“Keith was very studious and wanted to buy a compass set so he could finish his geometry homework. There was only one shop in Ovingdean so he decided to walk to town. That was the last time I saw him.” – Peter Lyon (Keith’s brother)
Travelling by car, just 1.6 miles separate the Brighton and Hove village of Ovingdean and the eastern city suburb of Woodingdean, both of which are situated in a tranquil and picturesque area of the Sussex Downs. The former is a small village with a population of just over 1,200, whilst the latter is larger in population, although this is staggered over a greater area. This distance will be even less on foot, if a person were to take one of the many paths connecting the two areas that sprawl the area, and that are popular with walkers and pet owners. One such path is a bridle path that leads through an area known locally as “Happy Valley”. It is an idyllic spot that offers a view of the English Channel in the distance. However, “Happy Valley” should be considered a misnomer – because for 50 years now, this spot on this path through “Happy Valley” is still remembered locally as the scene of a brutal, as yet unsolved murder.
Many people remember the first week of May 1967 for different reasons – for example, Elvis and Priscilla Presley had married that week, and Zakir Hussain became the first Muslim president of India on Saturday May 6th 1967. Closer to home though, and more on the mind of 12-year-old Brighton and Hove schoolboy Keith Lyon than world events or celebrity marriages, was a simple mathematical compass.
Keith lived with his family, parents Valda and Ken Lyon, and younger brother Peter, in a grand home in the village of Ovingdean. Ken Lyon was a well-known and popular band leader in Brighton, and it seemed that Keith had inherited some of his father’s musical genes, as he was a promising young musician. The family was quite respectable and happy, and Keith did well enough in school to attend Brighton and Hove Grammar School, which he enjoyed and where he continued to flourish at as a hard-working and apt pupil.
That Saturday, the 6th May 1967, was a lovely sunny day, and for Keith and his brother it was pocket-money day. Keith had 4 shillings (just over £3 today), and wanted to spend it on a geometry set and compass that he needed for his homework. As Ovingdean had only a single shop, and there was a bit more variety of shops in nearby Woodingdean, Keith decided that Saturday afternoon to make the short journey to the next village and back. Setting off at around 3pm, Keith headed off to Woodingdean on foot, walking along the bridle path that connected the two villages and that ran through Happy Valley.
Just over an hour later, at about 4:15pm, a 16-year-old girl was out dog walking in the area. She was a pupil of the nearby Roedean Girls School, which is overlooked from the bridle path, and was walking along the path when she got the shock of her life. Lying on a grass bank at the side of the path, heavily bloodstained and clearly dead, was the body of a young boy clothed in a grammar school uniform. It was Keith; he had been stabbed to death and left at the side of the path. The girl immediately fled in fear and contacted police, who arrived at the scene quickly and cordoned the area off.
Looking at the body in situ, Keith’s clothing had not been disturbed, but his trouser pockets had been turned out, and his money and a set of keys was missing. He was heavily bloodstained (a pathologist noted 11 separate stab wounds to his stomach, back and chest area) and there was no sign of a murder weapon at the scene. It was imperative that the police enquiry got off to the best and most proactive start.
Arguably, it did. As a massive house to house enquiry got underway, a makeshift incident room was set up immediately at a nearby primary school, and a massive search of the area was undertaken by police, who had extra officers drafted in from all over Sussex. Police search teams and dog handlers were used to search fields, woods, farm buildings and empty premises, looking for Keith’s abandoned keys or more importantly, a murder weapon. This was believed to be a sharp, serrated knife. Assisting police in their search was the use of a powerful magnetic mine detector from nearby Aldemaston Camp, which was capable of drawing out metal from inches underneath the ground. However, this failed to find anything in the immediate areas of the murder scene that police searched.
But a bloodstained, serrated knife with a broken tip was found a day or so later near the rear of nearby Fitzherbert School, and handed in to police by schoolboys. The blood on the knife was found to be of the same blood type as Keith’s.
In the days following the murder, a wax dummy from a tailor’s was borrowed, and dressed in clothes identical to those that Keith had been wearing was used in a reconstruction in an attempt to jog any potential witnesses memories. This reconstruction did bear fruit – two women who lived nearby came forward to say that on the same day and around the time Keith was murdered, they saw four youths involved in a scuffle near the path – in fact the witnesses used the word “sparring”. They did not intervene however, and later saw three youths fleeing across nearby fields. A local bus driver also came forward to say that on the afternoon in question, two youths had been passengers on the No 3 bus he was driving to the nearby Whitehawk estate, and both were in an “agitated” state. They had got on at Vines Cross Road and stayed on until the Whitehawk Garage stop, before getting off in a “blind panic”. Were these connected to Keith’s murder? No physical or clothing descriptions were available of any of these boys. If this wasn’t Keith and his killers – and TTCE believes that it was – then these were crucial witnesses that never came forward.
After the two women and the bus driver had come forward as witnesses, police adopted the view that Keith’s killers were a gang of local youths and his murder was a result of a robbery having gone wrong. There was evidence to support this – Keith’s killer(s) would have been significantly bloodstained, and evidence was found to suggest that the murderer had used a nearby public lavatory in Lawn Memorial Park to clean up. A public lavatory that would have only been apparent to someone living in the locality. A mass questioning and fingerprinting of local youths got underway – but even though thousands were spoken to and fingerprinted over the course of the enquiry, this did not lead to any arrests.
In fact, by the time of the coroner’s court inquest into Keith’s death in December 1967, the investigation was at a standstill. Police had taken 6,000 palm and finger prints, had undertaken more than 75,000 house to house enquiries, had taken 2,000 written statements taken, and interviewed nearly 2,000 children from more than 15 schools in the locality. There was local rumour and suspicion about the identity of those responsible, but there were no firmly established suspects. Although people had been arrested in connection with the murder, they had been cleared, and no-one had been charged with Keith’s murder. A coroner’s jury returned a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, but the enquiry into Keith’s murder remained inactive.
On the one year anniversary of the murder, Keith’s still grieving family offered the reward of £1,000 – a substantial amount at the time – for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Keith’s killer. It was never claimed. With a lack of incoming information, the investigation remained back at a standstill for a number of years following this, but in 1974 it came to life again. Det Supt Jim Marshall of Sussex Police announced that new evidence had “come to light” that opened a new line of enquiry concerning Keith’s murder, though it is unclear and unreported as to what this evidence was. It did lead to scores of people being re-interviewed at the time, but again, ultimately lead to nothing. Controversially following this re-investigation, crucial evidence from the enquiry was misplaced for many years, and was only found in a locked storeroom at a Brighton police station following the turn of the century. This included the clothes Keith had been wearing at the time of his death, and the suspected murder weapon – the knife with the broken tip.
Although Keith’s murder has today fallen into the category of a cold case subject to periodic reviews over the years, it still creates headlines from time to time. An appeal had been made a number of times on Crimewatch UK, and in the mid 2000’s, three men in their 50’s were arrested on suspicion of murder, but were ultimately released and eliminated from the enquiry. None of these men were ever named, and there is no record of what led to their arrests. But it is reported that police now have partial DNA evidence that could link the murderer to the scene. As forensic examination has evolved in the years following Keith’s murder, technology now exists that has enabled scientists to obtain a workable DNA sample from the evidence that was presumed lost for so many years, namely Keith’s clothing. But of course, a match for this DNA profile has so far remained elusive from the DNA database. So Keith’s killers have not offended since, at least not since the inception of the National DNA database in April 1995.
Looking at the case, TTCE is of the impression that Keith was attacked on his way to Woodingdean with the killer or killers coming from that direction. No geometry set was found throughout a massive search of the area, and a geometry set is not something that a young boy is murdered for. It is not reported if there were any witnesses who remembered seeing Keith leaving Woodingdean that afternoon – so it is likely he was attacked on his way there. It’s possible that he was followed, or met his killers on the way, and they were youths of similar age, possibly slightly older, than himself. The plural is used because there is more than likely to be one killer – this is supported by the evidence of the two women who witnessed four boys “sparring”. It would also suggest why a 12-year-old fit and healthy boy did not run away when confronted by someone attempting to rob him – perhaps he had been restrained by one or two others? Three boys were then seen running away over nearby fields, and as said previously, if they weren’t the killers, they were at least crucial witnesses – yet never came forward despite a MASSIVE enquiry that was after all focused upon local youths? Why would they not do so, unless they had something to hide?
Police considered the possibility that Keith had been deliberately targeted for the murder, but he wasn’t found to have anyone bearing a grudge against him and was popular and well liked at Brighton and Hove Grammar school. Keith’s murder seems likely to have started out as a robbery and gravitated to murder in an opportunistic crime. There was no reported evidence of any sexual assault or Keith’s clothing being removed or interfered with. He was killed where he was found and his body was not hidden from view, despite the availability of bushes on the path in which to hide it. A sex killer would likely abduct and would use a vehicle – which is impractical on a bridle path. His pockets were turned out and emptied of money and property, but this also raises the question – what was the need to kill Keith?
A 12-year-old boy could easily have been overpowered and successfully robbed without the need to be stabbed so repeatedly. TTCE believes that there are several possible reasons for the stabbing. It is possible that Keith knew his attackers and could have identified them, or is possible that Keith retaliated when attacked and his assailant then drew a knife, saw red, and stabbed him in the heat of the moment? There also exists the possibility that Keith’s killer was a violent psychopathic youth who enjoyed killing immensely – and Keith was always going to die that day.
The angle that Keith was targeted because he attended a different school and was middle class was also looked at. This appears a promising theory – the posh boy robbed by youngsters from a “common” school. Several reports claim that Keith was wearing his grammar school uniform that day – or at least part of it – so this would have been identifiable and possibly would have singled him out as the target of bullies. It was fashionable of the time (as is more and more so commonplace today also) for youths to arm themselves with knives. Was this what happened? Or did one of the youths commit murder in some macabre attempt to gain notoriety and status within a group?
TTCE believes that the killers were from the local area at the time. Perhaps not Ovingdean, but looking at the geography of the events more than likely Woodingdean, or possibly the nearby large Whitehawk estate. Knowing the bridle path itself would suggest local knowledge – an offender does not commit a crime in a place unfamiliar to them, this would bring with it the risk of interruption and detection. Also, the location that the knife was found was in the grounds of Fitzherbert School. Although Fitzherbert school no longer exists today (a private hospital stands on the site where it was), it was on the edge of Woodingdean, and the Lawn Memorial Park toilets that were found bloodstained were just yards away from it. If the offender(s) were fleeing, wouldn’t they flee unconsciously via a place familiar to them for easy egress – for example, towards the school that they went to, dumping an incriminating murder weapon on the way before cleaning up as soon as possible? As well as pointing to local offenders, it also points to an unplanned murder and the offenders panicking and fleeing upon realising the enormity of what they had done. Keith’s keys were never found – but a set of keys on a person can be explained off more satisfactorily than a knife. They were likely dumped elsewhere, perhaps in a pond or even in the sea.
It is almost certain that the killers of Keith Lyon were spoken to, likely also fingerprinted, during the initial investigation into his murder, but police failed to recognise their guilt, or the killer or killers managed to lie or bluff successfully. It is likely that each corroborated the other’s alibi, either out of fear of discovery, peer pressure, or a misguided sense of loyalty. They may have gone on to offend again, or that may have been a shocking one-time event that shocked and horrified them, yet cowardice and guilt has prevented them from confessing, knowing the punishment that would come. they have lived with for 50 years now, eating away at them. As is the case with the parochial thinking in any unsolved crime, local rumours have abounded to the identity of Keith’s killer for many years now. Suspicion has been pointed at several youths who attended the Fitzherbert School at the time. Rumours also abound that a family immigrated to Canada very soon after Keith’s murder – and a member of this family was a highly likely murder suspect. Of course – there is no evidence to substantiate any of these claims, rumours do not constitute evidence.
It must be remembered that the 50 years that have passed since Keith’s murder have brought with them drastic advancements in technology and tools used in the detection of crime. In 1967, there was no DNA fingerprinting, no CCTV, no social media available to mass and rapidly appeal, no HOLMES. Policing was very much of the “knocking on doors” type at the time and one must have sympathy with the investigating team. They had relatively little evidence from the crime scene, and any fingerprints on the knife found (if indeed, it was the murder weapon) must have been either of poor quality or very partial for a match not to have been found, If any of today’s investigative tools had been available to police at the time, it is highly likely that Keith’s murder would have been solved. TTCE believes that the identities of Keith’s killers were recorded at the time, and that somewhere in the murder file will be their names. They may have moved away from the area today, they may be abroad, in prison or hospital, perhaps even dead by now after so many years. But police do have a useable DNA profile now available to them, and it is possible that with each day that passes, an entry will be added to the DNA database that will provide a familial link to this sample. And police can finally close in on the killer of Keith Lyon. It seems that bar a conscience getting the better of someone and a confession forthcoming as a result, this is the only possible source of a solution.
Sadly, it will have come too late for Keith’s parents, who never got over his death. It broke the health of his father Ken, who died in 1991. Keith’s mother Valda died in 2005, never knowing who was responsible for her son’s death. Today, both are buried near him. Keith’s brother is still alive though. A father himself, he longs for Keith’s murderer to be brought to justice. A number of years ago when interviewed by a local newspaper at the scene of his brother’s death, Peter Lyon said:
“It destroyed our family. It turned me into an introverted, introspective person. I have lived for nearly 40 years with this nightmare and I do not know what I would do if I knew Keith’s killers would get away with it forever. For God’s sake, now is the time to come forward. There is nothing worse than shielding a cowardly child-killer.”
Anyone having information concerning Keith’s murder should contact Sussex Police via 101.
The True Crime Enthusiast