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How Mark Martin became Nottingham’s first and only ‘serial killer’

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It was 15 years ago this year that a drifter named Mark Martin arrived in Nottingham.

He soon gained a reputation among the homeless community as something of a bully – intimidating people, and forcibly taking their benefit money.

But beyond this behaviour there was something even more disturbing. He would tell people that he was dangerous and that he was going to hurt people.

At one point, he even boasted about becoming Nottingham’s ‘first serial killer’.

This is the story of how his twisted ambition tragically came true.

Early life

Martin grew up in Ilkeston and lived at home with his mother.

He was bullied at school for the birthmark under his right eye that gave him his nickname, ‘Reds’.

Former friends say that he acted violently and aggressively as a teenager at school.

And he ended up with a criminal record for burglary, common assault, using threatening behaviour, possession of an offensive weapon and attempted robbery.

The turning point in his life seemed to be when his father died.

In a letter to his probation officer in 2002, Martin wrote: “I was so sweet and nice until my dad died, and now I’m evil.”

In the same letter, he asked: “How long till I kill? It could be a lady, pets, anything”.

Arrival in Nottingham

Martin had admitted being violent to his wife, even though he told a probation officer he loved her and did not want to lose her. 

When she was pregnant in 2002 with their son, Martin took her by the throat when they were in a car, Nottingham Crown Court was told. He also hit her and threatened her with a Stanley knife.

In October, 2004, Martin was arrested on suspicion of assaulting his wife at a house in Radford. She had a bruise to her right eye, red marks to both sides of her nose, a cut to her upper lip and reddening and bruising to her neck.

The next day, Martin called 999 and told a police telephone operator he had been locked up the night before for trying to strangle his wife. He spoke of having bad thoughts and that he was going to end up killing someone.

Mark Martin
Mark Martin

Over the next couple of months, he engrossed himself in the homeless community, turning up at soup kitchens and befriending alcoholics and drugs addicts.

To those he met, he was a misfit. Unlike many of those who found themselves in that situation by tragic circumstance, Martin did not have drug and alcohol problems. He still had a home in Ilkeston and appeared clean and nicely dressed.

Outreach workers were puzzled by him. As one put it, 26-year-old Martin was an “oddity” in the homeless community.

“Although he was homeless, he didn’t need to be,” one said. He said Martin was “an intimidating person and did what he liked”.

By December 2004, Martin was living in a tent on land near the warehouses off Great Northern Close, near London Road, in Nottingham.

The Great Northern warehouses were built in 1857 and, as the name suggests, belonged to the Great Northern Railway. They were damaged by fire in 1998, and by 2004 no-one really ventured there except the city’s homeless, who frequented the old warehouses to take drugs without fear of being disturbed by the police.

Waste ground next to the derelict Great Northern warehouse buildings off London Road in 2006. Mark Martin's tent is thought to have been pitched near here.
Waste ground next to the derelict Great Northern warehouse buildings off London Road in 2006. Mark Martin’s tent is thought to have been pitched near here.

Martin would bully fellow rough sleepers for their benefits or what little money they could earn.

One homeless person said: “If you heard Reds was on one side of town you would go to the other. When he knew you had drugs or money he would look for you and take it off you.”

And when he was not robbing other homeless people, he was boasting how he was going to make a name for himself.

One person who had worked in the community for the six years said: “Word soon got round from different organisations who work with the homeless that he was a psychopath. Here was a potentially dangerous character that should be watched closely.

“Homeless people have to give off a lot of bravado to survive. But Martin was talking about how he was going to make a name for himself, that he was dangerous and was going to hurt people.

“We got the sense that there was something else. That he was capable of serious violence and that it wasn’t just bravado.”

The killings

The exact date when Martin committed his killings is not clear.

He ended up being charged with murdering both Katie Baxter between December 31, 2004, and February 1, 2005; Zoe Pennick between the same dates; and Ellen Frith between January 23 and 25, 2005.

But a forensic entomologist later established that Katie was deposited between January 1, 2005, and January 6, 2005, and Zoe was between December 30, 2004, and January 4, 2005. Ellen’s body was discovered on January 25.

Martin did not say what had happened, so the best version of events comes from an inmate who was on remand with Martin after his arrest – and who said Martin had told him all about it.

He said that Katie Baxter had been picked up by Martin in the city centre and taken down to the warehouse site.

“He said he picked her up and took her down the factory because she fancied him,” the inmate told the court. “They went into the tent chatting, and then he just snapped and strangled her.

“Katie scratched him. He burnt her fingers because he wanted to get rid of the evidence. He dragged her out of the tent, into the factory and buried her with debris.”

Zoe Pennick was killed about seven days later, after Martin lured her to the same warehouse.

He had persuaded her to come with him by saying he had 2,000 cigarettes, and wanted her to sell them on. Then he grabbed her by the throat and strangled her.

Zoe Pennick
Zoe Pennick

“He said it was hard and she didn’t want to die,” the witness said. “He was punching her, kicking her.”

The body was laid along the same wall as Katie’s, and buried in the same way.

Meanwhile Ellen Frith was strangled in a squat in Marple Square, St Ann’s, and set on fire.

The witness said Ellen had been with two other men and had gone to the squat to smoke drugs. Martin was at the squat, and grabbed Ellen as she bit into an apple in the kitchen. He pressed his thumbs into her throat and strangled her, before one of the other men, John Ashley, finished her off.

The Marple Square flat where Ellen Frith's body was discovered
The Marple Square flat where Ellen Frith’s body was discovered

 

“He said him and John lifted her up and put her on the sofa bed and set fire to the body,” said the witness. “Reds put a needle in her hand and stuck it in her leg.”

He said Martin had killed them for whimsical reasons — Zoe after she left a syringe full of blood in his bed, and Ellen after she refused to lend him a tenner.

He also said Martin told him: “If I’ve killed one, I might as well kill 21.”

Discovery of the bodies

The bodies of the women were not found in the order in which they were killed.

Ellen was recovered first, from the burnt-out squat in Marple Square, on January 25, 2005.

The area was a well-known haunt of the city’s homeless because some of the flats – which were due to be demolished – still had gas and electricity. 

It did not take detectives long to establish who Ellen was, or track down the people who had used the squat, including Martin and 34-year-old John Ashley.

Inquiries among the homeless community turned up the names of the accused.

One person described how he saw Martin in an alleyway after the fire at Marple Square. Martin had told him he had strangled and killed Ellen after she would not lend him a tenner.

Another said he overheard a conversation outside his flat in Marple Square and identified the voices as that of Martin and another man. He said Martin had said he had killed a girl, strangled her, and had to go back to the flat to set fire to her body.

Within days, the testimony of other homeless people had prompted police to charge both Martin and Ashley with murder.

John Ashley
John Ashley

But rumours among the homeless suggested that Ellen might not have been the only victim. 

A new line of inquiry developed into the whereabouts of two more women, Katie Baxter and Zoe Pennick.

Investigating officer Detective Superintendent Kevin Flint said: “We looked at individuals who associated with Ellen Frith, talking to them and literally hundreds of others from the homeless community.   

“They themselves spoke to us about the two girls. Within a few days we had Christian names and started to build on that.”

Katie had last been seen at her sister’s house in Gamston on December 29, and Zoe had last been seen alive in the city centre on New Year’s Eve.

As investigations continued, police searched the old packing houses off Great Northern Close.

And it was there, on February 11, 2005, they found the crudely buried, partly decomposed remains of Katie.

A police dog pinpointed Katie’s remains near an old wall heater. Her body was underneath “carefully placed” pieces of soil, bricks and foliage. A charred piece of wood lay nearby.

As forensic scientists moved in to begin her excavation, they were unaware that Zoe’s body lay a little under two metres away.

The bodies were found in the open section of the warehouse
The bodies were found in the open section of the warehouse

After Katie’s body had been taken away, specialist officers continued their fingertip search of the area and frogmen trawled the nearby canal bed.

Zoe was eventually found on February 16. They found a burnt piece of wood on her grave, and debris piled over – foliage and bricks – was similar to that used where Katie lay.

One homeless person said at the time: “When we heard about the bodies, a lot of people disappeared from the streets.

“No one would go out on their own. It wasn’t just the women who were scared but the lads, too.”

But police already had the prime suspect behind bars, as Mark Martin had already been arrested over the death of Ellen Frith.

The investigation

The murders posed unique problems for Notts Police.

Police had established that Katie, Zoe and Ellen had been strangled.

But officers had to disentangle several deaths and several suspects. At its height, the investigation had 40 dedicated officers taking hundreds of statements.

Officers set about building a case against Martin and his co-accused — a task complicated by the roving lifestyle of the witnesses.

They had the difficult task of tracing potential witnesses, many without fixed addresses. Once they had taken statements, police had to keep track of where their witnesses were to ensure they would give evidence in court.

Aerial view of the derelict warehouses off London Road
Aerial view of the derelict warehouses off London Road

Because the bodies of Katie and Zoe were so badly decomposed, detectives relied on pathology and forensic science.

Det Supt Kevin Flint explained: “It’s not a simple process to recover a body from a grave such as that. It takes scientific, pathology and other specialist support and advice to make sure it’s done correctly to preserve all the evidence. It’s a delicate process.”

And, crucially, police spent two weeks getting the witness who had spoken to Martin in prison to come to court. Eventually, under high security, he gave his evidence against Martin.

The Evening Post agreed not to name him at the time because he was still considered vulnerable after helping to convict Martin. 

The trial

The trial at Nottingham Crown Court began on January 16, 2006.

The prosecution painted a picture of a deranged man who had brazenly boasted of being the city’s first serial killer.

It was no secret from jurors that many of the witnesses had alcohol and drug problems.

Even so, most of the 20 to 30 witnesses turned up at court and spoke with clarity and conviction.

On February 24, the jury returned its verdicts on Martin and his co-accused after more than 21 hours of deliberation.

Dean Carr
Dean Carr

Dean Carr, 30, of no fixed address, was found guilty of the murder of Ellen Frith. He was jailed for life, with a minimum tariff of 14 years before being considered for parole.

John Ashley, 34, of no fixed address, was found guilty of the murders of Katie Baxter and Ellen Frith, but was cleared of murdering Zoe Pennick. He was given life and was told he would serve at least 25 years.

And Mark Martin, 26, of no fixed address, was found guilty of the murders of Katie Baxter, Zoe Pennick and Ellen Frith and sentenced to life in prison.

He is believed to be the only Notts person out of 64 across England and Wales who is currently serving a whole life tariff – meaning he has no chance of release.

The victims

Katie Baxter (18)

Katie spent the first two-and-a-half years of her life in Cotgrave, before her family moved to Nigeria.

The Baxters came back to Cotgrave three years later, and Katie became treasurer of a group called Kids Improving Cotgrave.

In the months before her death, however, she had chosen to stay in the YMCA.

A friend said: “Katie was very vulnerable because she was so young. Although she came from a stable background she chose to sleep rough because that’s what her friends were doing.”

However, her parents always hoped that she would go back to stay with them – and her brother and sister who were still living at home – at some point.

She was also welcome at her eldest sister’s place in Gamston; in fact that was where she was last seen alive, leaving that house on the night of December 29, 2004.

Katie had been involved in the city’s homeless scene since splitting with her first serious boyfriend. It was there that she met John Ashley.

On the night of December 27, she ended up the Queen’s Medical Centre and had to have stitches in her mouth and nose.

Her father, who picked her up the next morning, said it was as a result of Ashley assaulting her. 

Katie Baxter
Katie Baxter

Katie’s parents began to seriously worry when she failed to turn up at any of the home matches of her beloved Nottingham Panthers.

They eventually reported Katie as a missing person after hearing that firefighters had found the body of a homeless woman in a fire-ravaged flat in St Ann’s on January 25.

Of course that was Ellen, rather than Katie; but by then the Baxters had a sense of dread.

Their worst fears were confirmed when, two days after Katie’s body was found, formal identification was made. 

Her father later praised the homeless community, saying: “They have all come out, all been honest, all admitted their feelings, all stood up for what they believed was right.”

But he said of the perpetrator: “There was no rhyme or reason. It wasn’t a robbery or anything. Someone just killed someone for the hell of it.”

Zoe Pennick (26)

Her father said that she was a “bright, bubbly and generous girl” who once loved to sing and dance. But drugs changed her personality.

Zoe, who had two brothers and a sister, started getting into trouble after her parents’ marriage broke up in 1982.

She attended West Park Community School in Spondon and Chaddesden Secondary School in Chaddesden, Derby, but began skipping lessons at and was reported missing by her parents.

At 16, Zoe moved into a hostel in Derby. A year later she was arrested for a series of shoplifting offences.

She became pregnant and, in 1996, gave birth to her first son, who helped give her some stability. She had a second child with another man in 2002.

Zoe Pennick
Zoe Pennick

Her family said it was wrong to describe Zoe as homeless, as she had a flat in Littleover in Derby, but she chose to associate with the homeless.

She began to spend more time in Nottingham, and her father last saw her in December 2004 when she came to collect some belongings from his house.

He became seriously concerned a few weeks later because he hadn’t heard from her, so he reported her as a missing person.

He said later: “There was always that feeling in the back of your mind that something terrible has happened – and that was the case for us.”

Zoe’s brother Liam Pennick was killed 12 years later at his home in Allenton, Derby, by a housemate who had moved into the house just days previously.

Ellen Frith (25)

Ellen was born in Chesterfield, and moved to Ripley with her parents in 1992, where she attended Mill Hill School.

She started to smoke cannabis at 16, and at 17, she left home with a number of young men and started trying stronger drugs.

She also lived in Belper, Spalding and Derby, then moved to Nottingham, living in the YMCA for about a year.

Ellen Frith
Ellen Frith

She said she could hear voices saying her parents were going to kill her, and was diagnosed with cannabis psychosis. 

Her father said he had “tried everything he could” to get her off drugs, and last saw her on New Year’s Eve, 2004.

He also said he thought that her moving to Nottingham would make her safer.

Why did Martin do it?

A series of domestic disputes with his wife triggered Martin’s desire to kill, Nottingham Crown Court heard.

The prisoner who met Martin on remand said the killer had explained what had triggered his actions.

He said Martin told him it was because the mother of his son went to police and would not let him see his child.

“He couldn’t get to see his son, and from there he just snapped,” the prisoner said.

So is he actually a serial killer?

At the time, police said that Martin was the first example of serial killing seen in Nottingham.

Det Supt Kevin Flint also said Martin would have been “highly likely” to kill again if he had not been caught. 

“Martin was a very, very dangerous individual,” he said. “That sort of situation had never come to Notts before and it’s a rare occurrence throughout the country.”

The definition of a serial killer is someone who commits at least three murders over more than a month, with a period in between each killing.

Because the exact dates of the murders are not known, it’s not clear whether they did take place over the course of a month, and what the gap in between was.

One expert at the time said that to be classed as a serial killer the murderer must have left a period greater than 30 days between each killing, which meant that Martin would be classified as a mass murderer rather than a serial killer.

But, when all is said and done, it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that three young women lost their lives, and that Martin will – in all likelihood – never be released.

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