Who killed the Bristol Night Nurse?

Susan Donoghue

The Bristol suburb of Sneyd Park originates from the Victorian age, and still contains many Edwardian and Victorian villas lining its edges. For many years it has been considered a very affluent area, it is home to many wealthy people who enjoy the quiet, upmarket community. But forty years ago, the community was rocked by a horrific murder that remains one of the UK’s most infamous crimes, and one that is unsolved to this day. However, due to advances in forensic science, today Avon and Somerset police are a crucial step closer in bringing the killer to justice.

The summer of 1976 was the hottest summer since records began, and is so embedded in the national psyche that it is still regularly used as a benchmark for comparison whenever the United Kingdom has any subsequent heatwaves. But for the family of Susan Donghue, 1976 is remembered for a different reason altogether. That year, a mother, sister and fiancée was taken from them, when Susan was brutally murdered in her own home, in her own bed.

Susan was one of 13 children, and had been born in 1932 in the Fintona area of County Tyrone, Ireland. She had grown up with her family in the town of Lisnacrieve and had attended the Loreto Grammar School in Omagh, where her ambition throughout her schooldays had been to work in nursing. She had trained as a nurse in Belfast, and had worked there for a period before moving to UK mainland and working in a hospital in the Kent area. She eventually married a man named Cornelius Donoghue in the 1950’s and the couple moved to the Channel Islands, settling in Jersey. The marriage produced a son, John, in 1958, but ultimately was not a happy marriage and it broke down in the mid 1960’s. Susan then relocated to Bristol, where three of her brothers lived. She found employment as a night sister at the psychiatric hospital Brentry, in North Bristol, and met a new man. Slightly older that her, Dennis Foote was a carpenter who worked at the same hospital as Susan, teaching carpentry to some of the patients. He was immediately attracted to the 5″2, well built dark haired nurse with the soft Irish twang, and with their combined interest in hospital work, they became friends and soon after became a couple. By all accounts the couple were very happy, as at the time of her death they were engaged and hoping to marry around Christmas time 1976. They did not yet live together, with Dennis sharing a home with his younger brother and Susan having a ground floor bedsit flat in the Sneyd Park area of Downleaze. At the time Downleaze was a street heavily populated with bedsits, and the occupants tended to be transient and ever changing.  Dennis was renovating his house ready for them to live in as a couple, and his younger brother had recently moved out to pave way for the couple living together. Happy times.

The ground floor flat (with open window) where Susan Donoghue lived

So by all accounts, the night of 04/05 August 1976 should have been a normal night for Susan. She should have been on a night shift at Brentry hospital that evening, but wasn’t feeling too well. So she had telephoned the hospital to tell them that she wouldn’t be going in that evening, and a friend had come around to visit her. Suffering with a heavy cold, Susan had seen her friend off at about 12:15am and then settled down, trying to sleep her cold off in the hot August evening. When Dennis arrived at Brentry Hospital for work early on the morning of 05 August, he was told that Susan had not made it into work the night before as she was ill. Remember, this is long before the days of everyone having a mobile phone, being able to text messaging etc. Not even everybody had a telephone in their house at this time, so as Dennis hadn’t heard from Susan he decided to go around to her flat to make sure she was ok.

What Dennis discovered when he arrived there at 07:15am that morning led to him having to be heavily sedated the next day. It left his life in ruins. Dennis let himself into Susan’s ground floor flat and discovered Susan’s body lying in her bed in the bedroom/sitting room. She was clearly dead, and had been brutally battered to death, with the killer inflicting severe head injuries upon her. The room was heavily bloodstained. Shaken and distraught, Dennis immediately summoned police.

A team of detectives, led by Detective Superintendent John Robinson of Avon and Somerset Police, arrived to set up an incident room and launched immediate house to house enquiries in the locality of Susan’s flat. Surmising that Susan’s killer must have been heavily bloodstained due to the frenzied attack, a team of police searched the area surrounding the house and nearby streets and gardens for any bloodstained clothing that the killer may have dumped whilst fleeing from the scene. Nothing was found. Meanwhile, Home Office pathologist Dr Bill Kennard was summoned from Salisbury to examine the body in situ. Scenes of crime officers worked around him, photographing the scene and examining surfaces for forensic evidence. From the initial appearance of the scene of the crime, it appeared that Susan had been attacked as she slept and that the killer had battered her to death with a heavy blunt instrument. There was evidence of the room having been ransacked, although it was unclear exactly what, if anything, had been taken. A bloodstained Bristol Docks police truncheon was found at the scene and this was later confirmed to have been the murder weapon. Also found at the scene were a heavily bloodstained pair of man’s driving gloves, a tobacco box, and a footprint on the inside window sill of the adjacent room to where Susan was found. The window was found half open. Forensic examination of the items found at the scene later confirmed that the blood covering them had come from Susan, and a later post mortem also concluded that Susan had been sexually assaulted either before or after the attack, as the presence of human semen was found. The post mortem also determined that Susan’s killer had struck her over the head at least seven times.

Footprint discovered on the windowsill in Susan Donoghue’s flat.

Whilst house to house enquiries got underway, Susan’s colleagues and friends and family were spoken to at the same time in an attempt to build up a picture of Susan’s life. Everyone who knew her, her neighbours who lived in the houses and bedsits that made up Downleaze, even the patients in the hospital where she worked were spoken to to try to paint a picture of Susan. Had she any enemies, or was she involved in anything untoward or illicit? Ultimately, nothing was found to suggest any of these possibilities – it transpired that Susan was a quiet woman who seemed to keep her personal life quite private and to not socialise too much with her work colleagues. But the overall impression from talking to people who knew her was that she was well liked and very popular with her colleagues. A colleague of hers paid tribute to her in an interview with the Bristol Evening Post the day after Susan was murdered:

“She was a jolly sort of person who always had a big smile on her face. Susan worked on the opposite shift to me. She never pushed herself to the front of things but was “one of the girls” definitely. We are all very  sad at her death, it was the only talking point in the hospital last night, especially among those who worked with her on her last shift on Tuesday” – Mr John Camilleri (colleague of Susan’s)

Detectives examine the point of entry of the killer

House to house enquiries revealed very little, no one in the area had heard any screams or sounds of a struggle that evening, and no one had been seen leaving the vicinity of Susan’s flat. In fact, only one witness was found who seemed to have heard anything out of the ordinary – and that witness happened to be a three year old black spaniel dog called Jet. Jet’s owner, Gareth Jones, lived in a flat opposite the house where Susan was murdered, and in the early hours of 05 August, jet had woken his owners with his yapping and crying. Because this was so out of the norm for the dog, Mr Jones got up and took Jet out on its lead, thinking it needed to go out. Instead, Jet headed straight for the vicinity of Susan’s flat. The dog was extremely agitated and would not settle for some time afterwards – had the dog heard something?

The items recovered from the scene that had been left by the killer also yielded no results. No forensic evidence from the killer was able to be gleaned from any of them. The gloves were old and grubby, and were of the old driving type that were string backed with pigskin palms and cuffs. The gloves recovered at the scene are pictured here:

Bloodstained gloves recovered from the scene
The gloves as they were found at the crime scene

The Police truncheon, inscribed “Bristol Docks”is also pictured here. It is a brutal weapon to use, and all the more chilling when it is known that the killer brought it with him specifically for no other reason but to use for violence. Detectives made many enquiries as to its origins, but what would seem a promising lead ultimately led nowhere

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For more than 12 months, a team of 80 detectives investigated many possible leads and undertook countless enquiries. Several men were arrested over the course of the enquiry, but all were released without charge and later eliminated completely from the investigation. A total of 4,000 statements were taken and 7,000 people were interviewed, but these ultimately led to nothing. Several people who had been seen in the area were unable to be traced and have never came forward, including a slim built man who was seen pushing a bike along nearby Julian Road at about 12:30am; a motorcyclist wearing a white helmet who passed by at around the same time, and a mysterious “man in dark glasses” who was seen near the local church at the time of Susan’s funeral. Two months later, another man – possibly the same person – was seen examining wreath and flower inscriptions at Susan’s grave. Who was he? Detectives exhausted every line of enquiry they had available to them; all petty housebreakers and sex offenders that were known to Avon and Somerset police were tracked down, questioned and ultimately cleared. The police truncheon proved a fruitless lead, as did the commonplace driving gloves left behind at the crime scene. The tobacco tin also led to a dead end, as did the footprint left on the windowsill. When all these  lines of enquiry had been exhausted, and as time progressed, the manpower investigating Susan’s murder was scaled down as other crimes that required investigating caught up. Sadly, crime does not stand still. It must have been frustrating for police on the enquiry – to have a murder weapon, the killer’s semen, the gloves that he wore – and yet to not have a single suspect or witness. With no new information forthcoming, the enquiry remained inactive for many years.

Tobacco tin recovered at the scene of the crime

In the years following Susan’s murder, forensic science had advanced greatly, culminating in the discovery in 1984 of DNA profiling, and in 1995 the investigation into Susan’s murder was reviewed as a cold case. The DNA from the semen sample discovered at the scene of the crime was placed on the National DNA database – but there was no hit. It was again reviewed for matches in both 1997 and 1998, but again with no results. In both of the the latter reviews, a mass screening of suspects from the original investigation was undertaken along with renewed Crimestoppers appeals, but these again drew a blank. By 2005, the DNA profile was able to be upgraded due to advances in technology, and some familial DNA screening was undertaken both in 2005 and again in 2009 – but the offence still frustratingly remained undetected. By the 40th anniversary of Susan’s murder in 2016 – a new cold case team was examining the crime, led by Detective Chief Inspector Julie Mckay of Avon and Somerset Police.

“The passage of time since a murder is no longer an obstacle in securing justice for these victims. The technology used in DNA forensics has come a long way since Susan was murdered and we now have a full DNA profile of the man who sexually abused and murdered her. I am convinced that someone out there has information on what happened that August night in 1976. I would appeal directly to them, or the killer himself, to come forward now and bring an end to the 40 years of heartache Susan’s family and friends have had to endure” – Detective Chief Inspector Julie Mckay (Avon and Somerset Cold Case Unit)

What then, is known about the killer? It is known that it was a male, working alone. It is unlikely to have been his first or last crime, so many points about the crime suggest someone who has offended before. This is a level of crime that is built up to – an offender does not set out to commit a brutal sex murder – and manage to escape detection for 40 years –  as his first offence. He is likely to have a background as a housebreaker – he affected entry without being seen or heard. He came prepared to commit a crime and showed some level of forensic awareness –  he wore gloves and did not leave any prints, even after leaving the gloves at the scene. He was prepared to and did use extreme violence, so I would expect the offender to have come to the attention of police before for violent offences.  It is likely that this offender had a certain level of organisation about him – he was in control of the situation, was able to rape and murder without disturbing any neighbours, and managed both access and egress quietly and without leaving any traces. Even the gloves, although left at the scene, were placed carefully onto a chair. Yet there are traces of this being a disorganized killer – he left gloves, the murder weapon, tobacco, a footprint and semen at the scene.

No one was witnessed fleeing the scene, so a physical description of the killer is unavailable and indeed, would be unreliable now after 40 years.  It is possible that the offender had killed before, as there is a very similar murder that occurred in Nottingham just three weeks before Susan’s, and this case will be covered on TTCE at a later date. And it is possible that the offender killed again after Susan’s murder, though police have never officially linked any other crimes to Susan’s murder. It very unlikely that the offender will have ceased offending after this, or indeed that this is his only killing. There was nothing found to suggest that Susan was deliberately targeted as a victim, indeed, police have long favoured the theory that this was a petty housebreaker who took advantage of an open window that was visible from the pavement, and attacked Susan in an opportunistic crime.  The way that the house was set back somewhat from the road tends to support this theory, it does appear a favourable location for a burglar. A burglar who came to rob, but took the opportunity to rape instead? Det Supt John Robinson said at the time:

“My favourite theory is perhaps we’ve got a petty housebreaker. There is evidence that entry was effected through that window, and there is evidence of ransacking in her bedroom. Anyone going through the bedroom door would think that he was in the lounge because from the doorway he would have seen a three-piece suite. He could not have been blamed for, thinking that the room was unoccupied. When if Mrs Donoghue woke up probably her first reaction was that it was her boyfriend. ‘The intruder was a pretty cool customer because after he had hit her he sexually assaulted her” – Det Supt John Robinson (speaking in 1976)

Due to the passage of time since Susan’s murder, there exists the very real possibility that the offender himself is now dead. Sadly, this seems likely – he certainly hasn’t been arrested for any crimes since the inception of the National DNA database, and offenders of this magnitude will more than likely have offended again. But of course, this may not be the case – he may be infirm and in hospital, or may now live abroad if still alive. But detectives do today have the crucial evidence of his full DNA profile, and although familial DNA searches have to date been unsuccessful, the Cold Case team led by DCI Mckay are fully committed and will not give up on finding the identity of Susan’s killer. There exists the very real possibility that a match may be entered upon the National DNA database tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, and he will be found when the DNA profile is next reviewed. It may ultimately prove too late to bring Susan’s killer to punishment for his crime, but if his identity is known then perhaps Susan’s family can get some level of closure after so many years. It still, unsurprisingly, weighs very heavily upon them:

“Susan was brutally murdered. “They thought maybe it was someone in the hospital where she worked, but they never got anybody. Like thousands of other people, even in our own country here, I’ve never given up hope. But years and years have passed and they didn’t get anyone, and you wonder if the person they were looking for has passed away themselves. They have made great strides in technology, so maybe they will get somebody. That is about all I can hope for. It would help bring some closure for me.” – Seamus McGeary (Susan’s brother)

Anyone with information concerning Susan’s murder should call 101 and ask for Operation Radar.

Information can also be left anonymously with Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.


The True Crime Enthusiast



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