For a girl out on the town, those nights at the Barrowland were unforgettable – the thumping rhythm of the band, music you could really dance to, the feeling of letting yourself go, the sweat running down the back of your dress, the excitement of not quite knowing how the evening would end. And the innocence of it all, a carefree atmosphere you don't find these days, with all the talk of drugs and violence. You could saunter from the pub to the dance hall, spend the evening with someone new, leave on your own if a man didn't take your fancy, or together, if you liked the look of him. To dance with a stranger, to set off with him in a taxi, to go alone with him, arm in arm up a deserted close, was that danger? Or was it just delight?

Jeannie Williams is in no doubt. Those Glasgow nights of 30 years ago are memories to be treasured. She and her friends went dancing most weeks, to the Barrowland near Glasgow Cross, or to the Plaza, the Albert, the Locarno, or the Majestic, where bands like Dr Crock and his Crackpots would belt out the current hits like 'Yellow River', 'Butterfingers' or that new one by Marmalade, 'Obladee Oblada'. Glasgow was dancing-mad in those days. The Barrowland was a bit down-market of course, a bit scruffier than the others, but still good fun, and Thursday was over-25s night – 'winching night' some folk called it – when the music was just that bit softer and the men were just that bit more sophisticated, and you were maybe on the lookout for something more than dancing. So what if some of them were married; everyone knew the score, you didn't ask too many questions, and not everyone was there just for a 'lumber' as the Glasgow slang has it. You went to let your hair down.

There was talk, of course, about the dance hall murders, the two poor girls, Pat Docker and Mama MacDonald, who had been found dead, both of them strangled after a night at the Barrowland, Mama less than three months ago, Pat just last year. There was a police notice pinned to the board, with a drawing of the man they were looking for, but Jeannie and her younger sister Helen scarcely glanced at it as they headed for the dance floor that Thursday night, 30 October 1969.

Helen Puttock was 29, slim, brunette, 'a lovely girl' as Jeannie remembers her, popular with her friends, fun to be with, but strong-willed and used to having her own way. Born Helen Gowans and brought up in Patrick, she was one of four children whose parents had separated and whose mother now lived in Scotstoun.

A Forces wife, her husband George Puttock was in the REME and stationed in Germany. That night, however, he was back on leave. When Helen suggested that she and Jeannie should go to the Barrowland he objected strongly, and the result was what he calls “a tremendous fight'. In the end, however, Helen had her own way and George stayed behind to baby-sit for their two children. Jeannie says there was nothing unusual about that in those days. 'It wasn't odd behaviour to us,' she says. 'When I was with my husband, I went out my night, he went out his night. He knew where I went. Maybe you'd call it trust, I don't know.'

Only one other person expressed doubts about the two girls going to the Barrowland that night. Their mother, Jean, reminded them of the two murders and suggested they should stay at home. But Helen was unimpressed. 'Can you imagine anyone trying anything on me?' she said, and she showed her mother her fine, long nails. 'She had a temper,' remembers Jeannie. 'We used to fight as children, and she always used her nails.' George agrees: 'She was strong physically. She always said that no one could get the better of her.'

And so Helen and Jeannie went out together. Helen wore a little black dress with short sleeves, black shoes and an imitation ocelot fur. Jeannie chose a skirt, a blouse and a dark green coat with a sheepskin collar. They left Helen's flat at 129 Earl Street at 8.30pm, caught a bus in Dumbarton Road and headed for a drink or two before things livened up at the Barrowland. They got off at Glasgow Cross at about 9pm and went into the Trader's Tavern in Kent Street which was doing a roaring trade. Glasgow pubs in those days tended to be grim places. They were for serious drinkers – 'connoisseurs of the morose' as Hugh MacDiarmid put it – mainly men, standing at the bar trying to get as much alcohol into them before closing time at 10pm sharp. But that night the Trader's Tavern had its fair share of Barrowland customers getting into the mood, since the dance hall itself had no licence. Helen and Jeannie, with their two friends, were able to have a few whiskies and a bit of 'crack' – swapping gossip and the odd risqué joke – before walking around the corner for the dancing.

Entry to the Barrowland cost them four shillings each. Inside, the noise and the heat were already intense. Round the walls of the main ballroom stood the hopeful and the unattached. On the floor were the dancers, loosening up. It did not take Jeannie long to join in. A man calling himself John asked her onto the floor, and though she quickly decided that he wasn't exactly her type, he was an excellent ballroom dancer and they made a good couple, concentrating on the foxtrots and waltzes they both enjoyed. He came from Castlemilk, he said – probably married, thought Jeannie – and they enjoyed each other's company enough to stick to each other for the rest of the night.

Jeannie first noticed Helen's partner when she saw a tall, neatly dressed man, with well-cut hair, leaning against a pillar eyeing the talent. He was, she thought, definitely a cut above the usual Barrowland crowd. As she watched he went up to Helen and asked her to dance. Soon they too were in the thick of it, and though he didn't show much skill on the dance-floor – more of a shuffler than a proper mover – he seemed to suit Helen who was clearly enjoying herself. As soon as there was a break in the music, she brought him over and introduced him. 'This is John,' she said. Another John. Only this time, a John that Jeannie would remember and think about again and again in the years to come.

It is not surprising that detectives later set great store by Jeannie's evidence. Her memory is clear, her eye for detail sharp, her ability to recall it direct and to the point. Joe Beattie, the superintendent assigned to the Puttock case, called her 'a wee sharp Glesca woman' and it's a fair description. These days, sitting back in her neat house in Ayrshire, immaculately turned out in black leggings, polo-neck sweater and scarlet knitted waistcoat, she is just as precise as Joe Beattie remembers her. Her recollections of Helen's dancing partner were to fix the image of 'Bible John' in the minds of Glaswegians for a generation, and they have not varied to this day.

She can still see him, tall, about five feet 10 inches, aged between 25 and 35, with sandy hair, cropped and rounded at the back. He had a fresh complexion, and – a vital detail – two front teeth which overlapped, with one back tooth missing. She remembers this particularly because her eyes only came up to the level of his mouth, so when he talked it was his teeth she noticed. He was dressed in a well-cut brown suit, a blue shirt and a dark tie with thin red stripes, which could have been something military. On his feet he wore short suede boots, and he had a badge on one of his lapels. Jeannie noticed that he kept fingering it.

His manners impressed her. Unlike the rough types who tended to hog the dance floor at the Barrowland, Helen's John was courteous and attentive. He stood up and held her chair when she took a break from dancing: he was 'well-spoken', with a West of Scotland accent, and a marked absence of swear words. Jeannie guessed he wasn't married. There was something about his well-turned-out appearance, the ironed shirt, the care with which his tie was knotted, which suggested, in her words, 'a mummy’s boy'. She has since begun to wonder if he might have been homosexual, but in those days people were not as worldly-wise as they are now, and the thought never even occurred to her at the time.

It was something else, however, that stayed fixed in her mind, an incident so unusual that she still remembers it vividly years later. After the dancing had ended, as it always did, at 11.30pm, she and Helen paid a last visit to the cloakroom, then joined their two Johns in the foyer. Once there, Jeannie decided to get some cigarettes from the machine, but when she tried to use it, her money stuck; nothing would shake it loose. Helen's John suddenly became angry. 'Where's the manager?' he demanded. 'I'll get this sorted out.'

What was unnerving, says Jeannie, was the intensity with which he said it. Nobody ever chose to pick a quarrel with the manager of the Barrowland, whose broken nose and scarred cheek indicated that he was not the kind to put up with trouble. But John was not intimidated. He proceeded to berate him, demanding the money back. His manner was cold, imperious, authoritative, the kind adopted by a man who expects to be obeyed. Finally, as the argument grew more heated, the manager angrily suggested that he should take the matter up with his assistant who was in charge of the cigarette machines. John agreed abruptly, and set off downstairs.

As he did so, he turned and said something that Jeannie was also to remember: 'My father says these places are dens of iniquity. They once set fire to this place to get the insurance money and then they did it up with the money they got.' Dens of iniquity was a funny phrase to use, she thought. It was not the last one, however, which would carry with it a whiff of religion and the vague sense that this man called John carried within him some deeper impulse, one that could transform irritation into something more sinister.

Jeannie remembers one other detail before they left the dance hall. She noticed him reach into his side pocket and produce a piece of paper to show to Helen. She never saw it properly, but later thought it had been pink in colour and looked somehow official. A military pass perhaps? An identity card? She tried to get a proper look but he tucked it away, warning her not to be a nosey parker. The cigarettes forgotten, for the time being, they set off for the taxi rank at Glasgow Cross, a few minutes' walk away. At this stage, Jeannie's partner left them to catch a bus from George Square, leaving the threesome standing in a taxi queue. It was the last anyone saw of a man who would have been a vital witness. 'Castlemilk John' as he was later referred to – probably married, probably concealing his night life from his family – has never been traced.

The journey from Glasgow Cross to Scotstoun took about 20 minutes. Inside the taxi the conversation was stilted. John seemed withdrawn, irritated perhaps that Jeannie was still with them. The two girls chatted away, plying him with questions that he answered tersely. He mentioned that he played golf, that he had a cousin who had just got a hole in one. He said he disapproved of married folk who went to the Barrowland and talked about 'adulterous' women. He seemed to have enough local knowledge to know about the bus fares and the Blue Train services to the north of the Clyde. He recognised the high flats in Kingsway, and said his father had once worked there. And he was mean with money. When Helen asked for a cigarette he reluctantly produced some which he had all along, despite Jeannie's attempts to extract a packet from the machine at the Barrowland. When she asked for one, he thrust the packet at her, then put it away without taking one himself. Clues, clues, clues, all of them half-noted at the time by Jeannie, who was beginning to take against this rude and arrogant man.

It was just one other throwaway remark which suggested the nickname by which he would be forever known. Jeannie remembers it still: 'We were talking about some conversation we'd had, and I asked him which team do you support, Celtic or Rangers? And he said, "I'm agnostic." I was embarrassed. "What does agnostic mean?" I said to myself, so I asked, "Does that mean you're an atheist?" And that's when he came away with something, a reference to the Bible. I canna remember the exact words but it was something from the Bible. That was the only time – it was the papers that gave him that name.'

Later, as detectives took her over every detail of her conversation with Bible John, they narrowed the quotation down. They thought it was probably the story of Moses hidden in the bulrushes from Exodus, chapter two, and Jeannie concedes that it might well have been that:

And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink. And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.

The taxi pulled into Earl Street. By rights, Helen and John should have got out first, since Jeannie lived further on at Kelso Street. But John insisted it should be the other way round. So Jeannie left them, calling good night. She guessed that Helen wanted to spend more time with her stranger-friend. The driver was ordered to carry on. The taxi slid into the night.

Could Jeannie, should she, have done something more? She thinks for a long time. 'Not really,' she says. 'In those days there wasn't a lot of money for taxis, so you shared them. I never even thought about it at the time. He could have been going the same way really. And don't get me wrong, he was an attractive man, not the usual Barrowland type..' Her voice trails away.

At 2am on Friday 31 October, a late-night bus picked up a man described by passengers as dishevelled, with a red mark under one eye, not far from the Earl Street area. It dropped him off at the junction of Dumbarton Road and Grey Street. It was the last positive sighting anyone has ever had of the man who must have been Bible John.

Helen's body, half-undressed, but still with her fur coat on, was found at 7am that Friday by an Earl Street resident called Archie McIntyre, out walking his black labrador dog behind the tenement block. He saw it huddled against a drainpipe in one of the back courts, just a few hundred yards from the Puttocks' home at number 129.

She had been knocked unconscious and strangled with one of her stockings. Her face was bruised and from the grass and broken dock leaves stuck to her feet and her neck it was clear that she had put up a fierce struggle. There were signs that she had tried to escape from her killer by scrambling up the railway embankment that ran along the back of the gardens behind the close. She had been caught, struck with some heavy instrument on the head, and dragged back along the grass, before she had succumbed. The killer had left with some of her clothing. Her husband George, alerted by the arrival of police and ambulance men, came forward to identify the body.

To some detectives, and to most of the newspapers, as soon as they had learned the details, it seemed clear that Glasgow had a serial killer on its hands. All three women had been to the Barrowland on the night they were murdered; all three were young mothers; all three had been sexually assaulted; all three had had clothes removed from the scene. THE DANCE HALL DON JUAN WITH MURDER ON HIS MIND screamed one headline. HUNT FOR THE LADY KILLER ran another.

There was speculation that the killer was a sexual deviant who had turned against the women when he discovered that they were menstruating. 'In some men who are sexually immature, or have been rejected by women in the past, the menstrual period can trigger deep-seated feelings of disgust,' said a forensic psychologist. 'It can give rise to a sense that a woman is somehow unclean.' Just as Jack the Ripper and other killers had inflicted terrible revenge on women for psychological reasons that lay hidden in some unfathomable past, it was felt that Bible John must be a man similarly flawed.

For Superintendent Joe Beattie, Glasgow's most experienced detective, such theories were less important than the business of finding the murderer of Helen Puttock. Within days of discovering her body, he had launched the largest murder hunt that Scotland had ever seen. Witnesses were tracked down and questioned, police began door-to-door inquiries, nearby military establishments and naval ships were checked, officers were sent to join the dancers at the Barrowland every night in case Bible John returned to the scene of the crime.

And Joe Beattie took Jeannie in painstaking detail through her story. From the start he was impressed by the sharpness of her memory, and by the clues which she revealed in the course of many days' investigation. Her description of Bible John's teeth, for instance, was so precise that Beattie had a special cast made, which he carried around with him. On many of the subsequent identity parades, the first thing he looked at were the suspect's teeth.

It was Jeannie's evidence about Bible John's appearance that gave police their best lead. On the day after the killing she had walked into the murder headquarters at Glasgow's Marine police office and been shown the drawing of the man wanted in connection with the murder of Mima MacDonald. It was a colour version of the one she had glanced at that night in the Barrowland. This time she reacted with shock. 'My whole inside just churned,' she says today. 'To me the resemblance was there. When I looked at it – it's a funny feeling, it's like something turns in your guts, you know, like a wee kind of shiver or something. When I saw that, I thought, God, that's a terrific resemblance. Whether he's done the rest of them, I don't know, or is it just coincidence, I just don't know.”

The artist who had drawn it from the descriptions of witnesses, Lennox Paterson from the Glasgow School of Art, was called back and started afresh from Jeannie's description – the short haircut, the sandy-colour hair, the chiselled, handsome features. When he had finished, even Jeannie was impressed. 'That man should get a medal,' she said. 'That's him.' Later, she would help compile an Identikit image, using the latest techniques just then being developed. There is a remarkable similarity between all impressions of the wanted man. George Puttock remembers Jeannie's certainty about her recollections of Bible John. 'She told me that no matter where or when she saw that guy, she would recognise him,' he says. '"I will get him, George," she used to tell me.'

Within hours of the new pictures being issued, the calls flooded in. It seemed that half of Glasgow knew Bible John. He'd been seen getting off a bus, sitting in a cafe, dancing at the Palais. Often it was the same, innocent man – one suspect was 'identified' so often that police finally gave him a pass to prevent him having to report to the station each time he was spotted. Every sighting was checked out. Jeannie attended over 300 identity parades as well as being taken to factory gates, pubs and cinemas to take a surreptitious look at some possible suspect. 'I would have been so sure if I'd seen him,' she says now, 'but I never did.'

The veteran Glasgow solicitor Joe Beltrami, who attended some of these ID parades at the time, usually to represent the interests of a worried client, was impressed by Joe Beattie's technique – and by his confidence in Jeannie. 'Each of them was asked by Joe to show him their teeth beforehand. As soon as he'd look, he'd shake his head and say no, it's not him. The ID parade would go ahead, but he'd be pretty certain in advance that it wouldn't lead to anything. In those days the parade was done face-to-face with the witness. Both he and Jeannie are certain they never got the right man.'

There were some who bore more than a passing resemblance, of course, and Jeannie began to give them percentage marks. A 'good' suspect would get 70%. A few even reached 90%. But none scored the 100% that would have convinced her. She is as certain today as she was then that none of the men she saw was Bible John. At no point did her stomach churn in the way it did when she saw Lennox Paterson's first drawing. As well as the ID parades and the pursuit of every conceivable clue, police psychologists drew up a profile of a loner, possibly living with his mother, probably inadequate sexually, with no steady girlfriend.

But gradually the leads petered out, the calls died away. The file stayed open, but the Puttock investigation was called off. Joe Beattie, now in his 70s and far from well, with a perforated ulcer which condemns him to repeated hospital visits, still cannot quite believe that he failed to get his man. 'We should have picked him up in those first few weeks,' he says now. 'We knew so much about him...'

Joe is an old-style Glasgow cop, full of wry humour despite his illness, a mine of stories about the bad old days in gangland Glasgow. He remembers all the murders he solved, particularly the one where he insisted on going back to the scene of the crime one last time, searching it under the sceptical eyes of his detectives in the best Hollywood style, and uncovering a toe print which nailed the killer. 'The only case solved by a toe print,' he grins. But he's still mad with himself that he never found Bible John.

'Sometimes,' he says, 'you get the ones you shouldn't get and you don't get the ones you should. This was one we should have got. We knew so much about him. There he was, with his short haircut, his meticulous dress style, the patronising manner he had towards women. I guess he lived west of a line from Stirling to Lanark. He was either a serviceman or an ex-serviceman. That document that Jeannie never got to see – it could have been a military pass. Looking back I would say we should have done more in following up the military connections, going to all the defence establishments. We just didn't have the manpower.'

Now, 27 years on, the Bible John murders are back in the news. Acting on new information, or perhaps more accurately, reassessing old information, Strathclyde Police made a new attempt to identify the killer. He was, they claimed, John Irvine McInnes, a former private in the Scots Guards, a sometime furniture salesman, who committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 41. The name of McInnes is not a new one in the Bible John annals. He was in fact an early suspect who fitted the description given by Jeannie and who was actually in the Barrowland dance hall on the night of the murder. He was picked up and brought in for questioning within days of the murder hunt being launched. Although he was eliminated from inquiries, some detectives were left with a strong feeling he could be Helen's killer.

The product of a broken home, McInnes joined the army soon after the death of his father, but left after only a year, returning to Glasgow where he married and had two children. For a time he seems to have held down a job and led a settled life, but he split up with his wife soon after the birth of the second child, a son. Although he came from a family with a religious background, he was also a gambler and a drinker who used to frequent the Barrowland dance hall regularly. His eventual suicide suggested a man who perhaps never came to terms with his unstable family background.

On the surface, then, he seemed a possible suspect. But there was a problem. When he attended an identity parade Jeannie simply didn't pick him out. What is more, she remains convinced to this day that he was not Bible John. She has now been shown the pictures of McInnes three times by police, some doctored to increase his age. She admits there is a strong resemblance, but that's all. The ears are too big, she says, and she simply does not get that shock of recognition she experienced when she first saw the drawing of the Barrowland suspect. There are other things that do not add up. As a married man, McInnes didn't fit the psychological profile of a loner. None of the clothes in his possession matched the distinctive suit, tie and suede boots which Bible John had worn. And he lived nowhere near Gray Street where the dishevelled man had got off his bus.

However, to some detectives, McInnes was still in the frame, and his name stayed on police files as a possible suspect; down the years local gossip linked him from time to time with the Bible John killings. Last year the case was reviewed, along with others, when the police began transferring their files onto a computer database. The development of DNA tests had given them a new weapon in the forensic armoury, one that had simply not been around in Joe Beattie’s time, and last year a debate began over whether Scotland should have a national DNA databank. The Bible John case, should it be solved, seemed to offer the chance, not just of clearing up one of Scotland's most celebrated murder mysteries, but of making the strongest possible case for Strathclyde to house a national DNA centre for Scotland.

The vital evidence is contained within a small stain of semen found on the stockings recovered from Helen Puttock's body. It was preserved, frozen and held by Joe Beattie's team in case fresh evidence ever turned up. It yielded a clear enough DNA pattern to suggest to a new generation of police officers that it might be worth looking again at the evidence against McInnes. They approached his family and asked if they would agree to tests. They found a close enough match to justify exhuming McInnes's body and taking samples from it to see if there were any similarities.

On 1 February this year, they went to the cemetery where he is buried, and reopened his grave, digging into the frozen turf with pneumatic drills and pickaxes. Carefully removing first the body of his mother who was buried above him, they took away the corpse for detailed examination. Two leading pathologists, Professor Anthony Busuttil of Edinburgh University and Dr Marie Cassidy, a consultant attached to Glasgow University, were present as the body was brought to the surface. Since then, exhaustive tests have been carried out to establish whether this was indeed the man who murdered Helen Puttock. If that could be proved, his links to the other murders might also be established.

One problem which emerged almost immediately was McInnes's teeth – or rather his lack of them. Detectives had hoped that they might be able to carry out dental tests. But when they examined his body they found that he had been fitted with dentures; so far they have not managed to trace any dental records. More seriously, the DNA tests have proved anything but straightforward. There was no immediate match. The testing procedure, it seems, is neither as clear cut nor as conclusive as it is sometimes portrayed. After unsuccessful tests in Scotland the samples were sent down to Cambridge for detailed laboratory analysis. Five months after the exhumation, the tests have proven negative. Following private protests from McInnes's family, the bodies of McInnes and his mother have been reburied – and with them the latest, though perhaps not the last, attempt to solve the enduring mystery.

Meanwhile, Joe Beattie is trying to stay neutral on the McInnes affair. 'They havnae been to see me,' he says. 'Once you're yesterday's people, you tend to be left out. I don't mind. Good luck to them.'

Both he and Jeannie Williams say they would like the case to be cleared up once and for all. But both were always sceptical about McInnes. For one thing it would mean that Jeannie was not as reliable a witness as Beattie believes. Some police sources go so far as to suggest she had drunk too much that night to remember details about the man who went off with her sister. This she denies angrily. 'It's rubbish,' she says succinctly. The Barrowland, she points out, was not licensed, and two hours dancing is enough to work through the effect of the two or three whiskies she may have had before. 'They think it's him, I don't. That's all there is to it,' she says.

So does she believe that Bible John is still alive, still nursing memories of those nights at the Barrowland, those nights when some warped instinct turned adventure and delight into a frenzied attack and murder – those nights that put an end to the time of innocence?

'I don't think he's dead,' she says carefully. 'But I don't think he's here. I think he was just visiting Glasgow. I think he lives well away from here. I think there's a wife or mother who says, well he wasn't in Glasgow that night. But he must have been scratched by those long nails of Helen's. He must have been well marked, that's why I know somebody's covering for him.'

She shrugs and lights another cigarette. 'We'll just have to see...'

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'My sisters were murdered'
Jimmy Reid in conversation
with Kenneth Roy

A smell of burning
Ian Mackenzie

Fathers of the nation (I)
The bourgeois bohemian
Arnold Kemp

Dancing with a stranger
The Bible John case
Magnus Linklater

Outside my window
A personal account of 9/11
Rosalind Galt

Arrested in Israel
Alan Fisher

Running away? Where not to go
Catherine Czerkawska

Life in prison
George Chalmers

In praise of smoking
Jack McLean

A rottweiler in first class
Walter Humes

The man with the minneola
A profile of Jock Stein
Kevin McCarra

Tales of the supernatural
James Shaw Grant

Islay McLeod's Scotland
Twelve islands