Early on August 9, 2012, a text message was sent from British woman Diana Lee’s phone. “Sorry to mess you around Mary, but I have been sick all night so can you drop off later? As it would really help me, after 10 please” [sic]
Yet at the time the message was sent, Diana was already dead.
The luxury cattery owner had been fatally beaten with a blunt instrument in the bathroom of her Cheshire home, before her body was dragged into her garage, mutilated and badly burned by the four fires that had been started throughout the dwelling.
There was DNA evidence and bloody footprints that placed her married lover, David Ryan, at the scene. But it was the text message that pinned him as the killer.
As forensic linguist John Olsson details in his new book, More Wordcrime, how he was able to help prove Ryan’s guilt thanks to something as innocuous as punctuation; the double space after the question mark.
This was not typical of Lee’s texting style; she would generally not use spaces at all after punctuation, butting one sentence or clause against the next. Ryan, however, typically used two.
Olsson, an expert witness in the case, helped a court conclude that after murdering the 54-year-old, Ryan had used her phone to postpone one of her clients from visiting the cattery, ensuring the woman remained clear of the crime scene. It was a move that ultimately saw the Altrincham man convicted of her murder in 2013 and landed him in prison for 34 years.
From manipulation to murder.
Ryan and Lee met at the Cinnamon Dance Club in Bowdon village in 2010, and embarked on relationship underscored by manipulation and deception. Lee never knew her partner was married, and over the course of their two-year relationship handed him $105,000 of her savings under the impression that he would invest it in a glazing business.
Instead, The Telegraph reported, the bankrupt man spent the cash on IVF treatment and luxury hotel getaways for his wife, a laptop, a puppy, Armani clothes, luggage and a Bang & Olufsen telephone.
When Lee raised suspicions about how he’d spent her money, he turned.
Lee was last seen alive at a local Chinese restaurant on the evening of August 8, 2012, where she was having dinner with friends, according to The Daily Mail. Prosecutors later determined that she then met up with Ryan, and returned to her home where they had sex.
Ryan later admitted to sleeping with her that evening, but claimed the tryst took place in her car and that had then returned home and was watching the Olympics on television at the time of her murder.
The crime was discovered the next morning when Lee's brother, concerned that he had been unable to contact her, stopped by her home to find smoke billowing from the garage, The Telegraph reported. It was firefighters who made the gruesome discovery inside; Lee's naked, badly burned body laying in a wheelbarrow, her genitals mutilated in an attempt to eliminate the killer's DNA evidence.
The blaze was another such attempt. Yet starved of oxygen in the closed-off garage, the fire hadn't burned hot enough to cover his tracks; bloody footprints matched his shoes, traces of his DNA were found on her body. And then there were the text messages.
After his conviction, Ruth Purdie, Assistant Chief Constable of Cheshire Police said, "We have been left in little doubt that Ryan’s attack on Diana — a diminutive and gentle lady — was brutal and sadistic.
“He showed contempt and compounded his disregard for her when he did his utmost to remove DNA evidence and then destroy her body."
She added, “Although Ryan refused to admit his guilt in this horrific murder, the prosecution were able to prove that he concocted a web of lies and brutally murdered a woman who had done nothing more than fall for the charm of a conman.”