The unsolved mystery of the Putney Pusher

In the weeks and months after the CCTV footage was released in August 2017, London’s Metropolitan Police worked through a list of 50 suspects and arrested three men, who were eventually released without charge. One – an American banker who later provided an alibi showing he was in California at the time – received so many social media death threats that he felt compelled to hire a security detail and go into hiding.

Reading through the mass of theories, patterns emerge. The man is likely affluent, perhaps working in financial services or similar. He might be a tourist, or he could be local. His actions clearly show a terrible disregard for human life. He may well be a sociopath. At the end of 2018, a ‘body language expert’ even told The Sun that the pusher’s running style suggested “pent-up anger… or even someone who works under pressure”.

But what does the brief CCTV clip really show? It reveals a bizarre act of apparently random violence: not a complete psychological profile. The idea that a bloodthirsty banker is, or was, running the streets of suburban South West London might be imaginatively satisfying, however thin the actual proof. The lack of hard evidence is what makes the mystery.

In June 2018, the Met closed its investigation into the Putney Pusher, after the first flurry of arrests and inquiries had produced nothing of value. Since then the case has been cold. And it remains something the Met isn’t particularly keen to talk about today. “As all lines of enquiry are now exhausted, the investigation has been closed, pending any new information or evidence which may come to light,” the force said in early September when asked to talk about the case for this story.

But how was the Pusher never caught? London is the capital of one of the most surveilled nations on Earth. According to figures released in 2020, there are around 5.2 million CCTV cameras in operation around the UK, in both public and private ownership. Around 691,000 of these are in London, making it the only city outside of China in the global top ten. It’s thought that the average Londoner is captured on camera around 300 times a day.

That the Putney Pusher seemingly vanished into thin air, despite the brazenness of his actions, seems unlikely. It’s a point that baffles Mark Johnson, legal and policy officer at the civil liberties non-profit Big Brother Watch. “[What’s] extraordinary,” he says, “is that this person managed to remain anonymous in what is the surveillance capital of Europe”. To this day, there is no public evidence the Putney Pusher was captured on another camera in the city. Instead, the brief snippet of bus CCTV footage remains the only evidence of the man’s existence.

Despite the scale of everyday surveillance in London, finding the Putney Pusher was never a foregone conclusion. “Unfortunately the image [in this case] showed a person of fairly generic appearance in running gear with no distinguishing features,” says Matt Ashby, a lecturer in crime science at University College London, who has studied the use of CCTV as an investigative tool. Ashby explains that even in cases where CCTV is available to investigators, it doesn’t mean it will always be useful. “This meant that anyone who police suspected of being the offender could simply point out that the image could show any jogger of a similar height and build”.

Despite the number of cameras in London, there are plenty of blind spots and people can quickly vanish into the hubbub. “The vast majority of streets in London are not covered by public CCTV, which tends to be confined to town centres and central London,” says Ashby. “Many shops and other businesses have CCTV cameras that might cover part of the street outside, but obviously there are no shops on Putney Bridge.” He adds that while buses have lots of cameras, there are around 17 on a typical double-decker, most of them face inwards.