Rachel McLean murder: The 19 days that trapped her killer

Rachel McLean's murderer is back in jail. The Gazette's archives reveal how he was caught back in 1991.

Wednesday, 19th September 2018, 12:08 pm
Updated Wednesday, 19th September 2018, 1:17 pm

Saturday, April 13

Rachel spent the Easter Bank Holiday weekend with her family and was drive back to Oxford by her mother Jean a week before the start of the new term to give her time to study. After having lunch and buying some groceries, Rachel's mother bade her daughter farewell at 4pm and set off on the five-hour return journey. Tanner was due at the house at 6pm and Rachel went to the city's railway station to meet his train. He was delayed and Rachel returned home alone. Tanner eventually arrived by taxi at around 7.30pm. During that evening, Rachel's mother rang to say she was home safely - the last time she ever spoke to her eldest child.

Sunday, April 14

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It was FA Cup semi-finals day and Rachel and Tanner, an avid Nottingham Forest fan, spent a lazy day at home. She studied in the front room while he watched the football on the television. Rachel rang her grandmother Alice Buckley in Blackpool at lunch-time to thank her for sending a food parcel and the couple were seen by neighbours outside the house at around 4.30pm. That was the last time Rachel was seen alive.

In interviews, Tanner told detectives the killing occurred sometime during that evening. Following the killing, he spent several hours finding a hiding place for the body in the house. He eventually found one which was to twice fool police searchers during the week-long hunt for Rachel. Right at the back of a cupboard under the stairs crammed with household junk, Tanner discovered an eight-inch high gap. After emptying the cupboard, he placed Rachel's body in the recess under the floor. He then crawled along under the hallway to secrete Rachel's body under the floorboards of her bedroom.

Monday, April 15

Tanner left the house, in Argyle Street, to return to Nottingham in the afternoon. He was seen by a passenger on the 5pm bound for Oxford railway station. As he waited for the 6.30pm train to Nottingham, Tanner calmly wrote a love letter to Rachel, which he posted to address. In it, he said how fortunate it was she had been met by a mystery long-haired man who had offered her a lift home. It was the start of a two-week long charade which was to lead police on a wild good chase throughout Britain.

Tuesday, April 16

Tanner, maintaining his charade, phoned Rachel's lodgings in Oxford. No-one was home and the ringing phone went unanswered.

Wednesday, April 17

One of Rachel's housemates, history undergraduate Victoria Clare, returned to the address in readiness for the Trinity term, which was set to start the following Monday. Oblivious to the fact her friend's body was beneath the floorboards, she settled back into her lodgings. In the evening, Tanner rang asking for Rachel. Victoria said she knew nothing of her whereabouts.

Thursday, April 18

Rachel's three remaining housemates - history students Margaret Smith, Sarah Heaume, and Jo Formby - returned to the house. Rachel had been dead for five days but no-one's suspicions had yet been aroused. A letter arrived addressed to Rachel with Tanner's distinctive stoping writing on the envelope. Tanner rang once more, asking for Rachel but was less demanding about her movements than normal.

Friday, April 19

Rachel's friends began to wonder where she was. She was due to attend a meeting with her tutor that morning to discuss work for the new term ,and sit a pre-term exam at St Hilda's in the afternoon. When she failed to appear, college staff began to grow anxious. A phone call to Rachel's family in Blackpool confirmed she had been left in Oxford the previous weekend.

Saturday, April 20

College authorities alerted the police. Initially the inquiry was low-key. Oxford police receive dozens of reports of missing students every month. Rachel's description was circulated to local patrols.

Sunday, April 21

A week since Rachel's death had passed and CID officers under the command of Det Insp David Belcher took over the inquiry, and an initial search of the house in Argyle Street was carried out by detectives. There was nothing to suggest she had come to any harm at the house. Examination of the floorboards showed they had not been tampered with.

Monday, April 22

Police publicised Rachel's disappearance for the first time. Det Sup John Bound admitted later: "Although we could not admit it publicly, it seemed from the outset that some harm had befallen her. There was no reason for her to run away. She was a happy girl, with a good background, loving parents, and a bright future."

In the first of many interviews, Tanner, speaking from his home in Lenton, Nottingham, told how he had given Rachel a farewell kiss on platform two of Oxford railway station as he boarded his train home. He also claimed they were joined by a mystery long-haired man as they sat drinking coffee on the station concourse. He said the stranger seemed to know Rachel well and offered her a lift home.

Tuesday, April 23

Police conduct house-to-house enquiries around Argyle Street while sniffer dogs searched nearby scrubland. Detectives carried out a second search of the house but still find nothing.

Wednesday, April 24

Rachel's tearful parents Joan and Malcolm face the press to appeal for help finding their daughter. Mr Bound, the 42-year-old head of the Thames Valley Police northern crimes area, takes command of the police operation. Police frogmen drag the nearby River Cherwell as searches continue.

Thursday, April 25

A police incident room is opened at Cowley police station where the Holmes computer system was set up to run the inquiry.

Friday, April 26

Reported sightings of Rachel flood into the police HQ from all over the country. Most were wide of the mark but some required detailed examination by the investigating team of 50 officers.

Saturday, April 27

Police issue a photofit picture of the mystery long-haired man. No-one comes forward.

Sunday, April 28

Mr Bound, now convinced Rachel is dead, orders search teams to examine sewers and cess pits around her lodgings.

Monday, April 29

Tanner surprises police by agreeing to take part in a press conference and reconstruction of what he claimed were their final movements. At the conference, he rejects suggestions the mystery man looked like him and says: "I had nothing to do with her disappearance. I know what people are saying." The hour-long reconstruction was the climax of Tanner's charade. With Pc Helen Kay playing Rachel's role, he posed in the station cafe, strolled along the platform, and replayed the final hug and kiss he said he enjoyed before boarding the train.

Pressed again by reporters, Tanner says: "I did not kill her. I don't know what happened to her. In my heart of hearts I know she is still alive."

Tuesday, April 30

Police admit the reconstruction failed to place Rachel at the railway station. Crucially, two witnesses place Tanner there.

Wednesday, May 1

Police contact Oxford Council for details of the layout of houses in Argyle Street, particularly about basements. The council say there are none, but an official remembers the houses were under-pinned - which meant there was a cavity under the floors.

Thursday, May 2

Rachel's body is found. Within the hour, Tanner is arrested at a Nottingham pub. He refuses to answer any questions.

Friday, May 3

Confronted with evidence, Tanner breaks down and admits killing his girlfriend. Mr Bound said: "Having had all the facts put to him, he showed the first glimmer of emotion."

Saturday, May 4

Tanner appears before Oxford magistrates charged with the murder of Rachel Margaret McLean.

Thursday, May 9

An inquest is opened and adjourned.

Sunday, May 12

A memorial service is held at University Church of St Mary The Virgin in Oxford, attended by 400 family and friends.

Monday, May 20

A second post-mortem is carried out at the request of Tanner's solicitor.

Wednesday, May 29

A funeral service is held at Poulton Methodist Church, with an address by Rachel's former Sunday School teacher Kathleen Sutcliffe.

Thursday, December 5

After hearing several days of evidence, the jury is sent to decide whether Tanner is guilty of murder.

Friday, December 6

Convicted, Tanner starts his life sentence. Rachel's parents told how they forgive him. Jean, then 42, said: "I think we feel the way we have always felt - that this is a tragedy for him in his life as well.

"Yes, I think we can forgive him because otherwise it eats into your life and the lives of others around you. If you start on the path of forgiveness, you can start to build a new life and all the people around you can build new lives."