The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching The Bullseye Killer
I recently picked this book up at my local library, as it was a book I had considered buying online a couple of times before. A synopsis is as follows:
The book details the hunt for, arrest, and conviction of one of Wales’ most infamous, and possibly prolific serial killers, John William Cooper. Cooper was convicted in 2011 of the Scoveston Park murders of Richard and Helen Thomas in 1985, the coastal path murders of Peter and Gwenda Dixon in 1989, and of the rape and indecent assault of two teenage girls in 1996. He was sentenced to a whole life tariff, and after an appeal in 2012 against this ruling was dismissed, Cooper will now die in prison. The author of the book, Steve Wilkins, is the retired police officer that was in charge of the investigation and headed the team responsible for bringing Cooper to justice.
It is a case that has interested TTCE for a number of years, and being the only book written about the subject (to my knowledge), I was eager to read it. At 256 pp, it contains two sets of illustrations concerning the case. It begins by setting the scene the morning that Cooper was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the above mentioned crimes, which is done rather well and will hold the reader’s attention. It then goes back to begin at the chronological order of events, detailing the deaths of the Thomas siblings, the deaths of the Dixons, and the assault and rape upon the teenage girls. Following this, the book then explains how the cold case reviews suggested that the crimes were linked, how they arrived at having John Cooper in the frame as a suspect, and the painstaking forensic work that was undertaken to find evidence to prove Cooper’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. It follows the evidence gathering, the remarkable forensic results, Cooper’s arrest, charging, and ultimately trial and conviction. For explanation of the title of the book, it should be explained that the title stems from a rather remarkable piece of evidence where an image of John Cooper was taken from an appearance on the 1980’s TV gameshow Bullseye, on which he had appeared as a contestant. This was then matched with an artist’s impression of the suspect in the Dixon murders.
No review is complete without examining the positives and negatives of any book, so as follows. On the positive side, Catching The Bullseye Killer contains interesting images, at least half of these are good quality evidence photos of exhibits that were gathered for forensic evidence to prove Cooper’s guilt. There are also photographs showing the exact moment of Cooper’s arrest for these crimes, as detailed within the book. It contains verbatim interview transcripts with Cooper, which will always catch the eye and impress any student of true crime (it did this one anyway). The coverage of the forensic work that was undertaken throughout the investigation is very in depth, well written and fascinating to read also.
On the negative side, out of the two separate sets of photographs contained within the book, the second set seems to largely serve to introduce the investigating team at various functions. TTCE feels that of much more value and interest would have been possible crime scene photographs from Scoveston Park and the site of the Dixon murders. Also, TTCE was left feeling that scant coverage was given to the background and accounts of the Scoveston Park murders, the Dixon murders, and the 1996 rape and assault (just 24 pages in total for all). I would have preferred a much more in depth coverage of each case.
It was also apparent that a large portion of the book in total was used introducing the investigating team – where it is safe to say that that is not the primary angle of interest someone has when reading a book on the subject of true crime. I suspect the reason for this is because as previously mentioned above, the book is written by the police officer who headed the team responsible for bringing Cooper to justice, so firsthand knowledge and familiarity, perhaps even bias, stands out here more so than it would had it been a book written solely by a researcher. For example, the previous TTCE book review was on a book written that concerns the case of the infamous 1985 White House Farm Murders. This was written by a researcher unconnected with the case – therefore has no objectivity or bias – and is without doubt THE definitive account of the crimes and an instant classic and must have.
Disappointing as well in The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching The Bullseye Killer was the complete lack of mentioning and nod towards any other possible cases that were being examined with a view to Cooper being possibly responsible – one such in question is the subject of a previous Blog post by TTCE (The Llangolman murders). There are several suspected, this is just one that TTCE was able to research and chronicle here.
Overall however, The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching The Bullseye Killer is a recommended read. It is an interesting case, and being the sole book (currently) concerning John Cooper, is worth the readers time. Take into account the opinions raised here by TTCE and make up your own minds.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
Ever since I first became an avid reader of true crime, I have been interested in certain cases over others. In the early 1990’s I began collecting a weekly magazine series entitled Murder Casebook, and it was through this that I first discovered the case of the White House Farm Murders. It remains a case that courts controversy and debate still today.
A summary of the case is as follows. In the early hours of 07 August 1985, Essex Police received a telephone call from an agitated young man named Jeremy Bamber. Bamber stated that he had just received a disturbing telephone call from his parent’s farmhouse, White House Farm, in the small Essex village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy. In the call, his father, farmer Nevill Bamber, had stated that Bamber’s sister Sheila Caffell was running amok with a rifle. The line had then gone dead, and all attempts to call back had failed.
Police were despatched to White House Farm as a result, and were met there by Bamber, who informed them that his sister Sheila had a long history of mental illness and that he wasn’t sure what she may do. As a tense siege unfolded outside, it was finally at first light that armed police made the decision to enter the farmhouse. Upon doing so, they found the bodies of Nevill Bamber, his wife June, Sheila’s six year old twin sons, and Sheila herself. All had extensive gunshot wounds, and it looked a clear case of murder suicide, with Sheila having massacred her family and then turned the gun on herself.
However, suspicion soon set in the minds of both police officers, and members of the Bamber’s extended family, that this may not have been as clear cut as it appeared. As a result of fresh evidence being discovered, the focus turned to Jeremy Bamber himself as being the culprit, with sole gain of the large family inheritance as a motive. Just a few weeks later, he was arrested and charged with the killings. In his trial the following year, he was convicted by a majority verdict and sentenced to life imprisonment. He remains imprisoned to this day, and continues to appeal his conviction, still always professing his innocence.
I picked up this book as a holiday read, and despite knowing the facts about the White House Farm Murders, I’m always keen to read a fresh perspective on any case that holds my interest. I’m known to have several books upon any single case, for example the West murders or The Yorkshire Ripper case, because I’m always impressed if I learn previously unrecorded details about one of these in a different book. I appreciate detail and research. I have to admit that I was totally gripped by The Murders At White House Farm. Carol Ann Lee has obviously and convincingly devoted what must have been months (if not years) of her life researching not only the initial police investigation, but the family background and history of the Bamber family. She offers an unbiased account, staged in a totally structured chronological order, of the case, from the genesis of White House Farm to the present day.
The amount of detail recorded here is phenomenal, almost as though she was there recording details as they happened. As a result, she has written THE definitive book about one of the most notorious, controversial murder cases in British criminal history. It is a thoroughly engrossing, detailed read, and one that I cannot recommend enough.
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.