Thursday, September 08 2005 will be remembered by many people for a variety of reasons. In the US, the country in general was still shocked by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Residents of the area of Wrexham, North Wales, will arguably remember more so the loss that day of 200 jobs at the Meritor HVS plant on the Llay Industrial Estate, which hit the local community hard. And for one family, the Hughes, in the nearby village of Abermorddu, Wrexham, it was the night that a cowardly killer tore their family apart by leaving a defenceless grandmother to die in a pool of blood for a quite meagre sum of money. To this day it is a sadly unsolved crime, and one that TTCE has a personal connection with.
The village of Abermorddu is on the direct main route between the towns of Mold and Wrexham, in North Wales. It is a quiet village, adjoined to the once popular tourist village of Caergwrle, and is a mix of private and council housing. Many of the residents are elderly, having lived or worked in the area for the majority of their lives, and have settled in the community because of its status as a quiet place to live. Elsie Hughes was one such person.
Elsie was 90 years old, and had been a widow for a number of years, since a young age. She had not worked for many years since being the head cook at nearby Castell Alun High School, where she had been known quite endearingly as “Auntie Elsie”. This was a moniker that had never left her, it was how she was known locally, and indeed made her well liked and familiar in the area. Elsie had family living in nearby Caergwrle, and although she was quite infirm and advanced in years, retained her independence by living alone in her house on Hawarden Road, Abermorddu. This had been her home for more than 50 years.
It is a sad fact that increasingly, the elderly fall prey to distraction burglaries. Elsie was no exception here; in August 2008, Elsie had fallen victim to a distraction burglary at her home. Her trusting nature had been used against her and burglars had managed to get away with her life savings, a sum of cash thought to be near £1000. Despite this, Elsie did not stay down for long and that fighting spirit that characterises that generation won over. Indeed, by just three weeks later, the night of September 8th 2005, Elsie had settled back into her normal routine. That night was a Thursday, and should have been unremarkable. It was, until at about 9pm when neighbours of Elsie heard what were described as “worrying and unusual noises”. Elsie’s daughter Jean Griffiths was contacted at her home in Caergwrle, and came around to investigate. Jean was worried – perhaps Elsie had been taken ill, or had fallen? Nothing could prepare her for the horror she was about to find.
Upon entering the house, Elsie’s daughter found the frail pensioner on the floor in her living room, lying in a pool of blood. She had been horrifically beaten about the face and head, and had been left with substantial and serious injuries. The house showed signs of being ransacked, and it was later discovered that the assailant had fled the scene with just £200 in cash. Elsie was rushed to the Wrexham Maelor Hospital, but her injuries were too severe and she never regained consciousness, sadly dying the following morning. A post mortem determined that she had died as a direct result of being battered, although it could not be determined if a weapon had been used or not. Police immediately launched a murder inquiry.
Police and Forensic SOCO’s examine Elsie Hughes’ house
An incident room was set up based in Wrexham Police Station, and a mobile incident room was stationed nearby to Elsie’s house in Abermorddu itself. A forensic team set to work examining Elsie’s house, and police conducted a fingertip search of the entirety of Hawarden Road, and nearby Crossways. House to house enquiries were carried out all throughout Abermorddu, and extended into the adjoining villages of Caergwrle, Hope, and Cefn Y Bedd. Public outrage had been provoked due to the brutal killing, and the response and assistance was encouraging. The crime shocked the community, as friends and neighbours testified.
“My wife gave me a call to say there was a commotion outside. As I pulled up I couldn’t get round because there were that many police cars on the road. I think we’re all shocked and worried really. My grandparents only live round there and they’re elderly too so the first thing I did was give them a call, to make sure they were ok” – Robbie Reilly, Neighbour
“I’m shocked quite honestly. We’ve known her for years. She was a very friendly sort, bit of a character really in the community. I don’t think she could get about very well anymore on her legs. It’s a bit unnerving really to think it can happen in such a small community.” George Edwards, friend
It was quickly established that Elsie had no known enemies, leaving the motive for the crime to be theft. A methodical search of her house established that there was only money that was missing. It was surmised that Elsie had disturbed an intruder or intruders in her house, prompting her to be attacked. Police were, however, at a loss to explain the appalling level of violence used against her.
“This was an appalling attack on a defenceless elderly lady. The individual who left Elsie’s home on Thursday evening, 8 September, would have been heavily bloodstained and I am confident that someone must hold some further information on this individual”
Detective Chief Superintendent Ross Duffield
Witnesses soon came forward with descriptions of the prime suspect that police wished to trace, a hooded man who was seen fleeing from the house on the night of the murder. He was described as being 25 to 30 years of age, of medium build and about 5”10 in height, and having short dark hair with a fringe. He was described as wearing a white or light coloured hooded top, black tracksuit bottoms and white trainers. He was described as carrying a plastic Spar carrier bag, and crucially, may have spoken to a couple parked in a people carrier vehicle at the end of Hawarden Road, opposite the Kowloon House takeaway. The photo fit issued of the suspect is reproduced here:
This man was seen by several witnesses that evening, around the key times of 8:30 to 8:50pm. A later sighting places a man fitting the description of this suspect heading towards Hope, between the Indian restaurant by Caergwrle train station, and Hope School in Hawarden Road. This is very close to Elsie’s house. Who was this man? Detectives were anxious to trace him, and a widespread public appeal was made in an attempt to get him to come forward, described by the officer leading the hunt.
“We are very anxious to trace this man. He was seen going towards Elsie Hughes’ house at about 8.30-9pm. Some moments later, he is seen to emerge from her house. He begins to run and then stops and walks normally and then appears to turn left into Crossways. If anybody has seen this person or somebody matching his description in the Abermorddu, Caergwrle and Cefn-y-Bedd areas between 7pm and 10pm on Thursday evening, they should contact us immediately”
– Detective Chief Superintendent Ross Duffield
Detectives also made an appeal for a couple who had been sighted in the Kowloon House takeaway between 6pm and 7pm that evening to come forward. They were remembered as strangers by the proprietors, as Abermorddu is a small community where everybody who lives there tends to know everybody. They were never traced. Was this the same couple sighted in the people carrier, who possibly spoke to the hooded man? If this was the same couple, who were they – and why did they hang around as strangers in a small village for nearly three hours that evening? They have never come forward.
Weeks passed and the investigating team turned to a nationwide appeal. Elsie’s murder was featured on the BBC’s Crimewatch UK programme in October that year, with her granddaughter Helen Hutcheson making an on camera, impassioned public appeal. TTCE remembers the reconstruction well. This prompted several calls to the incident room from all areas of the country. It gave police several new names and information to check out. Sadly, none of these names or information has ever led to a breakthrough, and, despite a massive reward of £100,000 for information leading to the arrest of the killer being offered, Elsie’s murder still remains unsolved.
As mentioned before, TTCE has a roundabout personal connection with this unsolved case, and it stretches back to the Crimewatch UK reconstruction. TTCE grew up in a neighbouring village just 4 miles from Abermorddu, and went to the school where Elsie worked. At the time of Elsie’s murder, it was and remains a great source of interest around the local area, because like the old cliché, that type of thing doesn’t or shouldn’t happen in the village where you live. Abermorddu is a mere 4 miles from where my parents still live to this day. So a shocking crime of that magnitude does resonate close to home, and people tend to take interest. TTCE of course has always followed the case closely.
It came to the night of the Crimewatch UK reconstruction, which was broadcast nearly a month after Elsie’s murder. In those days I was partial to the programme and never missed an edition, although for some reason (I cannot exactly remember why now) I had not been able to watch it on the evening of transmission. I had recorded it though, and watched it the following day, taking great interest in the appeal concerning Elsie’s murder. As I was watching, the photo fit produced above was shown, and I was struck by a thought of “Wow, that looks just like ___________”(for obvious reasons, I will not publish names). The person I had in mind was a person I had known for years, and who indeed still lived in the same village as my folks. Minutes after I had finished watching it, my home phone rang and it was my mum, who had also watched Crimewatch. During our conversation, she asked me if I had watched it and I said that I just had finished doing so. And then, without me saying so, she said just how much she thought the photo fit looked like the same person I had in mind!
I went into work that night with this playing on my mind. Elsie’s family pleading for people to get in touch with any information, however small, resonated with me and after consideration, I decided to call the incident room and voice my suspicions. I got through to the Murder Incident Room and left my name and address, along with the information (suspicions) that I had concerning the possible identity of the person depicted in the photo fit. A couple of days later I had a message left at home from a detective from the investigating team, asking whether they could come and talk to me at home. I contacted back and agreed, and a mutual time was arranged.
When they came to visit me, I enquired as to whether they needed me to make a written statement corroborating the information I had volunteered to the incident room. I was taken aback then when the detective then told me that the reason they had come to visit me that day, is that they had received information from someone (no names were revealed for obvious reasons) that suggested my name as being a match for the photo fit……
After my initial shock (it isn’t every day that police come to visit you with you as a possible murder suspect in their mind), the rational thought returned that I had nothing to fear here because I know one hundred percent that I did not commit the crime!. I should also state here that I looked then or now look nothing remotely like the photo fit, a fact that was commented on immediately by the detective who came to interview me. Of course though the investigating team are duty bound to follow up every avenue of enquiry, of this I am completely in agreement with and support. I co-operated as fully as I could with their questions, and was able to give an irrefutable alibi for the night in question. My wardrobe was checked fully to see if I had any clothes matching the outfit the suspect was described as wearing. The soles of all of my shoes and trainers were checked to see if a matching pattern to the footprint was available. A full statement detailing the reason for the visit, what had been asked and my responses, and details of all searches was produced as is standard police practice, and I read through and signed once I was satisfied. I was even asked to give a DNA sample, which I volunteered without question. I was told by the detectives who visited that they would be in further touch if they needed to speak to me again. I never have heard from them after that.
Police do have one piece of forensic evidence available to them, that they had recovered from Elsie’s home. A bloody footprint was discovered at the scene, and was matched to a Nike Court Tradition trainer sized between 7 and 9. These are widely available in sizes ranging from infant to adult, and have a distinctive squiggle pattern upon the sole. Bizarrely, this information and details of this line of appeal were never released to the public until the third anniversary of Elsie’s killing, for reasons that have never been revealed. By that time, the investigation had been scaled down, although is still active. The detective in charge, Detective Chief Inspector Neil Anderson, appealed about the trainers:
“The prints were left by a person wearing a pair of similar training shoes between sizes seven to nine. The body of this kind of training shoe was white. However, they had various colour Nike emblems upon them – so the colour of the symbol and wording may indeed have been different from the pair pictured. I’m asking people to think back to the time and to ask themselves if they knew someone with a similar training shoe or if they bought a pair of trainers as a present for someone. I’m particularly keen to speak to people who may have noticed that the trainers suddenly went missing around the time of Elsie’s death – or simply that they were never worn again by the person in question.”
Detective Chief Inspector Neil Anderson
An appeal of this kind may seem like looking for a needle in a haystack. Take for example the passage of time – why release such important details only 3 years later? If say, the footprints were made by a brand new trainer at the time – 3 years later due to constant wear any sole will have worn down though wear and tear, making any comparison difficult if not impossible. That is even with a new trainer; if they were old at the time of the murder they would be even more worn down by this time, if not destroyed and/or disposed of. A forensically aware killer would have disposed of the trainers almost immediately. But detectives are duty bound to investigate all lines of enquiry, it just seems to TTCE that this was a wasted opportunity that if publicised earlier on in the investigation, may have been more of a productive line of appeal that it ultimately has been.
TTCE believes that the best line of enquiry remaining available in this case is to attempt to identify the person seen running from Elsie’s house that night. It cannot of course be said definitively that this was the killer – but is obviously the most important person police wish to talk to. This may or may not even have been an accomplice – although if it was, why was the real killer not seen? It is a busy, very populated road. And why would they split up? I believe it more likely that this was a solitary offender. Of course, by now 11 years have passed. This person may look markedly different now from the likeness that was publicised. This person may be dead, in prison for another crime, in hospital, or may have left the area. They may have even been a visitor to the area that night and may be from an area miles away. I am inclined to believe this is likely, along with the couple sighted in the Kowloon House that night. I do not believe that they were from the Abermorddu/Caergwrle locale themselves, as the police enquiries, publicity and local interest was so widespread that it would have led to them being identified or coming forward if they were. It is also unlikely, although not impossible, that it was a couple from a neighbouring village for the same reasons.
A logical conclusion is that the distraction burglary and the murder are connected, or at least one person has knowledge of both. The chances of the same house – in a busy residential street – being targeted by completely separate persons within a matter of less than a month seems almost too unlikely to comprehend. Understandably, for a long time police considered that both were directly connected. In October 2008, a woman from Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme, appeared in Mold Crown Court charged with the distraction burglary. Margaret Berry, 25, was acquitted at trial of stealing £1,000 from Elsie’s home. She has always denied the crime since her initial arrest, and police have never been able to officially connect both crimes. TTCE draws emphasis to the word “officially” here – surely it stretches credibility to think that this was a coincidence?
In the 11 years that have passed since Elsie’s brutal killing, police have made a number of arrests connected with the crime, but have never been in any position to charge anyone for the murder. It is officially still unsolved. In 2006, two men were charged, convicted and jailed for perverting the course of justice relating to the investigation. John Andrew Thomas, 37, of Rhuddlan Court in Ellesmere Port, and Charles Jones, 32, of Alyn Road in Buckley, admitted giving false information relating to a blue Ford Escort van – registration number N960 KFX – to detectives involved in the murder enquiry. Detectives wished to trace this van as it was sighted in the area on the night of the murder, and Thomas and Jones denied ever being in possession of the vehicle when questioned. They later admitted they had, and admitted disposal of the vehicle, thus providing concealment of material evidence. Both received custodial sentences.
All these years later, I still do not know, and will unlikely ever know, who volunteered my name to the murder investigation team. The fact that I looked so unlike the photo fit suggested to me that my name was given maliciously to cause discomfort and upset to myself, and I still to this day harbour suspicion as to who I believe was responsible. I still pass by Elsie’s house each time I go to visit my folks, and I am always reminded of the tragedy that befell the Hughes family. She was as has been described, much loved within the community – more than 100 people attended her funeral in Hope Parish Church (and the service was relayed outside via loudspeaker to crowds gathered outside the church) – and deserves justice. The murder is still a topic of discussion in the local area, and is re-appealed annually. Although the investigation is still officially ongoing, the longer the passage of time, the more remote the chances of detecting the killer. It seems now that sadly, barring a confession or someone’s conscience getting the better of them, any other form of detection seems unlikely. Frustrating also is the titbits of information available, so much so that it is difficult to account a detailed and chronological account of the investigation to date. The overall impression gained is that police have reached an impasse, and quite possibly know the identity of the killer but just cannot obtain the evidence necessary to charge and convict. This vicious, cowardly killer needs to be caught and punished, only time will tell if this will happen or not. “Auntie Elsie” deserves her justice.
The True Crime Enthusiast