“I had everything I ever wanted – loving parents, a nice home, and a wonderful husband and family. I thought the world was wonderful and that bad things didn’t happen. Then part of my family was suddenly stolen from me.” – Cathy – daughter
The city of Birmingham, the district of Northfield, 1992. Overbury Close looks to be a standard run of the mill estate, much like that would be found in any town, it’s a sprawling estate made up of semi-detached houses, a play park, and two twelve storey blocks of flats dominate the landscape. Tucked away opposite one of these blocks, away from the main estate, is a semi-detached bungalow situated next to a storage unit. It now sadly looks a bit ramshackle and the grounds overgrown, and it is unclear if the property is occupied at present. Regardless, the bungalow does have a dark history, for it’s just a little over twenty-five years since it was the scene of a brutal and horrific murder, and a re-appeal has been released on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the shocking crime.
The Smith family were everyday working class people, even down to having the most generic and populous surname in the country. This was a family like you would find everywhere, even down to having the most popular surname in the country – this is how ordinary they were.
The family consisted of 72-year-old Harry Smith and his wife, 73-year-old Mary, who were both enjoying their retirement years. The couple also had two children, Carla – who had married and lived in a different part of Birmingham, and Harold JR. Tragedy had struck the Smith family some years before in 1980, when Harold JR had been involved in a serious road accident, and as a result had been left confined to a wheelchair and requiring around the clock care. Since then, the couple had had their bungalow specially adapted for Harold’s wheelchair, and Mary had devoted her life to caring for him, with Harry joining her in doing so upon retiring from his job as a mechanic a few years previously. The family were well liked, well-respected churchgoers, and known throughout the locality, with Harry being especially known as a regular character in the now-closed Traveller’s Rest pub on Northfield’s Bristol Road South, familiar for the habitual white cap he would always wear. By all accounts, the family were close and had perhaps pulled together more so after Harold’s accident. Even though Cathy had moved away with her husband, she still spoke to her family almost each day by telephone – that was the kind of loving family that the Smith’s were. I stress were.
So when Cathy had not been able to speak to her family by telephone for a number of days, since the end of November 1992, she grew thoroughly alarmed. In times like that people always do tend to think that the worst has happened, and after several attempts contacting neighbours of the family and being told that, no, nobody had seen them, a worried Cathy decided to contact police. A police patrol was despatched to the house in Overbury Close, and when there appeared to be no signs of any response due to repeated knocking, plus an officer heading around the back of the bungalow, a decision was made for officers to force their way into the property, and they did so.
What they found there was a scene of absolute carnage, and sheer horror.
It was apparent from the moment police entered the bungalow that something had happened. The place had been ransacked, with contents of drawers and belongings strewn all over the floor. Moving throughout the property, police found no sign of the Smith family – until they got to the master bedroom.
Harry Smith was found lying on the floor with his hands tightly bound with one of his own ties, whilst Mary lay on the bed, also with her hands tied tightly in front of her and again with a necktie. Harold sat slumped in his wheelchair, his hands also bound and a sock used as a makeshift gag was stuffed into his mouth and secured with a dressing gown cord. The room was extensively blood-soaked, and it was clear that all three had been dead for a number of days – possibly since just after the last time Cathy had spoken to them on November 30th.
It was only following the post-mortems on all three members of the family was it realised just how much of a deranged killer, or killers, police were hunting. Harry had been stabbed close to 100 times and severely beaten about the head with a blunt instrument. Mary had also been beaten and stabbed around the head, neck and chest – and an attempt to remove her underwear was reported as having been made, although there was no evidence that she had been sexually assaulted. And Harold also had severe lacerations and stab wounds to his head, neck and chest – and had also been beaten with a club as he sat helpless in his chair. The murder weapons were decided to have most likely been a 5″ bladed kitchen knife and a heavy wooden club – although these were not found at the scene.
The police investigation for such a shocking crime was intense, and no clear motive for such a bloodbath was found. The family weren’t found to have any enemies, and although the ransacking of the bungalow and the fact that a small amount of money had been taken would point to robbery – most robbers do not massacre an entire family. There had been a high number of burglaries within the area in the months leading up to the murders, however, but this is usually a get in and get out kind of crime, and this is a different level. There were no reports of anyone seen entering or leaving the bungalow, no signs of forced entry to the bungalow, and no sounds of a struggle or screams were reported as heard. A mass search of the local areas near Overbury Close for murder weapons or any bloodstained clothing connected with the crime got underway, whilst police set to work looking at the local community to try to find any witnesses or establish a possible motive for why the Smith family had been targeted. Nothing conclusive was found in either, but a persistent rumour that police did discover was that Harry Smith was, wrongly as it was later established, rumoured to have enjoyed a big gambling win not long before he died. Was this the motive for the family’s bungalow being targeted – a suspected large sum of money being in the property?
Following the murders, nearly 1,700 people were interviewed and 350 written statements were taken. 340 vehicles connected to the area were checked and eliminated from the enquiry, and in total, 1,400 lines of enquiry were followed up on and investigated. A police psychologist, Dr Paul Britton, had been brought in early in the investigation and concluded after studying the evidence that the killer or killers had thoroughly enjoyed what they had done – and could strike again if they weren’t stopped. The whole community was left in fear with a deranged maniac still on the loose. But the breakthrough response was never there throughout the initial investigation and despite a £6,000 reward for information which was a massive sum at the time, by the first anniversary of the murders the investigation had just six police officers working on it. Crime sadly does not wait, and the investigation was wound down when police had little else to go on.
But it has been re-appealed now as it has been twenty-five years this year since the crime. And now police have breakthrough technology in DNA so that they can make a fresh review of evidence that is still retained from the 1992 investigation. Detective Inspector Ian Iliffe from West Midlands Police, part of the cold case review team, said:
“As part of our continual review of unsolved cases, we are taking the opportunity of the 25th anniversary of this most horrific case to appeal to anyone who has kept information they may hold secret for all these years to come forward. I can’t accept that the person who was responsible has kept this secret all their life. I believe that they would have shared what they did with someone else, maybe a family member or a friend. If you are that person please come forward. There have been massive advances in DNA technology and we will be reviewing all the evidence we hold from 1992 to see if it sheds any light on new lines of enquiry.”
Is robbery enough of a motive for such a shocking and callous crime, and what can be ascertained about those responsible? Firstly, it is likely that there was more than one killer. Even though Harry and Mary were elderly and Harold confined to a wheelchair, this is still three people to immobilise which would surely be too much for a single killer. Burglars usually do work in pairs as well, and the different methods of attack (stabbing and bludgeoning) suggests more than one killer, at least two in my opinion. I also believe that the killers were either from or very familiar with the Northfield area, if not living there then perhaps having attended school or worked there. The bungalow is set way off the main estate, and is adjacent to a utility building and opposite a block of flats. As it is a bit out of the way, it may have been deliberately targeted because of this. It may also have been apparent from a study of the property from outside that it was an old folk’s bungalow – for example, rails attached to the outer walls or pathway to assist with mobility. This would have been especially possible as the Smith family had indeed had their bungalow adapted to cater for Harold’s disability. A photograph taken in 1992 following the murders, the one shown above, does not show anything such as this apparent from the road, but they may have been attached around the back – did the killers see this and decide that a vulnerable and therefore easy target lived there?
A study of Google Maps also shows many possible ways of egress from the scene that would only really be familiar with someone from the area. And of course, criminals operate in areas that they are familiar with and comfortable in.
I believe it is possible, even likely that the Smith family, or at least Harry, were known to the killers, and that they were targeted deliberately because of the rumour of them enjoying a big gambling win, making robbery the motive here. I do not believe this was in any way a sexually motivated crime, despite reports of Mary’s underwear being interfered with. If sex was a motive, I believe it would have been carried out, so no, in my opinion it’s more likely robbery. Somebody known to the family – perhaps a patron of the Traveller’s Rest pub? – would also maybe have been invited into the bungalow, and this would explain the lack of forced entry. If not, then the killers could have entered the bungalow through an unlocked door and surprised the family. This could have been the front or rear door, that time of year it is dark not long after 4:00pm and is also too early likely to lock up for the evening. I believe that Harry, the most perceivable threat to the killers, was attacked first to immobilise him, possibly after challenging the intruders, and whilst he lay injured then both Mary and Harold were bound and gagged, and then Harry was also. It is unclear whether the weapons were brought to the scene by the killers, or were items used to hand that they had found at the scene. The property was then ransacked but no substantial sum of money found, and it is my opinion that individual members of the Smith family were tortured in full view of the others in an attempt to make one of them tell the killers where the money was in the house – it is unclear in what order this would have happened. But a chilling and distressing thought is that – was Harold, the most helpless member of the family, made to watch his parents die a horrific and brutal death in front of him, unable to move due to his paralysis – or was he targeted first as the person who both parents would be most devoted to and would wish to protect more?
The killers here are likely to have offended before – to leave no reported forensic evidence at the scene, no fingerprints and to be able to access and egress without drawing attention to themselves shows experienced offenders, although this may possibly have been their first murder. The angriness and complete overkill of the crime – after all, it would take some physical effort and almost two minutes in total to stab a person nearly 100 times – suggests that the killers are new to murder, they had no level of control and almost did not know that enough was enough. It may even have been bloodlust that took them over, or likely influenced by a violent fantasy, perhaps even emulating a violent horror movie that they had seen. I believe that this places them at the younger end of the offending scale with a certain level of immaturity, the mid to late teens to early twenties age range. Yet I do think that these had offended before, they must have spent a considerable amount of time at the property and did not flee upon the realisation of what they had done – once the line was crossed, they took time at the scene and with the victims.
These killers will likely have come to police attention before the murders somewhere – and likely following it, this is not a first offence, not this level of violence. They are or were from the locality of the crime, and they may of course now be in prison for a different crime, may have moved away or even emigrated – or they may even be in a hospital or dead themselves. Or they may still walk the area…..If the killers are still living, however, then I do not believe that a crime of this magnitude has not either been shared with someone in confidence out of guilt, or perhaps even bravado or as a threat. Somebody somewhere still likely harbours a guilty conscience and knows something that can end the enduring nightmare of the Smith’s surviving daughter, Cathy.
When interviewed some years after the murder about the cold case, Cathy gave her feelings:
“ I have never been dissatisfied with the police and I would always praise them. I know the case will never be closed, I know if anything does turn up, I will be the first to know. I think they probably are in some kind of prison. I like to think they are not walking around free. Part of me wants them to suffer like I am suffering now, but I just want them to say sorry. To lose three people was beyond belief; one would have been bad enough.”
Can you even begin to imagine what Cathy must feel still to this day?
The True Crime Enthusiast