A killer's many faces

The fisherman's first thought was that someone had dumped a bag of rags halfway down the canal embankment

The fisherman's first thought was that someone had dumped a bag of rags halfway down the canal embankment. He went over to have a look. What he found made him recoil and run back to his family sitting in a station wagon down the track.

The woman's body he had stumbled across in this isolated spot on the edge of the Florida Everglades was fully clothed, yet its head and hands had been hacked off. The shirt had been pulled up and a section of skin just above the waistline had been cut out. Whoever dumped the body never intended it to be identified. But the murderer had made one mistake. Hidden just under the hem of the corpse's jeans was a small tattoo of a flower. This was enough to identify the body as missing Miami bank clerk Beverly McGowan, and detectives eventually picked out a prime suspect: Elaine Parent, the last person to have come into contact with Beverly. Parent took McGowan's car to the airport and incriminating forensic evidence was found in it. She also used McGowan's credit cards.

Eight years on, police admit they are no closer to catching Parent - although investigators have built up an astonishingly detailed portrait of the 55-year-old. They believe she killed McGowan simply for her identity. They know she has a dozen aliases and that she has been on the run since 1985 after being implicated in a jewel theft. Parent has divided her time between America and Britain, criss-crossing the Atlantic and changing names when the heat became too much on either side. She has faked her death twice and trawls bars, homeless shelters and graveyards looking for new identities. There are fears she could be living in Britain, and in the past month Scotland Yard has renewed its efforts to find her, visiting several addresses in south London.

Leaving that tattoo on Beverly's body has so far proved to be Parent's only mistake in a criminal career which has seen her successfully evade an international manhunt with sightings reported as far away as South Africa and Australia. "Every time she takes on a new name we lose all trace of her," says Special Agent Bob O'Bannon of the US State Department. "She's a very cunning woman."


It leaves the police worried that Parent may already have struck again or may be responsible for as yet undiscovered murders. "The brutality of the McGowan murder and the way in which the body was cut up leads me to think that a person capable of committing something like this has already done the same thing in the past or may do so in the future," says Florida detective Nora Walters.

For Parent, it was vital that a name should never be put to the corpse in the canal. She intended to do what she does best and what has earned her the sobriquet "the Chameleon": she wanted McGowan's identity.

It soon became apparent that McGowan's murder and the events leading up to it displayed a pattern in the way Parent operates. She found her victim by replying to a flat-share ad McGowan put in a local newspaper. Friends say she was enthusiastic about her potential roommate. Parent told her she was an expert in numerology and persuaded her to reveal her social security and bank numbers and her date of birth - enough for her to take on McGowan's identity.

It was the same method Parent used on the only victim so far to give testimony against her. Charlotte Rae Cowan, a 41-year-old animal welfare worker, met Parent in a bar in Orlando. "She had the most sophisticated manner, all with this cut-glass English accent. She was so persuasive. She did the whole numerology thing on me and I even gave her my birth certificate."

Cowan now waits nervously for the day when Parent is caught. "I'm the reason there's a warrant out for her arrest so I take good care when I'm walking around town. I'm always looking out for her."

Parent leaves few traces, and when detectives combed McGowan's flat they found no fingerprints, hairs or fibres which could have placed her there. "She's got to be one of the best that I've come across," says Sergeant George Miller, a scene-of-crime officer with 30 years' experience. "It tells me that she is very intelligent, meticulous and deadly." But the detectives' luck turned when they performed a series of tests on an apparently blank message pad. They found indented on the sheets a number of overlaid letters - all written by Parent to a British businesswoman.

Police refuse to reveal the identity of this businesswoman, saying her life is in danger as she has provided vital evidence to the investigation. Witness X, as she is called, helped fill in some of the blank periods in Parent's life. She says Parent is extremely bright and clever and loves animals but can't work around them because of an allergy. She also has a passionate interest in environmental issues.

It emerged that when Parent went on the run in 1985 she fled to England and found a job with a telecommunications company in east London. Her relationship with Witness X began at this point, although she wasted no time in collecting new identities without her lover's knowledge. Around this time, she is thought to have befriended 39-year-old Sylvia Ann Hodgkinson. Little is known about her except that she was born in Lewisham in south London, was the daughter of a lorry driver and married a dairy worker who died in 1985. Just under a year later, Parent applied for a passport in Hodgkinson's name and for the next five years assumed her identity. It was Hodginkson's passport that Parent used to escape from Miami after Beverly McGowan was murdered.

Public appeals have failed to find Hodgkinson, and detectives fear she could have become another of Parent's victims. "We've been looking so hard for her for so long you've got to wonder if she'll ever be found," says Special Agent O'Bannon. "She might be able to tell us a lot about Parent but we just have no idea if she is alive or dead."

While she continued to amass new identities, Parent's relationship with Witness X blossomed, only coming to an end when Parent returned from Florida in 1991 after McGowan's murder. When the pair split Parent sent her lover a note written with letters cut from a newspaper, threatening to kill her.

Soon afterwards, Parent took out a series of ads in the lonely-hearts column of London listings magazine Time Out. She described herself as a gourmet cook who loved fine wine and, bizarrely, the proud owner of a fine collection of copper cookware.

The last sighting of her was in 1991 when she was arrested sleeping inside a stolen rental car in Miami. She walked out on bail, never to be seen again.

If Parent is living somewhere in Britain under an assumed name, the odds are stacked in her favour that she will never be caught. The government says that at a conservative estimate there are 650,000 bogus identities operating inside the benefits system alone. There is no national system in Britain to cross-reference birth and death records with the identity documents that anyone may be putting forward. Parent has the system on her side.

Perhaps the most baffling part of the case is that as yet no one has been able to establish a motive for her actions. One confirmed murder, the suspicion of others and the multiple identities have gained her more notoriety than money. More worrying for those trying to find Elaine Parent is the idea that even that may not be her real name. Despite years of searching, no one has been able to trace her birth certificate.