John William Cooper.
Christmas 1985 is now nearly 31 years past, but for some people in the community of Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, Christmas will bring a memory to them of a horrific double murder that shocked the community and hardened detectives, the murders in 1985 of Richard and Helen Thomas. These killings remained undetected for over 25 years. It was to be the first double murder attributed to a career criminal named John William Cooper, a resident of the local area who knew the Thomas’s. Cooper was later convicted of these killings, plus another notorious double murder in the same area four years later in 1989, the murders of Oxfordshire holidaymakers Peter and Gwenda Dixon, and of the rape and indecent assault of two teenage girls in 1996. After a powerful prosecution case supported by some of the most impressive forensic science evidence obtained in modern times, Cooper was found guilty of all four murders, plus the rape and indecent assault. He was given a whole life tariff in 2011, and with an appeal against this ruling being dismissed in 2012, this means that he will die in prison.
These are the most serious (known) examples of an appalling criminal career that stems from burglary to murder, and the crimes for which John Cooper was given a whole life tariff. With Cooper’s guilt established beyond any doubt in these, detectives are now considering Cooper’s culpability in several other of Wales’s unsolved crimes and unexplained deaths. It is not for the True Crime Enthusiast to state that Cooper is definitely guilty of these crimes, but one of those that Dyfed/Powys Police are examining is outlined here below. It is up to the reader to make up their minds if his culpability is a possibility. The murders and assaults that Cooper was sentenced to life imprisonment for will not be discussed in depth here, far better reading (and the subject of TTCE’s next review) is The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching The Bullseye Killer, by Steve Wilkins with Jonothan Hill. (ISBN 978-1-78172-800-0). The book is a fascinating and comprehensive tale of the investigations into the above mentioned crimes, and the forensic breakthroughs that helped to convict Cooper so overwhelmingly. As mentioned, it will be discussed more in depth in a forthcoming book review on TTCE.
Death In LLangolman: What Happened To Griff And Patti Thomas??
In December 1976, the village of Llangolman, in Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Hills, was shocked by a bizarre double death. At a remote farmhouse, a brother and sister, 73 year old Griff Thomas and his sister Patti, 70, were found dead in what appeared to be a horrific double murder. A team of 50 detectives began a search for a brutal killer. The Thomas’s background was examined, house to house enquiries began and forensic and fingerprint experts moved into the house, called Fynnon Samson, where the Thomas’s, neither of whom had ever married, had lived all of their lives. However, after about a week, the focus of the police investigation would surprisingly change.
It was deduced that Griff had last been seen alive at around 4.00pm on Tuesday, December 7th, 1976. He had left his home, and walked to the village shop in Llangolman. This was customary for Griff to do, visit for his daily paper and other basic groceries that he and Patti needed. That’s where he was last seen alive at around 4.00pm. He left the local village store after buying the Western Mail and some bread and cheese.
Skip forward now to the morning of Thursday, December 11th. The Thomas’ local postman, Nigel Rossiter, arrived at Fynnon Samson between 8:20 and 8:30am. He picked up what he thought was outgoing post, and realised it was post that he had delivered himself the day before. He had been there on the Wednesday, and hadn’t seen either Griff or Patti. Noticing this, he returned to the house and after knocking and receiving no response, felt concern for the elderly couple. He entered the house, and was confronted by an atrocious scene.
“Going into the house, I had to go in a good bit of the room because there was a big chair or something in the way. I could see this charred body in a nest of cushions, and a made-out thing, like, as if it was a nest.” – Nigel Rossiter
The body was lying on a wooden clothes settle, and was so extensively burned that it was only the feet that could be made out. Shocked, Mr Rossiter ran to a nearby house to alert the police. Despite having seen a man’s body in the kitchen, he didn’t notice another. When he returned to Fynnon Samson with police, Patti Thomas’s body was found in the parlour. She was slumped over at the table, resting on a magazine rack. She had been bludgeoned to death, apparently with a heavy dining room chair which was found heavily bloodstained.
Police managed to narrow down the time that the couple died to being sometime on the Tuesday evening, the 9th December. They found the television set and house lights on, and the fire had melted the plastic lens on Griff’s wristwatch, stopping the hands at 8.20. Griff also did not call at the village shop for his daily paper on Wednesday, as was custom. This pointed to a likely time of Tuesday mid evening
The resulting post mortem showed that Griff had died primarily due to extensive burns, but also had a cracked skull. Soot in the airways of both their bodies showed they both were both alive when the fire was started, and carbon monoxide traces in Griff’s blood showed that he had died later than Patti had. A nail was found embedded in Griff’s forehead – but forensic tests indicated this was as a result of a wooden clothes settle collapsing upon him during the fire, rather than evidence of an attack.
The police removed 174 items from the house for examination. They took over 150 statements, and removed 430 fingerprints from the house. All but 2 belonged to either Griff or Patti. The other 2 have never yet been identified. They were both left thumb prints, and as Griff’s arm and hand had been completely destroyed by the fire, they could not be ruled out as being his. Could they have belonged to someone else who had visited the farmhouse that evening?
It was this absence of forensic evidence proving that someone else had been in the house that made the police begin questioning whether they really were looking for a double murderer. A thorough search of the house and surrounding area had revealed no murder weapon, and when police discovered that Patti had £2,700 in cash in her purse, they began working on the theory that they were dealing with a bizarre murder suicide.
At the inquest into the deaths, held in Haverfordwest in February 1977, it was proposed that Griff himself had killed Patti, and then committed suicide by burning himself to death. The inquest was told the deaths may have been the result of the siblings having a furious row over “pocket money” given by Miss Thomas to her brother.
The theory of events arrived at for the inquest is mind boggling. The jury was told that the most likely sequence of events was that:
“Something must have happened between the old couple, and it could have been that Miss Thomas provoked her brother by either hitting him or pulling his hair and he then retaliated. It was possible that Mr Thomas had provoked his sister by starting a fire. Though seriously injured, he carried his sister from the kitchen of the house into the living room where she was found sitting on a magazine rack. He could have then staggered back, collapsing in a doorway where his blood was found before getting to his feet and then either falling back into the fire or throwing himself on it.”- Theory presented at Inquest
Does this sound likely? It is concievable, but everyone who knew the couple are adamant that this suggestion of events would be as far from what happened as could possible be. Although the apparent murder weapon was the blood soaked chair found in their home, it was concluded to be too heavy to have been used to repeatedly strike Patti about the head with. No other weapon was ever found, but this matter was left unexplained.
On February 17, 1977 an inquest jury decided Patti’s death was manslaughter at the hands of her brother. An open verdict was recorded on Griff Thomas. The brother and sister were buried in the churchyard of Llangolman Church, where they had been regular and loyal members of the congregation. Griff was sadly denied a headstone at his local chapel, the police theory at the time being he must have murdered his sister and then committed suicide whilst in the grip of lunacy.
It is widely believed still today amongst the villagers of Llangolman that the inquest had got the verdict wrong, and an innocent man has been wrongly accused for nearly 40 years now. At the time, many locals were concerned a murderer was still on the loose, and an air of apprehension and suspicion was heavy. Doors, once left open due to the sense of community, were now locked and bolted. The owner of the local garage in Llangolman has always lived locally, and remembers the local opinion that someone had broken into the Thomas’s home, due to the isolated location it stood in.
“The house is isolated and as in a very lonely spot. You’re not in the village itself. You’re lucky if you see two or three houses within a quarter of a mile. It was a lonely spot.” – Denley Absolom
Local rumour was that Griff and Patti were wealthy; indeed, they had investments between them to the value of around £35,000, a substantial amount at that time. Patti also had £2,700 in her handbag when her body was found, and it was believed that the substantial amounts of cash the couple were believed to have kept around the house made them a target for a robbery that went tragically and brutally wrong. Family members later expressed their belief that nothing had been taken from the scene – although the bureau in the front room appeared to have been searched, and police never found the key to it.
Even now, 40 years later, locals remain convinced that the real killer is yet to be brought to justice. Auctioneer Richard Sykes and his colleagues had the responsibility of clearing the house before putting it on the market after the inquest. He says the state of the house, even after the police had cleaned it makes him believe the inquest got it wrong
“It doesn’t relate to the circumstances we saw there. I don’t believe that. I think it was more of an acknowledgement that they failed to find evidence of a third party. It raises the question that someone else could have visited Ffynnon Samson that evening. I think it was shared pretty generally among the community” – Richard Sykes
Did the police get this wrong? There are questions that can be raised here that suggest that the inquest verdict was wrong. Most people who knew Griff and Patti agreed that they lived happily and harmoniously throughout their lives. Many testify to their kind nature, and Griff being a mild mannered small man, suffering from rheumatism and having a bad back.
What then, would cause a brother to one day brutally batter to death his sister who he had lived with for 70 years, carry her body – whilst himself suffering from a bad back and severe rheumatism – into the parlour after having killed her in the kitchen, and then choose to end his own life in such a bizarre and agonising fashion? What kind of squabble after 70 years causes that amount of violence? Or did Griff lose control of his senses one normal day, after carrying out his daily routine as he had for years, as the theory presented at the inquest said? Why move Patti? And why choose such a bizarre, agonising way to end your own life?
It was also reported that the groceries and newspaper Griff had bought were found in his coat pocket, not even have been taken out. Why not? If you get home with shopping and are carrying it, the first thing you do is set it down. Why had Griff not taken these out?
There is another puzzling aspect to this case – one of the unidentified thumbprints was found on the sewing machine in the parlour. Griff Thomas’ blood was also found on this sewing machine – yet the cover had been placed on the sewing machine – covering the blood and the print. Who did this, and does this suggest that someone else was at the scene that night?
The logical conclusion is that this was a horrific double murder, with robbery as the target. It is possible that a robber was disturbed by Griff, after having killed Patti. Griff was then battered into unconsciousness, and the offender had started a fire in order to destroy any forensic traces or fingerprints. Any murder weapon could have possibly been destroyed by a fire, as stated, no murder weapon apart from a blood stained dining room chair was ever recovered.
Chillingly, Llangolman is just 24 miles away from where another elderly brother and sister named Thomas – this time Richard and Helen – would be brutally murdered by John Cooper in their rural home eight years later. The facts of this case – the Scoveston Park murders – could also be a carbon copy of the deaths of Griff and Patti Thomas.
Richard and Helen Thomas were an elderly brother and sister who were violently killed in their rural property, which was then set on fire and burnt out. The motive was attributed to a robbery that had been interrupted. Unlike Griff and Patti Thomas, Richard and Helen were both blasted to death at close range with a powerful shotgun. However, at the time of the 1985 murders, the villagers of Llangolman were convinced that Griff and Patti’s killer had struck again; the circumstances involving each crime were too chillingly similar….the isolated property, the elderly wealthy victims, the fire.
Can there be a possible connection then, between John Cooper and the deaths of Griff and Patti Thomas? Cooper does not have a criminal record between the years of 1965 to 1983, but that does not mean he did not offend. The Scoveston Park murders were committed in 1985, when Cooper was 40 years old. His earlier previous known offence was in 1965, when he had been jailed for six months for trampling over a man on the ground. Bearing in mind the level of violence Cooper committed in the four murders he was convicted for, it is highly unlikely that Cooper did not offend for 20 years from 1965 to 1985. That level of violence does not lay dormant for 20 years. It is known that Cooper was a prolific burglar throughout his life – was he responsible for other murders?
I believe that Cooper should be considered a person of interest in the 1976 Llangolman deaths. At the time of Griff and Patti Thomas’ deaths, Cooper had been working in the area of Llangolman doing fencing repair work. He was already a violent offender by this time.
It is known that he targeted places to rob, these often being isolated, rural houses. He also took steps to ensure he didn’t leave any traces leading to his detection, quite willing to use fire as was shown in the case of Scoveston Park. Cooper also had a trademark of taking keys from the scenes of his crimes as trophies – nearly 2,000 different sets of keys were found in a cesspit on Cooper’s property after his arrest. These ranged from property keys (interestingly, one of these was one of the keys from Norton farm, a property owned by Richard Thomas that he had visited on the day of his death – this key formed part of the forensic evidence that helped convict Cooper of the murders) to vehicle keys. Could this then, be what happened to the missing bureau key from Fynnon Samson??
At present, there have been no plans to officially reopen the investigation into the deaths of Griff and Patti Thomas. On the face of the circumstantial evidence presented here following John Cooper’s conviction, it suggests that it possibly should be reopened, and him looked at as a serious suspect. Perhaps it is best summed up by the opinion of the man who discovered the scene of horror at Fynnon Samson nearly 40 years ago.
“I would say yes, reopen it, definitely now, because no murder weapon was found. I can’t see myself or anybody, your mind must be absolutely a blank if you think you can burn yourself at 70, 73. A youngster wouldn’t burn himself and lie in a fire. I would think (the inquest verdict) they’re unsafe. I feel that there would be a substantial case…..for looking at this particular crime again as a cold case.” – Nigel Rossiter
The True Crime Enthusiast