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Death of the Millionaire Farmer

Chapel Amble is a tiny village in the Cornwall civil parish of St Kew that has its earliest mention in the Domesday book, with the name of the village being a derivation from the Cornish word Amaleglos, meaning “Church on the River Amble”. Picturesque and affluent, it is sparsely populated and contains very little except for houses, a tiny shop, a post office and a local pub. It is the kind of village where nothing ever seems to happen, that is, until April 2002 when Chapel Amble found itself at the centre of a brutal and as yet unsolved murder mystery. It was depicted at the time of the murder as “like an Agatha Christie setting”, and  the murder “worthy of the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot himself”. Yet there is nothing romantic about the crime, nor is it from the pages of a mystery thriller.

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Les Bate

The victim was an elderly farmer, 71 year old widower Les Bate. He was a well known figure in the area, described by those who knew him as a “true Cornish character”, and was a self made millionaire, owning four farms and several hundred acres of land. Les had amassed his fortune through sheer hard work, with local legend claiming that he had obtained the finance for his first farm by shooting rabbits. It was claimed he had averaged shooting between 80,000 to 100,000 rabbits a year, which were then sold and shipped off to all parts of the country. With a hard work ethic such as this, and being an astute businessman taking advantages of various subsidies that were available to him, this had made his fortune. He was considered by many as ostentatious, “flashy” even, often making a show of having a wallet full of money and wearing excess amounts of chunky gold jewellery.

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The Maltsters Arms – the last place Les was seen alive

Les liked to enjoy a drink at night, and was a regular at the Maltsters Arms pub in Chapel Amble. He was there almost nightly, where he would enjoy a few pints of lager and tell a few stories, have a laugh and a joke and take advantage of a pub bet such as arm wrestling or even high japes such as swallowing live fish! He would invariably leave the pub at closing time, and drive his red Land Rover Discovery the two miles home from the pub to his home, Tregilders Farm.

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Tregilders Farm

Although Les was well known, this does not mean to suggest that he was liked by all who knew him. There is evidence to suggest that many people did not like him strongly due to the type of man he was. Local rumours were rife that he had in the past evicted farm tenants unfairly, purely because he took a dislike to them. He was known to be forthright in his political opinions and would often hold court in the local pub, entertaining locals with his opinions and colourful tales of a lifetime spent in farming. He was considered by many as cantankerous, and thought nothing of airing his exact views to people, regardless of the risk of offending anyone. Indeed, before he was murdered Les had only recently become a regular at the Maltsters Arms as he had been barred from his previous local, the St Kew Inn, for being abusive to the staff and customers there.

On the night he died, Friday 12th April 2002, Les had as usual been at the Maltsters Arms. That evening, there were about 30 people in the establishment, mostly locals but a couple of faces that were unknown to the regulars. Les had been his usual self, holding court with stories and joking about, and had several times that evening made a show of flashing his wallet about. That evening, he had shown off the fact that he was carrying about £1,000 in cash, as well as a cheque for £11,000 and had ignored the advice of several people to stop flashing his cash about. Les had left the pub after closing time that evening, and driven his usual route home. All through the next day, Les’ daughter who lived in Australia had tried to contact him by telephone but to no avail. Concerned that Les was perhaps ill or injured, she eventually contacted her brother Martin, Les’s son, who lived nearby to Chapel Amble, to go and check on their father to ensure everything was alright. Martin went around to his father’s farm at 11:30am on Sunday 14th April, and found Les lying face down in a pool of blood inside the house near to the back door. He was clearly dead. Shaken, Martin raised the alarm and police attended.

Because there was no weapon present at the scene, or any evidence of a forced entry to the farm, it was at first thought that Les had died as the result of a drunken fall. A post mortem carried out proved inconclusive as to the cause of death, but some days later (nearly two weeks) a second more exhaustive one was carried out because of this. This second post mortem found evidence that Les had suffered a brutal beating, as internal injuries were found, several broken bones, and severe head injuries. How these were missed at the initial post mortem has never been satisfactorily explained. Here, police now had evidence that they were dealing with a murder, one that the killer had a near fortnights head start to escape detection from. With news that a murderer was potentially living in their midst, many locals had their own suspicions about who was responsible, local gossip and theories were rife, and a shadow of fear fell over the small community.

“This has been a terrible shock. If the police are right, this was carried out by someone we all know – perhaps someone who comes into this Post Office every day.” Barry Cuff, Chapel Amble postmaster

The murder hunt began, with 50 officers working around the clock to try to solve the first recorded violent crime in the village since 1373. A forensic examination of Tregilders Farm was undertaken, lanes and hedgerows surrounding the house were searched for a discarded murder weapon, and police began interviewing locals. Those who knew Les and customers who frequented the Maltsters Arms and the St Kew Inn were interviewed, and every customer that could be traced who had used these premises was questioned, fingerprinted and DNA tested. Establishing Les’ last known movements, police heard customers at the Maltsters Arms tell of Les flashing around his cash and the cheque on the night he was murdered, and of course, these were missing along with his wallet. The wallet or cheque have never been found. Police strongly believed from the outset of the hunt that the motive was robbery, and that there was a local angle to the crime:

“This has all the hallmarks of somebody who knew that Les would be returning and was probably waiting for him to come home and then attack him. People knew he often used to carry significant amounts of cash with him. My view is that there is definitely a local angle to this. We are keeping an open mind, but all the indications are that this was carried out by a person or persons who knew him.” – Detective Superintendent Chris Boarland (SIO)

Crimes in such a small locale as Chapel Amble would be expected to be solved sooner rather than later, but by the time Les funeral was held in September 2002, police were still no nearer to catching his killer. Over 900 statements had been taken, and a sizeable number of enquiries followed up, but to no avail. Police did however, have one clue. Traces of DNA belonging to someone other than Les were found on items of the outer clothing he was wearing when he died. But a match wasn’t forthcoming – locals were tested against it, and detectives even visited the shop in the nearby town of Wadebridge where the clothing had been bought in order to compare and eliminate the DNA of the staff who worked there against the sample. All were ruled out, and to this day a match has never been found on the National DNA database. The suspect list drew a blank also. Although it was known that not everybody liked Les, police could never find evidence to pinpoint anyone who disliked him enough to want him dead.

It seems that robbery was indeed a very likely motive for Les’ murder. In October 2001, Tregilders Farm had suffered a burglary whilst Les was out. Some valuable paintings, and a safe containing over £47,000 in cash had been taken from the farm. Had those responsible returned? It is very likely that those responsible are local to, or at least familiar with, the Chapel Amble area. It is almost definite that they knew Les, and his movements and habits. These are local killers, for I believe that more than one person is responsible. Although Les was not a fit youngster, he was still stocky and powerful for a 71 year old and was the type of person who would definitely “have a go” against any intruder. In fact, since his burglary in October 2001, Les had taken to sleeping with a loaded shotgun next to him, and had been heard telling several patrons of the Maltsters Arms that he had no qualms about using it against an intruder. Had someone overheard this and thought that there was more safety to rob Les in numbers? It is perhaps for this reason that Les was killed, as the result of a struggle.

Who then, are likely suspects in this crime? I believe that those responsible are the perpetrators of, or are at least well known to,  those responsible for the October 2001 burglary at Les’ farm. The chances of two separate, unconnected incidents of robbery in such a short space of time in such a localised area are highly improbable. Theorising that everyone in the locality has been subject to a mass DNA screening, and if the theory that Les was either followed home or someone was laid in wait for him, then the main suspects have to be the people in the Maltsters Arms that Friday evening who were unknown to the locals. They could have been watching Les, saw him leave, and then relayed a message to someone laying in wait at Tregilders Farm for him. There are plenty of places around the farm for a person, or even a vehicle, to remain out of sight. Plus it is in quite an isolated location, so any risk of being sighted is minimal. Les would have been taken by surprise as he entered through his side door – by someone who knew him and his movements.

This is a perplexing crime, and one that should have been successfully detected swiftly. Perhaps the two week delay in discovering that it actually WAS a crime was an omen of a flawed and foundering investigation that was to come. It stands to reason that in such a rural, small community, locals will have their own suspicions about those responsible – and said suspicions must have come to the attention of police. Indeed, several people were arrested over the course of the enquiry, some with criminal records and one who was known to have been an enemy of Les. Yet no one was or has ever been charged – and a DNA match for traces left by the killer has so far not been found. Les family still live in hope that one day, either through someone’s conscience getting the better of them, or a DNA match being found, that his killer will be brought to justice. His daughter Kathy echoed as such in an interview with the Devon Western Morning News in 2012:

“I am fairly confident that one day I will get a call. I am less optimistic that I was previously and we are now ten years on, but we do live with that expectation. I have said all along that the person that has done this is being protected by a wife or girlfriend or someone close to them. I know after ten years it is not really likely that they will come forward but I would still like to appeal to that person’s decency.” – Kathy Arnold (Les’ daughter)

The True Crime Enthusiast

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