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.
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.
Distinctive green jacket
PC Milner knew there had been no mention of a green jacket in her witness statement. He decided to keep an eye out for such a jacket himself.
He eventually saw a man in a similar jacket crossing a railway bridge near where Hilda lived. This was Michael Downes, a sometime delivery driver, loner and man with a murder record. He had killed a cab driver when he was serving with the army in Libya.
He was brought in for questioning, but had to be released for lack of evidence at that time. However, PC Milner put his suspicions on record about Downes.
This eventually bore fruit eight years later when another murder – that of guest house owner Betty Morris, 70 – took place in 1988. Detective Superintendent Jack Ashton, remembering the earlier arrest and suspicions about Downes, decided to arrest him even before a conclusive fingerprint was found at the crime scene.
Murder by the Sea on CBS Reality
Downes was sentenced to at least 25 years in jail, with a psychiatrist describing him as an ‘extremely dangerous man’. He committed vicious sexual attacks on lone older women, usually after some setback in his life.
As recounted in tonight’s Murder by the Sea on CBS Reality (10pm), it is striking that PC Milner’s concern, local knowledge and compassion was so instrumental in closing the net on Downes.
I am one of the contributors to tonight’s documentary and found Downes to be genuinely disturbing and heartless. Had it not been for a style of neighbourhood policing that now seems so much a thing of the past, he could have killed more vulnerable women.