Starling Pen & Ink Sketch of the ‘Handless Corpse’ Trial

(Warning- contains a few grim details).

Monthly Update (Staff) June 23  This ordinary (and let’s face it not very interesting) print of a pen and ink drawing is by Daily Mail artist Starling.

It actually holds a fascinating story of millionaires, drug cartels, and murder, that spans the world. The ‘Handless Corpse Trial’ was held at Lancaster Castle between January and July 1980. 

The image, from our collection, shows the court room in Lancaster Castle. The Judge’s Bench is at the far right above the semi-circle of benches for the lawyers and barristers, representing the case in dark gowns and wigs. Piles of books lie on the desks in front of them. On the other side is the Jury Box, located at the back of the court.

When two amateur divers plunged into the water- filled Delph Quarry near Chorley in October 1979 they had no idea the chain of events that would be triggered. Ashcroft and Reading found the mutilated body of a man, weighed down beneath the water.

The murder investigation would lead police as far afield as New Zealand and would help smash an international drugs syndicate and a trail of heinous murders.

Initially, the police didn’t know who the victim was so a “death mask” picture was made public and shown around local pubs and clubs. A hundred detectives were working on the case.

Te victim’s girlfriend came forward and identified him as Martin ‘Marty’ Johnstone from New Zealand. Johnstone was no free-spirited backpacker, he was a multi-millionaire in his late 20s and his wealth and name ‘Mr Asia’ came from dealing in drugs around South East Asia. He had a taste for tailored suits, expensive shirts and first-class travel – he flew on Concorde’s inaugural flight to Singapore ‘just for the hell of it’.

Johnstone owed two of NZ’s most notorious drug barons Terry Clark aka ‘Mr Big’, and another called ‘Chinese Jack’ a lot of money.

He lost $300,000 of Clark’s money when a drug deal turned sour in Thailand. That wasn’t the only thing that turned sour.

In October 1979, Johnstone was lured to Britain on the pretext of a drug deal to take place in Scotland. Instead, he was murdered in a layby on the A6 near Lancaster.

Thinking they had got away with murder, three members of the gang sent by Mr Big to kill him celebrated Johnstone’s death at the Piper nightclub, Preston, shortly after the killing. They drew attention to themselves by lavishly buying champagne with £20 notes. A waitress jokingly asked them: “You haven’t done that murder in Chorley have you, and are spending the pay off?”

Five men were convicted for their part in Johnstone’s murder at Lancaster Castle in 1980. At the time it was the most expensive trial in British legal history because of the extent of the security needed. All were given life sentences.

Johnstone’s hands and teeth had been removed to hide his identity, however, one of his hands was discovered when it was trodden on by a police officer. The recovered hand was exhibited for a time in an exhibition at the police headquarters in Hutton.

This just shows us that even the most ordinary-looking things can have an incredible back story!