It was 11:18pm on the evening of October 17th 1995, that a phone call to the London Fire Brigade would be the start of one of the most baffling and complex murder enquiries that the Metropolitan Police have ever undertaken, one that is still unsolved to this day. That day was a Tuesday. For 52 year old Joy Hewer, it should have been an unremarkable day much like all of the others in her life. Instead, it was her last day on earth, as she was brutally sexually assaulted and knifed to death in her home by an unknown assailant. If that wasn’t horrific enough, the killer then set fire to Joy’s sixth floor flat – endangering all of the other residents who lived within the block.
Joy had lived alone in a sixth floor flat in a tower block in Walthamstow, North East London, for many years. She had been brought up in the area, and as she had never married, had devoted her life to her career as a primary school teacher. She was well liked and remembered as a kindly and dedicated teacher, but had retired in 1990. This left Joy to devote her time to the other focus of her life: the church. Joy was a devout Christian and visited several churches in the Walthamstow/Notting Hill areas of North London, although mainly worshipping at St Mary’s Church in Walthamstow. It was at St Mary’s where evidence of Joy’s devotion to the church is most prominent – she volunteered at soup kitchens based there, involved herself in helping to clean the church, fundraise for it and other local charities, undertake the admin for the church, even assisting at the London Healing Mission. Was this where she met her killer?
On the day she was murdered, Joy had been volunteering at the mission. A friend and colleague of hers saw Joy leaving the mission at about 3:30pm. It is unclear where Joy went immediately after leaving the mission, as police have never been able to establish exactly her movements for periods of time of up to two and a half hours from leaving the Mission to arriving home. What is known however is that Joy visited a chemist near to her flat in St David’s Court, Wood Street at 5.50pm. The staff there knew her by sight and so credence can be given to this sighting. She then arrived back at her flat at about 6pm, so Joy had most likely gone straight home after visiting the chemist. This time was confirmed by one of the other residents of St David’s Court, who spoke to Joy as they passed by in the communal hallway. Where had Joy been in these missing hours?
After arriving home, Joy made several telephone calls that evening to family and friends. She was very close to her family, especially her nieces and nephews. It seems sad that such a gentle woman, described by all who knew her as fantastic with children and who lived a quiet and peaceful life, never had children of her own. As is often the case, perhaps Joy expressed any maternal feelings she may have had towards her two nieces, and her nephews. All family and friends who spoke to her describe Joy sounding as normal as ever that evening. The last time Joy can be confirmed as being alive is at 9:45pm that evening, when she telephoned her brother and spoke to her nephew. She had sounded fine and after chatting for a few minutes, Joy told them she was soon going to bed.
Ninety minutes later, Joy was either dead or close to death.
A couple who lived directly underneath Joy described how “loud bangings and scraping noises” coming from Joy’s flat had disturbed them as they were getting an early night. This had occurred sometime between 10:30pm and 11:00pm, and they had just decided to go upstairs to investigate further, and possibly complain, when the noises stopped. When they did not reoccur, the couple decided not to act and instead went to sleep. That decision may have allowed a killer to escape – or more chillingly, have saved the couple’s lives.
A female operator working the evening shift took a telephone call at 11:18pm that evening that remains a major mystery, one that police have still never been able to get to the bottom of. A call was made from a public telephone box on Fulbourne Road, Walthamstow, which is just off Wood Street where Joy lived. St David’s Court flats can be clearly seen towering over the immediate landscape from this road; it is quite an urban area. The caller requested the fire service attend, as he had seen smoke billowing from Joy’s flat. The recording of the 999 call is reproduced here:
When the fire service arrived and broke in, Joy’s flat was an inferno. Two fires had been started – it was later determined deliberately – both in the lounge and in the bedroom. Joy’s body was discovered in her bedroom, but it was soon apparent that she hadn’t died as a result of burns received, or hadn’t asphyxiated. She had been stabbed multiple times in the chest, and brutally mutilated. Cruelly, she had also been sexually assaulted.
27 minutes after the 999 call requesting the fire service, police arrived on the scene to begin a murder investigation after being summoned by the fire service. The residents of St David’s Court were all spoken to and left to come to terms with the fact that a gentle, Christian lady had been so brutally murdered, and the callous killer had left a fire burning that could have just as easily led to their deaths also. Detectives spoke to Joy’s family and friends, her former work colleagues, and members of the congregation from St Mary’s in an attempt to find someone bearing a grudge, someone with a motive to commit such a callous and despicable crime. They drew a blank. All police could come up with was the universal impression of Joy being a well-liked, kind hearted devout Christian without an enemy in the world. What then, made this woman a target for a killer?
“Joy was someone who would go out of her way to help others. She lived a quiet and peaceful life which was totally at odds with her last terrifying moments. It is likely that she suffered greatly at the hands of her killer”
Detective Inspector Susan Stansfield
Police believe that Joy knew her killer, at least well enough to allow him access into her flat. Several points suggest this to be the case. Firstly, the access. St David’s Court has a main access door that is controlled with a keypad lock and an intercom system, allowing residents an extra sense of security. People cannot just walk in off the street – they need a key. For genuine callers who do not have a key, there is an intercom system and a release mechanism that can be controlled from a button in a tenants flat. There was also at the time CCTV covering the main access door. The resulting police investigation determined that Joy was security conscious – her door was fitted with a Yale type lock, and had a chain on it, as well as a spyhole which Joy would have habitually used. As she was so security conscious, Joy would have been extremely cautious about allowing a stranger into her flat so late at night. There was no sign of forced entry into her flat, and the killer had to have got in somehow. Police found evidence that Joy had had a visitor at least some time that evening. Two used coffee cups were found within the flat, house proud Joy would never have used two but instead would have used one and rinsed it out to drink from again. Two cups suggests a visitor. But Joy had never mentioned anything about having a visitor in any of the phone calls she made that evening – was she buzzed later on by someone she knew on the pretence of them requesting help for something, and her kind hearted Christian belief of always helping others took over any natural caution?
“Joy was our loving sister who was absolutely no harm to anyone. She’d enjoyed her work as a teacher, adored her nieces and nephews and was fantastic with children. She regularly attended church and often helped at charity events. We’ve never forgotten the moment we were told she’d been murdered. It will never make any sense to us”
Penny Barnes, Joy’s sister.
The resulting police investigation drew a blank. No motive for Joy’s death could be found, no murder weapon was or ever has been found, and police were left with more questions than answers. Why would someone butcher a gentle middle aged woman in such a way – and why start a fire, knowing of the massive risk it would entail to lives? From the footage of the official police video, Joy’s flat looks to have been ransacked – although there is no way to ascertain how much of this mess was caused by the fire itself, and by firemen exercising the containment and extinguishing of the blaze. It is also not reported if anything was stolen from Joy’s flat. Four months later, in February 1996, the case was featured as an appeal on Crimewatch UK. Police went through their main points of appeal at the time, and although calls were received, nothing helped to further the investigation. The case was never closed and was subject to periodic reviews. Finally, 20 years later, a fresh appeal was made and detectives in charge of the case presented strongly their two major lines of enquiry.
Crimewatch UK re-appealed Joy’s murder in December 2015, nearly 20 years after they had first made an appeal concerning it. The reconstruction and re-appeal is reproduced below, and makes for disturbing viewing.
The first point of appeal was to re-appeal as to the identity of the caller who alerted the fire brigade that evening. Listen again to the recording – it is a recording of good clarity. The caller states that he noticed a fire whilst driving past, but does not seem to know which road Joy’s flat is on to describe the exact location to the switchboard operator, although he knows what the flats are called. He does not seem to know which road the public telephone box that he is in whilst talking to the operator is on, as he asks a person stood at a bus stop the location where it is. Based on an analysis of the time of the call, and the locale, it was determined that the person asked was queuing for a night bus – either the 212 to Walthamstow Central or W16 to Leytonstone. Police believe this caller to be a crucial witness. Whoever he is, or was (there is always the possibility that this man is now dead) he stopped to let authorities know about the fire. If he was otherwise uninvolved and was just a responsible passer- by, then why has he never come forward? There are a number of possibilities for this. Did the person just call to do the responsible thing, and then put it completely out of their mind? Highly unlikely – surely it is human nature that if you report something as serious as a fire – then you would remember doing so vividly, and indeed, would examine local press and media coverage knowing you were the person that alerted the authorities? Did the person just wish to remain anonymous because he was involved in some other form of crime that evening, and wished to avoid prosecution? This is possible, but the person must have known that his voice would be recorded and that he could possibly be traced through being recognised- surely someone afraid of arrest or prosecution would have just left raising the alarm to someone else? Was he just passing through the area, and is not local to Walthamstow? This would support the fact that he had to ask the exact locale from someone – although he knew the flats were called St David’s Court – which suggests he has at least some local knowledge.
The other possibility is that this man was involved, and a possibility that should be considered seriously as there is long established precedent of a killer calling to report their crimes to the authorities (Colin Ireland, The Zodiac Killer, BTK to name but a few). Was this the voice of the killer eager for his handiwork to be discovered? But this hypothesis raises questions also. If it was the killer calling to eagerly have his handiwork discovered – then what was the reason for starting the fires? Fires would have destroyed his handiwork. It is more likely that the fires were set out of a need to destroy any forensic evidence that the killer had left behind. He may have started the initial fire in the bedroom (where Joy was attacked and most likely murdered – one chilling aspect of the official police video that is shown in the Crimewatch UK reconstruction is the sight of Joy’s heavily bloodstained dressing gown placed on the ironing board in the bedroom) to remove forensic traces, possibly his own blood or semen. Did he also attack Joy in the living room, and that was the reason for that separate fire? Or did he start the fire and then, the enormity of what he had done – placing the entire occupants of the block at risk – hit him and he panicked and informed the emergency services? This man has never come forward, and has never been identified to this day, leaving speculation to his involvement.
The other point of appeal that detectives have to make is that of establishing the identity of a man spotted entering St David’s Court just after 10:30pm the evening of Joy’s murder. There is a quite grainy still from a CCTV camera showing the man entering the block of flats at this time. It is not of the greatest quality, but police are confident that someone would be able to identify him. The image is reproduced here:
Enquiries with the occupants of the other flats in St David’s Court drew a blank as to the identity of this man – nobody came forward to say that they had allowed him access, or that they had had a visitor. That left the only person who could have admitted him to be Joy – is this the face of her killer? He is a white short haired male and appears aged between 30 to 40 years. If this man is still alive, although will now be aged between 50 and 60 years, with short hair.
He has never been traced.
Twenty one years have passed now and the killer of Joy Hewer has still never faced justice for his crime. It is very likely that Joy’s killer certainly knew her, and knew where she lived – what would be the chances of picking a flat – on the sixth floor – at random and finding somebody living there that could be easily overpowered and murdered? A person with a need to satisfy an uncontrollable urge to kill would surely have directed this at the first person available to them. No, TTCE believes it fair to say that Joy was the deliberate target of this attack. Where had she met her killer? Joy did a lot of volunteer work at the London Mission – perhaps it was there. It is important to remember that this is part of a world where along with people in genuine need of help, there may be people who operate on the fringes of the criminal world, perhaps deeper. Joy would certainly have come into contact with several people from this world – but what makes a middle aged spinster the target for such a violent death? TTCE believes that the killer is someone involved with this world somehow – although is aware of what a mammoth and near impossible task it would be attempting to identify a specific individual person based upon the sheer number of people who must use the services of the Mission each year.
What do we know about the killer? Sadly, very little. It is undisputed that it is a male, and it is known that he is a ruthless, vicious, and a sexual pervert. It is the opinion of TTCE that this man will have been able to appear as unthreatening and reassuring – he was able to gain access to a middle aged woman’s flat quite late at night without breaking in. This man will have been very much in control and would appear to be an organised killer – after his onslaught, he calmly started not one but two fires – it would take a degree of self-control and enormous psychological strength to remain in the presence of a fire and then start another one! He is forensically aware and left no traces, no murder weapon. He was able to egress the property without being seen or challenged, and did not panic about CCTV. He was aware enough to remember to take Joy’s keys to allow himself egress from the building – otherwise how did he get out? He is also remorseless, and has such disregard for human life that he started a fire that could quite easily have claimed the lives of countless others. This will not have been this man’s first criminal offence, although it may have been his first murder. It is likely that he has a background in burglary, trespass and possibly for minor sexual offences, meaning he will have come to the attention of police or the local health authority before. A crime of this magnitude is not a person’s first offence – things like this tend to be built up to. The same applies to the level of forensic awareness that this man had – that is only refined over time. This is a horrific crime, and one that Joy’s family have had to suffer the anguish of seeing it unsolved for over two decades now. There is a £20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer, and her family have never given up hope that Joy’s killer will one day face justice.
“We’ve waited so long for answers but we’ll never give up hope. Someone has evaded us for two decades but this latest appeal with the £20,000 reward could finally help us secure justice for Joy.” – Penny Barnes (Joy’s sister)
Anyone with any information can contact the Incident Room on 020 7230 7963; or alternatively, to remain anonymous, call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111
The True Crime Enthusiast