Over a number of years there have been numerous murders in which the victims have been lone women, of varying ages, who have been attacked and brutally murdered whilst walking their dogs in rural areas. TTCE will focus upon four of them. From the initial account that will be chronicled here, there then lay a period of 11 years dormant, and then 3 brutal attacks within a year. It is important to express here that each case has never been definitively linked with any of the others, indeed, police have always resisted officially linking them, even refuted the link in a couple of them. Could it be possible however, that the same person is responsible for all?
Helen Fleet enjoyed her retirement years, living in the house she shared in Osborne Road, Weston Super-Mare, with her younger sister, Betty Sparrow. Being a widow of 20 years, and since retiring from her job as a factory inspector, 66 year old Helen spent a lot of time walking her beloved dogs, brown mongrel Cindy and white West Highland Terrier Bilbow. March 28th 1987 was a Saturday, and it was late morning when Helen set off in her blue Datsun car, parking it on Worlebury Hill Road, near the entrance to Worlebury Woods. This was a regular place for her to walk Bilbow and Cindy.
What followed has been difficult for police to piece together, due to the lack of apparent motive. The best hypothesis is that Helen had finished her stroll and was heading back towards where she had parked her car when she was set upon by what must have been a maniac. A scream was reportedly heard by two people in the woods at about 12:20, and it was about 20 minutes later that Mrs Fleet’s body was found. Tragically, it was a friend of Helen who found her, Sylvia Lewis, alerted by the barking of the dogs.
Sylvia Lewis could never forget the sight that she came across. She saw Helen lying motionless on the ground and in a panic, ran to a nearby house to raise the alarm. The occupants of the house, David and Hazel Davies, returned to the scene with Sylvia and discovered Helen dead. In what police later described as a frenzied attack, Helen had been severely beaten, repeatedly stabbed and even strangled. There was no indication of a sexual assault, and Helen had not been robbed.
Police hit the ground running with the investigation, taking hundreds of statements, house to house enquiries and interviewing more than 5000 people. The focal point of the investigation, however, soon cantered upon 2 people. Two youths were seen fleeing the woods about 30 minutes after the murder, both described as being aged 15 to 18 years old, wearing distinctive ski jackets.
A few weeks after the murder, Avon and Somerset Police released a photo-fit comprised by descriptions of a youth who had been seen by witnesses talking to Mrs Fleet. The witnesses described the youth and Mrs Fleet talking as though they were known to each other, and the photo-fit bore strong resemblance to one of the youths that were spotted fleeing from the woods following the murder. The case was reconstructed on BBC TV’s Crimewatch UK in May 1987, with several calls received but none giving the breakthrough police needed.
When no arrest happened as a result of the massive enquiry, as time passed so with it grew local opinion that someone had gotten away with the brutal murder of a defenceless pensioner. However, the enquiry was never closed, and on the 10th anniversary of the crime it was reported that the advancement of DNA testing was being used to try and solve the crime. Fingerprints, clothes, blood and other forensic evidence had been recovered at the crime scene, and had originally tested negative for clues. However, it was hoped that with advancement and refinement of DNA techniques, a breakthrough may be made. Sadly, it wasn’t.
Three years later, another avenue was explored. A TV appeal was made featuring the case, in which detectives and forensic scientists from the National Missing Persons published a digitally “aged” computer enhanced image of the original 1987 photofit of the youth seen talking to Mrs Fleet days before she was murdered, as a youth then would be in their 30’s by that time. Acting on the belief that the youth was known to Mrs Fleet, an appeal was made to the public to compare the original photofit and the “aged” picture, and to call in if any viewer recognised the person. It did result in a new witness emerging, who said he had often seen Mrs Fleet talking to a youth in the woods, and who played with her dogs, which supported original witness accounts. However, the identity of this person has tantalisingly always eluded police, and despite the offer of a £7,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killer, no one has yet been brought to justice as the 30th anniversary of the crime approaches.
Skip forward 10 years now, to November 1997. The murder of Kate Bushell has already been accounted by TTCE in a previous blog post (June 2016), so a summary is all that is necessary here. A lone female, walking a dog, brutally and savagely murdered in an opportunistic attack. See the initial post Who Killed Kate Bushell? on TTCE for further details
Then in 1998 there were two more brutal murders, two women again whilst both were walking dogs.
On Wednesday July 22 1998, 52 year old housewife Julia Webb set off on one of her twice daily walks with her Golden Labrador dog Rosie. It was Julia’s custom to walk Rosie twice a day for about 45 minutes a time down Kennel Lane, in the village of Sandiway, Cheshire, where Julia lived. Kennel Lane borders a dense wood, and as Julia set off from her home in Weaverham Road at 3pm that afternoon, she promised neighbour Bessie Woods she would stay away from the wood. Although it was often used by joggers and courting couples, like other places of its kind the Kennel Lane wood was also reputed to be frequented by drug dealers and “strange men”.
When his mother had not returned by 5:30 pm, her concerned 26-year-old son Christopher set off to look for her on his bike. Minutes later, as he approached Kennel Lane Woods, he spotted Rosie whimpering and alone. The dog led Christopher into the nearby woodland, where he found his mother’s body in bushes 10 yards into the undergrowth. Police were baffled by the brutal, apparently motiveless killing. Julia’s body was discovered still fully clothed, wearing her red T-shirt, striped skirt and flat shoes. Her glasses lay nearby and there were no signs of any sexual attack or robbery. Julia had been battered to death in a frenzied attack, with numerous blows to her head inflicted with a blunt weapon. No weapon has ever been found.
Despite a massive police enquiry, in which they actioned over 4,300 lines of enquiry, police struggled for leads to this crime. Mrs Webb had no known enemies and was described by her family as ‘placid’ and unlikely to engage in a confrontation. Her husband, long distance lorry driver John, and sons Nicholas and Christopher were examined and eliminated as suspects. Crimewatch U.K reconstructed the crime in September 1998, and frustratingly the public response produced crank calls and vague sightings of people seen in the area at the time, including three men who were never traced. One was described as being a middle aged white haired man using a very distinctive red walking stick. Also elusive was a ‘George Michael’ lookalike with designer stubble, driving a silver Ford Orion car, and reports of a ‘red faced man’ seen running across nearby Daleford’s Lane around the time of the murder.
Despite this extensive hunt, and the offer of a £30,000 reward, Julia’s murder remains unsolved. But the case remains open, and is reviewed periodically. On the anniversary of Julia’s death in 2000, her husband John was interviewed.
“She was very placid, not someone who would get involved in a confrontation. I can only think whatever happened had something to do with Rosie. The dog is very friendly by nature, but also very inquisitive. It is possible she was sniffing around someone, perhaps startled them and they hit out at her.
“In those circumstances Julia would probably have come to her aid and got involved. I can’t think of any other reason why.” – John Webb
Back in the south of England, Truro, Cornwall, the 20th of October 1998. Lyn Bryant, another housewife, a 41 year old mother and regular dog walker set off to walk her Lurcher dog Jay along the Ruan High Lanes, which were less than a mile from her house. Although isolated, this was a familiar route to Lyn and one she felt so familiar with she regularly walked Jay unaccompanied down them. Mrs Bryant set off that mid- afternoon wearing a brown waxed coat, a blue pullover, dark jeans and brown walking boots. At 2:40pm on 20 October 1998, a passer- by found Lyn’s lifeless body in the gateway to a field, brutally stabbed to death with wounds to her neck, back and chest. Again, there was no immediate sign of a sexual attack, no murder weapon found or no sign of robbery, however, Lyn’s spectacles were missing. A thorough search of the murder scene revealed no clues or forensic traces.
The resulting police enquiry was codenamed Operation Grenadine, and involved every male aged between 14 and 70 years of age that lived in Cornwall’s Roseland peninsula being interviewed.
“Mrs Bryant almost certainly put up a struggle and fought for her life. The killer would have been extensively bloodstained and mudstained”. – Detective Chief Inspector Chris Boarland
When piecing together Lyn’s final movements, witnesses reported seeing a man talking to her at 1.45pm on Tuesday just under an hour before her body was found. Lyn was seen talking to the unidentified man near the Ruan Methodist Chapel, just 100 yards from the murder scene. He was described as being in his 30s, around 5ft 9ins tall, short dark haired, with bushy eyebrows and wearing light coloured clothing. Police canvassed the area extensively, contacted local businesses with closed-circuit television, asking them to examine the films to report anything suspicious. They also made an appeal to trace the driver of a white van described as bearded, 50+ years of age, largely built, who was seen following Mrs Bryant’s grey Sierra out of a nearby garage where she had stopped to buy milk. None of these leads or enquiries have ever led to an arrest, and the enquiry remained has remained quiet, albeit with two macabre twists.
Six months after Lyn was murdered, a member of the public out walking discovered a pair of spectacles, identical to the ones missing from Lyn, less than three feet from the spot where Lyn’s lifeless body was discovered. The spectacles were later confirmed to belong to Lyn. It seems inconceivable that the spectacles had been missed in any crime scene searches or photographs of the murder scene. Had somebody else, someone totally unconnected with the crime dropped them in a bizarre coincidence, or had the killer taken them, then returned to the scene to relive the killing, to fulfil some sick fantasy?
Then, in 2015, self-proclaimed psychic drag queen, 50 year old Tristan Rees, went to the police with a remarkable story. Mr Rees claimed that from mid-1999, he had been receiving visions of Lyn Bryant after being visited by her spirit on many occasions. He went on to describe a vision of seeing Lyn’s killer stalking her, and described a killer of slim build, with greying ginger hair, wrinkled face and wearing a dark blue boiler suit.
‘The visions just came to me at any time. It was almost like looking at a film but I’m right there next to her and the killer. It was always the same, pictures of her walking down the lane and the killer following her and then he walks back to a van he’s got. His boiler suit and boots were covered with blood, but you couldn’t tell it was blood because it was on dark material” – Tristan Rees
The description given here differs remarkably from the sketch police issued at the time of the man they wanted to trace who was seen talking to Lyn. No information should ever be discounted until definitively proved as false, and it is worthwhile to keep an open mind, regardless of the sensationalism of the source.
It is of course, a jump to state categorically that the same person is responsible for each of these killings. Although these killings have been linked in a Blog post entitled The Dogwalker Killings, it is for the reader to examine the possibility that the same person could be responsible; this is in no way suggested by TTCE as fact.
Four killings are chronicled here, spanning a period of 11 years. Are they connected? There are certainly similarities throughout.
- Lone women, walking dogs in isolated places.
- All of the attacks have occurred in the daytime, in good visibility.
- There has been massive overkill of violence in each case, and some form of weapon This is predominantly a knife, but has also involved the use of a blunt instrument, although no weapon has ever been found in any of the crimes.
- There has never been any evidence of any sexual assault.
- There has never been any evidence of Robbery
- The dog or dogs have never been harmed in any of the attacks.
- They are organised crimes – the killer has brought and taken away any weapons used; he has left no DNA fingerprint or any useful forensic traces; he has managed to escape undetected in each case, albeit only possibly seen fleeing in the case of the Bushell murder.
- Yet they have hallmarks of being spontaneous and opportunistic – in each case each woman has been attacked in a place where an offender could be interrupted at any moment by a passer-by. Almost as if there is an overwhelming need to kill, and the offender is driven by this and it is this need that overrides any fear of being caught.
- At least once, the offender has returned to the scene of the crime some months later.
Hypothetically speaking then, let’s say the same man is responsible for all. Bearing in mind an offender will find a target group of victim that appeals to them, the target group here is the lone female. It is unlikely that it is the dog walking that is the linking factor, if it was the dog in each case that was for some reason the trigger for such violence, one would expect the dog to be injured or killed as part of the attack. This has not happened. Nor can the triggering factor be a particular breed of dog, all dogs concerned in each case have been of different breeds.
If Helen Fleet was the first victim of the killer, it is likely that he was in his teens at the time. The amount of violence used, and different methods of trying to kill (stabbing, battering, strangling) suggest an immature offender who is unsure of what they are doing, for want of a better expression, unrefined. The teen theory would tie in with the photo-fit of a suspect police have constantly appealed to trace over the years.
The next known murder occurs over ten years later, and is just as savage, perhaps more so because Kate Bushell was killed so brutally – with a single stroke. So, why a ten year gap? There are several possibilities for this. The killer could have been imprisoned or in hospital through this time, they may have left the country to work abroad or been serving in the Armed Forces. They may have had a stable relationship that had managed to keep a lid on any murderous thoughts. But something has triggered these thoughts returning – perhaps a change in personal circumstance or the breakdown of a relationship?
Eight months later, another woman, Julia Webb, is killed, the only killing out of the 4 where a knife is not used. It is also geographically the furthest killing away in comparison to the other 3. But this should not rule out the possibility that the same person is responsible. It is feasible that a person needs to travel the country as a course of their employment, there is also precedent that people will kill on such work trips also. Serial killer Robert Black, for example, abducted and killed children whilst on business trips delivering posters all around the country. Did the killer of Helen and Kate, whilst in the area on business, find an opportunity on a lonely lane in Cheshire, at just a point where Julia Webb was unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Back to Truro, three months later. The most consistently linked cases out of the 4 detailed here are that of Kate Bushell, and Lyn Bryant. They are very close in geographic proximity, close enough to suggest that the same man is responsible for both killings. Or at least it becomes hard to imagine that there is more than one maniac within a relatively small geographic area who has a penchant for attacking and brutally murdering women out walking dogs, in opportunistic broad daylight attacks?
So what do we know about this hypothetical offender? Firstly, we can estimate it is a male. Statistically, women are predominantly killed by male offenders. We can estimate the age to today be between 40-50 years of age. A teenager in 1987 would fit into this age bracket now. We can surmise that the offender is familiar with the areas the killings have occurred. These are organised crimes, at least to the point where the offender has a weapon on their person, and it is highly unlikely a killer will take a day trip to somewhere they have never visited to murder someone at random. Familiarity with the crime scenes brings with it greater chance of escape without detection, so familiarity with each crime scene means someone with local knowledge of each place, either having lived or worked in the area. The offender will likely have a previous history of offending, one does not commit a brutal murder as a first ever offence. This suggests that somewhere within the records of at least one of the police forces involved, the name of the offender will be there somewhere.
Of course, this is just TTCE hypothesising, based upon similarities that can be determined between each crime. But this may not be such a far- fetched theory after all. Retired police officer Chris Clark is the author of a book entitled Yorkshire Ripper: The Secret Murders (which coincidentally will be the subject of the next TTCE book review), and has studied the cases in great depth. Conversely, he believes that at the very least, the murders of Helen Fleet, Kate Bushell and Lyn Bryant are linked by strong circumstantial evidence, and that being dog walkers is a key linking factor, with the dogs possibly the trigger for such violence.
“I believe the murders have many similarities. The mode of killing and the similar geographical area are the two most obvious links. But it is also highly unusual for a killer to choose a dog walker in each case. I believe that, psychologically, this is a key element. The dogs may form an important part of the murder ritual, but he doesn’t want to kill them”-Chris Clark (retired police officer)
Mr Clark feels this is highlighted by what has been suggested above, the lack of harm to any of the dogs. He then moves on to highlight the lack of robbery or sexual assault in each case, and highlights the relatively small geographical catchment area of the three killings (from Weston-super-Mare, it makes a triangle of 61 miles to Exeter, and 148 miles to Truro).
“These elements are unusual. They do not point to a sexual motive – more towards a person suffering insanity. Geographically, the murders are within a relatively small area, and the nature of the first killing makes it inconceivable that he did not murder again. I have concluded there is strong circumstantial evidence to link them all. I feel we have one killer who no doubt is still walking around.” – Chris Clark (retired police officer)
All four cases remain open, and detectives from each Police force concerned have liased with each other over the years. A connection has never been officially confirmed. They may be individual crimes and completely unconnected. But there are enough similarities, and any student of true crime will be aware that a multiple killer develops an MO, has a victim category that he or she favours. Four separate killers? Or has the same man killed at least four times, perhaps many more……?
The True Crime Enthusiast