“She would have been knocked unconscious. Then her killer poured something over the body and set fire to it to kill her. It’s a horrific murder and we are concerned because we are not getting the help from the public which we need.” – Det Supt David Speake (Senior investigating officer, speaking in 1986)
One of the biggest ever murder hunts in the history of West Midlands Police began 31 years ago, and involved the brutal and bizarre slaying of a well-respected Birmingham general practitioner, 53-year-old Polish born Dr Danuta Kaczmarska. It is a savage crime that remains unsolved to this very day, despite a massive enquiry at the time and subsequent re-appeals over the years.
Coniston Close in the Hall Green area of Birmingham has been a middle-class area for many years, filled with spacious houses, several of them being three storeys. It is a quiet residential street, and in 1986, Dr Danuta Kaczmarska owned one of these houses. Danuta was unmarried and lived alone, and was a general practitioner running a thriving surgery in the Kings Heath area of Birmingham with over 4,000 patients on its books. Polish born, Danuta had begun practising medicine in Birmingham in 1971 and by 1985 had built up such a large surgery through her professionalism, caring nature, and impeccable medical record. Danuta, or “Dr K” as she was known to patients and surgery staff, was popular, well-liked and respected.
The new year of 1986 was just three weeks old when firefighters were called to Danuta’s home on Coniston Close on the afternoon of January 22nd 1986. Concerned neighbours had contacted them after witnessing smoke drifting into their homes sourcing from Danuta’s house. Firefighters who made a forced entry discovered a macabre and disturbing site. Danuta was found in the kitchen of her home. Clearly dead, her body had been set alight and was severely burnt, almost beyond recognition. The kitchen was in a state of disarray and was smoke damaged, but not so much so that firefighters could see that it was severely bloodstained. Danuta’s burns were so severe that a positive identification had to be made through a dental record comparison. She had also been gagged with a tea towel, and left lying on the floor
As a murder enquiry was launched from an incident room at Sparkhill Police Station, the post-mortem on Danuta Kaczmarska was carried out. Cause of death was determined as being from at least seven blows to the head, which had fractured her skull in several places and had probably been carried out by a killer using a heavy blunt weapon that was most likely an axe. She had been gagged with a kitchen tea towel to stifle any screams, and her body then set on fire – although it has never been revealed what accelerant was used to cause this. The murder enquiry got under way with extensive house to house enquiries, a detailed examination of Dr Kaczmarska’s life, relationships and work, and a detailed forensic examination of the scene carried out. But the enquiry was to raise more questions than provide any possible motives or solutions.
For the level of obvious violence in such a savage and horrific murder, surprisingly no one in the vicinity was reported as having heard any screams or sounds of a struggle. No one had been seen entering or leaving the house, and there was no evidence of a break in – suggesting that the killer was either known to Dr K personally, or it was someone who she had allowed access to the house and had no reason to suspect, perhaps posing as a bogus official. The killer had also locked both doors when leaving the scene, and taken the key away – a duplicate key was never found. Also, nothing appeared to have been taken, no cash or valuables were missing. The rest of the house was clean and tidy and showed no signs of any ransacking, plus Dr K’s handbag was found in the kitchen untouched. Bizarrely, two empty champagne flutes were also found in the kitchen – and they had been recently used. There was no bottle found at the scene, but the cork and foil from a champagne bottle were found in the kitchen. Had the killer taken it away when leaving, possibly because it had fingerprints on it?
Police from the outset of the enquiry suspected that Dr Kaczmarska was not targeted at random, and that her killer was someone known to her or who knew of her. However, this was a list of enormous proportions due to the 4,000 patients from her surgery, on top of her family, friends and acquaintances. This theory was supported by information provided by her sister Irena, who spoke to Danuta on the evening of the 21st January and was told by Danuta not to phone back the next day because she had a visitor coming in the afternoon. Who was this visitor? Although unmarried and what could be classed as a “spinster”, the more police looked at her personal life, the more it became apparent that Dr Kaczmarska had almost led a double life.
Police discovered that in contrast to the respectable GP that was well liked and respected by her patients and colleagues, by night she frequented many pubs and bars in some of Birmingham’s seedier areas, socializing with drug addicts, the gay community and the petty criminal element. She was also discovered to be a regular user of contact magazines – the kind used to meet people for a mixture of company and sex. Indeed, for all her professional and confident demeanour, Danuta was described by one police officer who was on the investigating team as being:
“A very emotionally insecure and vulnerable woman who sought love and affection”
Although Dr Kaczmarska was described perhaps too sensationally as a “Jekyll and Hyde” character, was the killer someone from this “Hyde” aspect of her life?
The murder investigation at the time was one of the biggest in the history of the West Midland’s Serious Crime Squad. A surplus of 150 police officers interviewed all of Dr Kaczmarska’s patients, many colleagues, and friends the length and breadth of the country, with more than 6,000 people being spoken to in total. Well publicised newspaper and media appeals were made, appeal posters were published and distributed, and police staged a reconstruction in an attempt to jog any potential witnesses’ memories, with a policewoman re-enacting the last positive sighting of Dr Kaczmarska – walking home from the Hall Green Waitrose supermarket on the afternoon of her death. A televised reconstruction was also featured on BBC’s Crimewatch UK programme, and Danuta’s friends and family offered a substantial £5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer. It all led to nothing – despite extensive enquiries and an impassioned appeal to the social circles in which Dr Kaczmarska moved for information, no clear motive for Danuta’s murder has ever been identified. No murder weapon has ever been discovered either.
A former lover and colleague of Dr Kaczmarska, her ex surgery partner Dr Salim Naiada, was arrested and questioned as a possible suspect in her death during the investigation. However, he was eventually ruled out of the enquiry and released without any charges. Also during the investigation, a strange parallel with Danuta’s death was revealed. Nearly four years before her horrific death, in 1982, there was another bizarre death at Dr Kaczmarska’s house. Again involving fire. A long-term close friend of Dr Kaczmarska’s, 40-year-old London solicitor Thomas Gleeson, was found burned beyond recognition in a bedroom, his body being so badly charred that it was near destroyed. Identification was only tentatively made from some shirt buttons and part of a shoe that survived the blaze. A March 1982 inquest ruled that the cause of death was smoke inhalation and a verdict of death by misadventure was recorded. However, as with Dr Kaczmarska’s murder – information available on both cases is so frustratingly minimal that the accuracy of this cannot be ascertained. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that there must be a connection – the odds of such a bizarre, violent death occurring twice, years apart, IN THE SAME HOUSE and not being connected surely stretch credulity – but police investigated any connection and found no evidence for this, despite the almost incalculable odds. It was another example of the many dead ends that just six months after the murder forced the police incident room to close. Senior investigating officer, Det Supt David Speake said at the time:
“It’s a case which has all the ingredients of an Agatha Christie thriller. We are extremely frustrated. The killer is a cool, calculated, person who covered up all traces and probably believes it is the perfect murder. It has been rather like looking for a ghost who went to the house and then disappeared afterwards. Apparently, nobody saw him or her enter or leave. But we shall never close the file on this case.”
The crime has been re-appealed on numerous occasions over the years, and detectives do remain ever hopeful of a successful resolution due to forensic advancements, or new information forthcoming. Perhaps a conscience will finally get the better of someone and they will come forward with a name or even a confession, or another piece of crucial information will come to light that will help bring Dr Kaczmarska’s killer to justice. But this has not yet happened. What then, is known about the killer? As stated above, information available on this crime is extremely scarce, although it is one that TTCE has been aware of for a considerable period. Due to the scarcity of information available, it is extremely difficult to ascertain anything about Dr Kaczmarska’s killer, instead only being able to make an educated guess.
Dr Kaczmarska’s life was examined in detail by investigating officers, and any immediate suspects were ruled out. But it remains likely that she knew her killer, perhaps from one of the bars she frequented or through one of the contact magazines she had used. Someone who never willingly came forward. As nobody was seen entering or leaving the house, it is impossible to say definitively if the killer was male or female, and no physical description would be available. It is more than likely to have been a male due to the level of violence used, however. A male capable of extreme violence and cruelty almost to the point that one would believe bordered on the maniacal – yet who could think coolly, behave calmly, and who showed levels of forensic awareness. Police found no fingerprints, bloodstains or DNA evidence left by the killer at the scene. The murder weapon and possibly a champagne bottle with fingerprints upon it were removed, and TTCE believes that Dr Kaczmarska’s body was set on fire to remove any forensic evidence possibly left by the killer. The killer was also to restrain and silence Dr Kaczmarska efficiently and without drawing attention, and to then exit without being noticed after the murder. This would also have been within a very short timeframe from leaving the scene due to discovery of the crime – a fire does not have a delay on it! These are aspects to the crime and levels that suggest this was an organised and experienced offender, and this was certainly not a first offence.
What is the motive here? There was nothing reported as being taken, no cash or valuables stolen – yet Dr Kaczmarska was financially well off (her estate after her death was valued at more than £200,000 – a substantial amount in 1986). It does not seem to be for monetary gain or for a simple purpose of robbery. Dr Kaczmarska was not reported as having been raped or sexually assaulted, so a sex crime is unlikely to be a motive also. Indeed, the level of violence involved in the killing suggests that the murder was more of a personal motive and pre-meditated – Dr Kaczmarska’s killer came armed with an axe and possibly an accelerant. The use of fire would also support this motive – surplus to removing any forensic traces, it could have been used to disfigure or defile Dr Kaczmarska further, which would suggest someone with a grudge. It is not reported if Dr Kaczmarska had had sex or not on the day she died – but champagne would suggest a romantic meeting. Was it an argument with a lover she had, or was she perhaps involved in an affair? Was it a casual sexual encounter that she had arranged, or was it possibly someone who had met her through the clandestine circles she socialized in who hoped to take advantage of her status as a medical practitioner as a source of access to drugs? Again, these were all theories that were pursued as lines of enquiry, but that ultimately led nowhere. More questions and theories than answers.
Piecing together what little is known about the case, it appears that Dr Kaczmarska’s killer was a male known to her, possibly a lover or casual sexual partner and certainly someone who she felt comfortable enough with that he knew her home address and she was comfortable enough to be alone in her home with. It is likely that this was a person with a history of offending and violence, but who could appear outwardly “normal”. It is chilling to consider that this person came armed with an axe to commit murder, and was possibly a drug user or someone with a mental illness – although this would not be so debilitating that the person required full-time care. The possibility remains that the killer himself is now dead, or if still alive would be at least middle-aged today. He may now be in prison for another offence, perhaps is hospitalised, or may live abroad or in another part of the country. It is possible that this man had killed before and possibly went on to kill again, with possibly connected cases being the 1985 murders of Violet Milsom in Bristol, and Constance Aris in Cheltenham (both of which have been covered on blog posts on TTCE in the past). Of course, this is mere speculation on the part of TTCE and it is down to the reader to decide the validity of this speculation based on a review of each individual case. Links to each can be found below:
It is likely that after such a lengthy passage of time, any advancement in the detection of Dr Kaczmarska’s killer will be because of a forensic breakthrough, which may in turn lead to a DNA database or a familial DNA match. This of course depends on the quality and indeed existence of any items retained from the crime scene that may provide said samples – with the champagne flutes springing to mind as the likely source. Barring that or a confession forthcoming, it is unlikely that the offender will ever face justice. This is a tragic case, and one with as tragic a postscript. Her father, who at the turn of 1986 was already gravely ill with cancer, died just six days after Danuta was murdered. Perhaps the murder of Dr Kaczmarska had caused her father to lose the will to live also? Danuta’s remaining family continue even today to live in torment with the knowledge that her killer has never been brought to justice. Her sister Irena, interviewed by the Birmingham Mail some years after the murder, said:
“I dread the day someone is found because I feel I will probably have to go to court. At the same time, I want the killer to be found. I was knocked for six when it happened. On the night before she died, she phoned me. There was a cooking programme on the television which I wanted to watch and she phoned me in the middle of it. I said I’d call her back and she said don’t call in the afternoon because she had someone coming. I was to call her the day after. Because I was in a hurry to watch the programme I cut the conversation short. That was her killer she was meeting.”
I’d always had a premonition my sister would die tragically.”
The True Crime Enthusiast