I am pretty satisfied that the motive was robbery. They used an awful lot of violence – it was a particularly vicious, brutal, murder” _ Detective Inspector Brian Theobald
Brandon Hill in Bristol is a hill relatively close to the city centre, and dominated by the Cabot Tower, built to commemorate John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497. Today it consists of a vast, steep park and a beautiful and popular two-hectare nature reserve that is run by the Avon Wildlife Trust, who have their headquarters next to it. The Trust established their headquarters here in 1980, and it was here on Brandon Hill, on the morning of Halloween 1980, that a nurse walking to work made a shocking and gruesome discovery……
She was walking through Brandon Hill Park to begin an early morning shift at the nearby hospital, when out of the darkness she came across the body of a man lying face down on one of the footpaths that ran criss-cross through the park. He was lying in a large pool of blood, and had clearly visible – and obviously catastrophic head injuries. The nurse, utilising her medical training, felt for a pulse but sadly to no avail, the man was clearly dead and had been for some time. She hurried to get help, and soon police and an ambulance were at the scene.
By morning light, it was soon established by police just how savage an attack the dead man had suffered, and they believed that robbery was the motive, albeit robbery that had gone horribly wrong. There were several bank and credit cards scattered around the body, and a few metres away was a discarded and heavily bloodstained sand-filled traffic cone – which was later to be determined as having been the murder weapon.
The dead man’s jacket had also been torn from his body, and the inner pocket lining had been ripped. No money was found on the dead man’s person.
Before any murder investigation could get underway, police had to establish who the dead man was.
He was before long identified as 39-year-old Derek Grain, an aerospace contractor that had been working on a secondment to British Aerospace in Filton. Derek was from Hertfordshire, and had only been in Bristol just over two months – he had no permanent home there, and had been staying at the Unicorn Hotel on Bristol’s Prince Street while he worked at Filton. He was a distinctive looking man, with light coloured hair but a distinctive dark, dyed black beard – and people who knew him described him as a bit of a loner.
Being a loner does not mean that you are not well liked though, and those who knew him described Derek as a kind and cheerful person, one who was conscientious and would go out of his way to do somebody a good turn. Like many, Derek enjoyed a drink – and it was hinted at that he was rather a heavy drinker, but his workmates and supervisor claimed that even if this was the case, Derek was not the sort of person who would court trouble and become involved in brawls in pubs or clubs.
As a shift worker through his job as an aerospace engineer, Derek was not limited to going out just at the weekends and so on Wednesday 30th October, he had headed out into the pubs and clubs of Bristol city centre for some drinks as he had a couple of days free. Because of his distinctive beard, detectives found that they were able to trace his last known movements that evening. It was established that Derek had spent the evening drinking heavily in several pubs around the area of Park Street, which is relatively close to Brandon Hill and about a mile away from the hotel where Derek had been staying. He had visited at least two nightclubs that evening, Vicki’s and Curves, which were both situated on Park Street at the time, and he was remembered in at least the latter for his spending, paying for nearly each drink he had with a different note and making a show of having at least £70 to £80 in his pocket – a considerable sum of money back in 1980.
Derek had finished his night up in Curves nightclub, and was remembered leaving alone at about 2:00am and was seen heading towards the Brandon Hill area – which was the opposite direction to his hotel and which was one of the mysteries concerning the case that detectives could never get to the bottom of. Why was he heading that way? Somewhere on this journey, he met his killer.
The post-mortem concluded that Derek had been attacked from behind and battered to death with the sand-filled traffic cone, which had probably been taken by his killer from the site of some roadworks that were being undertaken relatively near to the entrance to the park that Derek had walked into. It was also established that his killer had kicked him several times in the head and chest as he lay dying – this was the opinion of the pathologist, who detailed the numerous skull fractures and lacerations that Derek had suffered. But why had this happened?
A search of the park got underway for another possible murder weapon, but all that was ever found was the heavily bloodstained traffic cone. And this was all police could glean from the scene – there were no fingerprints, and so much blood that it would have been impossible to determine if any of it had come from the killer or killers if they had perhaps injured themselves in the attack. Scores of people were traced who had been out that evening in the pubs and clubs that Derek had visited – which was a mammoth task due to the time of year it was. There were several Halloween celebrations on at the time and more people than normal were out and about in the city.
Detectives were convinced that the motive was robbery – and that Derek could have been set upon by more than one person. Giving an interview to the Bristol Evening Post at the time of the murder, the officer leading the hunt, Detective Inspector Brian Theobald, said:
“There is a possibility that more than one person was involved in this. I am having a second examination of the scene and am pretty confident the assailants were spattered with blood, at the very least. I am pretty satisfied that the motive was robbery. They used an awful lot of violence – it was a particularly vicious, brutal, murder”
Despite 40 detectives working on a massive enquiry for many months, and having been able to impressively piece together Derek’s last known movements – that was as close as they ever got to finding his killer. Not one witness was found who had heard a struggle or who had seen someone fleeing the murder scene. Derek was not married or in a relationship and had no children – so there was no jealous lover or ex, and he was not found to have had any known enemies or to have been in conflict or dispute with anyone, nor was he found to have been involved in anything criminal or disreputable. It seemed that the only possible explanation was that someone had followed him into the park with the intention of robbing him in an opportunistic crime, and things went tragically much further?
Avon and Somerset police have the case marked as “active with regular reviews”, but this has long been a cold case now. It is an extremely savage murder, and whilst researching this I thought about how brutal a weapon a sand-filled traffic cone would have been. It’s not a weapon one would consider, but it’s surprisingly weighty and would have caused extremely catastrophic head wounds. So, what then, were the possible motives for Derek’s murder?
Firstly, had Derek argued with someone that evening? He was drinking heavily and would soon have become intoxicated – did he spill a drink over someone whilst in this state, nudge the wrong person or upset or offend someone – and did this lead to a row? Was he followed out of the nightclub and attacked for this reason, and the money taken from him in a purely opportunistic act? Police reckoned that about £50 to £60 had been taken from Derek’s jacket – would that amount of money, a large sum at the time, prove too much for anyone to resist taking, even a thug with causing harm on the mind rather than robbery? There was nothing reported to suggest this was the case, however, Derek was not reported as having been involved in an argument with anyone and it is likely that if he had, other clubgoers would have remembered the verbal altercation that always goes hand in hand with acts such as these.
Why was Derek walking the opposite way to his hotel? It is of course possible that he was so drunk that he had no concept that he was walking the wrong way. If Derek had been heavily drinking, this is not only a possible reason, but a very probable one. It’s equally possible that someone had noticed him lurching about drunkenly and followed him into the park, then attacked and killed him in an orgy of violence in an impromptu and opportunistic crime.
But why the need to kill him at all? Surely you can overpower and rob a very drunk man without stopping to batter him so badly that his head was almost completely obliterated? The killer must have had to take the traffic cone in with him, or them, so were well prepared to use it to at least incapacitate Derek, and feeling the weight in it must have known that it would in the least seriously injure anyone struck with it. Perhaps Derek was hit and attempted to fight back, and his killer continued raining blows to silence him.
It is likely – I know this sounds like stating the obvious – that Derek’s killer, or plural of course, were violent offenders. I mean that more in the context that they will have had violence in their past and probably after Derek’s murder, and will have likely come to police attention. As with Lillian’s killer – this will be someone in the files. You do not commit such a savage murder, get away with it, and then never offend again, unless you are caught, incapacitated, or die. I believe it is also likely that there was more than one killer and the persons were local to the area, this is a crime that has the feel of being down to more than one person’s responsibility. They had to know the park well enough to feel comfortable in attacking someone there without risk of being disturbed, and they had to be able to make an easy egress too.
Did Derek’s killers see him flashing his cash in one of the pubs or clubs and then formulate a plan to rob him – or was this someone, fuelled by alcohol, who saw red and brutally battered a man to death over a minor slight or a spilled drink? How many savage killings are caused because they are alcohol fuelled, when the perpetrator isn’t thinking clearly and reacts fatally in a fit of drunken rage? The level of violence suggests that this is someone who has gone too far in their actions because they are fuelled by alcohol – and how must they have felt the next day, when they sobered up and had to face up to what they had done?
As is commonplace with so many historical unsolved cases, Derek’s took place long before many of the scientific advancements in detection, such as the establishment of DNA profiling, and the commonplace availability today of CCTV coverage and mobile phones. There is also no suspect list, no artists impressions available that may even years later jog a person’s memory, there are no witnesses and no forensic evidence or clues left by the killers in each case. Realistically, there would seem to be slim if any chances of either case being solved now barring a confession where someone’s conscience finally gets the better of them. It is a realistic prospect that the killers of Derek are still alive and still walking free, although if this were the case they would be advancing in years themselves now. I also believe that somebody out there, in each case, has held crucial information about the killer or killers but has never come forward, perhaps out of guilt, fear, or misplaced loyalty. Somebody surely remembers a night when someone came home with their clothes covered in blood, and must have noticed a change in that person for a time afterwards, or some sort of weight hanging over them, but said nothing.
Perhaps that still pricks at someone’s conscience to this day, but especially more so on each Halloween……
The True Crime Enthusiast