New true crime podcast explores case that has confounded investigators for 16 years

To mark the anniversary of an unsolved mystery, Testimony’s investigation brings police and key expert interviews together to tell the grim secret of Featherbed Rocks

On May 13 2006 a man walking on the beach in Seaham, six miles south of Sunderland, made a shocking discovery. He called the police and set in train a series of events that have yet to be resolved.

Testimony: The Body on Seaham Beach is a new two-part podcast which explores the events that took place following the discovery of human remains on the Featherbed Rocks.

Fiona Thompson, who covered the story as a reporter for the Sunderland Echo at the time, takes listeners through the actions of police and others in the weeks, months and years that followed, in the exhaustive attempt to identify these remains.

Produced through the Laudable podcast stable, which was established in 2019 by Reach plc and JPI Media (now National World), with Google innovation funding, this is the second Testimony deep dive published, and once again it features interviews with key people and agencies involved in the case.

You can find the episodes on the websites of the Sunderland Echo and NationalWorld.com, as well as all major podcast platforms including Spotify
and Apple

The simple headstone

Fiona Thompson takes listeners through what happened, “This case has stayed with me for the last 16 years. I had never seen anything like it before, or since for that matter. This body washed ashore at Featherbed Rocks and no-one knew who it was. Durham Constabulary set to work straight away and I stayed close to the investigation as they introduced amazing cutting edge science and technology to try to identify this unknown.

“I got to know some of those involved in the case quite well such as Cliff Down the Detective Sergeant and Neville Dixon, the Coroner’s Officer and for all of us, this case has always stayed in the back of our minds. By making the podcast we wanted to explore everything that happened and ask the question if something was missed or if more could have been done.

“I still feel this case can be solved, someone out there knows who this is. The podcast contains everything we know about this man and I hope that something will click with a listener and we can finally say who this person is and return them to their family.”

Arena forensic manager Suzanne Hitchison and Det Insp Kevin Langham

Testimony: The Body on Seaham Beach highlights the ongoing search for answers and asks whether someone out there may hold the key to solving this case.

National World Podcast Producer, Kelly Crichton, says: “From the moment I heard about this story I knew it was perfect for Testimony and would make a great podcast series to work on. It’s been quite a long journey but I had great help from Fiona Thompson, an ex-Sunderland Echo reporter who worked on the story, to put the production together and do all the interviews.

“The very premise of this podcast is that this person who remains unidentified will have had family and people who knew them. That someone’s life story could end this way is so terribly sad. We hope that the podcast might shed some new light on who this ‘unknown male’ is so his remains can be reunited with his family. I’ve learnt a lot working on this podcast thanks to all the scientists and experts involved, I hope listeners will too and enjoy it in the process.”

Retired Detective Sergeant Cliff Down was the lead police officer on the case and shares his memories about the only case he ever worked on not to reach a conclusion.

“It was the first time I’d ever gone to a body that had been recovered on the beach…there were a lot of inquiries to come which I had never done before and it was a big learning curve for me. Like most investigations we started with the basics, we needed to rule out foul play and see if this body matched any missing persons reports from ours and neighbouring forces areas. But after that we needed to start thinking more laterally, we had to use all the forensic evidence we had to try and identify this person.

“We ventured into areas of cutting edge scientific investigations that hadn’t been used before by the force like Isotope analysis. We even undertook to create a full facial reconstruction too in the hope someone would recognise this person. No stone was left unturned but this case still frustrates me to this day and I hope by contributing to the podcast we can reach someone who has information who can help answer some of the outstanding questions we have.”

As well as the specifics of this case, the podcast also sheds light on how missing people cases and unidentified remains are treated by the authorities and investigators.

In the podcast, Louise Newell, Operations Manager at the UK Missing Persons Unit at the National Crime Agency, talks about the challenges of identifying some human remains through their DNA database, “Some families might not report somebody as missing for many, many years if their behaviour is completely normal. So cases could sit there for a long time before we are then able to make a match. There are quite a lot of people out there who, for whatever reason, there’s some sort of family breakdown or there’s a disconnect between them and family and they don’t have close relationships with people. “Sadly, when they die a) we can’t identify them and b) family or previous friends or partners won’t know they’re missing as that lack of communication is standard.”

Other contributors include Professor Caroline Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University, who worked with Cliff and his team to carry out the facial reconstruction. Dr Wilkinson is famed for doing a similar reconstruction of King Richard III, following the discovery of his remains in a Leicester car park in 2012.

Coroner’s Officer Neville Dixon also features and explains how this particular case was so unusual.

Niall Benson of Durham Heritage Coast and DNA expert Dr Steven Darby from the University of Sunderland also feature on the series in order to tackle some of the outstanding questions relating to the case in the hope of finally giving a grieving family somewhere, some answers.

Testimony is a Laudable production for the Sunderland Echo and NationalWorld. Episode 1 will be available on all podcast platforms today the 16th anniversary of the discovery. Episode 2 will be available one week later. It is presented, produced and edited by Kelly Crichton.

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>> See the series so far, here

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