Edinburgh unsolved: Sex worker’s death saw change in city policing

27 year old Sheila Anderson was murdered 34 years ago.
27 year old Sheila Anderson was murdered 34 years ago.

FEW murders have brought about more lasting change in how the Capital’s streets are policed than that of sex worker Sheila Anderson.

Her death was to shine a light on Edinburgh’s sex trade – triggering root-and-branch reform that saved many lives.

Murder of Sheila Anderson at Granton, Edinburgh, on April 7th 1983.

Murder of Sheila Anderson at Granton, Edinburgh, on April 7th 1983.

And while her murder remains unsolved 34 years on, one of the most senior detectives who worked on the case still holds out hope that Sheila’s killer will one day be brought to justice.

“Some investigations bring systematic change,” says Tom Wood, 67, who was the deputy senior investigating officer on the case. “The death of Sheila Anderson brought about a shift in the way we police the sex industry, because that was the case that opened out what was going on in the street sex scene.”

Tom rose to deputy chief constable of the former Lothian and Borders force, but was a fresh-faced detective inspector at the time of Sheila’s murder in April 1983.

“I remember it very well,” says Tom. “The street sex industry before that in the 60s and 70s was older and experienced women on the docks with sailors. Generally speaking it was a group of older women who could look after themselves.”

The body of Sheila Anderson was found close to a sea wall in Granton.

The body of Sheila Anderson was found close to a sea wall in Granton.

But all that would change in the 70s and 80s as a destructive new import was dumped on the city: heroin.

Younger girls became hooked and were forced onto the streets to fund their habit, among them mother-of-two Sheila, 27.

“At the time Sheila Anderson died they were mostly drug dependent and were completely vulnerable and unable to protect themselves or look after themselves,” recalls Tom.

Shortly before midnight on April 7, 1983, a couple of CB radio enthusiasts stumbled across Sheila’s body on a pebbled path at Gypsy Brae, off Granton’s West Shore Road.

Her horrific injuries were consistent with being run over with a car repeatedly, backwards and forwards.

Detectives immediately tried to piece together the hours and days leading up to her grim death, no easy task given that Sheila drifted around the city.

The last positive sighting was at 11.25pm that night by two beat officers who spotted her touting for business outside Lindean House, Commercial Street – then nothing.

Tom and his team worked on the theory Sheila had fallen out with a punter, or tried to stop one driving off without paying, with tragic consequences.

They tried and failed to trace the car that was used as a murder weapon – but Police Scotland’s cold cases unit still has well preserved clues.

“Crimes between strangers are far more difficult to solve,” says Tom. “The vast majority of murders are between people who know each other. Stranger murders are extremely difficult.

“We never traced the car involved but there is forensic evidence and that’s why it’s still solvable.

“Somebody could read it this in the paper, pick up the phone and mention a name – stranger things have happened.”

While justice for Sheila remains elusive, her case undeniably helped benefit girls working the Capital’s streets.

“The sex industry was no longer a primary criminal justice issue, it was a primary public health issue,” says Tom.

“It’s very hard now to go back to the early 80s and the threat of HIV Aids as big as it was, with no antiretroviral drugs and before what we know now – it was a huge public health issue.”

Tom credits the work of partner organisations such as Shiva (Scottish HIV Action) and Scot-pep (a charity which promotes sex workers’ rights, safety, and health) in making the Capital’s streets safer – and ultimately helping create tolerance zones.

“They contributed to the health and safety of girls working on the streets – I don’t think they get enough credit for the amount of work they did,” says Tom. “We got better intelligence and got onto people pimping, drug dealers or people who were violent.”

Tom was part of a cold cases review of the Sheila Anderson murder eight years ago and says forensic evidence does exist, but refuses to elaborate for fear of prejudicing any future proceedings.

“There’s evidence there,” he says. “It’s not too late. Historic cases can be solved and are solved.”

He is hopeful someone will come forward with a name or key piece of information to help crack the case.

“It’s still fresh in my memory. It’s a totemic case and some like that change the way we work. Sheila Anderson was an important investigation even though we haven’t solved it. It changed the way we think, changed the way we act.

And it saved lives, asserts Tom, with no Edinburgh sex industry murder since Sheila’s – unlike in other cities.

“I would say there’s no doubt the partnership approach taken after that, with the health board, social services and voluntary groups, they did save lives,” says Tom. “Not only did it save lives but it helped stop the spread of disease.

“It’s always very hard to measure what didn’t happen as opposed to what did, but what didn’t happen was any more appalling violence or sometimes murder of these very vulnerable women. They’re just young girls who often not of their own making are addicts. They’re often victims of circumstance.”

Asked if he thinks Sheila’s killer will be brought to justice, Tom pauses and says: “I don’t know. I think it’s possible. I’d like very much for this to be solved. People remember Sheila Anderson and say she was a prostitute, but she had children, she had family, she wasn’t always a prostitute.

“She herself was a drug user and through circumstances, found herself on the street. I’m not in a position to make moral judgements.

“You work on these cases and if you’ve solved it, you ask yourself what good came of it – one person is dead, another is in prison. In most cases no good comes from it. In the case of Sheila Anderson, a lot of good came from it.”