Murder by the Sea: Michael Downes

Anyone who doubts the value of bobbies on the beat in these days of major police cuts should consider the case of Michael Downes in Blackpool in the 1970s and 80s.

Two years after the cruel murder of 64-year-old widow Catherine Weaver in 1978, another woman, Hilda Keefe, 64, spotted an intruder at the Blackpool home she shared with her 87-year-old mother.

Amid the fun and beauty of Blackpool, serial killer Michael Downes looked for victims. Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Hilda yelled for help and the intruder fled – leaving behind some washing-line pieces. A local PC called Dave Milner recalled that lengths of washing line were used to secure Catherine Weaver. He took an interest in the case and called on Hilda and her mother regularly.

On one visit Hilda said it was a shame that the man had never been caught. After all, he had been wearing such a distinctive green jacket. She had even seen him herself when was out and about.

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Crime, manhunts and classic pop on Portobello Radio

It was fascinating to chat with Portobello Radio host Aidan McManus last night. He’s a walking encyclopaedia of rock music, local history and unsolved crimes.

He is also a guide for the highly rated FlipsideLondon Tours, which explore London as home to David Bowie, Joe Strummer and the Clash, the punk scene and gangsters. His enthusiasm for music and local history is absolutely infectious.

The 1960s Nude Murders case, which occurred on his Notting Hill manor, is one of his interests. Which was why he got me on his show to talk about the case and how London has changed – check out the broadcast here.

I popped into the Castle on Portobello Road before heading over to meet Aidan. This was formerly the Warwick Castle, which was used a lot by a couple of the killer’s victims at the time, Mary Fleming and Frances Brown.

Prince Buster and The Beatles

In a grim show of gallows humour, no doubt fuelled by a few drinks, several women involved in the sex trade even had a sweepstake in the pub one night on who would be the killer’s next victim.

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The Trial of Christine Keeler


When researching The Hunt for the 60s’ Ripper I came across a book that really shocked me.

This was Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK, written by Geoffrey Robertson QC and published in 2013. It is a slim but angry look at the Profumo Scandal.

This was the 1963 hoo-hah in which Secretary of State for War John Profumo was forced to resign for lying about an affair with a young woman – Christine Keeler. His philandering had apparently also jeopardised national security because Keeler knew Soviet naval attache Yevgeny Ivanov.

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Murder by the Sea new series

I’ve heard CBS Reality’s Murder by the Sea is returning in January (Tuesday 7th 10pm).

For those who haven’t seen it, the premise is that the jolly seaside resort is often the setting for unusual and sometimes frightening homicides.

Why should a place we associate with fun, sun and relaxation suffer such crimes? Having been involved as a talking head in all four series so far, I think several factors are important.

There is the transient nature of holiday resorts. Thousands of pleasure-seekers and workers flock in during the season, meaning many let their guard down and mingle with strangers in search of a good time.

Blackpool and Ilfracombe

One episode was about Stephen Akinmurele, 21, who moved to Blackpool to work as a barman. He murdered three people in their senior years, including his former landlady.

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ITV drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen

ITV has just announced a new three-part drama about murderer Dennis Nilsen.

Called Des – Nilsen’s nickname – it has top-quality talents involved, including David Tennant (a long way from Doctor Who here), Daniel Mays (Line of Duty) and Jason Watkins (The Crown). It is also based on Brian Masters’ landmark book, Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen.

ITV has a decent record of producing serious, sensitive dramas about some of Britain’s most grotesque murderers.

Among them I would place This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, Appropriate Adult (about Fred West) and the recent A Confession (the murder of Sian O’Callaghan).

True-crime controversy

However, there is a fine line to tread with such difficult subjects. True crime is often attacked for being lurid and crass, virtually treating real tragedies and grief as part of a horror genre.

Brian Masters’ book, while it had its critics, was a serious attempt to understand how Nilsen was able to prey on young vulnerable men.

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Top 10 true-crime books

Great research, vivid writing, historical context – the best true crime can give compelling insight into the kind of personalities that commit notorious crimes. In no particular order, here are 10 true-crime books that I particularly admire…

Oswald’s Tale by Norman Mailer 1995

Forget the grassy knoll, mafia hitmen, Castro malcontents, CIA plotters – it was Lee Harvey Oswald what done it. Norman Mailer created a convincing portrait of a pathetic nobody who wanted to make a name for himself. He’d flirted with celebrity by ‘defecting’ to Russia in 1959, marrying a Russian, and attempting to shoot a general. Then, when he heard the President’s motorcade was passing the book depot where he’d just got a job, he reached for his $22 rifle. An unforgettable book.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara 2018

Not many true-crime authors can be said to have solved a historic case. Michelle McNamara, however, may eventually get some credit for the arrest made last year in the Golden State Killer investigation. She was a journalist who wrote here of her obsession with this grotesque series of home rapes and then murders. Sadly, the author died before the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, a former cop suspected or 50 rapes, 13 murders and many burglaries. However, her proposal for the use of ancestral DNA and geographic profiling may have played a part in the police taking a new approach to the unsolved case. An absolutely must-read, genre-busting book.

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Victim’s son encouraged by new focus on Nude Murders case

I was surprised and delighted to be contacted recently by Frank Quinn, the son of one of victims in the Hammersmith Nude Murders case.

This was, of course, the unsolved serial-killer investigation from the 1960s that I cover occasionally on this blog, having first written about it in The Hunt for the 60s’ Ripper.

Frank is the son of Frances Brown, who was the fifth of six women to be murdered.

The killer, who successfully eluded what was then the biggest police manhunt in history, picked up the women in his car or van, strangled them and left their bodies at public spots around west London. Dubbed Jack the Stripper by newspapers, he removed their clothing and jewellery, and sometimes their teeth, leaving few forensic clues for police.

Paul Quinn, partner of murdered Frances Brown, victim of the serial killer known as ‘Jack the Stripper’, speaking with a friend of Frances’s in Shepherds Bush, November 1964 (Mirrorpix)

‘The case has dominated my life,’ Frank told me. He feels it has been shrouded in mystery for too long, and is encouraged now that ‘things are coming out’.

Dark Son: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

The BBC4 documentary, Dark Son, followed up the findings in my book earlier this year. This pointed to convicted child killer Harold Jones as the man who should be considered the number-one suspect.

‘I found it an excellent documentary,’ Frank said when we spoke by phone. ‘It’s something I’ve been waiting for a long time. I never thought in my lifetime I’d ever see it happen.’

Harold Jones served 20 years for the murder of two little girls in Wales

He is hoping the Met will make a serious attempt to reopen the case. In particular, he thinks they should look into Jones’s employment and driving records.

It is thought the killer may have used a grey Hillman Husky and that he worked on the Heron Trading Estate, where the bodies were stored before being dumped.

‘I’m convinced it was Jones,’ says Frank.

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Murder by the Sea: Louisa Merrifield

Of the six cases featured in the latest Murder by the Sea series, Louisa May Merrifield’s is the one I would most like to research further.

The Blackpool Poisoner was the final episode on CBS Reality’s British series last week, and it is fascinating.

In 1953 Louisa went to work as a housekeeper for a rather cranky old gal called Sarah Ricketts, aged 79. As I point out during the programme, Louisa was something of a dodgy character, having had 20-odd jobs in three years prior to this.

Panoramic view of Blackpool sands at low tide with the tower and central pier in the distance http://photoeverywhere.co.uk

Murder at the bungalow

Louisa and her third husband, Alfred (who was 24 years her senior at 71) moved into Mrs Ricketts two-bed bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road, Blackpool.

The housekeeper got her employer to change her will, leaving her £3,000 bungalow to Louisa and her husband. Soon after Louisa put rat poison in the old lady’s favourite treat – a jar full of jam.

As Murder by the Sea makes, Louisa was greedy and boastful. She made several blunders and was soon arrested.

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Murder by the Sea: Barry Rogers and Penelope John

It is hard not to feel great sympathy for Rhianne Morris, who appeared on this week’s Murder by the Sea.

She was the girlfriend of Barry Rogers, who, with his mother Penelope John, went to jail in 2018 for murdering his grandmother, Betty Guy.

Barry Rogers and Penelope John

It is clear Rhianne is still haunted by her time with Rogers, who was abusive to her. She would later come to discover that while they were together, Rogers and his mother concocted their callous plot to murder 84-year-old Betty, a former nurse.

Once again Murder by the Sea, presented by the eccentric Geoffrey Wansell, uncovered a dark side to a beautiful coastal area, this time Pembrokeshire.

Matricide is a rare crime. As this episode makes clear, however, for a mother and son to collude in the killing of the mother’s mother is even rarer.

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Hatton Garden ITV

ITV’s Hatton Garden drama has been engrossing.

The language is ripe and the cast – including Timothy Spall and Kenneth Cranham – is excellent. The Diamond Wheezers who burgled the underground safe-deposit company in London’s jewellery district in 2015 is a fascinating true-crime story.

While pulling off this shocking theft, the veteran lags are also gasping, collapsing, falling asleep and taking plenty of toilet breaks.

That light-hearted side is excellently done, scripted by Jeff Pope and Terry Winsor. Pope in particular has a strong record in dramatising serious crime stories for TV, including Appropriate Adult, This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and Mrs Biggs.

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