It was a cool, damp December morning in 2015 when a cyclist came upon the body of an elderly man in a remote English beauty spot. He was clean-shaven, smartly dressed and – as police would soon discover – completely unknown to anyone in the local area. So began a baffling mystery that led investigators halfway around the world…
Saddleworth Moor, where the man was discovered, is a desolate plateau of gritstone slopes and vigorous streams. It is part of the Peak District National Park and the place where serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley buried their child victims in the ’60s. The dead man was found on his back, arms at his side, on a hillside overlooking the Tame River near Oldham, Greater Manchester.
But the identity of the man, thought to be aged 65-75, was a complete mystery. Morticians at Royal Oldham Hospital gave him the nickname of Neil Dovestones, after the place where he was found. However, even more puzzling than his unknown identity was the deeply unpleasant cause of his death.
According to lab tests, the man died from poisoning by strychnine – a deadly alkaloid typically used to exterminate rodents. Symptoms include agonizing, back-arching convulsions that affect virtually every part of the body. Writers Stephen King, Agatha Christie and William Burroughs have all depicted horrific murders by strychnine.
Fortunately for investigators, there were a handful of clues on Dovestones’ person. In his right trouser pocket, police found £130 in £10 notes. In his left coat pocket were several train tickets, including an unused return from Manchester to London. There was also an empty medicine box covered with writing in Urdu – the national language of Pakistan.
Soon police were able to trace Dovestones’ movements in the hours preceding his death. The last person to talk to him was Melvin Robinson, the landlord of the Clarence Pub in Greenfield, close to where the body had later been found. At around 2:00 p.m. on December 11, 2015, Dovestones had walked into the pub and asked the way to the “top of the mountain.”
In fact, “the top of the mountain” was a 1,500-foot peak known as Indian’s Head. “When I spoke to him he just seemed like a normal person just looking at the local interest spots,” Robinson told the Manchester Evening News. “It’s become more of a mystery as time has gone on. I think we would all like to resolve it just for peace of mind.”
At the time, Robinson had warned Dovestones that he would not be able to reach the peak and then get back before dark. However, Dovestones ignored the advice and set off into the moors. He was last sighted by a motorist at around 4:30 p.m., more than halfway up the slope. The next morning, he was found dead.
“My theory on why he was there keeps changing,” Robinson told the Manchester Evening News. “If it was strychnine poisoning, that causes you to convulse but he had his arms by his side. Then I wonder if somebody robbed him and left him like that – but why wouldn’t they take the money. It’s so strange.”
In fact, using the train tickets found in Dovestones’ pocket, investigators were able to source CCTV footage that documented his entire outbound journey to northern England. Starting in Ealing in West London, he took an underground train to Euston station and connected with overland services to the city of Manchester. His final stop was Greenfield.
Consequently, police scoured pubs and hotels along his route to try to glean more clues. They also circulated pictures of him to doctors across the United Kingdom. However, neither strategy led to a breakthrough. No one could remember seeing him, and none of the doctors appeared to recognize him. Dovestones’ identity remained a mystery.
Investigators subsequently made wider public appeals for potential leads, drawing international coverage and prompting some intriguing speculation. The most outlandish theory to gain traction was that Dovestones had been a secret agent, perhaps murdered in an act of international espionage.
“If he was murdered,” mused the Australian news site news.com.au, “it must have been at the hands of someone he had arranged to meet at Saddleworth Moor, or who followed him there. The addition of a ‘rare poison’ to this already baffling picture has led to inevitable speculation the man was an international spy…”
A more plausible – if prosaic – theory had Dovestones as Hugh Toner, the long-lost father of Sean Toner, from Northern Ireland. In 1994 he had disappeared from a hospital in his homeland, never to be seen again. However, while footage of Dovestones did indicate a man of similar appearance to Toner, DNA tests soon ruled out any connection between the two men.
Still, perhaps the most intriguing theory tied Dovestones to a 1949 plane crash at Indian’s Head. As Detective Sergeant John Coleman told the Oldham Evening Chronicle in 2015, “The unidentified man is of an age that ties in with the crash and could be related to someone on it. He could have been making a pilgrimage to the plane crash site to remember a relative or friend.”
However, no evidence was found to substantiate that theory either. Instead, the final breakthrough was provided by the Pakistan connection. For in addition to the medicine box with Urdu writing, which was found to be a drug used in the treatment of hypothyroidism, post-mortem analysis of Dovestones’ body identified a surgical treatment that may have been performed in Pakistan.
In fact, Dovestones’ left thigh bone contained a mid-femur titanium plate that had been implanted using an unorthodox procedure at some point between 2001 and 2003. Before long, investigators were able to narrow their search to just 15 Pakistani hospitals. And finally, late in 2016, they located the surgical team who operated on Dovestones.
At the same time, the theory that Dovestones had traveled to the UK from Pakistan in the days just prior his death also bore fruit. “The check of the flight names threw up a particular name,” Coleman told The Guardian. “We then managed to get a passport for that gentlemen, and although the picture was old, it looked right.”
“We actually got this imagery exactly a year later on the anniversary of his death,” Coleman continued. “Then we were able to trace a relative who provided us with a DNA sample.” The sample proved a match and Dovestones was finally identified as David Lytton, aged 67, originally from London.
However, plenty of unsolved mysteries continue to surround Lytton’s death – not least why he died or what he was doing in the Greater Manchester area. An inquest is scheduled to take place at Heywood Coroner’s Court on March 14, 2017, but until then, we can only speculate.