Who Was The Cheltenham Axe Murderer?

For more than thirty years now, a vicious killer has evaded capture in the cultural town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The crime, a horrific, maniacal and cowardly murder of a defenceless pensioner, is still vividly remembered by the people of the town, and is constantly re-appealed in the hope that time will bring in fresh information, which in turn will bring the closure that a family so badly needs.

Keith and Vanessa Aris were worried. They had not heard from Keith’s mother, 73 year old Constance Aris, for a few days, something which was well out of character for the grandmother. Constance, who had been widowed for many years, lived alone in an attractive terraced house in Cheltenham’s Roman Road area. At just over 5ft tall, Constance was a very active person, a churchgoer who was loved by family and friends alike. She doted on her two grandchildren, Siobhan and Damian, and Constance, who was nicknamed “Little Granny” by her grandchildren, would be in touch with her family most if not each day, either by visiting or telephoning.

Constance Aris

So when they hadn’t had a visit or a telephone call from Constance by 28 February 1985, Keith and Vanessa decided to go around to her house to make sure she was alright. They were concerned that she had fallen, or taken ill. What they found when they arrived at the house at 9:15am that morning was a scene of unspeakable horror. Thirty one years later, it still shakes the Arises to the core, and is a sight that nobody should ever have to see.

Using their key to open the front door, Keith and Vanessa entered the house and walked into the hallway. After calling out to his mother, Keith pushed open the sitting room door. Doing so, he came across a site that he readily admits he will take to his grave with him.

The television was on quite loudly, and Constance was slumped in her living room armchair. Blood spattered the walls and ceiling surrounding the chair, and Keith could see that his mother was clearly dead. She had been brutally battered to death.

A shaken Vanessa and Keith called police, and a murder inquiry was launched. 70 police officers were drafted in to hunt for the killer, in the biggest manhunt Cheltenham had ever known. Constance’s body was taken to the mortuary and a post-mortem was performed, bringing chilling results. It was determined that Constance had been brutally battered to death and struck no less than five times with a heavy weapon.

The most likely weapon, the coroner decided, was an axe.

Shaken police officers were appalled at the level of violence, and led them to believe they were hunting for a maniac.

” This was a premeditated, vicious attack on a virtually defenceless old lady. It was a brutal, callous attack with a degree of violence which could not have left any doubt that death was going to be the result.” – Detective Chief Superintendent Don Holland

Piecing together Constance’s final movements, it was established that Constance had attended one of the groups she belonged to, a Friendly Society meeting, at St Mark’s Community Centre in Cheltenham on the afternoon of February 27th. She walked from the centre in Brooklyn Road as far as Libertus Road with a friend, where they arrived at about 6:15pm. Constance’s movements after leaving her friend remain a mystery. Libertus Road is in very close proximity to Constance’s home in Roman Road, so if she had headed straight home she would have arrived by about 6:30pm. No witnesses ever came forward to say they had seen Constance after her friend left her however, so it cannot be ascertained if she was accompanied or followed home by someone.

“We have never traced anyone who saw Mrs Aris making her way on home from there. She may have perhaps had a lift or been befriended by someone.” – Detective Chief Superintendent Don Holland (speaking in 1988)

It was estimated that Constance had been brutally killed then sometime between 6:30pm on the evening of February 27th, and 9:00am the following morning when her son and daughter in law made the horrific discovery. Police believed at the time that Constance may have unwittingly let her killer into the house. She was very security conscious and made a point of locking doors and ensuring all windows were shut. February is generally a cold month so no windows are likely to have been left open by Constance, but no clear sign of any forced entry was found. Did Constance let her killer in, or had he accompanied her home?

The motive for murder has never been clearly established. Constance was an extremely small old lady, and would have been easy to restrain. At the time, the police consensus was that Constance’s murder was the result of a burglary gone wrong, but Constance’s family and friends said she was unlikely to have had any significant amount of money in the house. An assortment of her possessions were taken, however, including some watches, stick pins, items of dress jewellery and her pension book. It was the amount of extreme violence directed at a defenceless old lady that police have never been able to explain or understand.

The police manhunt for her killer was massive. Constance’s family, friends and neighbours were all looked at and ruled out as suspects. Her background and life was scrutinised for any possible suspects who would wish her harm, but nobody was identified as a suspect. It seemed that she was loved and liked by all who knew her. Police road blocks were set up at either end of Roman Road, and a large electronic display screen flashing “MURDER” was placed at Lansdown train station, where hundreds of commuters were interviewed. Officers searched rubbish bins, drains and manholes throughout Cheltenham, combing the area looking for a murder weapon. One has never been found. 4,500 interviews were conducted in house to house enquiries, and 2,800 statements were taken from people living in neighbouring streets and the local area. But police did not uncover the vital clue that would lead them to the killer. They had no witnesses that had seen or heard anything suspicious, nor any suspects or suspect description.

They did however have one piece of forensic evidence, the sole forensic evidence that was left by Constance’s killer. A solitary fingerprint, one that could not be identified, was found at the murder scene, although it is not stated exactly where in the house that the print was discovered. Armed with this, in the course of the enquiry police took 1,200 sets of fingerprints from everyone who lived within a square mile of Constance’s home. These were then sent to Bristol’s Regional Fingerprint Bureau in Bristol, where they were painstakingly checked by hand against the print found at the murder scene. A result was never matched.

“You never get over something like that. Of course, you have to try to move on and live your life, but the grief is always there. It makes us angry when we hear that other cold cases are solved but not this one. We still harbour some hope that one day the killer will be brought to account. It has had such a huge impact on our lives and on the family.”  – Vanessa Aris (daughter in law)

This is a sad and brutal crime to have happened, and Constance’s family deserve to see her killer brought to justice. What then, can be learned about the killer’s identity and personality? As always, this is the opinion of TTCE and in no way is it suggested this to be fact, it is purely hypothetical based on the scant evidence available. To begin with, it is likely but not definite that the killer is a male. Violent crimes are predominantly committed by males, and this certainly is a violent crime. The concept of a random female committing such a violent murder is highly unlikely. Burglary is also predominantly committed by males too. TTCE believes that the overall motive was robbery. A large assortment of Constance’s possessions had been taken, and none of these, such as items of jewellery or watches, has ever reappeared. It is possible that these items were sold elsewhere for a quick profit, or even taken as some form of macabre trophy – but why then take so many? The amount of items taken suggests someone with an overall motive of looking for haul.

TTCE is also of the opinion that the killer is someone either from or extremely familiar with the local area. When viewed, Roman Road is filled with terraced houses and offers little access or egress apart from at either end. Looking at the houses too, each one is near enough indiscriminate (at least in present day), so it is impossible to look at one and know that the occupants are elderly. This can be determined sometimes by telltale signs such as the presence of rails fixed to the outside walls. However, there is nothing to suggest that there is any sign of things such as these at Constance’s house. Her house was on a busy road within a network of busy, pedestrianized roads, therefore a bizarre choice of property to choose at random. Offenders predominantly commit crimes in areas they feel comfortable with, that they know and that they know how to access and escape from. To blend in to. For these reasons, TTCE believes the likelihood of the killer knowing the area intimately, or living within the area for these reasons is massively high. The absence of any clear sign of forced entry raises the possibility that Constance had been watched going home, or had been followed home by her killer. Perhaps she was known to the killer. If she had been followed, this is an offender with the mindset of committing a crime, premeditated and not a spur of the moment occurrence.

It is also highly unlikely that this is the solitary crime ever committed by this offender. Crimes of this magnitude are built up to, so it is likely that this offender will have offended before Constance’s murder. It would certainly suggest an offender who had burgled before, or perhaps a confidence trickster experienced in talking his way into houses. This does not necessarily equate to the offender having killed before, but certainly suggests an experienced criminal. There is no evidence of any sexual assault against Constance, but the level of violence used against her is disturbing. This is a defenceless old lady slaughtered in the most horrific way possible – why was this necessary? It suggests a killer who is either a sadist, or who has psychopathic tendencies. Or chillingly, perhaps both. The murder weapon was or has never been found, meaning it is unclear (if it was an axe, and the general consensus is that it was) if the weapon was taken to the scene by the killer, or was found and used at the scene. This lack of clarification creates a hurdle in attempting to glean an insight into the mindset of Constance’s killer. There is a psychological difference in the offender who uses what is nearest to hand as a weapon, and the offender who comes prepared with a weapon. Either way, the killer showed some forensic awareness by taking the murder weapon with him. It is a chilling thought that a killer possibly stalked the streets of Cheltenham, carrying an axe and with murder on his mind. Equally chilling is the possibility that he used a weapon he found at the scene, then took it away with him as the ultimate trophy.

Was Constance deliberately targeted? There is no evidence to suggest that anyone had a deep seated grudge against her, and she was not known to have any enemies. Regardless, TTCE believes strongly that Constance was deliberately targeted, either by being known to her killer or followed home by him. Even if she was followed home by someone who she was a stranger to – there is no way of ascertaining that she lived alone. Also, the chances of choosing a house at random that the sole occupant happens to be a defenceless elderly lady is highly unlikely. The more likely circumstances, in the opinion of TTCE, will be accounted below.

There are multiple possible scenarios as to how the killer got into Constance’s house. One is that Constance disturbed a burglar. There are problems with this – if she disturbed a burglar, signs of forced entry to the property would surely be apparent? TTCE believes it more likely that the killer followed Constance home, and then conned his way into her house, perhaps by posing as an official from something such as the Gas or Water Board, or a salesman of some sort. This would explain the lack of forced entry. Once inside, Constance was overpowered and possibly threatened to reveal the location of any money. The threat of bludgeoning may have been used to coerce her. Because she had no large sums of money, her constant denial was not believed by the killer and threats became actions. It is possible that the sheer brutality and overkill was committed in the heat of the moment, or it may have been pure bloodlust…..

Did the killer strike again some months later? TTCE believes that a case to be a possible match for the same profile of Constance’s killer is the October 1985 murder in Bristol of pensioner Violet Milsom. TTCE covered this unsolved case recently, the link to which can be found here: Death Of A Kindly Pensioner The victimology, overkill and violence used, lack of evidence of forced entry, and even location all make for compelling reasoning to compare both crimes as being the work of the same person.

As a frustrating case with a lack of clear motive or suspects, all the reader can do is surmise here based upon the facts available, and then can only offer a hypothesis. With the passage of time, there is the very real possibility that the killer of Constance Aris is now dead and will never face justice for his crime. If he is still alive right now, would likely be middle aged in the 45-60 year old bracket. He may live in the area, or may have moved away or overseas. TTCE believes that this man will have come to the attention of police or mental health services at some point in his life, so his name will be somewhere in the system. It is impossible to believe that a person capable and so ready to use such horrific violence on a person could ever remain under the radar, nor ever offend again. Yet the fingerprint has never been matched to any held on file. Of course, as a case such as Constance’s is only periodically reviewed as and when new information is received, or funding allows, there may still be a development in this area at a future date. Police are still looking for this killer, and Constance’s case will never be closed. The murder has been regularly re-appealed over the years, and it is still believed that somebody out there has knowledge of who this killer is, that the killer told somebody what he had done. In the latest re-appeal, in 2010, this was echoed by Gloucestershire police.

“It would be very unusual that in 25 years since it took place that person has not told someone what he has done. Someone out there must know something. The perpetrator could very well still live in Cheltenham. I would appeal to anyone with new information to come forward and contact us. It could help solve the town’s most notorious murder. The people of Cheltenham are still very aware of this crime and would like to see it solved,” – Detective Chief Inspector Dave Sellwood (Gloucestershire Police, speaking in 2010)


Any new information can be passed to police on 0845 090 1234.


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