St Albans builder recalls shocking discovery of murdered heiress’ body 40 years ago

Nomansland Common

Nomansland Common - Credit: Archant

Forty years after discovering the corpse of a missing Australian heiress, a St Albans builder still vividly remembers stumbling upon what he initially assumed was a ‘shop dummy’.

Dean James was one of the boys who found Janie Shepherd's body in Nomansland Common, near Wheathamps

Dean James was one of the boys who found Janie Shepherd's body in Nomansland Common, near Wheathampstead - Credit: supplied

Earlier this month, the Herts Advertiser carried a feature on 24-year-old Australian heiress Janie Shepherd, who went missing after being abducted in London on the night of February 4, 1977.

Ten weeks later, on April 18, two local schoolboys stumbled upon her body, after seeing what they thought was a bundle of rags under a hawthorn bush, in Devil’s Dyke.

Dean James was just 11 years old when he and best friend Neil Gardiner, then aged 10, cycled out to Nomansland Common, between Wheathampstead and Sandridge, when they noticed something ‘strange’ under a bush.

Recalling the macabre discovery, the builder, who lives in Marshalswick, said: “I still remember it vividly. Being a local person, I always get told, ‘I remember when you found that body’. People were texting me about the Herts Advertiser article (February 2).”

Janie Shepherd.

Janie Shepherd. - Credit: Archant

Newspaper reports four decades ago reported the boys saying that they ‘ran off in fright’ after seeing the body of the missing blonde heiress who, it later transpired, was raped and murdered by David Lashley, before he drove to Nomansland Common and hid her body.

Afterwards, Lashley - who in 1990 was jailed for life - drove the murdered woman’s Mini back to London, and abandoned the vehicle in Elgin Cresent.

Dean said that he and Neil were so shocked at finding Janie’s body that at first, they struggled to comprehend what they had seen.

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He said: “The thing that made it a big case was that it was almost a murder-mystery – the police didn’t know who had done it.

“I remember coming back home; I sat down and starting eating dinner, and when my mum brought out my pudding, it was an iced bun, and it reminded me of her [Janie’s] hair, and I burst out crying.”

He believes that it was not until he saw the iced bun that the boys’ shocking discovery really ‘sank in’.

Dean’s mum, Dixie James, added: “Janie’s disappearance had been on the news continually for weeks, and the newsreader had even said to look out for her body, so we took Dean very seriously and immediately phoned the police.

“We were told to sit tight and someone would come. We waited ages before anyone came – the reason was because the senior officers also took Dean seriously, and arrived at Nomansland when Dean, his dad, and Neil and his dad also arrived there in a police car.”

Dixie recalled: “Dean was told to proceed to where the body was, but not to go right up to it, but point it out. He told me later that he was a bit worried that he might not be able to find it again, and then remembered he had seen a dead bird nearby, so that helped him find the right place.

“He also told me she was partly covered by leaves and they thought at first she was a shop dummy. Dean could see bare skin on her back. Once he found the correct area, he stopped as instructed and pointed to Janie.

“The next day, reporters from national newspapers arrived and the boys were photographed. Dean later had to appear at the Coroner’s Court to give his statement, and I was proud of him, as he stood there and answered questions.”

Dean said that police were so concerned about him and Neil being accosted by journalists that their families were offered protection.

He said: “But we didn’t need any, because we had German Shepherd dogs, so it wasn’t necessary.

“I didn’t receive any counselling, as it wasn’t done back then.”