“I had everything I ever wanted – loving parents, a nice home, and a wonderful husband and family. I thought the world was wonderful and that bad things didn’t happen. Then part of my family was suddenly stolen from me.” – Cathy – daughter
The city of Birmingham, the district of Northfield, 1992. Overbury Close looks to be a standard run of the mill estate, much like that would be found in any town, it’s a sprawling estate made up of semi-detached houses, a play park, and two twelve storey blocks of flats dominate the landscape. Tucked away opposite one of these blocks, away from the main estate, is a semi-detached bungalow situated next to a storage unit. It now sadly looks a bit ramshackle and the grounds overgrown, and it is unclear if the property is occupied at present. Regardless, the bungalow does have a dark history, for it’s just a little over twenty-five years since it was the scene of a brutal and horrific murder, and a re-appeal has been released on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the shocking crime.
The Smith family were everyday working class people, even down to having the most generic and populous surname in the country. This was a family like you would find everywhere, even down to having the most popular surname in the country – this is how ordinary they were.
The family consisted of 72-year-old Harry Smith and his wife, 73-year-old Mary, who were both enjoying their retirement years. The couple also had two children, Carla – who had married and lived in a different part of Birmingham, and Harold JR. Tragedy had struck the Smith family some years before in 1980, when Harold JR had been involved in a serious road accident, and as a result had been left confined to a wheelchair and requiring around the clock care. Since then, the couple had had their bungalow specially adapted for Harold’s wheelchair, and Mary had devoted her life to caring for him, with Harry joining her in doing so upon retiring from his job as a mechanic a few years previously. The family were well liked, well-respected churchgoers, and known throughout the locality, with Harry being especially known as a regular character in the now-closed Traveller’s Rest pub on Northfield’s Bristol Road South, familiar for the habitual white cap he would always wear. By all accounts, the family were close and had perhaps pulled together more so after Harold’s accident. Even though Cathy had moved away with her husband, she still spoke to her family almost each day by telephone – that was the kind of loving family that the Smith’s were. I stress were.
So when Cathy had not been able to speak to her family by telephone for a number of days, since the end of November 1992, she grew thoroughly alarmed. In times like that people always do tend to think that the worst has happened, and after several attempts contacting neighbours of the family and being told that, no, nobody had seen them, a worried Cathy decided to contact police. A police patrol was despatched to the house in Overbury Close, and when there appeared to be no signs of any response due to repeated knocking, plus an officer heading around the back of the bungalow, a decision was made for officers to force their way into the property, and they did so.
What they found there was a scene of absolute carnage, and sheer horror.
It was apparent from the moment police entered the bungalow that something had happened. The place had been ransacked, with contents of drawers and belongings strewn all over the floor. Moving throughout the property, police found no sign of the Smith family – until they got to the master bedroom.
Harry Smith was found lying on the floor with his hands tightly bound with one of his own ties, whilst Mary lay on the bed, also with her hands tied tightly in front of her and again with a necktie. Harold sat slumped in his wheelchair, his hands also bound and a sock used as a makeshift gag was stuffed into his mouth and secured with a dressing gown cord. The room was extensively blood-soaked, and it was clear that all three had been dead for a number of days – possibly since just after the last time Cathy had spoken to them on November 30th.
It was only following the post-mortems on all three members of the family was it realised just how much of a deranged killer, or killers, police were hunting. Harry had been stabbed close to 100 times and severely beaten about the head with a blunt instrument. Mary had also been beaten and stabbed around the head, neck and chest – and an attempt to remove her underwear was reported as having been made, although there was no evidence that she had been sexually assaulted. And Harold also had severe lacerations and stab wounds to his head, neck and chest – and had also been beaten with a club as he sat helpless in his chair. The murder weapons were decided to have most likely been a 5″ bladed kitchen knife and a heavy wooden club – although these were not found at the scene.
The police investigation for such a shocking crime was intense, and no clear motive for such a bloodbath was found. The family weren’t found to have any enemies, and although the ransacking of the bungalow and the fact that a small amount of money had been taken would point to robbery – most robbers do not massacre an entire family. There had been a high number of burglaries within the area in the months leading up to the murders, however, but this is usually a get in and get out kind of crime, and this is a different level. There were no reports of anyone seen entering or leaving the bungalow, no signs of forced entry to the bungalow, and no sounds of a struggle or screams were reported as heard. A mass search of the local areas near Overbury Close for murder weapons or any bloodstained clothing connected with the crime got underway, whilst police set to work looking at the local community to try to find any witnesses or establish a possible motive for why the Smith family had been targeted. Nothing conclusive was found in either, but a persistent rumour that police did discover was that Harry Smith was, wrongly as it was later established, rumoured to have enjoyed a big gambling win not long before he died. Was this the motive for the family’s bungalow being targeted – a suspected large sum of money being in the property?
Following the murders, nearly 1,700 people were interviewed and 350 written statements were taken. 340 vehicles connected to the area were checked and eliminated from the enquiry, and in total, 1,400 lines of enquiry were followed up on and investigated. A police psychologist, Dr Paul Britton, had been brought in early in the investigation and concluded after studying the evidence that the killer or killers had thoroughly enjoyed what they had done – and could strike again if they weren’t stopped. The whole community was left in fear with a deranged maniac still on the loose. But the breakthrough response was never there throughout the initial investigation and despite a £6,000 reward for information which was a massive sum at the time, by the first anniversary of the murders the investigation had just six police officers working on it. Crime sadly does not wait, and the investigation was wound down when police had little else to go on.
But it has been re-appealed now as it has been twenty-five years this year since the crime. And now police have breakthrough technology in DNA so that they can make a fresh review of evidence that is still retained from the 1992 investigation. Detective Inspector Ian Iliffe from West Midlands Police, part of the cold case review team, said:
“As part of our continual review of unsolved cases, we are taking the opportunity of the 25th anniversary of this most horrific case to appeal to anyone who has kept information they may hold secret for all these years to come forward. I can’t accept that the person who was responsible has kept this secret all their life. I believe that they would have shared what they did with someone else, maybe a family member or a friend. If you are that person please come forward. There have been massive advances in DNA technology and we will be reviewing all the evidence we hold from 1992 to see if it sheds any light on new lines of enquiry.”
Is robbery enough of a motive for such a shocking and callous crime, and what can be ascertained about those responsible? Firstly, it is likely that there was more than one killer. Even though Harry and Mary were elderly and Harold confined to a wheelchair, this is still three people to immobilise which would surely be too much for a single killer. Burglars usually do work in pairs as well, and the different methods of attack (stabbing and bludgeoning) suggests more than one killer, at least two in my opinion. I also believe that the killers were either from or very familiar with the Northfield area, if not living there then perhaps having attended school or worked there. The bungalow is set way off the main estate, and is adjacent to a utility building and opposite a block of flats. As it is a bit out of the way, it may have been deliberately targeted because of this. It may also have been apparent from a study of the property from outside that it was an old folk’s bungalow – for example, rails attached to the outer walls or pathway to assist with mobility. This would have been especially possible as the Smith family had indeed had their bungalow adapted to cater for Harold’s disability. A photograph taken in 1992 following the murders, the one shown above, does not show anything such as this apparent from the road, but they may have been attached around the back – did the killers see this and decide that a vulnerable and therefore easy target lived there?
A study of Google Maps also shows many possible ways of egress from the scene that would only really be familiar with someone from the area. And of course, criminals operate in areas that they are familiar with and comfortable in.
I believe it is possible, even likely that the Smith family, or at least Harry, were known to the killers, and that they were targeted deliberately because of the rumour of them enjoying a big gambling win, making robbery the motive here. I do not believe this was in any way a sexually motivated crime, despite reports of Mary’s underwear being interfered with. If sex was a motive, I believe it would have been carried out, so no, in my opinion it’s more likely robbery. Somebody known to the family – perhaps a patron of the Traveller’s Rest pub? – would also maybe have been invited into the bungalow, and this would explain the lack of forced entry. If not, then the killers could have entered the bungalow through an unlocked door and surprised the family. This could have been the front or rear door, that time of year it is dark not long after 4:00pm and is also too early likely to lock up for the evening. I believe that Harry, the most perceivable threat to the killers, was attacked first to immobilise him, possibly after challenging the intruders, and whilst he lay injured then both Mary and Harold were bound and gagged, and then Harry was also. It is unclear whether the weapons were brought to the scene by the killers, or were items used to hand that they had found at the scene. The property was then ransacked but no substantial sum of money found, and it is my opinion that individual members of the Smith family were tortured in full view of the others in an attempt to make one of them tell the killers where the money was in the house – it is unclear in what order this would have happened. But a chilling and distressing thought is that – was Harold, the most helpless member of the family, made to watch his parents die a horrific and brutal death in front of him, unable to move due to his paralysis – or was he targeted first as the person who both parents would be most devoted to and would wish to protect more?
The killers here are likely to have offended before – to leave no reported forensic evidence at the scene, no fingerprints and to be able to access and egress without drawing attention to themselves shows experienced offenders, although this may possibly have been their first murder. The angriness and complete overkill of the crime – after all, it would take some physical effort and almost two minutes in total to stab a person nearly 100 times – suggests that the killers are new to murder, they had no level of control and almost did not know that enough was enough. It may even have been bloodlust that took them over, or likely influenced by a violent fantasy, perhaps even emulating a violent horror movie that they had seen. I believe that this places them at the younger end of the offending scale with a certain level of immaturity, the mid to late teens to early twenties age range. Yet I do think that these had offended before, they must have spent a considerable amount of time at the property and did not flee upon the realisation of what they had done – once the line was crossed, they took time at the scene and with the victims.
These killers will likely have come to police attention before the murders somewhere – and likely following it, this is not a first offence, not this level of violence. They are or were from the locality of the crime, and they may of course now be in prison for a different crime, may have moved away or even emigrated – or they may even be in a hospital or dead themselves. Or they may still walk the area…..If the killers are still living, however, then I do not believe that a crime of this magnitude has not either been shared with someone in confidence out of guilt, or perhaps even bravado or as a threat. Somebody somewhere still likely harbours a guilty conscience and knows something that can end the enduring nightmare of the Smith’s surviving daughter, Cathy.
When interviewed some years after the murder about the cold case, Cathy gave her feelings:
“ I have never been dissatisfied with the police and I would always praise them. I know the case will never be closed, I know if anything does turn up, I will be the first to know. I think they probably are in some kind of prison. I like to think they are not walking around free. Part of me wants them to suffer like I am suffering now, but I just want them to say sorry. To lose three people was beyond belief; one would have been bad enough.”
Can you even begin to imagine what Cathy must feel still to this day?
The True Crime Enthusiast
I am pretty satisfied that the motive was robbery. They used an awful lot of violence – it was a particularly vicious, brutal, murder” _ Detective Inspector Brian Theobald
Brandon Hill in Bristol is a hill relatively close to the city centre, and dominated by the Cabot Tower, built to commemorate John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497. Today it consists of a vast, steep park and a beautiful and popular two-hectare nature reserve that is run by the Avon Wildlife Trust, who have their headquarters next to it. The Trust established their headquarters here in 1980, and it was here on Brandon Hill, on the morning of Halloween 1980, that a nurse walking to work made a shocking and gruesome discovery……
She was walking through Brandon Hill Park to begin an early morning shift at the nearby hospital, when out of the darkness she came across the body of a man lying face down on one of the footpaths that ran criss-cross through the park. He was lying in a large pool of blood, and had clearly visible – and obviously catastrophic head injuries. The nurse, utilising her medical training, felt for a pulse but sadly to no avail, the man was clearly dead and had been for some time. She hurried to get help, and soon police and an ambulance were at the scene.
By morning light, it was soon established by police just how savage an attack the dead man had suffered, and they believed that robbery was the motive, albeit robbery that had gone horribly wrong. There were several bank and credit cards scattered around the body, and a few metres away was a discarded and heavily bloodstained sand-filled traffic cone – which was later to be determined as having been the murder weapon.
The dead man’s jacket had also been torn from his body, and the inner pocket lining had been ripped. No money was found on the dead man’s person.
Before any murder investigation could get underway, police had to establish who the dead man was.
He was before long identified as 39-year-old Derek Grain, an aerospace contractor that had been working on a secondment to British Aerospace in Filton. Derek was from Hertfordshire, and had only been in Bristol just over two months – he had no permanent home there, and had been staying at the Unicorn Hotel on Bristol’s Prince Street while he worked at Filton. He was a distinctive looking man, with light coloured hair but a distinctive dark, dyed black beard – and people who knew him described him as a bit of a loner.
Being a loner does not mean that you are not well liked though, and those who knew him described Derek as a kind and cheerful person, one who was conscientious and would go out of his way to do somebody a good turn. Like many, Derek enjoyed a drink – and it was hinted at that he was rather a heavy drinker, but his workmates and supervisor claimed that even if this was the case, Derek was not the sort of person who would court trouble and become involved in brawls in pubs or clubs.
As a shift worker through his job as an aerospace engineer, Derek was not limited to going out just at the weekends and so on Wednesday 30th October, he had headed out into the pubs and clubs of Bristol city centre for some drinks as he had a couple of days free. Because of his distinctive beard, detectives found that they were able to trace his last known movements that evening. It was established that Derek had spent the evening drinking heavily in several pubs around the area of Park Street, which is relatively close to Brandon Hill and about a mile away from the hotel where Derek had been staying. He had visited at least two nightclubs that evening, Vicki’s and Curves, which were both situated on Park Street at the time, and he was remembered in at least the latter for his spending, paying for nearly each drink he had with a different note and making a show of having at least £70 to £80 in his pocket – a considerable sum of money back in 1980.
Derek had finished his night up in Curves nightclub, and was remembered leaving alone at about 2:00am and was seen heading towards the Brandon Hill area – which was the opposite direction to his hotel and which was one of the mysteries concerning the case that detectives could never get to the bottom of. Why was he heading that way? Somewhere on this journey, he met his killer.
The post-mortem concluded that Derek had been attacked from behind and battered to death with the sand-filled traffic cone, which had probably been taken by his killer from the site of some roadworks that were being undertaken relatively near to the entrance to the park that Derek had walked into. It was also established that his killer had kicked him several times in the head and chest as he lay dying – this was the opinion of the pathologist, who detailed the numerous skull fractures and lacerations that Derek had suffered. But why had this happened?
A search of the park got underway for another possible murder weapon, but all that was ever found was the heavily bloodstained traffic cone. And this was all police could glean from the scene – there were no fingerprints, and so much blood that it would have been impossible to determine if any of it had come from the killer or killers if they had perhaps injured themselves in the attack. Scores of people were traced who had been out that evening in the pubs and clubs that Derek had visited – which was a mammoth task due to the time of year it was. There were several Halloween celebrations on at the time and more people than normal were out and about in the city.
Detectives were convinced that the motive was robbery – and that Derek could have been set upon by more than one person. Giving an interview to the Bristol Evening Post at the time of the murder, the officer leading the hunt, Detective Inspector Brian Theobald, said:
“There is a possibility that more than one person was involved in this. I am having a second examination of the scene and am pretty confident the assailants were spattered with blood, at the very least. I am pretty satisfied that the motive was robbery. They used an awful lot of violence – it was a particularly vicious, brutal, murder”
Despite 40 detectives working on a massive enquiry for many months, and having been able to impressively piece together Derek’s last known movements – that was as close as they ever got to finding his killer. Not one witness was found who had heard a struggle or who had seen someone fleeing the murder scene. Derek was not married or in a relationship and had no children – so there was no jealous lover or ex, and he was not found to have had any known enemies or to have been in conflict or dispute with anyone, nor was he found to have been involved in anything criminal or disreputable. It seemed that the only possible explanation was that someone had followed him into the park with the intention of robbing him in an opportunistic crime, and things went tragically much further?
Avon and Somerset police have the case marked as “active with regular reviews”, but this has long been a cold case now. It is an extremely savage murder, and whilst researching this I thought about how brutal a weapon a sand-filled traffic cone would have been. It’s not a weapon one would consider, but it’s surprisingly weighty and would have caused extremely catastrophic head wounds. So, what then, were the possible motives for Derek’s murder?
Firstly, had Derek argued with someone that evening? He was drinking heavily and would soon have become intoxicated – did he spill a drink over someone whilst in this state, nudge the wrong person or upset or offend someone – and did this lead to a row? Was he followed out of the nightclub and attacked for this reason, and the money taken from him in a purely opportunistic act? Police reckoned that about £50 to £60 had been taken from Derek’s jacket – would that amount of money, a large sum at the time, prove too much for anyone to resist taking, even a thug with causing harm on the mind rather than robbery? There was nothing reported to suggest this was the case, however, Derek was not reported as having been involved in an argument with anyone and it is likely that if he had, other clubgoers would have remembered the verbal altercation that always goes hand in hand with acts such as these.
Why was Derek walking the opposite way to his hotel? It is of course possible that he was so drunk that he had no concept that he was walking the wrong way. If Derek had been heavily drinking, this is not only a possible reason, but a very probable one. It’s equally possible that someone had noticed him lurching about drunkenly and followed him into the park, then attacked and killed him in an orgy of violence in an impromptu and opportunistic crime.
But why the need to kill him at all? Surely you can overpower and rob a very drunk man without stopping to batter him so badly that his head was almost completely obliterated? The killer must have had to take the traffic cone in with him, or them, so were well prepared to use it to at least incapacitate Derek, and feeling the weight in it must have known that it would in the least seriously injure anyone struck with it. Perhaps Derek was hit and attempted to fight back, and his killer continued raining blows to silence him.
It is likely – I know this sounds like stating the obvious – that Derek’s killer, or plural of course, were violent offenders. I mean that more in the context that they will have had violence in their past and probably after Derek’s murder, and will have likely come to police attention. As with Lillian’s killer – this will be someone in the files. You do not commit such a savage murder, get away with it, and then never offend again, unless you are caught, incapacitated, or die. I believe it is also likely that there was more than one killer and the persons were local to the area, this is a crime that has the feel of being down to more than one person’s responsibility. They had to know the park well enough to feel comfortable in attacking someone there without risk of being disturbed, and they had to be able to make an easy egress too.
Did Derek’s killers see him flashing his cash in one of the pubs or clubs and then formulate a plan to rob him – or was this someone, fuelled by alcohol, who saw red and brutally battered a man to death over a minor slight or a spilled drink? How many savage killings are caused because they are alcohol fuelled, when the perpetrator isn’t thinking clearly and reacts fatally in a fit of drunken rage? The level of violence suggests that this is someone who has gone too far in their actions because they are fuelled by alcohol – and how must they have felt the next day, when they sobered up and had to face up to what they had done?
As is commonplace with so many historical unsolved cases, Derek’s took place long before many of the scientific advancements in detection, such as the establishment of DNA profiling, and the commonplace availability today of CCTV coverage and mobile phones. There is also no suspect list, no artists impressions available that may even years later jog a person’s memory, there are no witnesses and no forensic evidence or clues left by the killers in each case. Realistically, there would seem to be slim if any chances of either case being solved now barring a confession where someone’s conscience finally gets the better of them. It is a realistic prospect that the killers of Derek are still alive and still walking free, although if this were the case they would be advancing in years themselves now. I also believe that somebody out there, in each case, has held crucial information about the killer or killers but has never come forward, perhaps out of guilt, fear, or misplaced loyalty. Somebody surely remembers a night when someone came home with their clothes covered in blood, and must have noticed a change in that person for a time afterwards, or some sort of weight hanging over them, but said nothing.
Perhaps that still pricks at someone’s conscience to this day, but especially more so on each Halloween……
The True Crime Enthusiast
This week on The True Crime Enthusiast Podcast, we go back to the summer of 1998. A horrific and prolongued sex attack on a young girl was to open the floodgates and lead to the hunt for a serial rapist who is one of the most prolific sex attackers in British criminal history.
This week’s shoutout – truecrimefinand.squarespace.com