David Swindle, the lead detective who presided over the capture of serial killer Peter Tobin, on his passion for uncovering the truth, the dangers of our true crime obsession and why he believes Tobin’s case is far from closed.
If there was a national award for dedication to a job, David Swindle would surely be in contention. Despite retiring from the police in 2011 after 34 years’ service, he shows no signs of slowing down. His mission, in his own words, is to “search for the truth as much as I can, for victims and their families”.
He’s currently working independently on high profile cases like that of Kirsty Maxwell, who died in Spain in suspicious circumstances in 2017, but is undoubtedly best known for his work on Operation Anagram, the ground-breaking investigation that led to the triple life sentencing of Peter Tobin, one of Scotland’s worst serial killers.
Though Operation Anagram was wound down by police around eight years ago, most - including David himself - believe that the full scale of Tobin’s crimes are yet to be uncovered. “I always say he’s definitely done other crimes. He has killed other people.”
In 2006, Tobin brutally raped and murdered 23 year old student Angelika Kluk in a Glasgow church before hiding her body under in a storage area under the floor. After being apprehended and charged for this murder, David’s launch of Operation Anagram allowed police to connect Tobin to the murders of Dinah McNicol and Vicky Hamilton, both of whom had disappeared in 1991.
How many lives did Tobin take?
Currently, these are the only murders Tobin has been officially charged for, but he has claimed to have killed at least 48 other women. It’s a figure often sensationally cited in tabloid headlines, but while David believes Tobin has certainly killed others, he bristles at the mention of this number.
“It was reported that Tobin told a psychologist that he’d killed 48 people. That’s nonsense. Absolute nonsense. Tobin has never admitted Angelika Kluk or anyone. He denies the cases [he’s been convicted of], he denies the rapes… and that’s the danger with a case like this, huge speculation that he’s killed all these people… we don’t know for sure.’
It’s clear the idea of Tobin playing the media leaves David frustrated, and it’s understandable. His contempt for the killer drove him to near-obsession during the time he was working the case, though he’s never actually faced Tobin in person - he refused to pander to Tobin’s desires. “He’s a control freak and he wants everything his way, he wants me there, and if he’s got me there, then he’s got everything.”
For years David worked incessantly on Operation Anagram - “I know as much about him, in fact more about him than he probably knows himself” - and he was convinced from the first murder that Tobin was more than a one-time killer.
“At the very start I realised the ferocity of what he’d done and the complexities of his lifestyle - he was moving around all the time, he was in his 60s - which meant he’d done this before. I made up my mind that day [when Angelika Kluk was discovered] that he was a serial killer....we just had to prove it.”
As the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) in charge of Angelika Kluk’s horrific murder, David wasted no time tracking Tobin down after the killer fled the scene in Glasgow.
“I did national TV appeals to trace Tobin, and when he was traced to a hospital I arranged for a team of detectives and uniformed officers to go to London to bring him back to Scotland and make enquiries in London about his movements.”
Once Tobin was arrested and charged, David could easily have left it there - but his instincts told him there was more work to do. It was thanks to David that Project Angram was launched soon after Tobin’s arrest; an investigation that took the unusual step of working backwards to examine the entirety of Tobin’s life from birth to the present day in order to identify who else he might have killed.
“I could’ve said you know, Tobin’s going to prison forever for Angelika Kluk, but instead I persisted with this [Operation Anagram]... it’s a search for truth… for the victims and their families.”
Operation Anagram, David says, “sounds a very simple concept but it wasn’t a simple concept”. The investigation came around the time social media was just taking hold, before internet appeals or crowdsourcing had really been tried.
“Social media wasn’t where it is now, but the BBC still built us a website and the agreement was - very unusually for the time - that we gave everything we had to do with Tobin - his cars, his pictures, where he was at certain times, the hospitals he was in, the prisons he was in - over to Crimewatch, and they would put that out on the website for people to interact with it. It was pretty innovative for that time - in fact it’s still innovative. It’s not a thing that’s done.”
The Bible John connection
Of course, opening a case to the public comes with its drawbacks too, and in an age where amateur sleuthing and ‘true crime’ is more popular than ever, David is particularly wary of making any assumptions about Tobin’s case. On the popular theory that Tobin may in fact be the unidentified killer Bible John, for instance, he is entirely unconvinced.
“At the end of the day the police need evidence, and there’s absolutely nothing to link Tobin to Bible John… People say the link is, oh well he went to the Barrowland at the same time, but so did hundreds and hundreds of other people - there’s no real evidence or links to Tobin.”
David is also keen to point out that Tobin deliberately preyed upon vulnerable women, a fact that makes it easier for potential victims to slip under the radar. “If you were in a homeless shelter and you don’t have any friends and you disappear, who’s going to report you missing?”
Angelika Kluk, a foreigner in Scotland, was one such vulnerable woman, and David is convinced she was close to never being discovered.
“The reason why he left the blood-stained clothes and everything under the floor... I am sure he was going to move her... and if he had we might not be having this conversation - he would’ve moved onto his next victim.”
Uncovering more of Tobin’s crimes
Yet David is far from resigned about the possibility of Tobin’s other crimes coming to light, and it’s this hope that drives the frequent appeals for information he’s made even since retiring from the police.
“All it takes is a bit of information....Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland who actually prosecuted Tobin in Court for the murder of Vicky Hamilton always said, and I often use this quote, the passage of time should not be detrimental to the detection of crime… allegiences change, technology changes - you always hope.”
What’s more, when Tobin gets press coverage, David hopes the killer feels at least some pressure to confess. “Prisoners will read the newspapers and as Tobin’s in prison there’ll be some pressure on him in there. I hope something will snap eventually.”
Aside from anything else, David is keen that Tobin keeps getting media exposure in order that victims and their families never get forgotten or sidelined.
“I like to think that we should never forget what horrible people like Tobin have done, we should never forget the victims... or the horrors that those girls went through.”
It’s a fight that David will never give up as long as there are still victims out there who have not had justice, whether they’re still here to fight their corner or not. “As long as I am fit and healthy and my mind’s OK, anything I can do that’s in some way helping victims, I’ll do.”
David Swindle is currently offering crime consultancy services through his projects Crime Solutions and Justice Abroad. He will be appearing on ‘British Police: Our Toughest Cases,’ a TV show which premieres at 10pm Saturday 2nd November exclusively on Quest Red