then at 4:30AM," says Anne, "the phone just went dead."

These screams, heard by a Greater Manchester Police officer operating the call, weren't picked up on tape. The recorder had failed to work. The unnamed officer who dealt with the call described the screams as "distressing". She later resigned, telling The Daily Star, "The incident still haunts me to this date. With every death I see reported in the news, I become more and more convinced that these are murders and not accidents."

There are other stories, like 19-year-old Souvik Pal – a design student from India, and part-time member of Manchester United's catering staff – who went missing on New Year's Eve, 2012, after attending the Warehouse Project nightclub on Trafford Wharf Road.

Souvik had taken ecstasy and been drinking that night. He was thrown out of the club for acting erratically and then became separated from his friends. Twenty-two days later, police identified his body in the Bridgewater canal. CCTV from outside the club showed Souvik, at around 11PM, with a man who has never been identified. In the video, he and the man are seen walking away from the club and crossing a bridge over the canal, before Pal tries to climb a railing. The CCTV shows only the mystery man walking back to the nightclub. Souvik's father, Santanu, told the Manchester Evening News that this information "needs to be investigated to see if there really is a serial killer in this case".

Officially, some of the deaths are attributed to muggings gone wrong – a major case in 2013 revealed a gang of four men and a 14-year-old had robbed 40-year-old Simon Brass and drowned him by pushing him into the canal – or drunk misadventure. Some appear to be due to people recklessly trying to walk across narrow canal gates. Some areas have a higher death toll than others. The Undercroft area of the Rochdale canal, for example – 400 metres of which goes underground, between Dale Street and Minshull Street – has claimed six lives alone, with another five if you include the lochs on either side. As of two years ago, the stretch of waterway is locked from 10PM until 7AM, bolted shut by an outside contractor each day. "If you go in that canal," local councillor Pat Karney told the Manchester Evening News when the safety measures were announced, "you have no chance of coming out alive."

There is, of course, the suggestion that the deaths are due to suicide, though it’s estimated that only 4 percent of people who choose to take their lives do so by drowning. Professor Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Heath Psychology at Birmingham City University, says the suicide theory is "unlikely", and that the number of bodies recovered – which is around one per month – is higher than in other cities with similar stretches of water, including London and Birmingham. That said, it's worth noting that if there is a Manchester Pusher, it really should be the Greater Manchester Pusher, since the death sites aren’t all located in the city centre, but cover a vast area. The Pusher mythology is growing too, with rumours of similar activity in Bristol and Durham in recent years.

There’s also the belief that the killer is targeting Manchester’s gay quarter, whose Canal Street area has claimed nine lives – though this victimology doesn’t sit well with what has been divulged about the vast majority of the victims' lives. One thing is for sure, however: whether people are being pushed or people have fallen, the dead leave few clues. If there was bruising from a push, it’s unlikely it would show; it's spectacularly hard to find answers when the body begins decomposition the moment it hits the water.

Detective Chief Superintendent Russ Jackson, of Greater Manchester Police's Serious Crime Division, has said there is no evidence a serial killer is stalking the city's canals. "What is very important to bear in mind in all these cases is that they have been subject to separate investigations and there is no evidence at all to suggest these deaths are linked or were suspicious. On some occasions, people have been charged with offences relevant to that particular investigation."

"Whilst in some cases," he continued, "it remains uncertain how people came to be in the water, in many others, the circumstances have been established following thorough investigations."

Yet, as long as the question mark of that word "uncertain" remains, it’s unlikely the legacy of The Pusher – should that person indeed exist – will wash away any time soon.

@jamesjammcmahon