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The Facebook Murder

The Facebook Murder: A Linguistic Master Criminal

Dr Jon Olsson analyses the electornic exchanges that took place between teenager, Ashleigh Hall, and the man that eventually murdered her, Peter Chapman, and shows how linguistics plays a crucial role in successful digital investigations.

At just after 7pm on 25th October 2009, Ashleigh Hall, a popular, vivacious teenager with a wide circle of friends left her home in Durham for the last time. She was looking forward to meeting her date for the evening, ostensibly a teenager by the name of Peter Cartwright. They had met on the social networking site, Facebook. ‘Peter’ was presumably too young to drive and so could not meet her in person, but his father would be passing nearby on his way home from work, as ‘Peter’ explained in a text:

"Me dad’s on his way babe he said excuse the state of him lol He’s been at work lol he doesn’t have to come in and meet your mum does he lol he’ll be a mess probably lol x"

The bit about having to meet Ashleigh’s mum amused the young girl. She replied:

"Okaii babe and no he doesnt lol and its okaii haha x x"

A little later, sure enough Peter’s ‘dad’ texted as follows:

"Hi hun its pete’s dad are you sure you dont mind me picking you up? Pete is really looking foreward to seeing you and yes its ok for you to stay"

Ashleigh, excited by her forthcoming date, saw nothing wrong with this. She immediately replied:

"No its fine i dnt mind i trust him so i trust u and thank u"

At the same time she sent a text to ‘young’ Peter:

"How long will it take him to get here babe x x"

What Ashleigh did not know was that the dad and ‘Peter’ were one and the same individual. Hidden behind the mask of electronic anonymity was Peter Chapman, a 33-year old convicted rapist and multiple sex-offender who had escaped the clutches of Merseyside Police’s offender monitoring system and headed to the north east. Chapman, presumably as eager to meet Ashleigh as she was to meet his ‘son’, had almost sent her the following text:

"You’ll be safe with me when would you like me to come for you?"

However, this text remained in the ‘Unsent’ folder of his mobile phone. I will refer to this text again later in this article. Instead of the ‘you’ll be safe’ text, Chapman sent the following, in his role as the ‘young Peter’:

"Oh should take him 20 mins or so with sat nav x"

The elated Ashleigh replied:

"Okaii babe x and haha mad u babe x x"

While waiting, she also texted:

"Cnt wait to meet u babe, lyk u loads babe x x x"

Unaware that Ashleigh was actually waiting on the street, Chapman then texted:

"He just rang to say He’s round the corner so go outside x"

Quite why Peter ‘senior’ would phone Peter ‘junior’ so that he could text Ashleigh, rather than text her himself is not known: impractical though it undoubtedly was, it probably inspired confidence in Ashleigh, who almost immediately replied:

"Hes here babe x x"

So convincing was Chapman’s ruse that Ashleigh had now totally fallen for the story that she was dealing with two people, and that it was the ‘father’ whose car she was going to get into.

The full article appears in Issue 3 of Digital Forensics Magazine, published 1st May 2010. You must log in with a valid subscription to read on...


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