There's a Cat Serial Killer on the Loose, and I Spent a Day Trying to Catch Him
A shadowy figure known as the "M25 Animal Killer" has been terrorizing the pet owners of South London, with over 30 confirmed kills. We spend a day with police and the couple fighting to catch him before he strikes again.
All photos by Chris Bethell
We revisit the scene of Amber's murder—the one that started it all—on one of those unexpectedly sun-filled September afternoons that makes you feel like summer might linger a while longer this year.
An ice cream truck plies its wares to children returning home from school in the quiet south London suburban cul-de-sac. Tony Jenkins and Boudicca Rising, partners in work and love, lead me down a woodland path to where Amber's body was found. Rising talks me through Amber's last day on earth.
"She had an incredibly regular routine," she explains. "She'd wake up and have breakfast with the kids before they left for school. After that, she'd cross the road and take a shit in the neighbour's garden."
When Amber—a tortoiseshell cat—didn't return home at her regular time of four o'clock, her owners instantly knew something was wrong. "In the seven years she'd lived, Amber never deviated from her schedule. So they knew she must not be safe. They found her body in the woods the next day."
Although Amber wasn't the first confirmed victim of the animal serial killer formerly known as the Croydon Cat Killer—that honor goes to a ragdoll cross called Ukiyo—hers was the first call-out that Rising and Jenkins ever attended. When Amber's owner phoned the two founders of animal shelter SNARL, they jumped into a battered hatchback and headed to investigate. Shortly afterwards, her mutilated remains were found in Threehalfpenny Wood, a patch of ancient woodland ten miles southeast of central London.
"She was laid out with her feet pointing towards home, head and tail removed." Rising stands with her hands on her hips. Nearly a year later, we're revisiting the scene of Amber's murder. "No blood on the scene, because mutilation happened after death."
A 45-year-old woman in a pinstriped pencil skirt and peach-coloured lace top, Rising picks her way gingerly in red heels across the uneven ground. She speaks with the knowledgability of a CSI lab technician, despite having no formal forensic training. "We never found her head, though."
When an unknown individual began killing and mutilating domestic cats in the south London borough of Croydon in October 2015, the authorities were slow to take note. Police said it was the work of foxes or road traffic accidents. SNARL did what many organizations do when looking to exert pressure on the authorities: They alerted the press. After local newspaper the Croydon Advertiser warned readers about a depraved "Croydon Cat Killer"—leading to headlines in the national press—the police and British animal welfare charity the RSPCA began to take note.
"It took a while for us to say, we've got a problem here," RSPCA chief inspector Mike Butcher acknowledges candidly. We've left the woods and are sitting outside a Starbucks on an anonymous stretch of road. "After four years you think you've seen it all." Next to Butcher, Detective Sergeant Andy Collin—who is leading the Metropolitan Police's 12-man-strong team investigating the murders—chips in.
"They struggled to get it taken seriously," agrees Collin. "I was asked to look at it and make sure we were where we should be." Despite the initial inaction, SNARL doesn't seem to bear a grudge. Butcher, Collin, Rising and Jenkins meet monthly to discuss progress on Operation Takahe—named after a flightless bird indigenous to New Zealand—and interact with playful, familiar ease.
Before today's meeting can get started, there's the small matter of the dead cat currently in the boot of Jenkin's car. The police often relies on SNARL to attend suspected incidents and collect the dead animal's remains for processing at police headquarters. Rising and Jenkins were called to a case just this morning: A cat—or rather, half a cat, partially skinned—was found dead in Thornton Heath, another London suburb. As Collin transfers the remains to his car, the group joke about their new late-night hobby: meeting on remote roadsides to swap body parts.
"I got stopped by police the other day, going to a call-out," says Jenkins in his soft Lancashire drawl. "It was late at night and I was carrying a fox around in a black bin-liner." The 52-year-old animal rights activist is the sort of affable man forever doomed to be described by everyone he meets as a "really nice bloke." Tall, with a long grey ponytail, he resembles a genial pub landlord or the friendly leader of your neighbourhood biker gang.
"No, it was in my duvet cover," Rising interjects. Unfazed—Rising has a habit of interrupting—Jenkins continues to speak. For a while, they both talk over each other.
"The police officer said, what are you doing with that animal..."
"He rang me up, howling with laughter, saying..."
"And I explained to him who I was, and he ended up thanking me actually..."
"...'The police have stopped me!' And we were so pleased, because it means that they're really taking this seriously now."
The first time Jenkins met Rising in person—they initially connected on Facebook—he asked her, "You're not going to turn me into some mad animal activist, are you?" He recounts this with a wry laugh as we drink coffee outside in the sun. Between them, the couple care for 34 cats, two gerbils, and a cockatoo. Their collection extends beyond the living: Rising currently has two dead cats in her freezer, killed in road traffic accidents ("I don't cook much.")
Fittingly for a red-haired woman named after the legendary warrior queen, Rising leads SNARL with seemingly inexhaustible vigor. She has a tendency to direct the conversation and a cavernous recall of even the most obscure facts of the investigation, like the name of a murdered cat's neighborhood playmate. If Rising is the wayward watch that runs fast, Jenkins runs a little slow, and between them they make pretty good time.
At the time of writing, the individual once known as the Croydon Cat Killer has killed 32 animals over an eleven month period: A mix of cats, rabbits, and foxes, although it's believed the true number could be into the low hundreds. (A fox in the London suburb of Penge was recently found with its ears removed.) Accordingly, SNARL now refers to the murderer as the M25 Animal Killer, named for the stretch of motorway that wraps its way around the capital like an entangled dog lead.
People who abuse animals abuse humans too. We'll be looking at extreme porn; domestic violence.
A hundred and twenty post-mortems suspected to be the work of the same killer are currently under way at an enormous cost to the RSPCA and police, who are picking up the cost. Collin estimates that the police have spent around £40,000 in man hours in catching the M25 Killer. The police aren't doing this just because they really like cats—the fear is that the killer will escalate his behavior to larger animals, or even humans.
Throwaway comments make you realize just how much the investigation dominates the foursome's lives. Rising stood by the body of a beloved just-deceased pet cat to see how long it takes for rigor mortis to kick in ("you just can't find that information online! It was much quicker than you'd expect, actually.") Senior police officer Collin chases the killer with the dedication of Frank J. Wilson pursuing Al Capone ("until recently, my phone screen-saver was a picture of the latest suspect—not my wife and kids.") Butcher jokes that he is unable to retire from animal welfare work until the killer is behind bars: "Just when I thought I was out... They pull me back in."
I ask Collin about the pressures of working a non-human serial killer case. "Problem is, the cat could go out at 10 PM and not be seen until the following morning. I might have a 14-hour window for a particular crime." Collin is convinced of one thing: The suspect he's hunting for is a man (although he wouldn't tell me why, for fear of compromising the investigation.)
In many ways, catching a human serial killer is easier. "Most human serial killers are less prolific, because to kill a human takes a lot more effort than to kill an animal," says Rising matter-of-factly. "So it's easier, because you have fewer crime scenes, fewer witnesses." An additional complication is that DNA profiling, the benchmark of modern forensic investigation, doesn't work so well on animals. Too much fur, apparently.
As with Al Capone, who was famously indicted for tax fraud and not organized crime, it's likely that the killer will be discovered thanks to charges not directly related to animal cruelty. Collin receives a daily list of all the people arrested in London for carrying knives, as it's part of the killer's M.O.: After despatching the animal with blunt force trauma, the killer uses a knife to carve a distinctive cut pattern when mutilating the animal's flesh.
I ask what sort of jail sentence we can expect when they catch the killer. "It's hard to say," Collin says, explaining that a lot will depend on the discretion of the judge. Killing an animal in the UK is not currently illegal, although killing a domestic pet counts as criminal damage as the animal is considered the possession of its owner. It's also likely that he'll be convicted on trespassing charges or causing an outrage to public decency—charges which can result in moderate jail sentences. But Rising is convinced of a far darker truth. "Inevitably when you take this guy's door down there will be other things going on. People who abuse animals abuse humans too. We'll be looking at extreme porn; domestic violence. I don't just think it will be a bunch of criminal damage charges."
Despite the size and scale of the investigation, there are still many unknowns. "This is the first case of its kind in the UK," Collin explains. "No one else has been investigated for the serial killing of animals before." That said, it's likely that—as with Ted Bundy getting caught on a routine traffic stop—a lucky clue will crack the case wide open. "In all likelihood the way we'll catch this person will be that someone sees something in the middle of the night, calls the police and they'll take a report. I'll look into it, do a bit of background, and it will go from there." Collin is optimistic. "We will catch him. Whether I get him, or he gets nicked for something else, it will happen."
Meanwhile, the killer is escalating his behaviour. "He's getting more extreme, and more skilled," Jenkins comments. And he's travelling further afield, beyond the immediate Croydon area. "We've been on council estates; in manor houses," says Rising. "We know that it's generally in the greater London area, as well as Manchester, St Albans, Northamptonshire, Birmingham, and Maidstone—all confirmed." Jenkins tells me they believe the killer has a job that involves frequent travel, and they know now that he favors particular cat breeds—Bengals, Siamese, and long-hairs, though not exclusively.
All four believe he takes great pleasure in hurting people. "He's instilled a lot of fear in the community, and he's getting off on that," Rising says. In particular, the fact that he returns the animals to the scene of their disappearance—sometimes returning weeks later to leave tails or other body parts on bereaved owners' doorsteps—indicates sociopathic qualities. "He puts them back because he likes to shock people," Collin explains. "It's the reason he's doing it."
Despite the challenges, Collin is absolutely certain he'll nail the culprit responsible. "We will get him. Whether I catch him, or he gets nicked for something else—it will happen." Until then, the investigation is all consuming. "I want this guy more than anything in the whole wide word," Rising announces with her usual passion. "I want him caught, I want him banged up, and I want this to stop. I want SNARL to go back to being a tiny rescue no-one had ever heard of." With that, we bid farewell to Butcher and Collins and head out to another crime scene.
Before the murders started, Rising—whose describes herself as a pagan and whose favourite god is the Hindu deity Ganesha—spent her spare time writing a blog in cat-speak from the perspective of their 34 cats. (Sample: "I got dragged to the bet today becos Mommi cambe home yesterday and fownd me in mid sneeze on the landing. I wuzzent feeling my best becos the sneeze wuddent combe owt.")
As we drive towards Addiscombe Railway Park, where Rising and Jenkins were called in April this year to the site of another dead cat, I asked them about their lives pre-investigation. It was an ordinary suburban life, albeit with a lot more animals: Box sets and wine on a Friday night. Normality.
Now, they have the air of individuals suddenly thrust into an unexpectedly public role. It's clear that recent months have taken their toll on the animal-activists-turned-amateur-sleuths. Rising—who also has a full-time job—describes her messy kitchen as "a crack den" and fantasizes about cleaning out her fridge and doing a groceries shop when the investigation is over. Jenkins, meanwhile, is in dire financial straits. After being made redundant a year ago, he's been living on a settlement package while working full-time on the case. Now the money's run out, though, and he's defaulted on his mortgage.
"If you'd told me five years ago we'd be in great financial peril, running around looking for dismembered cats, I'd have laughed," cackles Rising. As we drive, they tell me a lengthy anecdote about a late-night callout that culminates in them stumbling around in the dark, recovering a bag of shit from railway tracks late at night. (A volunteer had called them, concerned it contained a body.) The entire car, including Chris the photographer, erupt in laughter.
"We like to take the piss a lot, even Andy [Collin] and Mike [Butcher]. Otherwise we'd go mad," says Jenkins. They joke about getting a custom-made police siren that screeches "MEOW MEOW MEOW MEOW MEOW." The reality is that working full-time on this case for no money has taken an emotional toll on the couple. "I used to help investigate animal abuse online," says Rising, "but seeing it in person—it's different. It's a bit like asking a mother to pick up bits of her babies, over and over again."
We reach Addiscombe Railway Park and disembark into the warm summer air. "He was lying pretty much where that empty Oreo packet was," says Rising, toeing the crime scene—by a quiet railway pass—with a red-toed heel. Although it's a balmy summer afternoon, I imagine this area would be sinister late at night. Do Rising and Jenkins ever fear for their safety? "Some developments in recent weeks have indicated I should get CCTV at home," Rising says darkly, although she refuses to be drawn further on the topic.
As we pile back into the car, only one question remains: Why are they doing this? Because, of course, they love animals with the fierce, desperate love most people reserve only for humans. Before we part ways, I ask whether Rising was always an animal lover.
"When I was 18 months old, my other took a picture of me reaching towards a cat. She always said, didn't matter where I was, a cat would always pitch up."
She pauses and takes a drag off the Red Chesterfield that dangles between her chipped pink nails. "Fitting."
If you have any information about who might be committing these offences, please call the police on 0208 6490216 or the RSPCA on 0300 123 4999. You can also contact SNARL instead on 07961 030064 or 07957 830490. All calls will be treated in the strictest of confidence. If you find a body that you believe may be the work of the killer, please call SNARL in the first instance. A £10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.