A serial rapist who ‘terrorised’ women was convicted yesterday of the ‘Lady in the Lake’ murder 35 years on as police warned that he may have claimed other victims.
Donald Robertson was locked up for life after preying on girls as young as 11 threatening to knife, strangle or bottle them in a series of terrifying sex attacks during the 1980s.
Yet somehow he managed to evade justice for his most notorious crime – the strangling of Shani Warren. She became known as the ‘Lady in the Lake’ after her bound body was found dumped in Taplow Lake, Buckinghamshire on April 18, 1987.
Tragically, Miss Warren’s parents died before Robertson was charged – going to their graves without learning the truth.
Miss Warren’s brother Stephen yesterday said the family had been ‘forced to live with a lie’ as he hit out at the blunders which left Robertson free to claim more victims.
He said: ‘The loss of Shani left a gaping hole in the family. Not just of a central member and surely its brightest light, but of a force of energy, hope and positivity. Her parents never recovered, and for us all, nothing felt the same again.’
Yesterday Robertson was also found guilty of the rape of a 16-year-old girl six years earlier just four miles away. Detectives warned that the ‘prolific predatory sex offender’ may have attacked other women.
During a reign of terror over two decades, Robertson carried out serious sex attacks on many women from teenagers to pensioners that he targeted during aggravated burglaries when he demanded sex or money.
Disappeared: Shani Warren, 26, was strangled, bound and gagged. On Easter Saturday 1987 the body of Shani Warren was discovered by a passer-by in Taplow Lake near Maidenhead
As the appalling scale of his offending became clear, police faced questions yesterday about why it took so long for him to fall under suspicion for the murder of Miss Warren – and the series of shocking blunders that led to him escaping justice for so long.
Stephen Warren said: ‘We cannot imagine what the last moments of Shani’s life must have been like, but you may agree that no punishment is enough for her attacker.’
Miss Warren was 26 when she disappeared on Good Friday having set off to dispose of grass cuttings after mowing the lawn at her home in the Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Poges.
She is thought to have stopped in a layby due to a fault in her car’s gearbox.
The next day a dog walker found her body lying face down in a lake. Miss Warren had been gagged with a cloth, her hands were tied behind her back with jump leads and her legs were bound with a tow rope.
She had been strangled until unconscious and then dumped in the water to drown. Despite this, the pathologist treated the case as a suicide and failed to take a mouth swab which would have revealed her attacker’s DNA.
The blunder meant detectives failed to consider a sexual motivation, even though the victim’s underwear was missing and she had been bound and gagged. The murder remained unsolved until the gag was scientifically re-examined in 2020 and 2021 which revealed Robertson’s DNA.
In a final insult, Robertson refused to attend Reading Crown Court for a single day of his case, failing to turn up even to enter a plea, telling lawyers that he ‘couldn’t face the proceedings’.
Donald Robertson was locked up for life after preying on girls as young as 11 threatening to knife, strangle or bottle them in a series of terrifying sex attacks during the 1980s
Mr Warren called Robertson, ‘a psychopath and a coward who lacked the courage to attend court’. He added: ‘Being forced to live with the lie that there had been no assault on her didn’t help, and the nonsensical notion of suicide, hurriedly advanced by a pathologist who strayed far beyond his remit and his expertise, was both a distraction to everyone and an insult to her memory.’ Here the Daily Mail outlines the shocking catalogue of crimes committed by Robertson – and the shocking list of missed opportunities to bring him to justice.
Identified by a victim but let go by police
At 11.30pm on July 16, 1981, a 16-year-old girl was walking home near to the Britwell Estate in Slough when a man jumped out from behind a fence, grabbed her and told her: ‘Don’t scream – I’ve got a knife and I’ll kill you.’
Having taken the teenager to playing fields, he threatened her again, this time saying he would strangle her. He then raped her.
When the girl was let go she immediately alerted police, who took swabs from her body and clothing. The following day Robertson, who lived on the Britwell Estate, was arrested. No doubt he fitted the profile – having only been released three months earlier after being jailed for five years in 1977 for the attempted rape of a 15-year-old.
Interviewed under caution he gave a short, written statement in which he admitted being out on the night in question but denied attacking anyone. Two weeks later, Robertson took part in an identification parade. Giving evidence last week, the victim, now in her 50s, tearfully told the court of the pressure placed on her by police to correctly identify her rapist from a nine-man line up.
In accordance with the rules of the time, an inspector informed her she would have to enter the room with the men and then ‘touch or otherwise clearly indicate’ if her attacker was there.
She did not indicate anyone but on leaving the room broke down in tears. When the inspector asked why, she said: ‘I think he was there… he was at the end… the far end from where I started.’
The man occupying that position was Robertson. Incredibly, despite this, it was decided this was insufficient evidence to justify a charge. And the rapist was let go.
A gruesome discovery: Taplow Lake in Buckinghamshire. Shani Warren became known as the ‘Lady in the Lake’ after her bound body was found dumped in Taplow Lake
Taplow Lake. A post-mortem examination was duly conducted by the late Dr Benjamin Davis, a pathologist who had previously been removed from the Home Office’s approved list but had recently been re-instated. In the course of his investigation he found no evidence that Miss Warren had been assaulted
A mouth gag shown to the jury from the trial regarding the murder of Shani Warren at Taplow Lake, in Buckinhamshire in 1987
Robertson is free to rape again
Back to 1981 and within just 17 days of the above rape, Robertson struck again. This victim was a 14-year-old girl cycling on a lane in Farnham Royal, Buckinghamshire.
The location was little more than a mile from where he had targeted the other teenager. Wielding a broken bottle, her assailant pushed her into nearby bushes, made her lie on the floor, tied her hands behind her back with her shoelaces and then attempted to gag her with a sock. Having forced her to perform a sex act, he raped her.
Police were alerted and her description of the attacker was so good that within hours Robertson was arrested.
In October of that year he pleaded guilty to the offence and was jailed. It goes without saying that had he been charged for the earlier rape, that young girl would never have been subjected to such a terrifying ordeal. It is also unclear why, having admitted to this rape, he was not linked to the earlier rape for which he had been arrested and released without charge.
Robertson was jailed for eight years. But he would be released early and would strike again. And this time he would kill.
Murder mystery and a catalogue of errors
Fast forward six years, and on Easter Saturday 1987 the body of Shani Warren was discovered by a passer-by in Taplow Lake near Maidenhead.
The 26-year-old was the daughter of wealthy parents and had last been seen alive the previous evening. Her hands and feet were tied and her mouth gagged by a piece of cloth. There were also marks around her neck that suggested she had been partially strangled with a ligature before drowning in the water.
A post-mortem examination was duly conducted by the late Dr Benjamin Davis, a pathologist who had previously been removed from the Home Office’s approved list but had recently been re-instated.
In the course of his investigation he found no evidence that Miss Warren had been assaulted.
But he failed to take any swabs from her mouth – an oversight later described as a ‘significant and culpable omission’.
When the case was re-examined in 2020, residues of semen were found on the gag. DNA matching Robertson’s was also found on the strap of her bra.
Principal investigator Pete Beirne, head of the Major Crime Review Team, admitted this week that ‘had mouth swabs been taken it would have caused the investigation to have a different direction potentially’.
‘Lines of inquiry would have been looked at – people with convictions for serious sexual assaults,’ he said. ‘Robertson would have fitted in that category.’
At the time, however, Dr Davies suggested that Miss Warren had committed suicide, giving evidence to that effect at an inquest later that year.
He told the hearing she could have loosely bound her own hands and feet and then attempted to strangle herself before falling into the water and drowning. As a result, an open verdict was returned, much to the distress of family and friends who vouched that Miss Warren had shown no signs of being suicidal.
‘She had so much going on and so many plans,’ her brother Mr Warren said at the time.
Police continued to look for a killer, the high profile case featuring on the BBC’s Crimewatch programme. Investigations focused on Miss Warren’s car which was found in a nearby layby. Her watch and lighter had been abandoned in it and the car key, attached to a distinctive key ring, was missing.
The driver’s seat was also found to be fully reclined. A passing motorist reported having passed the car the evening before her body was found and being struck by the sight of a man in the front seat, facing backwards towards the rear of the car.
Then Robertson attacks again
Despite being a prolific, violent sex offender living locally, Robertson never featured in police investigations into Miss Warren’s death.
And so it was that 50 days after the discovery of Miss Warren’s body, on June 5, 1987, he pounced on a 17-year-old girl walking from Slough to her home in Maidenhead in the early hours of the morning. She was four miles from the lake.
As she walked along, a car driven by Robertson pulled up beside her. He offered her £50 for sex and she told him to go away and then walked to a nearby house, hiding in its garden.
But the man suddenly appeared beside her, holding his hand in his pocket and giving the impression he was holding a weapon.
Fearing for her life, she did what she was told and got into the front of his car. There Robertson reclined the front passenger seat and forced her to perform a sex act on him and then raped her.
She alerted police as soon as she was released. But no arrests were made at the time. That would have to wait until 2010 when Thames Valley Police carried out a review of the case, finding new scientific evidence that linked Robertson to the crime. He was tried and convicted of kidnap and rape and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.
While Robertson was behind bars now at least, questions remained as to why he was not also linked to the first rape. The reason emerged during the recent hearing.
It turns out records belonging to Thames Valley Police were not digitised until 2015. This meant that data relating to the 1981 incident was stored on paper spreadsheets, making it hard to find someone who was connected to an investigation, particularly if they had not been charged, as was the case with Robertson.
It was not until they searched the digitised files after a review in 2018 that they realised Robertson had been interviewed under caution about the 1981 case and then moved forward with it. Meaning that victim was left waiting yet another decade to discover who her attacker was.
Yet another victim and more clues
It would not be long before the danger Robertson posed to women would be flagged up yet again to Thames Valley Police.
In April 1990 he tricked his way into a Department of Health and Social Security bed and breakfast hotel in Slough by telling a female resident there was a phone call for her. He then assaulted her – using a set of keys as a weapon.
Robertson was subsequently arrested and in December of that year admitted burglary with intent to commit rape and kidnap. He also admitted punching a 79-year-old pensioner in the face three days earlier after she caught him going through a chest of drawers in her bedroom. He was jailed for ten years but was out within six.
Judge labels him ‘a very dangerous man’
Within three months of Robertson’s release he indecently assaulted an 11-year-old girl near Slough in March 1997.
He approached the child at a fairground, telling her she was beautiful. The girl then followed him in the belief he was going to give her some money. But she fled when he suggested they ‘make a bit of love’.
The court heard the longest period Robertson had been out of prison in the previous 20 years was 12 months. Jailing him for five years, the judge said: ‘You are a very dangerous man because, although you didn’t do much to this child, this was the fourth occasion since 1978 that you have committed indecent, sexual or violent offences within a few months of being released.’
Just how dangerous, the world now knows.