FOR more than a year Joe Jackson scoured the dimly-lit faces of Glasgow's dance halls. It was the dying months of the swinging Sixties and the young detective constable was searching, unsuccessfully, for Scotland's most elusive serial killer, a man now universally known as Bible John. Now, 40 years later, he is convinced he has found him.
Jackson, a retired detective superintendent, is long off the "John" case, and his city's smoky, sweaty, dusted dance floors are just a memory. But as a young officer he was one of those picked to strut their stuff – as both gumshoe and hoofer – in the ballrooms where the killer was thought to pick his prey. All they had to go on was an overly elaborate painting of their suspect, based on the memory of their only witness – and a hunger to find their man.
"For months we went to all the clubs," he explains. "We would go to the Barrowland, where Bible John had picked up his victims. We also went to the Majestic, the Dennistoun Palais, the Plaza. We talked to hundreds. But we never saw him."
And then, two years ago, the veteran sleuth finally glimpsed his suspect. He was watching the news. A young Polish student called Angelika Kluk had been murdered, her mutilated body hidden under the floor of a Glasgow church. The likely killer was a drifter called Peter Tobin, an odd-job man who hung around Catholic priests. His photograph, his modus operandi, his lifestyle and his interest in religion all stunned Jackson.
"I thought: this is as good as you are going to get," Jackson says. "I said to myself: this guy fits the bill." Jackson wasn't the only cop looking at Tobin. Last week the 62-year-old, already convicted for killing Angelika, went down for his second murder, that of schoolgirl Vicky Hamilton. Tobin was given 30 years at the High Court in Dundee and told he could expect to die in jail. Now a team of officers, led by Strathclyde Police, are carrying out what they call a "scoping" exercise, trying to unravel scores of other puzzling deaths.
The name of their operation? Anagram. Their aim? To put at rest the minds of scores of families, desperate for any news on the fates of missing or dead loved ones.
So could Tobin really be Bible John? Could Glasgow's legendary murderer really have kept killing, taking lives almost 40 years after the Barrowland murders? And – four decades on – can the police really gather enough evidence to get a conviction?
The detectives investing the death of Angelika quickly realised Tobin was a potential serial killer. "He has done this before," one investigator said after seeing Angelika's mutilated remains. This was a murder carried out by tried-and-tested means.
Psychologists too were quick to realise that Tobin hadn't begun killing in middle age. Ian Stephen, the Scottish criminal profiler who inspired the TV show Cracker, is sure Tobin has a history. "You don't usually start being a serial killer in your forties or fifties," he said yesterday. "You start fairly early on in your life."
Like Bible John, Tobin was young, smart and handsome. And he liked the dancing. Tobin was said to be a regular at the Barrowland ballroom, where "John" picked up his three victims, Pat Docker, Mimi McDonald and Helen Puttock.
In fact, Tobin met his first wife at Barrowland. Margaret was just 17. He raped and tortured her before she escaped the marriage. At one point Tobin cut the throat of his wife's puppy, just to stop it yelping.
So how does the evidence stack up? First, his looks. Even today some believe the 62-year-old Tobin looks a bit like the straight-jawed twentysomething shown in the Bible John portrait. But photos of a young Tobin reveal an even closer resemblance. It is chillingly uncanny.
His age also fits. Tobin would have been 21 at the time of the Bible John killings. He was already violent, having spent his youth in reform school, when the Barrowland murders took place. He was living in the Glasgow area when the first two women were found. He had moved to Brighton with Margaret by the time the last, Helen Puttock, was discovered and the legend of Bible John born. But that doesn't mean he couldn't have come back to kill again.
The Bible John killings, moreover, ended shortly before Tobin was jailed in Brighton for a series of burglary and forgery charges. Could this be another clue to his involvement?
All three of the Bible John victims had been menstruating at the time they were killed. Some former detectives, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had wondered if the Barrowland murderer had struck because the three women had refused to have sex with him because of their period. Some have speculated that some of Tobin's victims were also menstruating.
Tobin and Bible John also share another habit: they are both thought to have kept mementoes of their victims. Bible John stripped or partially stripped the girls he killed, taking it is believed, their handbags. Tobin too kept grizzly souvenirs. He was effectively nailed for the Vicky killing because he couldn't part with the knife he used to kill her, storing it in his loft. And, at least briefly, he kept Vicky's purse.
Like Bible John – or at least the man last seen with Helen Puttock – Tobin was obsessed with religion. Indeed Bible John got his nickname (thanks to a Glasgow journalist) because he supposedly quoted from the holy book. "I don't drink at Hogmanay, I pray," he was heard telling his last victim. Tobin too was drawn to the church.
Police have drawn up a detailed profile of Tobin and are eager to share what they have learned. It was the man in charge of the Angelika investigation, Detective Superintendent David Swindle, who set up Operation Anagram. Swindle tipped off forces across the country about Tobin's regular flits from one part of the UK to another. He also told Lothian and Borders Police that Tobin had stayed in Bathgate, the town from which 15-year-old Vicky had vanished in 1991. "The guy is a real detective," said Jackson of Swindle.
Reports suggest Tobin is being investigated for any number of killings across the UK, as far afield as Norfolk, where he spent his holidays, and the south coast of England, where he lived for many years.
He is due to stand trial next year for the murder of Dinah McNicol, a teenager whose body was found, like that of Vicky's, buried in the garden of his home in Margate, Kent.
Experts, however, warn that it could be too easy to use Tobin as a catch-all killer. Stephen stresses the Angelika and Vicky murderer is highly unlikely to have carried out all the killings or mystery disappearances with which he has been linked in recent months. "Tobin shouldn't be seen as a panacea of all crimes," he said.
There are those, in and out of the police, who doubt Tobin could be Bible John. Yes, there are similarities, they admit. There are similar patterns. But these could apply to almost any serial killer. More importantly, Bible John preyed on a slightly different kind of woman than Tobin's known victims. All "John's" girls were older, in their twenties or thirties, and had dark hair and were wearing dark dresses.
Indeed, two were picked up at over-25s events at the Barrowland, evenings many regulars dubbed "grab a granny" nights. Tobin, meanwhile, is known to prefer younger girls. He has convictions for raping two 14-year-olds. Vicky was 15. Angelika, although 23, looked far younger.
There is another thought. What if Tobin is not THE Bible John? What if he is just A Bible John? Not all police officers are convinced all three "John" killings were the work of one man. There were, after all, differences between them. And the classic image of the Sixties killer relies on a description given by Helen Puttock's sister, Jean Langford, who briefly shared a taxi with him. There was no such description of the killer of the first two victims.
Semen was left at the scene of that last killing. It was linked, albeit inconclusively, with another man, now dead, who has been ruled out. Over the years several people have been linked with Bible John. Many were entirely innocent. By the late 1960s the old Glasgow Police were dishing out cards to men who looked like the killer. "I am not Bible John," they said. Joe Jackson last night admitted many suspects were fingered by women who just wanted rid of them.
Meanwhile, Tobin has, according to insiders, been bragging about his killings in jail. One report said he had claimed 46 victims. Another upped that figure to 48. Stephen stressed the boasts were typical – and far from a signal that Tobin would be ready to admit to being Bible John.
"I understand he himself has laid claim to a large number," Stephen said. "There are all sorts of numbers being bandied about... They are all hypothetical. Boasts like this are just part of the ego of serial killers. Once they are caught they have lost most of their control over their situation. But they need to have this feeling that 'I am actually really omnipotent'. On one hand he does not own up to the murders that he has actually done. On the other hand, he says I have done so many hundreds of millions in this almost grandiose kind of way.
"Serial killers or psychopaths at this level are almost like omnipotent small children who will make incredible boasts about how powerful they are or how much they have done. Like they will say, 'I have got hundreds of marbles and hundreds of sweeties.'
"The problem with psychopaths is that they tend to be stuck at the cognitive and psychological level of three or four-year– olds. They don't mature past that egocentric, self-centred, narcissistic, all-powerful stage when they don't feel they are to blame for anything."
Jackson and other detectives have seen many such murderers before. The retired detective has just described them in a book, Chasing Killers. But he is still more interested in pulling the ones that got away. Jackson was one of the first at the scene after Pat Docker, Bible John's first victim, was found in a doorway in a back lane. He can't rid his mind of the image.
He said: "It always sticks with you. You always want to see these things cleared up. It's good for you, it's good for the force and it's very, very good for the public. And it's good for the public to see my former colleagues are still concentrating in getting these murders cleared up."
Strathclyde Police, which has never closed its case on Bible John, can't comment and won't comment on whether it now has a suspect. But Jackson – and other former detectives who worked the case – are certain the force has its eyes firmly set on Tobin. "They would be daft not to," he says.
Life of crime
THE world first knew him as Pat McLaughlin, an odd-job man at a church in Partick, Glasgow, from where a 23-year-old Polish student vanished. Within days, the body of Angelika Kluk, right, was found under the floor of the church and McLaughlin was revealed to be a registered sex offender called Peter Britton Tobin.
Tobin was born in August, 1946, in Johnstone, Renfrewshire. A troubled child, he was at reform school by the age of seven.
In 1969, aged 22, he met his first wife, Margaret, who was 17. The couple moved to Brighton, but their marriage quickly ended when police arrested Tobin for a series of burglary and forgery charges. He was to spend three years in jail, getting out in 1973. He married twice more, having a son by each wife, and drifting in and out of crime.
In early 1991 he kidnapped, raped and murdered 15-year-old schoolgirl Vicky Hamilton, below. Her fate was to be unknown for 17 years, until detectives investigating the Kluk case realised Tobin had lived just a mile from the Bathgate bus stop where Vicky was last seen.
Three years later he was jailed for 14 years for raping two 14-year-olds. He was released in May 2004, setting up home in Paisley and carrying out a series of sex attacks. Knowing the police were on to him, he renamed himself McLaughlin and started hanging around Christian drop-in centres – and the church in Partick where he would commit his final brutal crime.