13:38 GMT +322 April 2018
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    'The Pusher': Crazed Serial Killer on the Loose in Manchester, or Boogeyman?

    © AFP 2018 / Oli SCARFF
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    On March 2 2018, the body of Charlie Pope, a Social Sciences student at the University of Manchester, was found adrift in one of Manchester’s myriad canals. He’d been missing since the early hours of the previous morning, when he departed a cocktail bar in the city center.

    The tragic, untimely death of the 19-year-old man has been ruled unsuspicious by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) — however, many local residents and media outlets believe it was no accident. Instead, they suggest Charlie was slain by ‘The Pusher', a supposed serial killer who prowls Mancunian waterways by night, drowning his in the city's circuitous canal complex.

    Believe the Hype?

    The Pusher has for many years been the subject of rumour and speculation in Manchester's playgrounds, pubs, offices and homes — ‘they' exited the realm of pure urban legend in January 2015, when The Daily Star published a series of articles about the prospective slayer. Freedom of Information requests filed by the tabloid revealed an average of over 10 bodies had been found in Manchester's canals annually over the past six years.

    The paper's reports were reproduced by many other news outlets, and the flurry of coverage helped lodge the specter of The Pusher in mainstream public consciousness. The next year, Channel 4 produced a documentary — The Pusher: Manchester's Serial Killer? — suggesting the death toll potentially attributable to the mythological murderer could be much higher.

    Ever since, any and all deaths in Manchester's canal network are virtually guaranteed at least a modicum of national attention — and each case intensely revives talk of The Pusher, even if only briefly.

    What's more, the rate at which bodies are being recovered from the canal has increased, to almost one every month — and of the 85 bodies in Manchester's canals between 2008 — 2016 identified by Channel 4's documentary, an open verdict was recorded in 28 cases. As of March 2018, explanations have remained unforthcoming in every instance.

    Misfortune and Misadventure

    GMP investigations have identified misadventure as the cause of some of the deaths attributed to The Pusher — drunken individuals falling into the water after attempting to scale canal gates, or simply not concentrating on their surroundings.

    However, for those who believe a serial killer really is on the loose, innocent explanations, such as the deaths being largely or entirely accidental, or even suicides, evidently don't wash — and with potentially good reason. Many cities in the UK are home to comparable canal networks, but deaths by any means in any of them are extremely rare — in London's famous Regents Canal, for instance, fatalities are virtually unheard of. Likewise, Office for National Statistics figures indicate annually only around five percent of suicides are via drowning, a rate that has remained consistent for some time.

    In other cases, investigators have identified human culprits. For instance, in June 2013, a gang pushed local man Simon Brass into a canal after mugging him, resulting in Simon — who couldn't swim — drowning. It was later revealed he was the second individual targeted by the gang that night — their previous victim managed to get out of the water, despite a member of the group stamping on his fingers as he heaved himself out.

    There are also strong indications of external involvement in several open verdict cases, such as Souvik Pal's. A young design student from India, he went missing New Year's Eve 2012 — his body was found 22 days later, in the Bridgewater canal. Souvik was last spotted by CCTV cameras an hour prior to midnight, walking along the canal with another individual who has never been identified — some time later, the same man was caught on the same cameras, walking alone.

    While Souvik's friends and family aren't certain of The Pusher's existence, they refuse to rule anything out. His friend Gemma Hale, who was with him the night he disappeared, said in 2015 "we're not sure about a serial killer, and don't want to jump to the conclusion he was murdered, but there is someone who knows something."

    Similarly, his father said, "it needs to be investigated to find out if there is really a serial killer in this case. There must be involvement of a third party. That could be a straight case or that could be a serial killer."

    On December 17 2010, 21-year-old Nathan Tomlinson left his work Christmas party just before 11 in the evening. His body was recovered from the River Irwell eight weeks later — many key personal effects in his possession at the time of his disappearance (including his passport, wallet and phone) have never been found. CCTV footage was subsequently released showing Nathan running in the opposite direction to his home, at quite some pace — two miles in just over 20 minutes. He was one of eleven people to be found dead in the canal that year.

    Pattern Recognition

    While many local residents, and the nearest and dearest of those who've drowned, may suspect The Pusher remains at large, GMP are thoroughly unconvinced. In a statement issued May 2016, Detective Chief Superintendent Russ Jackson, of GMP's Serious Crime Division, said there was "no evidence at all" a serial killer was running roughshod over the city's canals.

    "What is very important to bear in mind in all these cases is they have been subject to separate investigations and there is no evidence at all to suggest these deaths are linked or were suspicious. On some occasions, people have been charged with offenses relevant to that particular investigation. Whilst in other cases it remains uncertain how people came to be in the water, in many others  circumstances have been established following thorough investigations. These cases have then been presented at inquests before Her Majesty's Coroners. It is for the coroner to determine the exact cause of death. Absolutely no evidence whatsoever of foul play has been established," he explained.

    Jackson also lashed out at the media for "[causing] further suffering and upset to grieving families" by "falsely [leading them to] believe there is a linked series of attacks."

    While media concerns about the existence of The Pusher may have been and continue to be legitimate, it is not the first time news reporting has been accused of manufacturing a serial killer. Some researchers have even suggested Jack The Ripper, perhaps the most notorious murderer in history, was in fact a fictional construct, the result of journalists associating unconnected murders in London's East End in order to sell more papers.

    A member of staff poses stands in front of a screen showing a short movie about Jack the Ripper during a press preview for the exhibition Jack the Ripper and the East End at the Museum in Docklands, London, Wednesday, May 14, 2008.
    © AP Photo / Akira Suemori
    A member of staff poses stands in front of a screen showing a short movie about Jack the Ripper during a press preview for the exhibition "Jack the Ripper and the East End" at the Museum in Docklands, London, Wednesday, May 14, 2008.
    At the very least, many — if not all — of the 200 letters received by police and public officials at the time, purporting to be from ‘Jack', are now proven fakes. Authorities at the time knew many of the later missives were hoaxes — police connected reporter Tom Bullen to two, and another, Fred Best, also confessed to the scam, saying he did it to "keep the business alive." However, subsequent investigations have revealed two of the most iconic, early messages — the "Dear Boss" letter, in which the name Jack the Ripper appears for the first time, and the "Saucy Jacky" postcard — were likewise journalistic frauds.

    Conversely, official investigation techniques have also been responsible for fabricating imaginary monsters. In Germany, for 15 years police chased the Phantom of Heilbronn' (alternatively known as the ‘Woman Without a Face'), a one-woman crime wave whose DNA was recovered at over 40 crime scenes in Austria, France and Germany 1993 — 2009. The Phantom was believed to be responsible for dozens of burglaries and several murders, including police officer Michele Kiesewetter in Heilbronn, Germany April 25 2007.

    Such was official desperation to catch her, in January 2009 the reward for clues regarding the whereabouts of the individual was increased to €300,000. However, in March that year, investigators concluded the mysterious criminal did not exist and the DNA connection identified in laboratory tests were due to contamination of cotton buds used for DNA probing.

    Subsequent examination found cotton swabs used by many German state police departments had been contaminated at the factory of their manufacture, by a female employee. 

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