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The Llanrwst “Pitchfork” Murder

North Wales Police have a number of unsolved murders on their books, and one of the most baffling is the brutal murder in 1975 of pensioner Huw Watson. A near crippled old man, he was found butchered in a burning cowshed that he called home. A police investigation into the murder raised more questions than it provided answers. The case is frustratingly hard to find information about, and almost seems to be forgotten due to the passage of time. TTCE has decided to highlight this just to show that it, and other cases like this, is not forgotten. Others will be recounted in the coming weeks.

Huw Watson had spent his working life around farms and farming. He had spent the best part of 50 years working as a threshing machine engineer before the onset of combine harvesting. In later years he had driven a road roller and tractors before ill health had caused him to stop working. Reclusive and long since retired, the 77 year old pensioner had now settled to live in the small town of Llanrwst, where his home was a squalid cowshed near a hay barn just off Station Road. Huw was not originally a native of Llanrwst, he hailed from Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr near Cerrigydrudion, but after leaving there as a young man he had never gone back to the area, instead settling in the Llanrwst area where he had spent so much time working. He had no family, and had never married.

Huw Watson

Perhaps as a result of a hard working life involving hard physical labour, and due to his age, Huw was left a near cripple by the time he was 77 years old. He could not walk without the aid of two walking sticks, and one of his legs was near useless. Due to this, Huw was a well- known and recognisable figure in the Llanrwst area. His infirmness made any journey for him cumbersome and challenging, but one journey Huw made regularly was to bask in the hostelry of the Pen Y Bryn Hotel in Llanrwst’s Ancaster Square, where he was a familiar figure who would visit each evening. Drawn by the warmth and company, Huw nevertheless kept to himself, normally drinking alone and enjoying his pipe. However, he was not aloof and along with his habitual love of a game of dominoes, Huw could often regale the clientele of the hotel by holding court with tales of yesteryear that would appeal to a generation gone by.

The night of Tuesday, December 9th 1975 was no exception. Llanrwst was preparing for Christmas celebrations, and festive cheer was beginning to settle over the town. Huw had spent the evening drinking in the Pen Y Bryn Hotel, had played his customary game of Fives and Three’s, and was happily watching other people playing. It was remembered later that the constant pain Huw felt due to his crippled leg seemed to be worse that night, as in order to watch the dominoes being played he had cause to lean on the shoulder of another regular who was stood at the bar. Huw said goodbye to his friends just after 21:30 that evening, and set off on his journey home. This journey would have taken a considerable amount of time.

The Pen Y Bryn Hotel, where Huw Watson spent his final hours before he met his killer

Huw was never seen alive again after leaving the Pen Y Bryn Hotel that evening.

At about 23:15 the same evening, two police officers on patrol were driving along Station Road, when they spotted a building on fire. Realising it was the hay barn adjacent to where Huw lived, they quickly raised the alarm, and fire crews from Llanrwst and nearby Betws y Coed were soon at the scene. Where the barn stood was located behind houses on a quiet, residential part of Station Road. As is human nature, locals came out of their houses to offer assistance and to watch the emergency services activity, and lingered on their doorsteps throughout the night watching the scene unfold.


Huw’s body was discovered in the hay loft in the early hours of the morning by firefighters who were attempting to bring the blaze under control. It initially appeared that Huw perhaps may have fallen, and tragically his pipe had started a fire that had soon raged out of control and claimed his life. A post-mortem was carried out at the scene soon afterwards by Home Office pathologist Dr Donald Wayte, with the cause of death being determined as asphyxia. But a full scale murder investigation was launched by North Wales Police the very next morning – because Huw also bore signs of being stabbed more than 20 times, possibly with a weapon similar to a pitchfork….

Police very quickly realised that they had little to go on. After Huw’s body was found among the hay bales, detectives undertook a painstaking search of the site using floodlights. But they were hindered by the effects of the fire on the scene, the passage of firemen through the crime scene, and the lifestyle Huw had had. He had lived in a state of near squalor. The officer leading the hunt for Huw’s killer highlighted the difficulties police faced from the off:

“Many clues were destroyed by firemen tackling the blaze. The clothing was burnt so we could not get any fibres for forensics. Mr Watson lived in a cowshed that was in a terrible state. If he had been living in a house, we could have looked for fingerprints.”

                                                                                                    – Detective Chief Superintendent Eric Evans

The murder hunt was launched and an incident room was set up at Llanrwst Police Station. About 40 detectives were drafted in from all parts of North Wales to assist in the hunt, including members of the regional crime squad. After establishing a timeframe between Huw last being seen alive, and the fire being discovered, detectives realised they had a timeframe of about an hour to account for, in which time Huw met his killer. It would have taken Huw at least 25 minutes to get home at the speed he could manage, which would get him home at about 22:00. The fire was discovered at 23:15, so it was surmised that Huw was attacked shortly after he had arrived home and that the killer had spent a considerable amount of time with his victim. This was determined due to the wounds on Huw’s body.

“Some of the wounds inflicted on Huw were very serious, but others were superficial. We think that whoever committed the crime spent some time in the barn with the victim.”

                                                                                                    – Detective Chief Superintendent Eric Evans

Detectives were left baffled by the motive for Huw’s death. However, it was feeling in the local area that gossip and local rumour had led to Huw being targeted for robbery. As is so often the case, a reclusive elderly man with no family is rumoured – perhaps rightly or wrongly – to be wealthy and miserly. Perhaps the killer had overheard local gossip that Huw had a considerable sum of hard cash lying around the cowshed he called home. Indeed, investigation uncovered rumours amongst the villagers that this sum could be as much as £300, although this claim was never confirmed. What helped fuel these rumours was the fact that Huw was often seen to be paying for rounds of drinks with £20 notes – although this may have been a genuine attempt to change his weekly pension down into smaller, more manageable sums.

As Christmas of 1975 approached, the investigation continued and uniformed officers visited every house in the Llanrwst area as part of the inquiry, which was later extended to all properties in the neighbouring village of Trefriw. In total, police interviewed more than 6,000 people, took many statements and made a number of public appeals, which ultimately proved fruitless. Police however, did have one person they wished to trace.

As Llanrwst is a small town, any stranger is noticed sooner rather than later. The initial appeal for information leading to the capture of Huw’s killer brought reports of a stranger sighted in the area that detectives wished to interview to eliminate from their enquiries. This man was sighted at Llandudno Junction, a mere 10 miles or so from Llanrwst, at 9:50pm on the night of the murder. The same man was also spotted in Station Road in Llanrwst mere minutes before the fire was noticed. There is only a distance of 12 miles between these two points on a very direct route. Was this the same man? The timeframe between sightings makes it certainly possible for it to be. He was described as being 20 to 30 years old, bearded, of medium build and with dark hair, and wearing a dark overcoat and trousers. A similar man was seen early the next morning boarding a train for Llandudno Junction, but appeals for him to come forward and eliminate himself were unsuccessful, and he has never been traced.

The case file remains open, but the passage of time and lack of forensic evidence makes the possibility of the killer being brought to justice very remote indeed. Indeed, it seems to be a case that there is incredibly few places to start investigating from. It remains police feeling, indeed has always been, that a stranger to the area killed Huw. When interviewed by North Wales Daily Post newspaper 13 years after the murder in a feature concerning cold cases, Detective Chief Superintendent Eric Evans reinforced this view.

“If the offender was a local person, we still feel sure that there must be someone who would have seen him with his clothing disarrayed or would have noticed a change in his manner, such as nervousness.”

                                                                       -Detective Chief Superintendent Eric Evans speaking in 1988

The only suspect ever to have seriously been in the frame is the bearded stranger spotted in the vicinity of Station Road that evening. But there has only ever been a vague description of this man (which is recounted above) and he has never been traced.  Huw was found to have no known enemies, and more than 6000 people in the local area were questioned and ruled out. If then it wasn’t a local person responsible, how then was Huw targeted, and was robbery the motive? It is known that local rumours abounded about Huw being financially well off, perhaps as a result of receiving a lump sum of pension back pay, or having an insurance policy mature. He was also very infirm, unable to walk without the aid of walking sticks, and would have been easy to overpower. It is known that Huw lived alone in a state of squalor, so it stands to reason that a person who calls a cowshed a home and has such a simplistic lifestyle is unlikely to have anything of particular value, except cash. However much cash Huw had to his name is unknown, so it is impossible to say how much, if any cash was stolen. Indeed, it is not known exactly what, if anything was taken from the scene. Yet Huw’s wallet was found in the ashes, containing £18 in notes. This equates to £170 today, so in 1975 this was a substantial amount of money, far too much to ignore if robbery was a motive. It stands to reason that a wallet would be a primary target of any thief, so why was this not taken? If it was dropped, why did it not burn?

What was the need for such violence towards a defenceless, crippled old man, 20 plus stab wounds with what could have been a pitchfork or sharpened screwdriver? And why these particular weapons? For a pitchfork to have been the weapon, it would seem that this was an opportunistic crime as it is a cumbersome weapon to wield. It more than likely suggests a disorganised offender, one who used what was to hand rather than having come to the scene prepared to kill. If however, the weapon was a sharpened screwdriver, there is the possibility that this could have been brought to the scene and taken away by the killer. An organised offender brings a weapon with them. No determinable weapon was ever found, but there could be an explanation for this.

The barn adjacent to the cowshed where Huw lived. This is all that remained after the fire.

Huw had already been stabbed several times before the fire started, but the cause of death was attributed ultimately to asphyxia. The stab wounds, although serious, were not ultimately fatal, although due to the number of them, it’s very likely they would have proven fatal if Huw had not asphyxiated first.  Police opinion was that Huw had been tortured horribly in an attempt for the killer to gain the whereabouts of any hidden cash sums he may have had. This was reinforced by the discovery that whilst some of the stab wounds were superficial, others were deeper and more severe. As though a killer was experimenting with torture. An even more chilling theory is that after being stabbed, Huw was then tortured in a most chilling way possible, with him left helplessly watching a fire deliberately set in an attempt to gain information as to the whereabouts of his hidden riches? Supporting this theory is the fact that Huw’s body was found in the hay loft itself, and not in the adjacent cowshed where he lived, although the cowshed was consumed in the fire also. He could not have climbed up to the position he was found in by himself, so why was he placed there? Was he placed there because it was a position he could not move from, and he was left to die horrifically? What kind of callous killer would do that to a defenceless old man?

It is of course possible that the fire was started accidentally, although fire service investigators who examined the scene were inclined to believe it to be arson.  What other purpose then could the fire serve? Setting a fire would bring emergency response, because it would be rapidly noticed. This would accelerate any discovery of a crime, therefore reducing the likelihood of an offender escaping.  No, it is more than likely that the fire was started deliberately to remove any trace evidence of the killer from the scene, perhaps to destroy fingerprints or any other forensic evidence. This may also be why no determinable weapon was ever found, because it had been destroyed by the fire.

More than 40 years later, there are still more questions than answers concerning the murder of Huw Watson. The case is still officially open, but the trail has long gone cold. The absence of any forensic traces from the scene has hampered detectives, along with the absence of a clear suspect and absence of motive. Barring a deathbed confession, or someone who has been harbouring guilt or knowledge for four decades finally breaking the silence and coming forward, it is difficult to see how this savage crime will ever be solved. The killer might now be dead himself, or may be serving a prison sentence for an unconnected crime. Or he may still be walking free carrying his guilty secret with him. Hopefully though, one day Huw’s killer will be brought to justice and the picturesque town of Llanrwst can close the chapter on one of the darkest days in its history.



The True Crime Enthusiast



The Dogwalker Killings – did one person kill at least FOUR different women?

Over a number of years there have been numerous murders in which the victims have been lone women, of varying ages, who have been attacked and brutally murdered whilst walking their dogs in rural areas. TTCE will focus upon four of them. From the initial account that will be chronicled here, there then lay a period of 11 years dormant, and then 3 brutal attacks within a year. It is important to express here that each case has never been definitively linked with any of the others, indeed, police have always resisted officially linking them, even refuted the link in a couple of them. Could it be possible however, that the same person is responsible for all?

Helen Fleet enjoyed her retirement years, living in the house she shared in Osborne Road, Weston Super-Mare, with her younger sister, Betty Sparrow. Being a widow of 20 years, and since retiring from her job as a factory inspector, 66 year old Helen spent a lot of time walking her beloved dogs, brown mongrel Cindy and white West Highland Terrier Bilbow. March 28th 1987 was a Saturday, and it was late morning when Helen set off in her blue Datsun car, parking it on Worlebury Hill Road, near the entrance to Worlebury Woods. This was a regular place for her to walk Bilbow and Cindy.

Helen Fleet

What followed has been difficult for police to piece together, due to the lack of apparent motive. The best hypothesis is that Helen had finished her stroll and was heading back towards where she had parked her car when she was set upon by what must have been a maniac. A scream was reportedly heard by two people in the woods at about 12:20, and it was about 20 minutes later that Mrs Fleet’s body was found. Tragically, it was a friend of Helen who found her, Sylvia Lewis, alerted by the barking of the dogs.

Sylvia Lewis could never forget the sight that she came across. She saw Helen lying motionless on the ground and in a panic, ran to a nearby house to raise the alarm. The occupants of the house, David and Hazel Davies, returned to the scene with Sylvia and discovered Helen dead. In what police later described as a frenzied attack, Helen had been severely beaten, repeatedly stabbed and even strangled. There was no indication of a sexual assault, and Helen had not been robbed.

Worlebury Woods, scene of the Helen Fleet murder.

Police hit the ground running with the investigation, taking hundreds of statements, house to house enquiries and interviewing more than 5000 people. The focal point of the investigation, however, soon cantered upon 2 people. Two youths were seen fleeing the woods about 30 minutes after the murder, both described as being aged 15 to 18 years old, wearing distinctive ski jackets.

A few weeks after the murder, Avon and Somerset Police released a photo-fit comprised by descriptions of a youth who had been seen by witnesses talking to Mrs Fleet. The witnesses described the youth and Mrs Fleet talking as though they were known to each other, and the photo-fit bore strong resemblance to one of the youths that were spotted fleeing from the woods following the murder. The case was reconstructed on BBC TV’s Crimewatch UK in May 1987, with several calls received but none giving the breakthrough police needed.

When no arrest happened as a result of the massive enquiry, as time passed so with it grew local opinion that someone had gotten away with the brutal murder of a defenceless pensioner. However, the enquiry was never closed, and on the 10th anniversary of the crime it was reported that the advancement of DNA testing was being used to try and solve the crime. Fingerprints, clothes, blood and other forensic evidence had been recovered at the crime scene, and had originally tested negative for clues. However, it was hoped that with advancement and refinement of DNA techniques, a breakthrough may be made. Sadly, it wasn’t.

Three years later, another avenue was explored.  A TV appeal was made featuring the case, in which detectives and forensic scientists from the National Missing Persons published a digitally “aged” computer enhanced image of the original 1987 photofit of the youth seen talking to Mrs Fleet days before she was murdered, as a youth then would be in their 30’s by that time. Acting on the belief that the youth was known to Mrs Fleet, an appeal was made to the public to compare the original photofit and the “aged” picture, and to call in if any viewer recognised the person.  It did result in a new witness emerging, who said he had often seen Mrs Fleet talking to a youth in the woods, and who played with her dogs, which supported original witness accounts. However, the identity of this person has tantalisingly always eluded police, and despite the offer of a £7,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killer, no one has yet been brought to justice as the 30th anniversary of the crime approaches.

Kate Bushell

Skip forward 10 years now, to November 1997. The murder of Kate Bushell has already been accounted by TTCE in a previous blog post (June 2016), so a summary is all that is necessary here. A lone female, walking a dog, brutally and savagely murdered in an opportunistic attack. See the initial post Who Killed Kate Bushell? on TTCE for further details

Then in 1998 there were two more brutal murders, two women again whilst both were walking dogs.

On Wednesday July 22 1998, 52 year old housewife Julia Webb set off on one of her twice daily walks with her Golden Labrador dog Rosie. It was Julia’s custom to walk Rosie twice a day for about 45 minutes a time down Kennel Lane, in the village of Sandiway, Cheshire, where Julia lived. Kennel Lane borders a dense wood, and as Julia set off from her home in Weaverham Road at 3pm that afternoon, she promised neighbour Bessie Woods she would stay away from the wood. Although it was often used by joggers and courting couples, like other places of its kind the Kennel Lane wood was also reputed to be frequented by drug dealers and “strange men”.

When his mother had not returned by 5:30 pm, her concerned 26-year-old son Christopher set off to look for her on his bike. Minutes later, as he approached Kennel Lane Woods, he spotted Rosie whimpering and alone. The dog led Christopher into the nearby woodland, where he found his mother’s body in bushes 10 yards into the undergrowth.  Police were baffled by the brutal, apparently motiveless killing. Julia’s body was discovered still fully clothed, wearing her red T-shirt, striped skirt and flat shoes. Her glasses lay nearby and there were no signs of any sexual attack or robbery. Julia had been battered to death in a frenzied attack, with numerous blows to her head inflicted with a blunt weapon. No weapon has ever been found.

Despite a massive police enquiry, in which they actioned over 4,300 lines of enquiry, police struggled for leads to this crime. Mrs Webb had no known enemies and was described by her family as ‘placid’ and unlikely to engage in a confrontation. Her husband, long distance lorry driver John, and sons Nicholas and Christopher were examined and eliminated as suspects. Crimewatch U.K reconstructed the crime in September 1998, and frustratingly the public response produced crank calls and vague sightings of people seen in the area at the time, including three men who were never traced. One was described as being a middle aged white haired man using a very distinctive red walking stick. Also elusive was a ‘George Michael’ lookalike with designer stubble, driving a silver Ford Orion car, and reports of a ‘red faced man’ seen running across nearby Daleford’s Lane around the time of the murder.

Despite this extensive hunt, and the offer of a £30,000 reward, Julia’s murder remains unsolved. But the case remains open, and is reviewed periodically. On the anniversary of Julia’s death in 2000, her husband John was interviewed.

“She was very placid, not someone who would get involved in a confrontation. I can only think whatever happened had something to do with Rosie. The dog is very friendly by nature, but also very inquisitive. It is possible she was sniffing around someone, perhaps startled them and they hit out at her.

“In those circumstances Julia would probably have come to her aid and got involved. I can’t think of any other reason why.” – John Webb

Lyn Bryant

Back in the south of England, Truro, Cornwall, the 20th of October 1998.  Lyn Bryant, another housewife, a 41 year old mother and regular dog walker set off to walk her Lurcher dog Jay along the Ruan High Lanes, which were less than a mile from her house. Although isolated, this was a familiar route to Lyn and one she felt so familiar with she regularly walked Jay unaccompanied down them. Mrs Bryant set off that mid- afternoon wearing a brown waxed coat, a blue pullover, dark jeans and brown walking boots. At 2:40pm on 20 October 1998, a passer- by found Lyn’s lifeless body in the gateway to a field, brutally stabbed to death with wounds to her neck, back and chest. Again, there was no immediate sign of a sexual attack, no murder weapon found or no sign of robbery, however, Lyn’s spectacles were missing. A thorough search of the murder scene revealed no clues or forensic traces.

Aerial view of the Lyn Bryant murder scene

The resulting police enquiry was codenamed Operation Grenadine, and involved every male aged between 14 and 70 years of age that lived in Cornwall’s Roseland peninsula being interviewed.

“Mrs Bryant almost certainly put up a struggle and fought for her life. The killer would have been extensively bloodstained and mudstained”. – Detective Chief Inspector Chris Boarland

Photofit of a person of interest released by Devon and Cornwall Police in 1998

When piecing together Lyn’s final movements, witnesses reported seeing a man talking to her at 1.45pm on Tuesday just under an hour before her body was found. Lyn was seen talking to the unidentified man near the Ruan Methodist Chapel, just 100 yards from the murder scene. He was described as being in his 30s, around 5ft 9ins tall, short dark haired, with bushy eyebrows and wearing light coloured clothing. Police canvassed the area extensively, contacted local businesses with closed-circuit television, asking them to examine the films to report anything suspicious. They also made an appeal to trace the driver of a white van described as bearded, 50+ years of age, largely built, who was seen following Mrs Bryant’s grey Sierra out of a nearby garage where she had stopped to buy milk. None of these leads or enquiries have ever led to an arrest, and the enquiry remained has remained quiet, albeit with two macabre twists.

Six months after Lyn was murdered, a member of the public out walking discovered a pair of spectacles, identical to the ones missing from Lyn, less than three feet from the spot where Lyn’s lifeless body was discovered. The spectacles were later confirmed to belong to Lyn. It seems inconceivable that the spectacles had been missed in any crime scene searches or photographs of the murder scene. Had somebody else, someone totally unconnected with the crime dropped them in a bizarre coincidence, or had the killer taken them, then returned to the scene to relive the killing, to fulfil some sick fantasy?

Then, in 2015, self-proclaimed psychic drag queen, 50 year old Tristan Rees, went to the police with a remarkable story. Mr Rees claimed that from mid-1999, he had been receiving visions of Lyn Bryant after being visited by her spirit on many occasions. He went on to describe a vision of seeing Lyn’s killer stalking her, and described a killer of slim build, with greying ginger hair, wrinkled face and wearing a dark blue boiler suit.

‘The visions just came to me at any time. It was almost like looking at a film but I’m right there next to her and the killer. It was always the same, pictures of her walking down the lane and the killer following her and then he walks back to a van he’s got. His boiler suit and boots were covered with blood, but you couldn’t tell it was blood because it was on dark material” – Tristan Rees

Tristan Rees, self proclaimed psychic.


The description given here differs remarkably from the sketch police issued at the time of the man they wanted to trace who was seen talking to Lyn. No information should ever be discounted until definitively proved as false, and it is worthwhile to keep an open mind, regardless of the sensationalism of the source.

It is of course, a jump to state categorically that the same person is responsible for each of these killings. Although these killings have been linked in a Blog post entitled The Dogwalker Killings, it is for the reader to examine the possibility that the same person could be responsible; this is in no way suggested by TTCE as fact.

Four killings are chronicled here, spanning a period of 11 years. Are they connected? There are certainly similarities throughout.

  • Lone women, walking dogs in isolated places.
  • All of the attacks have occurred in the daytime, in good visibility.
  • There has been massive overkill of violence in each case, and some form of weapon This is predominantly a knife, but has also involved the use of a blunt instrument, although no weapon has ever been found in any of the crimes.
  • There has never been any evidence of any sexual assault.
  • There has never been any evidence of Robbery
  • The dog or dogs have never been harmed in any of the attacks.
  • They are organised crimes – the killer has brought and taken away any weapons used; he has left no DNA fingerprint or any useful forensic traces; he has managed to escape undetected in each case, albeit only possibly seen fleeing in the case of the Bushell murder.
  • Yet they have hallmarks of being spontaneous and opportunistic – in each case each woman has been attacked in a place where an offender could be interrupted at any moment by a passer-by. Almost as if there is an overwhelming need to kill, and the offender is driven by this and it is this need that overrides any fear of being caught.
  • At least once, the offender has returned to the scene of the crime some months later.

Hypothetically speaking then, let’s say the same man is responsible for all. Bearing in mind an offender will find a target group of victim that appeals to them, the target group here is the lone female. It is unlikely that it is the dog walking that is the linking factor, if it was the dog in each case that was for some reason the trigger for such violence, one would expect the dog to be injured or killed as part of the attack. This has not happened. Nor can the triggering factor be a particular breed of dog, all dogs concerned in each case have been of different breeds.

If Helen Fleet was the first victim of the killer, it is likely that he was in his teens at the time. The amount of violence used, and different methods of trying to kill (stabbing, battering, strangling) suggest an immature offender who is unsure of what they are doing, for want of a better expression, unrefined. The teen theory would tie in with the photo-fit of a suspect police have constantly appealed to trace over the years.

The next known murder occurs over ten years later, and is just as savage, perhaps more so because Kate Bushell was killed so brutally – with a single stroke. So, why a ten year gap? There are several possibilities for this. The killer could have been imprisoned or in hospital through this time, they may have left the country to work abroad or been serving in the Armed Forces. They may have had a stable relationship that had managed to keep a lid on any murderous thoughts. But something has triggered these thoughts returning – perhaps a change in personal circumstance or the breakdown of a relationship?

Eight months later, another woman, Julia Webb, is killed, the only killing out of the 4 where a knife is not used. It is also geographically the furthest killing away in comparison to the other 3. But this should not rule out the possibility that the same person is responsible. It is feasible that a person needs to travel the country as a course of their employment, there is also precedent that people will kill on such work trips also. Serial killer Robert Black, for example, abducted and killed children whilst on business trips delivering posters all around the country. Did the killer of Helen and Kate, whilst in the area on business, find an opportunity on a lonely lane in Cheshire, at just a point where Julia Webb was unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Back to Truro, three months later. The most consistently linked cases out of the 4 detailed here are that of Kate Bushell, and Lyn Bryant. They are very close in geographic proximity, close enough to suggest that the same man is responsible for both killings. Or at least it becomes hard to imagine that there is more than one maniac within a relatively small geographic area who has a penchant for attacking and brutally murdering women out walking dogs, in opportunistic broad daylight attacks?

So what do we know about this hypothetical offender? Firstly, we can estimate it is a male. Statistically, women are predominantly killed by male offenders. We can estimate the age to today be between 40-50 years of age. A teenager in 1987 would fit into this age bracket now. We can surmise that the offender is familiar with the areas the killings have occurred. These are organised crimes, at least to the point where the offender has a weapon on their person, and it is highly unlikely a killer will take a day trip to somewhere they have never visited to murder someone at random. Familiarity with the crime scenes brings with it greater chance of escape without detection, so familiarity with each crime scene means someone with local knowledge of each place, either having lived or worked in the area. The offender will likely have a previous history of offending, one does not commit a brutal murder as a first ever offence. This suggests that somewhere within the records of at least one of the police forces involved, the name of the offender will be there somewhere.

Of course, this is just TTCE hypothesising, based upon similarities that can be determined between each crime. But this may not be such a far- fetched theory after all. Retired police officer Chris Clark is the author of a book entitled Yorkshire Ripper: The Secret Murders (which coincidentally will be the subject of the next TTCE book review), and has studied the cases in great depth. Conversely, he believes that at the very least, the murders of Helen Fleet, Kate Bushell and Lyn Bryant are linked by strong circumstantial evidence, and that being dog walkers is a key linking factor, with the dogs possibly the trigger for such violence.

“I believe the murders have many similarities. The mode of killing and the similar geographical area are the two most obvious links. But it is also highly unusual for a killer to choose a dog walker in each case. I believe that, psychologically, this is a key element. The dogs may form an important part of the murder ritual, but he doesn’t want to kill them”-Chris Clark (retired police officer)

Mr Clark feels this is highlighted by what has been suggested above, the lack of harm to any of the dogs. He then moves on to highlight the lack of robbery or sexual assault in each case, and highlights the relatively small geographical catchment area of the three killings (from Weston-super-Mare, it makes a triangle of 61 miles to Exeter, and 148 miles to Truro).

“These elements are unusual. They do not point to a sexual motive – more towards a person suffering insanity. Geographically, the murders are within a relatively small area, and the nature of the first killing makes it inconceivable that he did not murder again. I have concluded there is strong circumstantial evidence to link them all. I feel we have one killer who no doubt is still walking around.” – Chris Clark (retired police officer)

All four cases remain open, and detectives from each Police force concerned have liased with each other over the years. A connection has never been officially confirmed. They may be individual crimes and completely unconnected. But there are enough similarities, and any student of true crime will be aware that a multiple killer develops an MO, has a victim category that he or she favours. Four separate killers? Or has the same man killed at least four times, perhaps many more……?


The True Crime Enthusiast


Who Bombed “The Jolly Farmer”?

Firemen tend to the scene of The Jolly Farmer explosion, 05 December 1989

The village of Blacknest, in Hampshire, is a quaint English village the like of which number into the thousands. This tiny Hampshire village, however, has a macabre claim to fame unlike the vast majority of other villages. Blacknest has set the scene for two brutal murders in its history – and both have centered on what is commonplace the hubbub of any small village’s life, the local pub.
Today, there are few patrons of Blacknest’s local pub, the Jolly Farmer, that would ever imagine the role it has played in this dark chapter without reading the immortalisation that both murders have received in a display on the walls. Indeed, TTCE lived in Hampshire many years ago and used to frequent this pub, and had never heard of either case before reading about it in the bar of the pub itself.
In the 19th century, on the site where the Jolly Farmer stands now was once an alehouse named The Cricketers. It was in The Cricketers one night that the landlord, the fantastically named Cyprus Knight, took a shotgun and in a drunken stupor blasted his wife to death. Within hours, Knight was arrested and detained, and following his trial for her murder some time later, was hanged at Winchester Prison.
The Cricketers never recovered from this horrific incident, and was knocked down a couple of years later. A new pub took its place, The Jolly Farmer, but in 1989 this pub was again the scene of a horrific incident.
It was the run up to Christmas and the village was in full preparation, as is every other village around that time. At 2:40am on the morning of Tuesday December 5 1989, a massive explosion shook the village. It was loud enough to have been heard more than two miles away, and residents woken by the blast became rapidly aware that the source of the explosion was The Jolly Farmer.
Locals rushed to the scene to see what they could do to help, and awaited the emergency services, who were there in force inside of 15 minutes after the explosion.

The explosion had been massive, and the pub had been totally destroyed. All that remained was the chimney stack, the outside post-box, and the pub’s sign, albeit scorched and damaged. Christmas presents, furniture and glass lay strewn across the roads where the force of the blast had deposited them, and beer casks, furnishings and bottles were found in neighbouring fields more than 100 yards away.

Afterwards, locals and emergency services described a macabre and chilling scene. In the midst of the rubble and mortar, a moving hand was spotted poking through the wreckage. It belonged to The Jolly Farmer bar manager Richard Dean. Rescuers climbed onto the rubble and pulled him out of the fire, his still burning clothing searing into his flesh. Dean suffered severe burns to more than a quarter of his body and would subsequently suffer mental issues and months of hospital treatment, but was at least alive.

Pub chef Clifford Howes had not been as lucky, however. He was found, almost burned beyond recognition, in the cellar. The 34 year old had died a horrific and agonising death, being burned alive whilst trapped under burning beams and pinned down by heavy flaming masonry.

Initially, the explosion was thought to be a tragic accident. Any number of things could have caused a fire to ignite, and with the amounts of flammable liquid and canisters of pressurised gas that would have been in the pub, an explosion would have been inevitable. However, two discoveries the next morning caused investigators to determine that the fire was started deliberately.

The following morning, when the charred remains of Clifford Howes were discovered, an overpowering smell of petrol was detected in the cellar. Then, it was discovered that the telephone lines to The Jolly Farmer had not been destroyed by the explosion, but had been professionally and deliberately cut. Detectives were dealing with an unbelievably savage and planned crime, and launched a murder enquiry.

Investigators later determined that the fire had been started by the killer, or killers, pouring gallons of petrol down through the wooden doors of the cellar. A homemade wick had then been placed down and ignited, but this had failed to burn down. However, the petrol vapour had still built up in the atmosphere of the confined space of the cellar. A recently installed electric dehumidifier had activated, causing an electric spark which had ignited the petrol vapours and caused the massive explosion.

Former landlord Arthur Thompkins recalled afterwards:

“I had no knowledge of it at all until four or five in the morning, when I got there I was told that one person was in hospital badly injured and another person was missing. They didn’t find Clifford at all and they kept saying that he must have wandered off, and it wasn’t until they excavated right down into the cellar that they found him.

The full force of the blast went straight up through his room and it would appear that everything came down, all the ceiling and masonry, came down on top of him because he was right down at the bottom of the cellar”. – Arthur Thompkins

Clifford Howes had indeed been asleep in his room at the time, and his first floor bedroom had taken the full force of the explosion. It had collapsed right the way down into the cellar, taking Clifford with it and causing him to die horrifically.

A fireman examines evidence removed from the scene of the Jolly Farmer explosion

What was the motive for this crime? Was the fire personally aimed at either Clifford or Richard as a target, or were they just unfortunate enough to have been in the pub at the time? Was it burned down for monetary gain, perhaps in an attempt to claim an insurance payout? Was it somebody who had perhaps bore a grudge, having been barred from The Jolly Farmer in the past or who had fallen foul of a member of staff? Was it a mistake, and a different pub that was the actual target was missed?

Police examined the backgrounds of both Clifford and Richard to search for any motive that anybody would want for them harmed or killed, but drew a blank. Hampshire police questioned all locals of Blacknest, and customers and staff from The Jolly Farmer, and examined the theories outlined above. All drew a blank, to this day there is simply no motive that police have ever discovered.

They did however, discover as a result of enquiries that a car had been seen speeding away from the pub seconds after the explosion happened. Frustratingly, a make or decent description could not be obtained. A massive appeal was launched, but this and numerous other public appeals have always failed to identify the driver. It is one of the many frustrating points about the case that has never been resolved. Did the killer stay and watch? If not, why has the driver of the mystery car never come forward?

The pub was rebuilt, and 100 days later was reopened, with the tribute to Clifford immortalised on the wall inside. It became a thriving business again, and TTCE always found it a very pleasant place to visit. Arthur Thompkins, the landlord for many years, sold the pub in 2003, and to this day remains convinced that someone bombed The Jolly Farmer because they had got the wrong pub.

“There was absolutely no reason to target us. The police had all these theories for a motive but they found nothing because there was nothing to find. It was just a quaint little pub in the middle of nowhere. Why would anybody target it? It’s ridiculous.

I’d like closure, I’d like to know the answer but it’s a thing in my past now and you have to move on. I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never know.”  – Arthur Thompkins

The case is still open, and is reviewed periodically as funding becomes available and as changes in DNA technology dictate its possibility. A review in 2003, however, failed to generate any new lines of enquiry.

The detective in charge of the original investigation, Chief Superintendent Mike Southwell, is now retired. Yet he still remains haunted and baffled by the case because the killer or killers have not been brought to justice, and the case remains unsolved.

“It’s not closed and there are still things that we need to find out about that case. I am convinced to this day that the murderer is still detectable,” Chief Supt Mike Southwell (retd)

What was the reason behind such a heinous act? With all cases of suspicious fires, those who would benefit from any insurance claims were suspected – but police ruled this out as a motive. The backgrounds of all of the staff who worked at The Jolly Farmer were examined in depth, but nothing or no one was discovered as a result of these enquiries who could be found to bear any grudge or indeed had any motive for wanting anyone killed, or the pub destroyed.

Was it then, a case of mistaken identity? There are 21 pubs around the United Kingdom with the name The Jolly Farmer. At least 7 of these are currently found within the county of Hampshire. There is a very real possibility the killer or killers had simply got the wrong pub- but that still leaves the question of why someone would want a pub burned down anyway? This is a very valid possibility, but after the passage of so much time and with such a wide net to cover all of these, it seems a near impossible task. Perhaps it was the pub itself that was the target, and not either Clifford or Richard. After all, there are more direct, less risky ways to kill somebody you were planning to kill. Burning a premises down, then waiting to see it burn, would provide a risk to the perpetrator themselves. It is TTCE’s opinion that this was in fact the case, and that the murder of Clifford Howes and attempted murder of Richard Dean was a secondary outcome, unintended perhaps? Even if murder was unintended, it was however, a very determined perpetrator. The killer(s) would have had to purchase and transport the petrol, pour it, have pre made a wick and placed it down into the cellar. They would have then had to light it, and watch to ensure their process had been successful. And of course, had cut the telephone lines to ensure that the emergency services would have the biggest delay possible. Somebody wanted The Jolly Farmer gone.

The Jolly Farmer as it stands today.

The Jolly Farmer is still open now after its rebuild, and is a thriving business. Without sounding like an advert, it is a very pleasant place to visit. If you ever find yourself in the village of Blacknest in the English county of Hampshire, call in and experience it for yourself. Make sure to take time to read the local press cuttings concerning the 1989 fire, study the charred postbox that was all that remained after the explosion (and is now fixed in a display case with the aforementioned cuttings inside the pub) and take time to remember that the killer who so callously murdered Clifford Howes and who came close to killing Richard Dean has never yet been brought to justice. There may well be a member or members of the public who have the information needed to make a breakthrough in the case, but have not yet come forward. A sense of massive guilt about the crime, or a misguided loyalty or duty to protect someone may be preventing this. Hopefully though, as time passes, loyalties may change and this person or persons may now come forward and provide the information that is so needed. Anyone who has information can relay it to the Northern Major Crime Department at Basingstoke, on 0845 045 4545.


The True Crime Enthusiast.


Death In Llangolman: What Happened To Griff And Patti Thomas?

John William Cooper.

Christmas 1985 is now nearly 31 years past, but for some people in the community of Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, Christmas will bring a memory to them of a horrific double murder that shocked the community and hardened detectives, the murders in 1985 of Richard and Helen Thomas. These killings remained undetected for over 25 years. It was to be the first double murder attributed to a career criminal named John William Cooper, a resident of the local area who knew the Thomas’s. Cooper was later convicted of these killings, plus another notorious double murder in the same area four years later in 1989, the murders of Oxfordshire holidaymakers Peter and Gwenda Dixon, and of the rape and indecent assault of two teenage girls in 1996. After a powerful prosecution case supported by some of the most impressive forensic science evidence obtained in modern times, Cooper was found guilty of all four murders, plus the rape and indecent assault. He was given a whole life tariff in 2011, and with an appeal against this ruling being dismissed in 2012, this means that he will die in prison.

John William Cooper

These are the most serious (known) examples of an appalling criminal career that stems from burglary to murder, and the crimes for which John Cooper was given a whole life tariff. With Cooper’s guilt established beyond any doubt in these, detectives are now considering Cooper’s culpability in several other of Wales’s unsolved crimes and unexplained deaths. It is not for the True Crime Enthusiast to state that Cooper is definitely guilty of these crimes, but one of those that Dyfed/Powys Police are examining is outlined here below. It is up to the reader to make up their minds if his culpability is a possibility. The murders and assaults that Cooper was sentenced to life imprisonment for will not be discussed in depth here, far better reading (and the subject of TTCE’s next review) is The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching The Bullseye Killer, by Steve Wilkins with Jonothan Hill. (ISBN 978-1-78172-800-0). The book is a fascinating and comprehensive tale of the investigations into the above mentioned crimes, and the forensic breakthroughs that helped to convict Cooper so overwhelmingly. As mentioned, it will be discussed more in depth in a forthcoming book review on TTCE.

Death In LLangolman: What Happened To Griff And Patti Thomas??

In December 1976, the village of Llangolman, in Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Hills, was shocked by a bizarre double death. At a remote farmhouse, a brother and sister, 73 year old Griff Thomas and his sister Patti, 70, were found dead in what appeared to be a horrific double murder. A team of 50 detectives began a search for a brutal killer. The Thomas’s background was examined, house to house enquiries began and forensic and fingerprint experts moved into the house, called Fynnon Samson, where the Thomas’s, neither of whom had ever married,  had lived all of their lives. However, after about a week, the focus of the police investigation would surprisingly change.

Griff and Patti Thomas

It was deduced that Griff had last been seen alive at around 4.00pm on Tuesday, December 7th, 1976. He had left his home, and walked to the village shop in Llangolman. This was customary for Griff to do, visit for his daily paper and other basic groceries that he and Patti needed.  That’s where he was last seen alive at around 4.00pm. He left the local village store after buying the Western Mail and some bread and cheese.

Skip forward now to the morning of Thursday, December 11th. The Thomas’ local postman, Nigel Rossiter, arrived at Fynnon Samson between 8:20 and 8:30am. He picked up what he thought was outgoing post, and realised it was post that he had delivered himself the day before. He had been there on the Wednesday, and hadn’t seen either Griff or Patti. Noticing this, he returned to the house and after knocking and receiving no response, felt concern for the elderly couple. He entered the house, and was confronted by an atrocious scene.

“Going into the house, I had to go in a good bit of the room because there was a big chair or something in the way. I could see this charred body in a nest of cushions, and a made-out thing, like, as if it was a nest.” – Nigel Rossiter

The body was lying on a wooden clothes settle, and was so extensively burned that it was only the feet that could be made out. Shocked, Mr Rossiter ran to a nearby house to alert the police. Despite having seen a man’s body in the kitchen, he didn’t notice another. When he returned to Fynnon Samson with police, Patti Thomas’s body was found in the parlour. She was slumped over at the table, resting on a magazine rack. She had been bludgeoned to death, apparently with a heavy dining room chair which was found heavily bloodstained.

Police managed to narrow down the time that the couple died to being sometime on the Tuesday evening, the 9th December. They found the television set and house lights on, and the fire had melted the plastic lens on Griff’s wristwatch, stopping the hands at 8.20. Griff also did not call at the village shop for his daily paper on Wednesday, as was custom. This pointed to a likely time of Tuesday mid evening

The resulting post mortem showed that Griff had died primarily due to extensive burns, but also had a cracked skull. Soot in the airways of both their bodies showed they both were both alive when the fire was started, and carbon monoxide traces in Griff’s blood showed that he had died later than Patti had. A nail was found embedded in Griff’s forehead – but forensic tests indicated this was as a result of a wooden clothes settle collapsing upon him during the fire, rather than evidence of an attack.

The police removed 174 items from the house for examination. They took over 150 statements, and removed 430 fingerprints from the house. All but 2 belonged to either Griff or Patti. The other 2 have never yet been identified. They were both left thumb prints, and as Griff’s arm and hand had been completely destroyed by the fire, they could not be ruled out as being his. Could they have belonged to someone else who had visited the farmhouse that evening?

It was this absence of forensic evidence proving that someone else had been in the house that made the police begin questioning whether they really were looking for a double murderer. A thorough search of the house and surrounding area had revealed no murder weapon, and when police discovered that Patti had £2,700 in cash in her purse, they began working on the theory that they were dealing with a bizarre murder suicide.

At the inquest into the deaths, held in Haverfordwest in February 1977, it was proposed that Griff himself had killed Patti, and then committed suicide by burning himself to death. The inquest was told the deaths may have been the result of the siblings having a furious row over “pocket money” given by Miss Thomas to her brother.

The theory of events arrived at for the inquest is mind boggling. The jury was told that the most likely sequence of events was that:

“Something must have happened between the old couple, and it could have been that Miss Thomas provoked her brother by either hitting him or pulling his hair and he then retaliated. It was possible that Mr Thomas had provoked his sister by starting a fire. Though seriously injured, he carried his sister from the kitchen of the house into the living room where she was found sitting on a magazine rack. He could have then staggered back, collapsing in a doorway where his blood was found before getting to his feet and then either falling back into the fire or throwing himself on it.”- Theory presented at Inquest

Does this sound likely?  It is concievable, but everyone who knew the couple are adamant that this suggestion of events would be as far from what happened as could possible be. Although the apparent murder weapon was the blood soaked chair found in their home, it was concluded to be too heavy to have been used to repeatedly strike Patti about the head with. No other weapon was ever found, but this matter was left unexplained.

On February 17, 1977 an inquest jury decided Patti’s death was manslaughter at the hands of her brother. An open verdict was recorded on Griff Thomas. The brother and sister were buried in the churchyard of Llangolman Church, where they had been regular and loyal members of the congregation. Griff was sadly denied a headstone at his local chapel, the police theory at the time being he must have murdered his sister and then committed suicide whilst in the grip of lunacy.

It is widely believed still today amongst the villagers of Llangolman that the inquest had got the verdict wrong, and an innocent man has been wrongly accused for nearly 40 years now. At the time, many locals were concerned a murderer was still on the loose, and an air of apprehension and suspicion was heavy. Doors, once left open due to the sense of community, were now locked and bolted. The owner of the local garage in Llangolman has always lived locally, and remembers the local opinion that someone had broken into the Thomas’s home, due to the isolated location it stood in.

“The house is isolated and as in a very lonely spot. You’re not in the village itself. You’re lucky if you see two or three houses within a quarter of a mile. It was a lonely spot.” – Denley Absolom

Local rumour was that Griff and Patti were wealthy; indeed, they had investments between them to the value of around £35,000, a substantial amount at that time. Patti also had £2,700 in her handbag when her body was found, and it was believed that the substantial amounts of cash the couple were believed to have kept around the house made them a target for a robbery that went tragically and brutally wrong. Family members later expressed their belief that nothing had been taken from the scene – although the bureau in the front room appeared to have been searched, and police never found the key to it.

Even now, 40 years later, locals remain convinced that the real killer is yet to be brought to justice. Auctioneer Richard Sykes and his colleagues had the responsibility of clearing the house before putting it on the market after the inquest. He says the state of the house, even after the police had cleaned it makes him believe the inquest got it wrong

“It doesn’t relate to the circumstances we saw there. I don’t believe that. I think it was more of an acknowledgement that they failed to find evidence of a third party. It raises the question that someone else could have visited Ffynnon Samson that evening. I think it was shared pretty generally among the community” – Richard Sykes

Did the police get this wrong? There are questions that can be raised here that suggest that the inquest verdict was wrong. Most people who knew Griff and Patti agreed that they lived happily and harmoniously throughout their lives. Many testify to their kind nature, and Griff being a mild mannered small man, suffering from rheumatism and having a bad back.

What then, would cause a brother to one day brutally batter to death his sister who he had lived with for 70 years, carry her body – whilst himself suffering from a bad back and severe rheumatism – into the parlour after having killed her in the kitchen, and then choose to end his own life in such a bizarre and agonising fashion? What kind of squabble after 70 years causes that amount of violence? Or did Griff lose control of his senses one normal day, after carrying out his daily routine as he had for years, as the theory presented at the inquest said? Why move Patti? And why choose such a bizarre, agonising way to end your own life?

It was also reported that the groceries and newspaper Griff had bought were found in his coat pocket, not even have been taken out. Why not? If you get home with shopping and are carrying it, the first thing you do is set it down. Why had Griff not taken these out?

There is another puzzling aspect to this case – one of the unidentified thumbprints was found on the sewing machine in the parlour. Griff Thomas’ blood was also found on this sewing machine – yet the cover had been placed on the sewing machine – covering the blood and the print. Who did this, and does this suggest that someone else was at the scene that night?

The logical conclusion is that this was a horrific double murder, with robbery as the target. It is possible that a robber was disturbed by Griff, after having killed Patti. Griff was then battered into unconsciousness, and the offender had started a fire in order to destroy any forensic traces or fingerprints. Any murder weapon could have possibly been destroyed by a fire, as stated, no murder weapon apart from a blood stained dining room chair was ever recovered.

Chillingly, Llangolman is just 24 miles away from where another elderly brother and sister named Thomas – this time Richard and Helen – would be brutally murdered by John Cooper in their rural home eight years later. The facts of this case – the Scoveston Park murders – could also be a carbon copy of the deaths of Griff and Patti Thomas.

Richard and Helen Thomas

 Richard and Helen Thomas were an elderly brother and sister who were violently killed in their rural property, which was then set on fire and burnt out. The motive was attributed to a robbery that had been interrupted. Unlike Griff and Patti Thomas, Richard and Helen were both blasted to death at close range with a powerful shotgun. However, at the time of the 1985 murders, the villagers of Llangolman were convinced that Griff and Patti’s killer had struck again; the circumstances involving each crime were too chillingly similar….the isolated property, the elderly wealthy victims, the fire.

Scoveston Park, following the fire.

Can there be a possible connection then, between John Cooper and the deaths of Griff and Patti Thomas? Cooper does not have a criminal record between the years of 1965 to 1983, but that does not mean he did not offend. The Scoveston Park murders were committed in 1985, when Cooper was 40 years old.  His earlier previous known offence was in 1965, when he had been jailed for six months for trampling over a man on the ground. Bearing in mind the level of violence Cooper committed in the four murders he was convicted for, it is highly unlikely that Cooper did not offend for 20 years from 1965 to 1985. That level of violence does not lay dormant for 20 years. It is known that Cooper was a prolific burglar throughout his life – was he responsible for other murders?

 I believe that Cooper should be considered a person of interest in the 1976 Llangolman deaths.  At the time of Griff and Patti Thomas’ deaths, Cooper had been working in the area of Llangolman doing fencing repair work. He was already a violent offender by this time.

It is known that he targeted places to rob, these often being isolated, rural houses. He also took steps to ensure he didn’t leave any traces leading to his detection, quite willing to use fire as was shown in the case of Scoveston Park. Cooper also had a trademark of taking keys from the scenes of his crimes as trophies  – nearly 2,000 different sets of keys were found in a cesspit on Cooper’s property after his arrest. These ranged from property keys (interestingly, one of these was one of the keys from Norton farm, a property owned by Richard Thomas that he had visited on the day of his death – this key formed part of the forensic evidence that helped convict Cooper of the murders) to vehicle keys. Could this then, be what happened to the missing bureau key from Fynnon Samson??

At present, there have been no plans to officially reopen the investigation into the deaths of Griff and Patti Thomas. On the face of the circumstantial evidence presented here following John Cooper’s conviction, it suggests that it possibly should be reopened, and him looked at as a serious suspect. Perhaps it is best summed up by the opinion of the man who discovered the scene of horror at Fynnon Samson nearly 40 years ago.

“I would say yes, reopen it, definitely now, because no murder weapon was found. I can’t see myself or anybody, your mind must be absolutely a blank if you think you can burn yourself at 70, 73. A youngster wouldn’t burn himself and lie in a fire. I would think (the inquest verdict) they’re unsafe. I feel that there would be a substantial case…..for looking at this particular crime again as a cold case.” – Nigel Rossiter


The True Crime Enthusiast





Who Killed Kate Bushell?

It is every parent’s nightmare to lose a child. What must compound that nightmare more is if that child is lost to the hands of a stranger. Tragically often, the children are never found again, but in some cases, they are found dead. If that was not nightmare enough, some families never get to see their child’s killer brought to justice. The family of Kate Bushell knows how this feels.

Kate Bushell would have been 33 years old this year. She may have been successful, married, even had a family of her own. But 19 years ago, in November 1997, her life was brutally cut short by a maniac. To this day, no one has been brought to justice for this horrific murder. There are descriptions of suspects, vehicles, but none of these have been identified. What makes the case even more chilling and macabre is that Kate’s murder is one of a possible series of strikingly similar attacks, spanning a number of years and geographically miles apart.

The village of Exwick, Exeter, is a quiet village, the type of place a family feels safe living in, a million miles removed from horror or tragedy. Or so it seemed.

It was just beginning to grow dark, at 4:30pm on Saturday 17th November 1997. Kate Bushell, a happy, churchgoing, 14 year old girl had gotten into the habit of walking a neighbour’s dog. As it was beginning to get dark, she promised her family that she would be no longer than 20 minutes, and set off to collect her neighbour’s dog, Gemma. The route Kate would have took her from her house on Burrator Drive, down Exwick Hill, onto Exwick Lane then through a gate and across a field to rejoin the lane a little further on. A simple 20 minute walk that was extremely popular with dog owners, and one that Kate was very familiar with.

When she hadn’t returned by 5pm, Kate’s parents were becoming annoyed. With each passing minute however, the annoyance turned increasingly to alarm. Kate was a considerate girl, not prone to giving her parents cause for concern. The Bushell family was a happy one; there was no question of Kate having run away from home. Had there been an accident? Finally, by 6:45pm, Kate had been reported to the police as missing. Her family had driven around the local estate looking for her, but to no avail, and had finally returned home. Whilst Kate’s mother Suzanne waited at home so someone would be there in case Kate turned up, her father Jerry set out on foot to look for her.

What followed is the stuff of nightmares. At 7:30pm, Jerry, having ended up tracing the regular route that Kate used to walk Gemma, discovered his daughter lying motionless a short distance into the field off Exwick Lane. She lay flat on her back, and her Reebok jogging pants were pulled down around her knees.  Her long blonde hair was splayed out, and her throat was red. A pathologist report later concluded that Kate’s throat had been slashed in a singular, ferocious movement, with the “substantial” knife inserted into the side of her neck and then ripped outwards and across. Although her jogging bottoms were around her knees, there was no sign of any sexual assault. Had the assailant been disturbed? Kate had been killed just 300 yards from her home, Gemma still whimpering near the body.

Detectives quickly surmised that this was an opportunistic crime. It would have only taken Kate a few minutes to reach the spot where her body was found, to a place where somebody had been waiting and had attacked her from behind. There was no weapon found at the scene, meaning that the killer took it with him. No weapon definitely linked to the murder has ever been found.  Was it someone known to Kate, somebody with a grudge? As detectives built up a picture of Kate’s life and interests, friends, it swiftly became clear that she was a regular teenager with no problems, or people who wished her harm. The murder fell into the category of a “stranger” murder, where sadly, the detection rate notably drops. Apart from being a “stranger” murder, Kate’s murder seemed motiveless. She had not been sexually assaulted, but the killing being sexually motivated could not be ruled out. Kate’s jogging bottoms were found at her knees, had the offender tried to rape her but couldn’t? Had he been disturbed? The severity and particulars of the wound also gave police things to consider. Kate had not been stabbed, which is the more common act of killing involving a knife used as a weapon. It takes considerable strength to rip out somebody’s throat in one single slash, were police looking for an offender who had committed past violent offences? Or someone with a mental illness?

The resulting enquiry was massive, with police inundated with information and reported sightings of suspicious people. A team of officers numbering upwards of 130 sifted through over 4,000 calls. They worked tirelessly, resulting in nearly 4000 statements and 5000 fingerprints being taken. 4,400 house to house enquiries were completed, 3,300 exhibits catalogued. The dog that Kate had been walking, Gemma, was forensically examined. Focusing upon the method of killing, police examined the theory that the killer may have had military training, or had worked in an abattoir. Serving and former member of the Armed Forces were examined, as were those who had had training as butchers or in slaughterhouses. Vehicles were checked, known sex offenders were looked at, and thorough searches of the surrounding areas were undertaken. The police covered every angle possible, but all leads seemed to lead to nothing.

Detectives also had reported sightings of several persons of interest to the enquiry. Most promisingly, they learned that a possibly bloodstained man had been spotted fleeing the scene at around the time Kate was murdered. He was described as being 5’10” to 5’11” tall, aged between 30 to 35 years old, of medium build with brown hair and a short moustache. He was reported to have been wearing jeans, muddy trainers and a blue sweatshirt with red marks on the front, which could have been blood. Also reported by at least 3 different women was a “weirdo” who had jumped out from bushes at them in the weeks leading up to Kate’s murder, and in the same general area. The witnesses described a scruffy man in his late 30s or 40s with unkempt salt and pepper hair, unshaven, of thick set build and wearing a brown check overcoat and black boots. The possibility that someone had been living rough in the area was suggested and examined, although this line of enquiry did not lead to any breakthroughs.

Another person of interest to the enquiry was a man sighted in Exwick Lane at about 1700 on the day of the murder. The man was seen stood at the back of a blue Astra van, by witnesses who drove past Kate at the top of Exwick Lane, about 250 yards away. He was described as white, wearing blue jeans, aged between 30 and 40, of medium build, with dark collar-length hair, and clean shaven.  A check of nearly 2000 blue Astra vans in the Exeter area was undertaken, but proved fruitless.

The case was featured on BBC TV’s Crimewatch UK, a long running monthly programme that reconstructs unsolved crimes and invites the general public to call in with any information they may have. It has been running for 32 years now and has a very impressive success rate, with information received as a result of the programme leading to the solving of many of Britain’s high profile crimes of the last 30 years. I cite Crimewatch UK as the genesis of my fascination with true crime. Although the studio received calls following the public appeal, it sadly did not advance the enquiry any further. The case has been appealed several times on the programme, but with no further results.

It is now 19 years since Kate Bushell was senselessly murdered, and in that time the case has been speculatively linked to other unsolved murders, including that of Lyn Bryant in Truro in 1998, and Helen Fleet in Weston Super-Mare in 1987. However, although it cannot be stated definitively if these cases are linked, it is highly likely that the same man is responsible, at least in the Lyn Bryant case. The chances of there being two different men, with equal bloodlust, attacking and murdering lone women out walking dogs within such a close geographical catchment is highly unlikely. It is important here to note that these cases are often repeatedly linked as a series, along with the murder of Cheshire housewife Julia Webb in 1998, because they involve women out walking dogs. It should be noted that dogs are not the linking factor here – it is the lone female that links all of these crimes. Future posts on thetruecrimeenthusiast will focus upon these unsolved murders.

Up to that point, 1997, the manhunt for the killer of Kate Bushell was Devon and Cornwall police force’s most complex, extensive investigation, costing within the region of half a million pounds. As previously mentioned, it has been re-appealed several times, coinciding with the anniversaries of the crime, and the hope that the killer will be caught has always been kept alive as DNA and forensic technology advances. It is paramount to state that the enquiry remains open – it is periodically reviewed and whenever funding becomes available, officers continue to sift through the evidence. Despite all of the actions undertaken, the thousands of man hours spent investigating every lead possible, the countless appeals and TV reconstructions, and a reward offered in excess of £25,000, this killer has not been caught.

Examining what is known, what can be surmised about the killer? It is safe to say that the killer will be a strong male, who would now be aged 40 to 60 years old. This man is an organised killer. He brought the weapon with him and left with it, he managed to approach Kate from behind which shows either he had surveyed and chosen the area previously, or was familiar with the area because it was local to him. He killed instantly, and effectively with a single slash. This man will have offended again, if he is still alive, both before and after this murder. There is normally an escalation in offending that builds up to a crime of this magnitude: barring a serious psychotic episode, people do not commit murder as a very first offence. Not an organised crime such as this anyway, and the thrill gained is so great that eventually, it will have to be repeated. 19 years is a long time to keep a lid on something like this. Someone somewhere will at the time have had an inkling as to his culpability, and may have knowingly or even unwittingly covered for them. They may remember a person behaving strangely following the murder, or may remember a time a family member arrived home with bloodstained clothing. It would take a person having an extraordinary degree of self-control and detachment to have committed such a horrific, brutal crime, and to not outwardly display some signs of reaction, so surely somebody somewhere will have a recollection of that. I believe it safe to say that this man’s name will be in the files somewhere.

There are however, a number of possibilities that should be mentioned. For example, the killer may now be dead. At the time of the murder, police did examine all suicides in the surrounding areas for the 6 weeks following Kate’s murder. It is not uncommon for offenders to be so overwhelmed by the magnitude of their actions that they take their own lives. Again though, this line of enquiry drew a blank. There is also the possibility that the killer may be in prison or a mental hospital for another unrelated crime. He may have left the country. He may have already killed again, or he may be walking the streets, building up to doing just that. Devon and Cornwall Police have several detectives who have long since retired, whose biggest regret is that they have not seen this killer yet brought to justice. One can only hope that time will change this.

Mr E