It’s International Women’s Day so The Best Life Project wanted to celebrate an inspirational woman of great achievement and passion.
Angela Gallop readily admits she’s never been very good at small talk. She’s also learned over the years that discussing her work can be something of a conversation killer with friends.
A forensic scientist for over 40 years, she was responsible for bringing John Cooper, The Pembrokeshire Murders killer, and many other high profile cases to justice.
She is the most sought-after forensic scientist in the UK. But she learned long ago that discussing her work can put a bit of a dampener on a dinner party or afternoon tea with the girls.
“We are so used in the lab to talking about the seamier more violent side of life in matter-of-fact terms that I don’t always realise when I’m talking in general terms to friends that it might be too much for them. I have to be careful,” she says.
Angela is not what you’d expect – she’s very funny, for one – indeed when she watched ITV’s series The Pembrokeshire Murders and saw how she was portrayed by actress Anastasia Hille she was genuinely surprised.
“She’s clearly a very good actress,” she says. “But she obviously thought that scientists are very serious and very considered. We have to be when we need to be, but there was no lightness about it. You need to have a real passion for this job and that’s what makes you go the extra mile. When I saw her, I thought, ‘where’s my passion and joie de vivre?’ But I don’t blame her that’s what people think. It’s just not me.”
In fact, the series was a somewhat sanitised version of the reality. Angela says: “There’s a scene where the police are desperate to solve the case and in the series they are very well mannered and we have a conversation and they agree that I can extend the range of the investigation. What happened in real life is that DCI Steve Wilkins rang up and said ‘We’re absolutely fed up of you. You’ve been at it for 18 months and you’re nowhere near solving it so we’re going to take the case off you and give it to someone else’.
“That’s the worst thing you can say to a forensic scientist. I had to go to Fishguard and meet him in his den. It was the worst meeting I’ve ever had. But in the end, to his credit, he saw my point. We weren’t getting anywhere with DNA, so he agreed to let me open up the investigation and test some textile fibres. As soon as we started doing that the evidence appeared.”
The team discovered substantial amounts of blue acrylic fibres which led to the realisation that Cooper must have been wearing gloves during his crimes, which partly explained why they found little DNA.
Angela set up and led the teams that provided forensic evidence in many high profile cases including, Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor and Rachell Nickell. In 2015 she was awarded a CBE and in 2019 published her first memoir titled ‘When the Dogs Don’t Bark: A Forensic Scientist’s Search for the Truth’.
Angela initially studied botany at the University of Sheffield, and biochemistry at Oxford, before applying for a job at the Forensic Science Service in 1974.
Her first crime scene was in a Huddersfield wood yard where the body of 18-year-old Helen Rytka was found, who was one of Peter Sutcliffe’s first victims.
“We were just beginning to link the murders and were really worried about this man,” she told the Yorkshire Post. “It was a baptism of fire, the first time I had ever seen a dead body. I thought beforehand, ‘I hope I’m not going to keel over’.”
The first piece of evidence she examined as a young scientist in the Forensic Science Service was a plastic handbag heavily stained with the blood of a woman killed by her husband who had been trying to exorcise evil spirits. She recalls thinking: “Is this really what I want to do with my life?
“I was pretty horrified. I obviously read newspapers and knew people did dreadful things to each other but seeing it face to face and seeing the items that were around when this women and her dog were being attacked brought it home to me. I was living on my own, I was married but my husband was a student elsewhere. So I had to come to terms with all that.
‘I was very aware that I had to do the best I could to get justice. If you don’t have that passion for the science and its purpose you would never last’
“The people in the lab were all nice but they were used to it. So I learnt very quickly what you could do, the need to do it quickly and properly and that completely overtook the immediacy of how ghastly it had been for the victims. I was very aware that I had to do the best I could to get justice. If you don’t have that passion for the science and its purpose you would never last.”
In 1986 Angela established the independent consultancy, Forensic Access, primarily to advise lawyers representing people accused of crime involving forensic science evidence for a better balance at court.
She led a team that reinvestigated the 1988 murder of Lynette White in Cardiff, for which the men who became known as the Cardiff Three were wrongly convicted. Working more than a decade after the murder, Angela recreated the flat where the murder occurred, using lengths of blood-spattered wallpaper removed during the first investigation.
It was only then that what actually happened in 1988 became “blindingly obvious” to her. Her exploration of the original investigation, and then the reinvestigation took nearly four years. Sections of skirting board and the front door of the flat were removed and examined and beneath layers of paint they found blood splashes from the real murderer – Jeffrey Gafoor, that, along with other things, provided enough DNA evidence to convict him in 2003.
The trial and the investigation made both scientific and legal history. It was the first time a person who had committed a murder was identified and convicted through a familial search (using close relatives) of the National DNA Database and the first miscarriage of justice to be resolved by the conviction of the real murderer. The case also led to the introduction of routine recording of police interviews.
In 1997, concerned about falling standards in forensic science, Angela co-founded Forensic Alliance – the first alternative source of comprehensive forensic services for police and other investigators.
In 2005 she facilitated the acquisition of Forensic Alliance by LGC (The Laboratory of the Government Chemist) to connect forensic science with the wider scientific community. LGC Forensics, now Eurofins, then became the largest supplier of forensic services in the UK and the largest independent supplier in Europe.
Angela is currently Group Chief Executive for AFA International Ltd under which both Forensic Access and Axiom International have been combined – respectively supplying forensic services to both prosecution and defence teams in the UK, and security and justice capability and capacity building services (including forensic science) for the UK and other governments internationally.
There are few things that shock Angela, but the effect social media is having on people’s lives and their mental health concerns her.
“Life seems so much more debilitating and complicated than it was. People have always done horrible things to each other and always will. We’re a type of animal and we behave in certain ways and we have disorders that make us worse. I’m well used to that. But the effects of social media continue to surprise me.”
‘As we get more powerful we have to be absolutely sure that we’re concluding the right things from what we find’
Angela has seen great advances in forensic science technology since the discovery of DNA. These days a main focus is also on Digital forensics – the criminal use of computers and mobile phones, and cybercrime, and development of artificial intelligence and other tools to combat it.
“As tech has advanced over the last few decades and our experience expanded to match it, we have been able to find tinier and tinier amounts of evidence and analyse and compare them. With that you have to be very careful that what you’ve found is actually evidence and not some form of contamination. You also have to be so careful that there are not some innocent circumstances for how the DNA or other traces could have got there. That’s the thing that worries me quite a bit. As we get more powerful we have to be absolutely sure that we’re concluding the right things from what we find.”
But with her forensic pursuit of excellence in the profession, the perpetrators of serious crime will continue to be thwarted by their nemesis.
Read Angela’s book: When Dogs Don’t Bark: A Forensic Scientist’s Search For The Truth
Forensic Access: https://www.forensic-access.co.uk/