Forensic pathologist shares harrowing stories from career

Diary of a forensic pathologist: Expert shares stories of his most harrowing cases – including a newborn baby killed by his parents’ alternative diet and a girl poisoned by BBQ fumes

  • The Seven Ages of Death was penned by Princess Diana’s forensic pathologist
  • Memoir features tragic tales of accidental deaths to cold blooded murder 
  • Inclues tale of a newborn killed by his parents’ belief in alternative medicine 
  • Dr Richard Shepherd also examines high-profile cases such as Gareth Williams  

Police dramas often gloss over the importance of the post-mortem examinations, but this enthralling new memoir proves that it can often be the only way of getting to the bottom of a mystery. 

The book examines the fascinating career of Dr Richard Shepherd, a forensic pathologist who has been called to investigate the most notorious killings of the past 30 years, including the cases of Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, and Stephen Lawrence. 

His memoir, The Seven Ages of Death: A Forensic Pathologist’s Journey Through Life, explores how people of varying ages have come to sudden and often suspicious deaths. 

From a newborn who was killed by his parents belief in alternative medicine to a teenager found dead with no wounds on a camping trip, the book follows how Dr Shepherd came to a conclusion on how they died. 

Here, FEMAIL reveals some of the most fascinating cases shared in the book.  


Dr Richard Shepherd (pictured), who has examined the cases of Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, and Stephen Lawrence, has detailed his career in a fascinating new book

The memoir begins with Dr Shepherd being tasked to discover the reason behind the mysterious death of a six-month-old boy, called Ferguson.

Setting the tone for the book, he told emotional police officers that they are undertaking the grim post-mortem examination the ‘spirit of human compassion and scientific discovery’. 

He described the officer’s utter shock and disgust after discovering red raw, bleeding nappy rash which spread from his belly and his thighs.   

The death was suspected to be the result of Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), but officers began to suspect this child had been the victim of neglectful parents.  

His heart-wrenchingly honest memoir, The Seven Ages of Death: A Forensic Pathologist’s Journey Through Life, explores how people of varying ages have come to sudden and often suspicious deaths

Ferguson was notably pale, and the post-mortem examination revealed that the baby had gas in his bowel as well as fluid in the chest cavity, so much so that one of the baby’s lungs had partially collapsed. 

The newborn was also had fatty liver disease, a tell-tale sign of alcoholics and Ferguson was tested for alcohol in his system. 

Nothing was found, and Dr Shepherd discovered that parents were professionals, living in a middle-class area with no evidence of drinking or drug abuse in the home. There were no other signs of ill treatment on Ferguson.  

The pathologist began to suspect a congenital problem was to blame for the boy’s death, believing an inherited a faulty gene could mean the child could not metabolize part of his diet.  

Biochemistry results revealed that Ferguson had died when his liver function became fatally impaired by consuming fructose as he was being weaned on to solid foods.  

The baby’s parents were soon questioned, with the inspector keen to find out why this problem- which if picked up can be dealt with – was left untreated. 

Soon they found that the father, who had styled himself as a doctor, was actually practicing a non-recognised form of homeopathic medicine and the child had not received any checkup visits or vaccinations since birth.  

When the parents had noticed their baby crying excessively they reluctantly took him to a GP – who suggested using a cream to clear up his nappy rash. 

But the couple refused, appalled at the suggestion of Western medicine, and when they began feeding their baby fruits, veg, molasses, cider vinegar and honey, they had no idea it would eventually kill him.  

While the inspector wished to take the case against the couple forward, the CPS did not feel it was sufficient. The couple later had another child, who they refused to allow to be tested for the condition.  


One August, Dr Shepherd was called to a camping site near a popular beauty spot, where he was tasked with helping solve the case of two dead teenagers. 

The body of a 16-year-old girl called Amelia was discovered in sleeping bag inside her tent, wearing a thick pair of pyjamas with no wounds, signs that her clothing had been penetrated or blood stains. There was no indication of violence or sexual activity. 

Next to the body was an empty second sleeping bag, as well as clothes and shoes and a used disposable BBQ. 

Immediately the pathologist suspected carbon monoxide poisoning produced by the BBQ, but officers were sceptical –  convinced that her boyfriend Jay, who was nowhere to be found, would have died beside her.

The doctor explains to readers that personal sensitivity to the saturation of carbon monoxide in the blood differs for each individual. He said that while some may die from a certain amount of the gas, others will simply appear drunk. 

Famous faces in the book: How Dr Shepherd examined ‘spy in the bag’ Gareth Williams 

Examining ‘spy in the bag’ Gareth Williams 

Gareth Williams’ naked body was found inside a holdall – which was padlocked from the outside – in the bath of his flat in Pimlico, central London, in 2010

Gareth Williams’ naked body was found inside a holdall – which was padlocked from the outside – in the bath of his flat in Pimlico, central London, in 2010. 

In 2013, Scotland Yard said the 31-year-old, a brilliant mathematician who worked for the intelligence agency GCHQ, probably died by accident after getting into the bag on his own.

Williams, a junior analyst at MI6 and a keen cyclist who lived on his own, was found by London by police checking on his welfare on August 23, 2010 after he was not seen for days.

His body was found naked and decomposing in a padlocked red North Face bag in the bathtub. The key to the padlock was inside, underneath Williams’ body, while partial DNA from an unidentified person was also found on the 81cm by 48cm holdall.

The shocking and mysterious death rocked the Whitehall establishment and sparked questions about his private life and manner of his death – including whether he could have got into the bag himself or if a foreign state was involved.

Dr Shepherd was the third pathologist to examine Williams. He did so one month after his death.

The pathologist said that there was no sign of neck injury on Williams and that no object had penetrated his body. There was no evidence of lethal trauma at all. 

Williams had a bruise on his left arm and abrasion on both elbows. No natural disease appeared to have contributed to his death.    

The first pathologist who worked on Williams discovered GHB in his liver, however this is a naturally occurring chemical in dead bodies and Dr Shepherd explained that this could have been explained by post-mortem changes.  

A time of death was unable to be determined, and both the second pathologist and Dr Shepherd concurred that the cause of death was classified as ‘unascertained’. 

Decomposition of the body had left many unanswered questions, also limiting the ability of toxicologists to identify any poison in his system. No forensic evidence of the presence of others in the apartment or hold-all was found. 

‘There is so much more to pathology alone, and considering the situation, I felt that the probably cause of death was asphyxiations – although I had to agree that we should keep in mind the possibility that he might have been poisoned’, he writes. 

Despite a lack of forensic evidence, Shepherd offered up his psychological evaluation of what may have happened to the spy based on what he knew of the case. 

Williams had an interest in bondage and had registered to four fetishist websites in the year before his death – including one dedicated to the fantasy of escaping a tight space. 

He was attending two evening courses in fashion and had spent thousands on designer dresses and women’s shoes, make-up and accessories – though it was later said these were gifts for his sister. 

The pathologist said that paraphilia is widespread across the globe, but shame surrounding the fetish means family are more likely to favour a verdict of homicide or suicide. 

‘Sometimes it can really be hard to differentiate an autoerotic accident from a suicide if the mechanics have left little possibility of survival and if there is no ancillary evidence of a sexual component’, he writes.    

The girl’s boyfriend was an A-Level science student, so officers assumed that he could have known about the carbon monoxide emitting from the BBQ and had intentionally left it in there while he escaped poisoning.  

The doctor’s counter argument was that the boy could have stumbled off, disorientated by the fumes, and tried to get help. 

Soon, his body was found at the back of the campsite after either jumping or falling off a cliff edge. Cigarettes were found nearby, which the police presumed he had smoked before his death but were later found to have Amelia’s DNA on them. 

Police were convinced it was a murder suicide, while Dr Shepherd suggested they could have used the BBQ for warmth before the teen had gone for help and accidentally fallen off the cliff edge. 

Investigations revealed that Jay had been crazy about his girlfriend, but that she was having doubts and had planned to break up with her boyfriend on the trip.  

He concluded they the pair between Friday 9pm and Saturday 9am and tests showed Amelia’s blood saturation of CO was at 58 per cent, confirming she had died of poisoning from the BBQ. 

Examination showed that Jay’s liver and heart had been fatally damaged by his fall, and blood tests showed his CO level at 29 per cent. The difference in level was something Richard said ‘needed explaining, but was not astonishing’. 

While Shepherd believes that Jay had fallen off the cliff edge under the influence of carbon monoxide, police stuck by their theory. 

An inquest saw evidence given from the pathologist and the two teen’s families. In both cases the coroner recorded an open verdict.  


In Kent, Richard was called to the case of a seven-year-old girl who had died in suspicious circumstances. 

Clare had been reported missing at 5.30pm by her mother and was found lying face up in the bushes in a park nearby her home with a packed bag. Her mother said she had intended to run away.

Dr Shepherd ultimately estimated that her time of death had been 5-7pm and he found that the girl was healthy and cared for, and that no sexual assault had taken place. 

The post-mortem revealed that Clare’s necklace, a piece of string with a small blue gemstone on it, had somehow strangled her.    

Police assumed that Clare’s death was accidental, that she had snagged the necklace on a branch while playing and strangled herself and the examination showed no immediate sign of struggle or violence. 

After a few days, Dr Shepherd decided to revisit the body to see if bruising appeared and took the time to visit the crime scene. 

Police revealed that while there had been tension in the home over the last few weeks, Clare’s father and stepfather both had alibis. 

Clare’s mother said that she had put both of her daughter’s to bed on the night of the football match before running a bath – only noticing her child was missing when she went to check on her later.  

Dr Shepherd began to find the appearance of Clare’s body suspicious, noticing that her shoes didn’t have any mud on them when she died, speculating that her body could have been moved after the death. 

Lodgers in the family home recalled shouting on the day of the death, revealing that Clare and her mother had a rocky relationship. 

They noticed that after Clare’s mother told them she was going for a bath, she changed back into the clothes she had initially been wearing. 

Four days later a band of bruising had formed on Clare’ neck and the case became a murder enquiry. 

While the same mud and pollen from the murder scene was found on Clare’s mum’s trainers, this could not be used as evidence as the park was nearby their home and Clare’s mother could have easily gone to visit with her daughter.

The case remained unsolved for some time before Dr Shepherd attended the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual conference, where he ran into old friend, psychologist Richard Walter. 

Over a glass of wine, Dr Shepherd showed him the case file. Immediately he asked the pathologist what was in the bag Clare packed before she died. 

He explained that the little girl had packed socks, underwear, a jumper, packet of tissues and a t-shirt. Walter instantly began chuckling. 

‘You think a seven-year-old kid packs that stuff?’ asked the psychologist,. 

He pointed out that a child would be far more likely to try and escape with their favourite toys than a bag full of clothes – suggesting that whoever had packed the bag was the person who killed Clare. 

When Dr Shepherd informed the police of the theory, they were convinced of it’s truth – but according to the CPS, there was still not enough evidence to convict the mother. 

Nobody was ever convicted of Clare’s murder, but Dr Shepherd gave evidence which saw the mother’s second daughter removed from her care.  


When Dr Shepherd was called to a ‘very expensive postcode’ to examine a suspicious death, the first thing he noticed was the overwhelming smell of alcohol.   

In the stunning mansion block, the flat was dirty and squalid, with only a single chair, a filing cabinet full of unopened letters and endless empty bottles of alcohol. 

The body of the woman was bruised heavily, specifically around the anal and genital area, and she was wearing thigh high boots while bondage belts were scattered nearby. 

Police instantly assumed they had a murder of a prostitute on their hands. 

Dr Shepherd had assumed the woman, Felicity, was around 50, but was stunned to find she was actually 35, and the daughter of a family of upmarket jewellers who owned businesses in Manhattan and Belgravia. 

He recalled her face being a colour ‘that rarely occurs in nature’ while she had injuries that appeared painful, but not fatal. 

During examination, the smell of alcohol emanating from her body was so strong that ‘all the observers took a step back’. 

A quick look at her liver told the pathologist that her death was likely alcohol related, describing her liver as ‘something shrunken and corroded, covered in pits and barnacles, which had laid a long time on the sea bed’. 

The pathologist said that he wasn’t surprised in the woman’s breast to discover a ‘hard and white lump’ in one of her breasts. 

He says it’s ‘almost certain’ she would have known about her cancer, but doubted that she was undergoing medical treatment. 

But it wasn’t the cancer that killed Felicity, and the toxicology report revealed that she had an ‘astonishing’ blood alcohol level of 540 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. 

The driving limit in England is 80mg of alcohol per 100mls of blood and the doctor says a person is expected to die at 300mg/100mls blood. 

Felicity had been cut off financially and emotionally by her rich family and was working as a prostitute to find her alcohol addiction. 

He concluded she died of acute blood poisoning and at her inquest no family members came, but in a letter said that they had ‘lost their daughter’ a long time ago, and had stopped contacting her when their attempts at rehab had failed.   

The Seven Ages of Death by Dr Richard Shepherd is out now. You can also see him live on tour at Unnatural Causes: The Theatre Tour

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