London Witchcraft Murder Traced to Africa Child Trade

James Owen
for National Geographic Channel
February 10, 2005
On Television: Watch National Geographic Explorer's The Witchcraft Murder, Sunday, February 13, 8 p.m. ET/PT, on the National Geographic Channel.

This story may contain information upsetting to sensitive or young readers.

In September 2001 a gruesome discovery was made in London's River Thames. The hideously mutilated torso of a small black boy was found floating through the city. The boy's arms, legs, and head had all been hacked off.

So began a stranger-than-fiction detective story that led U.K. investigators into a macabre netherworld of witchcraft and child sacrifice.

Murder squad detectives had nothing to go on: There were no reports of a missing child and no witnesses or crime scene. No face, fingerprints, or dental records remained that could help identify the boy. The police simply called him Adam. He was believed to have been between four and seven years old.

The investigation to discover Adam's true identity and bring his killers to justice is the subject of a National Geographic Explorer documentary, to be aired on the National Geographic Channel in the U.S. this weekend. It tells how the latest advances in forensic science led detectives across two continents in their dogged quest to solve Adam's murder.

"It is one of the most astonishing, horrible stories to happen in years and years in this country," said Richard Hoskins, who worked on the police investigation team.

The autopsy report concluded that Adam's throat had been slit. His body was then deliberately drained of blood.

With no clear leads, murder squad detectives at Scotland Yard in London called in forensic experts who used the latest scientific methods to examine Adam's bones, stomach, and intestines for clues. What they discovered became central to the investigation.

Ken Pye, a forensic geologist at the University of London, analyzed Adam's bones for trace minerals that are absorbed from food and water. Levels of trace minerals vary depending on which part of the world a person comes from.

Pye's tests revealed levels of strontium, copper, and lead two and a half times higher than would be normally expected in a child living in England. Using these trace minerals as his guide, Pye gradually narrowed down Adam's likely geographic origin to West Africa.

Stomach Contents

Extensive analysis of the contents of Adam's stomach and intestines pointed detectives in a similar direction. The forensic team found a strange, unidentifiable plant material. There was also a sandlike mineral and a substance that resembled small clay pellets. Added to this bizarre mixture were tiny particles of gold.

Plant anatomists were brought in to help identify the plant. The closest match, it turned out, was the Calabar bean—an obscure but highly toxic type of climbing vine from West Africa.

This proved a major breakthrough in the investigation, as it linked Adam's death to witchcraft in a region that's regarded as the birthplace of voodoo. Wade Davis, an anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, says dozens of poisons are traditionally used in West Africa.

"The Calabar bean is a very toxic plant, because the poison acts in such a way as to bring on total paralysis and an insanely painful death," he said.

Richard Hoskins, a U.K.-based expert on African religion and voodoo, says the Calabar bean, in combination with the other ingredients in Adam's gut, pointed to the West African country of Nigeria. There, witch doctors are known to use such potions for black magic.

"It's extraordinarily significant," he said. "The [beans are] ground down and then burnt in a pot. Taken together, this is the final clinching point that proves as near as certain that this was a sacrifice."

Hoskins says human sacrifice is a highly unusual aspect of black magic but that Nigerians themselves acknowledge that sacrificial killings often occur. Animal-blood offerings are deeply rooted in West African voodoo culture. It's regarded as a way to communicate with the spirit world and gain protection from ancestral deities.

"In any religion there is room for perversion of the religious doctrine," Davis said.

Deviant Practices

Davis added that deviant practices are most likely to occur in countries where there is civil unrest, poverty, and violence.

"It wouldn't surprise me if this strange, cultish behavior emerged out of the chaos and madness that is modern Nigeria," he said. In parts of Africa, most notably southern Africa, child parts are sometimes used by rogue witch doctors in a traditional form of medicine known as muti.

"It is felt by some that to kill a living person solely for the use of medicine is the most empowering form of medicine imaginable, and within that the most extreme form of all is to kill a child," Hoskins said.

The special police unit that investigates muti killings in South Africa estimates that there may be as many as a hundred such murders in the country each year.

Yet the West African connection was further strengthened when bone samples arrived from Nigeria for comparison with Adam's remains. Ken Pye and the forensic team were able to pinpoint Adam's birthplace to a region near Benin City in southwestern Nigeria. The closest match to Adam's bone chemistry came from Benin's main mortuary.

This bought another crime into the scope of the investigation—human trafficking.

West Africa is one of the areas that are the most exploited by criminals who sell people into modern-day slavery. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), some 200,000 children are trafficked out of western and central Africa each year. UNICEF defines child trafficking as the transportation and exploitation of unwilling or unknowing children, often for slave labor or sex work.

Police now suspected that Adam was brought to the U.K. by a child-smuggling ring, but not as child labor. Adam had been earmarked for human sacrifice. To find out why and by whom, murder squad detectives traveled to Nigeria and the city of Benin. They were beginning to close in on Adam's witchcraft killers, thanks to the clues revealed by forensic science.

While police have yet to secure a conviction for Adam's murder, they have succeeded in breaking up a major trafficking operation, possibly saving many other West African children from a life of slavery, prostitution, or even worse. With the trafficking gang's ringleader now in jail, detectives remain hopeful that Adam's killers can finally be brought to justice.

Don't Miss a Discovery
Sign up our free newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top news by e-mail (see sample).

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.