On 21 September 2001, a man walking across Tower Bridge saw what appeared to be a corpse floating in the river. Twenty minutes later, a police launch took the corpse on board and discovered that the head, arms and legs had been severed. The torso was identified as that of an Afro-Caribbean boy of around five years old. The only evidence of identity was a pair of orange shorts labelled ‘Kids and Company’.

In an early statement, Scotland Yard said that the child might have been the victim of domestic violence, or that he might have fallen into the hands of paedophiles, though there was no evidence of sexual abuse. The spokesman added that he might also have been killed in some bizarre ritual. ‘This is one of several lines of inquiry we are looking into,’ he said, but ‘we are keeping an open mind.’

The suspicion of ritual killing hardened. Commander Andy Baker and Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly of the serious crime group of the Metropolitan Police were even prepared to specify the ritual. In Southern Africa, children have occasionally been killed so that their internal organs and genitals can be used in medicines – a practice called muti murder. Three such murders were reported in South Africa in 2000. Although several British anthropologists were consulted by Scotland Yard, none agreed that there was any evidence in the case of the torso in the Thames that might suggest a link to African ritual practice. However, a more helpful South African, Dr Hendrik Scholtz, unknown to the scholarly community here, confirmed the police theory. Baker and O’Reilly travelled to South Africa in April 2002, and Nelson Mandela publicly appealed for anyone with information to come forward. The trail went cold, however, and the police had to admit that since no vital organs had been removed, this was unlikely to be a muti murder of the classic kind.

But they stuck to the theory. Perhaps some other African ritual was involved. Perhaps the limbs and skull had been kept as magical trophies. And then they found another clue. Seven half-burned candles wrapped in a white sheet had washed up on the southern bank of the Thames. The Yoruba name ‘Adekoyejo Fola Adoye’ was written on the sheet. After a flurry of excitement, the police discovered that Adoye lived in New York, and that his London-based parents had held a thanksgiving on the banks of the Thames to celebrate the fact that he had survived the terrorist attack in Manhattan on 11 September. Such riverside services were common among Christian Yoruba believers.

Checked, but not baffled, the police now came up with a brilliant stroke of publicity. ‘Until we can identify him and his family we will act as his family,’ Commander Baker said. ‘And to remind everyone that he was a person we have given him a name. That name is Adam.’ Adam, he announced, had been brought to the country as a slave, and sacrificed in a barbaric ritual. In September 2002, in a ritual rather like the one performed by Adoye’s parents, the Met held a memorial service for Adam on the Thames. Flowers were laid in the river from a police launch. DI O’Reilly gave a reading from the Bible. ‘The ritual killing of children is an absolute reality,’ he told journalists. ‘We do not want this to gain a foothold in this country. That is why, one year on, we are still working flat out to try and solve this case.’

Hot on the trail of exotic rituals, police raided African shops in London which they claimed were importing ‘bush meat’, including chimpanzee and bush rat, from West Africa. They also announced that some dealers were trading in substances used in witchcraft, which might include body parts. Heathrow’s meat transport director, Clive Lawrence, was sure of it. ‘The intelligence we are receiving suggests human flesh is coming into this country,’ he said. ‘We are dealing with some very nasty people.’ Social workers in Glasgow reported that they had found sinister voodoo objects (‘feathers’) in the home of an asylum seeker from West Africa. The woman was immediately arrested and rushed to London for questioning, but no link could be established to the murder, or indeed to any crime.

In late December 2002, a homeless man foraging in a bin on a Camden Town estate found the legs of a middle-aged woman wrapped in a black plastic bag. Police then discovered the upper part of the torso of a second woman in the rubbish. Both were white. This time the police quickly closed in on a mentally disturbed man, Anthony Hardy, who lived nearby. Part of a torso and a hacksaw were found in his flat. He was duly convicted of three murders and according to the police may have been responsible for more.

Scotland Yard was not, however, to be diverted from its belief that Adam’s murder had a West African connection. The child had been circumcised – as many boys in Africa are. Even more decisive was DNA evidence which showed that he had West African ancestry. According to a statement from the Met in February 2003, organic and mineral samples found in the post-mortem indicated that he might have come from a 5000 square-mile corridor between Ibadan and Benin City. (This was flagged as a breakthrough for police forensics.) And now they realised that they had overlooked a clue. The shorts found on the victim were orange in colour, and the police claimed (quite wrongly) that a Yoruba river god, Oshun, is associated with the colour orange, and that human sacrifices are made to him, although no sacrifices of this kind have been documented for more than a century. In October 2003, O’Reilly travelled to Nigeria accompanied by a forensic scientist and, for the first few days, by the Arsenal footballer Kanu. Followed by journalists and a TV crew, they tramped gamely around a few villages in that enormous region, but returned empty-handed. This was hardly surprising. Most victims of the Atlantic slave trade were West Africans, so the DNA of most black people from the Caribbean, North America and Brazil would indicate a West African origin.

Although there was still no evidence of any link to ritual practices, the police now stumbled on another lead. A Nigerian asylum seeker told immigration officials that she was running away from her husband, who had killed 11 children, including one of her own. Interviewed by the police, she said that she and her husband had been setting up branches of a new demonic cult in London and in Germany. She also claimed that she and other female disciples had been forced to undergo ritual circumcision. Police raided her husband’s home in Dublin and said they had found evidence of a human trafficking ring linked to demon worship. Her husband is now in jail in Dublin fighting extradition to Germany on fraud charges in connection with an alleged human trafficking operation. She, meanwhile, has been deported to Nigeria, and now claims that she lied to immigration officials in the hope that she might be granted asylum.

Following up their investigations in Dublin, more than two hundred Met officers, some in riot gear, raided a number of houses in London in August 2003 and arrested 21 Nigerians, who were accused of trafficking in children. ‘We are pretty convinced we are onto the group of individuals who would have trafficked Adam into the country,’ DI O’Reilly said. They were particularly impressed by the discovery of an animal’s skull with a nail driven through it.

Last month, Scotland Yard announced that the torso mystery had been solved. They will be calling for the extradition of suspects from a number of countries and the attorney-general might lead the prosecution. There’s always the remote possibility that the dynamic duo from the Yard have stumbled on something at last, but their record is not encouraging. The real question is why this overheated fantasy caught on. No journalist expressed the slightest scepticism about the ritual murder thesis, although there were some disputed details. The Guardian insisted that the evil-doers were not ‘true witchdoctors, or Sangomas’. Good witchdoctors, their expert explained, ‘use natural remedies such as forest herbs, plants, animal skins and bones’. Child murders were ‘a perversion of traditional muti medicine’. The Telegraph, on the other hand, mocked a ‘Nigerian guru’ who claimed that he and his followers were vegetarians. Commander Baker remarked that the case brings together all the worst nightmares of the British public. Indeed, it is a farrago of contemporary myths about witchcraft, Africans, asylum seekers and paedophiles. ‘I think we must maintain that we are not judging the culture,’ Baker told Sky News as he flew to Nigeria. ‘We are investigating a murder.’ In fact, the police are busily reinforcing dangerous delusions.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences