The murder of Ellen Higginbottom is “every parent’s worst nightmare” – a young woman brutally targeted at random by a stranger.
That is the view of Bob Tonge, the senior investigating officer whose team at Greater Manchester Police (GMP) brought vile killer Mark Buckley to justice.
Winstanley College student Ellen, 18, was viciously murdered with a Stanley knife in a sexually-motivated and premeditated attack by 51-year-old
Buckley, who is now starting a life sentence in prison and will not be eligible for parole until he is 82.
It is a crime that shocked the borough deeply and Mr Tonge admits it was a particularly appalling incident to investigate. He said: “This was a particularly bad one. It is the stranger element of it, that is every parent’s worst nightmare.
“You think you’ve done your job, brought your child up and got them educated. They are doing A-levels and are on the way to the rest of their life. To have an only child taken from them in this way is just horrendous.
“An attack of such violence is rare. You can’t compare crimes because they are all bad but this one with young Ellen was a shocker.
“She was a beautiful young girl in the prime of her life and everything going the right way for her. I feel desperately for her parents and her boyfriend, who is such a nice lad.
“All I can do is reassure people that there aren’t many people like Buckley and he is now out of harm’s way.”
Ellen’s body was discovered in a secluded spot near Orrell Water Park in the early hours of June 17.
The alarm was raised the previous day when Ellen failed to return from college, an occurrence so out-of-character that the police were quickly brought in.
Her last known position was in the water park at around 1.43pm on Friday June 16, when she sent a joking Snapchat message to her friends, saying she had been in the popular green space for 20 minutes and was already lost.
Detectives found the exact spot where the message had been sent and concluded she could not have been seriously unsure where she was.
A huge search for her swung into action later that day and at around 1.30am a helicopter was sent to the water park.
It picked up a heat source from a man, who ran from the area. Police would later establish that this was Buckley.
The helicopter guided officers on the ground to the area which the man had suspiciously fled from and at around 2.30am on the Saturday Ellen’s body was found with horrific injuries on the edge of a wheat field, not all that far from the college where she was studying for her A-levels.
She was lying face-down, partially naked and with what Mr Tonge describes as “unsurvivable” injuries to her neck and throat, inflicted by a large blade.
Lying on the ground next to her body was a spade.
Also at the scene was a belt and DNA samples taken from it and a couple of other items led the officers straight to Buckley.
He is a Billinge man, whose mother lives on the housing estate right next to the water park, but was living at an address on New Hall Lane in Preston after being relocated following a conviction for arson and criminal damage involving setting fire to a neighbour’s car.
He was arrested there and confessed to the murder almost straight away under questioning from detectives.
That left the officers with the question of a motive for the brutal killing.
There is no doubt for GMP that this was a completely random crime. Absolutely no evidence could be found linking Ellen and Buckley in any way.
The usual lines of investigation, such as whether Ellen had met someone or been on social media, were pursued and very swiftly dismissed as not relevant.
The investigation discovered that Buckley had been in the water park since around 5.30am on Friday, carrying the bag with the murder implements in.
That led officers to conclude he had been scoping out the area, looking to inflict harm on a passer-by who was unfortunate enough to cross his path.
He spoke to several other people in the park but only acted when he happened across the slightly-built Ellen.
The bag, when police got hold of it, contained items belonging to Ellen, a section of rope, another ligature, an empty condom packet and some lubricant.
He had also used a fire to dispose of his blood-stained clothing as well as items belonging to Ellen, including a calculator, laptop, mobile phone and her house keys, which were in a rucksack he had stolen.
Mr Tonge says the random nature of the crime, and the appalling brazenness with which it was carried out, makes it hard to come to terms with.
He said: “I think he was just out to get somebody that day. He has gone out ready to attack someone and Ellen has just been so, so unlucky. If it wasn’t her it would have been somebody else.
“He’s done this in broad daylight on a beautiful summer’s day in a quite well-populated park, which is very popular with dog walkers.
“I don’t think this feeling of his has happened in a day. We do know he has been in the park since the early hours of the morning and it’s just a case of wherever he sees the opportunity and has built up the courage.”
Buckley’s admission of committing such a savage, headline-making crime came as something of a bolt out of the blue. His criminal record included the arson incident, a recent suspended sentence for affray and minor matters from the 1990s, but nothing to indicate he would carry out such a monstrous act.
The sexual motivation was also shocking to investigators as there was nothing even remotely similar on his record.
Mr Tonge says exhaustive work is now being carried out by national agencies to piece together the currently fragmented picture of his background. Much about the murder also remains shadowy.
Investigators are still unsure exactly how he came to select a target as he prowled the water park that fateful day, although prosecution lawyers said in court he intended to attack a woman.
Questions of motivation and psychology at the time also remain to be answered.
However, Mr Tonge said the police would not let the matter drop now he is behind bars but would continue attempting to find out exactly what happened.
He said: “Buckley is on his own, not acting with somebody else, and only he knows what was going through his head.
“He has got an incredible loss of memory when it comes down to the finer details.
“I have thousands of questions for him. Whether he wants to answer them or not I don’t know, but we will have a go.
“We will go to see him in prison, whether it is six weeks, six months or six years, until he tells the truth.”