Saturday, 24 September 2011


Paulius Korsakas, 27, from Lithuania, battered Russian Igor Vinogradov, 37, in a drunken fury as he slept on the floor in Capel Road, ­Forest Gate, London, after a row left Korsakas feeling ‘‘humiliated or slighted’’.

Korsakas then attempted to burn the body to destroy the evidence, before texting his girlfriend to admit: “I broke one guy really badly”.Both men had come to Britain for a better life, the court was told.

Mr Vinogradov’s body was not discovered until January 31, 11 days after the killing.

Jailing Korsakas in September 2011, to life imprisoment with a recommendation he serves at least 17 years. Judge Peter Rook, QC, told him: “You deprived your victim of his most precious possession – life itself. This was a ferocious, severe and prolonged attack on a highly vulnerable man. You continued your ­attack despite his pleas and even attempted to destroy his body by fire. In my view those factors outweigh the limited mitigation in this case.”

Korsakas, of no fixed address, who moved to the UK in 2006, denied murder but was convicted after a trial at the Old Bailey.

Mr Vinogradov was kicked, punched and stamped upon. He died inhaling his own blood.

Adrian Darbishire, prosecuting, said Korsakas’s ­attack was ‘‘no more than drunken temper and loss of self control, resulting from some sense that he had earlier been humiliated or slighted’’.

In a statement, Mr Vinogradov’s mother Anna Rudinskaja said she had been devastated by the death.
It had resulted in tremendous stress and she has been ­admitted to hospital with a heart condition.
She said that her son moved to England to have a better quality of life.

Jonathan Mann, defending, said of Korsakas: “He came to this country looking for a better life, but that ended up with him losing his job and his family and a descent into ­alcohol and criminal ­activity.”


Leon Fyle, 23, has been convicted of killing a sex worker for the second time following a four-week retrial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at Southwark Crown Court on 21st September 2011 for murdering Destiny Lauren, 29, at her flat in Kentish Town, London.

The accused has protested his innocence since being arrested in 2009.

He was arrested in November 2009 and sentenced to a minimum of 21 years at a hearing in August 2010. But, earlier this year a Court of Appeal ruled his original conviction “unsafe”, triggering the second trial.

Detective Inspector Liz Baker said: “The murder of Destiny Lauren was brutal and pre-meditated.

“Her life was abruptly ended when Leon Fyle, a young man she had never met before, murdered and robbed her in her own home.

”She added: “Fyle has never shown remorse for what he did and instead put Destiny’s family and friends through the trauma of a second trial.”

Ms Lauren was a pre-operative transsexual who changed her name from Justin Samuels and began a new life living as a woman when she was 17 years old.

Her uncle, Paul Hill, was one of the Guildford Four, who were wrongly jailed for 15 years for pub bombings they didn’t commit.

The court heard that on the night of her murder Fyle telephoned Ms Lauren and met her at her flat in Leighton Crescent. He had sex with her before, the prosecution said, he strangled her and ran off with her jewellery, mobile phone and £350 in cash. He then took the bus to King’s Cross where he visited a brothel and spent £250 of the stolen money there, the court heard.

Ms Lauren’s brother, Lyndon Samuels, discovered Ms Lauren lying on her bed, naked and badly beaten, soon after the attack.

She was taken to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead and pronounced dead shortly after arriving.

At his first trial, the court was told that Fyle had lived a troubled life since spending his childhood in care homes and on the streets in gangs.

His first conviction for robbery was at the age of 12. By the age of 16 he had stabbed a man in the chest and left him for dead in an alleyway in south London.

Friday, 23 September 2011


When the jury at Winchester crown court found Danilo Restivo guilty of murder 28th June 2011, it brought to an end an international mystery that has baffled and fascinated observers for almost two decades. It's a tragic story that sometimes seems scripted by a screenwriter: there's a serial killer with a bizarre fetish, an innocent young girl, hints of organised crime and a dody priest.

Mr Justice Burnett told Restivo the murder in Bournemouth, Dorset, was so serious no minimum term would be appropriate. He said: "The seriousness of this offence is exceptionally high - namely the depravity of the killing, the careful planning and preparation, its sexual content and the previous killing of Elisa Claps - drive me to the conclusion that the alternative starting point (for a minimum prison term) of 30 years would not be appropriate. I can find no mitigation in this case, none have been advanced on your behalf. There is, in my judgment, no minimum period which could be properly set – you will never be released from prison."

The trial in which Restivo was found guilty was, in many ways, just the tip of the iceberg.

The story began back in 1993 in a forgotten region of Italy called Basilicata, also known as Lucania. It's a region that stretches from the arch to the metatarsal of the Italian boot. Almost entirely mountainous, with poor roads and no tourism, it seems like the land that time forgot. It's so remote that this is where Mussolini chose to send enemies of his regime such as Carlo Levi or the mafioso Calogero Vizzini; this is where the kidnapped John Paul Getty III was held captive back in the 1970s. Until the 1950s, some people were still, literally, living in caves, the famous sassi of Matera. Many of the villages are so remote that, even centuries after they arrived, the people still speak Albanian.

The region's capital city is an ugly place called Potenza. Prone to earthquakes and illegal building, it's now a concrete jungle with a spiral of potholed roads leading to the summit. It was here, on a busy Sunday morning on 12 September 1993, that a 16-year-old girl called Elisa Claps met a young man for a date. She was reluctant to go because he was a strange type: he was older than her and he had, according to gossip, a strange fetish – he used to cut women's hair on the back of buses. He was odd-looking too: he had thick hair, large lips and glasses that magnified his already bulbous eyes. He had told her he had a present for her for passing her retakes. Elisa felt sorry for him and went along.

They met in the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in the city centre at around 11.30am, just as mass was finishing. Elisa was never seen again. Her disappearance seemed inexplicable. There were so many people around and yet she had just vanished.

Suspicion immediately fell on Restivo. He claimed to have seen Elisa leave the church and that he had stayed there to pray. He returned home with a cut on his hand just over an hour later. He said he had fallen on a building site, but the cut was, strangely, to the back of his hand. That afternoon he went to Napoli and the priest of the Most Holy Trinity, Don Mimì Sabia, locked up the church and went off on retreat. Before anyone had realised the seriousness of Elisa's disappearance, two of the protagonists had already left the city.

Conspiracy theories
Ever since that first day, there have been lies and misinformation. "Everything I come across in this case," Gildo Claps, Elisa's oldest brother once said to me, "I've had to smash into a thousand pieces." There were immediately many false sightings. Various sources mentioned seeing Elisa in a white Fiat Uno, either in Potenza or Rome. Attention began to focus on a young man called Eris Gega, an Albanian who was said to have repeatedly lied about his movements that Sunday morning, claiming he had never met Restivo. Restivo, Gega and Elisa's friend Eliana De Cillis were all tried for giving false testimony. Of the three, only Restivo was found guilty.

The case gradually became, for many, an obsession, one of the iconic Italian mysteries that enabled people to engage in dietrologia, literally "behindery" or conspiracy-theorising. Elisa's face – her long, dark hair, thick glasses and carefree smile – haunted the nation. Silvana Ferrazzano was a friend of Elisa's who alleged that Elisa had been bundled into a white Fiat Uno and forced into prostitution. Three people with tenuous links to the case died in car crashes. On one Italian website, Popolo della Rete, there's a discussion forum about the Elisa Claps case with more than 3,000 posts, many of them essay-length monologues containing ideas, hunches, suspicions and accusations. More than a quarter of a million people have read the forum.

Strange, disparate pieces of evidence continued to emerge. The diary of Elisa was analysed and it was discovered that a page has been ripped out. Scientific tests on the few fragments they were able to reconstruct revealed that there were words written in Albanian. The pista albanese remained, for years, one of the best leads. In 1994, a traffic warden was convinced he had seen Elisa in Albania. Police and camera crews went to the country and even found someone who looked extraordinarily similar to Elisa. But there was no trace of Elisa herself.

In the meantime, Gildo had set up a website gathering information and leads regarding his sister's disappearance. One afternoon an email purporting to be from Elisa was sent to it. It claimed she was alive and well in Brasil and didn't want to be contacted. Gildo immediately ascertained that the email had come from an internet cafe in the centre of Potenza. When they rushed round there, they discovered that Restivo had just left the premises.

One of the people who studied the entire case for years, a Catholic priest called Don Marcello Cozzi, wrote recently of the extraordinary fact that there have been more depistaggi, "misleads", than leads: "There have been too many Elisas seen in Italy and around the world," he wrote wearily, "too many coincidences and half-truths and half-lies, too many errors and in the end too many oddities that one feels justified in believing a worrying hypothesis: the existence of a occult but organised production room . . . made up of strong but hidden powers . . . which went into action when it was necessary to intervene to defend someone or hide something."

The Claps family, their private investigator and the production team of Chi l'Ha Visto (the Italian equivalent of Crimewatch) were convinced that there was a concerted coverup. Suspicions were such that the entire investigation into the Elisa Claps case was taken out of local hands and moved to Salerno, some 120km away.

Attention also turned to the strange figure of Don Mimì. Until his death in 2008 he had been a stern, cultured priest, someone who was at the very centre of local power. Don Mimì repeatedly obstructed all investigations: he refused access to his church and his was the only church in Potenza not to ring bells for Elisa on the decade anniversary of her disappearance. Many of his congregation were from the upper echelons of local, even national, politics and a former Italian prime minister. According to Marco Gallo, a private investigator who has worked pro bono for the Claps family for more than a decade, Don Mimì was homosexual. He adds: "This whole story is a disaster. It's a complete, tragic mess. You never touch the bottom. Everywhere you put your nose there's something rotten."

Murder in Bournemouth
A genteel town on the south coast of England, Bournemouth is a far cry from Potenza. Amid the many pensioners are hordes of foreign students coming to improve their English. It seems far removed from the gothic noir of Italian mysteries: in a recent survey, Bournemouth was found to be the happiest place in Britain, with 82% of interviewees expressing contentment with their lot.

But in 2002, the town was to become unexpectedly linked to the Elisa Claps mystery. On 12 November, a seamstress called Heather Barnett was brutally murdered at 211 Capstone Road. She was found dead in her bathroom by her children on their return from school. They called the police and then ran out of the house, understandably in a state of extreme shock. The person who immediately comforted them, who was just arriving home as they ran out, was an Italian who lived in the house opposite, Danilo Restivo.

As the forensics experts went to work on the crime scene, it became obvious that this was a bizarre murder. There had been no forced entry. There were spatter stains on the patio doors of Barnett's sewing room and then long stains of blood going through the flat into the bathroom as if the assailant had dragged the dead or unconscious body. The deceased's bra had been cut between the cups and both breasts had been removed and placed on the floor. Her neck had been cut from ear to ear and strands of hair placed in both of her hands. Her trousers had been opened and lowered and a gloved hand placed inside her knickers, although there was no suggestion of sexual assault.

Using luminol to identify minute traces of blood, forensic investigators were able to ascertain that the murderer then walked back towards the sewing room, the bloodied footprints becoming fainter with each step. But there the footprints stopped: in the hall back to the front door there was no blood, leading them to suspect that the assailant had changed their shoes. The time of death, they estimated, was very soon after the last sighting of Barnett alive, when CCTV footage captured her white Fiat Punto turning into Capstone Road shortly after dropping her children off at school that morning.

Slowly a suspect emerged: in an interview with police the day after his mother's murder, her son Terry said that her keys had gone missing the week before after an Italian, "Danny", had come round to ask her to make some curtains. When police were conducting house-to-house inquiries five days after the Barnett murder and asked Restivo to show them the shoes he was wearing on 12 November, they found his Nike trainers in the bath, soaking in bleach. The trainers were confiscated.

A cunning, clever criminal
And yet, just as in the Elisa Claps case, police appeared unable to pin anything on Restivo. A man who appeared so socially dysfunctional, almost a little simple, was also, it seemed, a lucid, clever criminal, able to plan and execute murders without leaving any incriminating evidence. One of the original policemen who interviewed him in Italy after the disappearance of Elisa Claps recalled a man who was "prepared, cool, very cunning, precise in his answers".

What emerged when Dorset police put Restivo under surveillance was acutely worrying: Restivo had the habit of going to a secluded park outside Bournemouth. He was filmed watching single women, sometimes ducking into the long grass as they walked past. Even though it was spring he was seen wearing gloves. He would take off one shirt only to put on an identical one stashed in the boot of his car. He changed his trainers. On one occasion, coincidentally the 12th of the month, the same date that both Heather had been murdered and Elisa went missing, police were so concerned that they called in uniformed officers to search Restivo and his car. They found a filleting knife, two pairs of scissors, a balaclava and gloves. There was nothing illegal, as such, in those possessions, but common sense suggested that here was a man on the brink of committing another horrific crime.

As well as cunning and forensically clever, Restivo was also a man who was used to being molly-coddled, who made a habit of exploiting his childish, dysfunctional side to persuade women to care for him. He originally moved to Bournemouth in 2002 because he had met a woman online. Fiamma Marsango was a large, expat Italian suffering from arthritis. She had two sons from a previous marriage. Covert police recordings from their home revealed a couple in which the older woman looked after an almost babyish man: she chided him for his lies and tried to coax him into learning English. Restivo even appeared to think he was a child. He mused about "my wonderful innocence" and talked to his parents in Italy as if he were still a young boy.

Hair fetish
Now aware of Restivo's hair fetish, the police were gathering witnesses from Bournemouth who had had their hair cut. Two schoolgirls reported having their hair snipped when Restivo was sitting directly behind them on the bus. One of them described finding something white and sticky in her hair afterwards. Another man described seeing Restivo sitting behind a woman on a bus with her hair, and his hands, under a jacket placed on his lap. The inference was, of course, that he was masturbating. In one of the covert recordings from Restivo's home, he was heard talking of his love of hair: "[when I] touch the hair, hold them in the hand . . . then everything is visible, everything."

It emerged that Restivo also had a long track record of sadism. When only 14 he had tied up two young boys in the courtyard outside the city library where his father was director and tortured them, inflicting cuts with a small knife. Their families dropped charges against Restivo in return for the sum of 1m lire. He had also spied on young students living opposite him, phoning them to describe his excitement at their clothing or their movements. In many ways he was the archetypal serial killer, moving from the trauma of a botched operation on his tonsils to the infliction of wounds on others and, finally, to murder.

And yet, despite all that behavioural evidence, there was no smoking gun or bloodied blade. Police appealed twice on Crimewatch for witnesses to come forward. Forensic evidence had revealed that the lock of hair in Heather Barnett's left hand had been cut from her own head, but that the hair in her right hand wasn't hers. Extensive examination of that mystery lock revealed that the person from whose hair it had been cut had been to Florida and Spain or southern France shortly before. They had changed diets. Police were desperate to trace the person in the hope of linking her to Restivo but, despite the appeals on Crimewatch and extensive trips to Italy to take DNA samples from other women, they never found the owner of that mystery lock.

Evidence against Restivo was, however, slowly stacking up. When his flat was searched in 2004 a lock of hair tied with green cotton was found in a Tesco plastic bag under a chest of drawers. The trainers he had soaked in bleach had revealed minute traces of blood on the inside as if a bloodied sock had been placed inside them. The computer he claimed to have been working on at an educational centre on the morning of Heather Barnett's murder had been subject to an "evidential capture" by a digital forensics expert and it was shown that there was no user activity between 9.08am and 10.10am. His alibi, as in Italy, suddenly appeared very shaky. But most tellingly of all, a green towel found in Heather Barnett's flat revealed a DNA profile that was compatible with Restivo's: the chances of that DNA coming from someone other than Restivo were 57,000 to one. When confronted with the evidence from the towel, Restivo suddenly claimed – something he had never mentioned before – that he had taken it round to Barnett's house to get a match on the curtains he wanted to commission.

Discovery of Elisa Claps's body
The case against Restivo was reaching a critical mass when, on 17 March 2010, an extraordinary discovery took place back in Potenza. Elisa's body was, incredibly, found in the very church where she had gone missing 17 years before. Throughout Italy there was disbelief and indignation that she had been there all along. Workmen had been trying to fix a leaking roof in the church and, having gone up seven flights of stairs, they discovered, in a tiny, cramped garret beside the bell-tower, the mummified, skeletonised body covered by a few tiles.

The contrast with the familiar, smiling shot of Elisa that had been used to publicise her disappearance couldn't have been more stark: there were dark stains against the wall where her pelvis and chest would have been, though now they had shrunk and disappeared and all that was left was a black memory of her form on the wall. There were two shoes at odd angles with barely any legs in them, a jumper that looked more like a brown string vest, a head visible with some teeth but disconnected from the spinal cord. Elisa had been reduced to dust. Half-covered with debris were her perfectly folded glasses. It was a terrible, moving image, a reminder that a 16-year-old girl with her life before her had been left to rot, to sink into dust all alone.

It wasn't just Elisa's family that was outraged. Italy in general and the city of Potenza in particular were bewildered. Whether because of incompetence or corruption, the church had never even been searched thoroughly. It beggared belief: a family had lived with tragic uncertainty for 17 years; a city had searched in sidestreets and its soul in vain. There was a groundswell of fury and outside the now-impounded church a spontaneous "garden of Elisa" grew up with flowers and teddy bears and indignant messages demanding justice.

The forensic examinations on Elisa's remains were painstaking. Her clothing and skeleton revealed many insights into the nature of her death: cuts to her bones suggested that she had received at least nine stab wounds from behind, largely to her ribs, and three from in front. One, going through the front of her neck to her spinal cord, might have been made with a pair of scissors. Her hands, rehydrated to reveal cuts, demonstrated classic "defence wounds". Her trousers, top, bra and knickers had been cut with scissors and her trousers unzipped and lowered. There were the dessicated remains of a single strand of hair, "pelliferous" material, in each hand. Traces of haemorrhages to the inner thighs and mammaries suggested the attack may have contained a sexual element. Most tellingly, DNA matching the DNA profile of Restivo had been found, although the source of it – saliva or blood – was uncertain. A red button had been discovered underneath Elisa's body. It measured 13mm. It was exactly the same dimension and colour as the buttons of ecclesiastical cassocks. It wasn't long before a photograph emerged of Don Mimì with a button missing from his cassock.

The arrest of Restivo
Within weeks of the discovery of Elisa Claps, Restivo was arrested in Bournemouth, accused of the murder of Heather Barnett. The discovery of Elisa was the last piece of evidence the British police needed. The coincidences were too great for common sense to ignore: both women, on different sides of the continent, had connections with Restivo. Both had been found with severed clothing and lowered trousers, their hair and their throats cut. Hair had been found in both of their hands. When a judge, in a ruling before the start of the trial in Winchester, allowed the introduction of the Italian evidence because of its "striking similarity", it finally looked as if the police had a convincing case against the "Barber of Potenza".

Restivo's conviction for the Heather Barnett's murder brings to a close an extraordinary story, but many mysteries remain. Some observers are convinced that a compulsive, psychotic killer such as Restivo must have commited more murders between 1993 and 2002. Over the years he has been linked to many other deaths, particularly to a series of brutal murders in southern France and Spain. In September 1997 a young French-Algerian woman from Perpignan, Moktharia Chaib, was stabbed and her breasts, as well as other body parts, removed. Marie Hélène Gonzalez had, in 1998, been brutally mutilated, having disappeared in Perpignan. In 1999, in Puerto de Alcuida, Majorca, a British woman called Yvonne O'Brien was stabbed 40 times and one of her breasts was removed. On Easter Day 2003 a South Korean woman adopted by an Italian family, Erika Ansermin, disappeared. Her body has never been found but a photograph of her, downloaded from an Italian news channel, was found on Restivo's computer.

The links to those murders may be fanciful, but there's one murder in the same suburb of Bournemouth that many are convinced was commited by Restivo. In July 2002, a young South Korean girl, Jong-Ok Shin, known as Oki, was walking home late at night. She was stabbed and left for dead. She died shortly afterwards, having described a man in a "mask". Given her limited English, some have assumed she meant a balaclava. There are unconfirmed reports that her hair was also cut. The connections to Restivo are tenuous, but suggestive: the murder happened only three blocks from his house; it took place – like the murders of Elisa and Heather – on the 12th of the month. A man called Omar Benguit was tried an extraordinary three times for the murder (because of two mistrials). His eventual conviction for the murder appears to many, including professional criminologists, a tragic miscarriage of justice.

Italian church coverup?
But it is, of course, in Italy that most mysteries remain. There is growing evidence that Elisa's body was found two months before the official discovery in March last year and that the official discovery was a mise-en-scène. According to one of the interim priests in the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, two cleaners discovered the body in January 2010 but were persuaded to keep quiet while the Catholic church, aware of the furore that would result, fretted about what to do. The leaking roof was, allegedly, a pretext to send workmen up to the garret two months later. In fact, workmen had been in that same garret back in the mid 1990s and had seen only a huge pile of tiles and rubble. The fact that Elisa's body was found as it was, exposed and with her glasses perfectly folded at her feet, suggested to many that the crime scene had been tampered with, that tiles and rubble had been removed in a deliberate attempt to expose the corpse. And even though the famous red button from the scene was found not to match the others from Don Mimì's cassock, the role of the late priest is still highly suspicious. He claimed never to have known Danilo Restivo, but photographs have since emerged of him attending the man's 18th birthday party. Restivo was a regular in his church. Why would he lie about something so innocent? And what lengths would he – an eminently blackmailable man – have gone to hide the truth?

Restivo will now be extradited to Italy and tried for the murder of Elisa Claps. But in many ways the story is now less a whodunit than a who-covered-up. Having fought against the pomposities and silences of the Italian elite for almost two decades, the courageous Claps family are now demanding that not just Restivo, but also his accomplices, should face the music. "Because," Gildo said to me recently, "if this is allowed to happen, if with the right connections, with the right power and complicities, you can remain unpunished despite murder, if this is allowed to happen, it means this country is definitively compromised. It's as if this story of Elisa is a way for the country to redeem itself. Because if it's not possible to obtain justice for an innocent 16-year-old girl who goes missing in a church, well, it means there really is no hope for this country."

Now, almost 18 years since she first went missing and over a year since her mummified body was found, Elisa is finally being buried. On 1 July her body will be released, and her funeral will take place on 2 July in the open air in Potenza. "She's never going back inside a church," her determined mother told me a few weeks ago. Perhaps only when she's finally been laid to rest will her familiar, carefree face no longer haunt the Italian conscience.

Tobias Jones's book about the Elisa Claps mystery, Blood on the Altar, will be published by Faber & Faber in the spring of 2012.

Friday, 9 September 2011


On 26 May 2011, John Cooper was jailed for life at Swansea Crown Court, ending his 25 year-long spree of gruesome violence in a quiet corner of Pembrokeshire, Wales. In that time, he had been responsible for two double murders, several sexual assaults and burglaries, and an armed robbery.

His reign of terror began in December 1985 when he killed Richard and Helen Thomas in a bungled robbery at their Milford Haven home. After tying up Helen Thomas he was disturbed by Richard, her brother, returning to the farm. Both were then shot dead before Cooper set Scoveston Manor alight in an effort to destroy evidence. At the time, he lived less than a mile away in a rented property at Jordanston. But he remained undetected despite a 150-man police operation and extensive media appeals.

But he was hardly in hiding - in May 1989, he brazenly appeared on national television on ITV's Bullseye quizshow. Less than a month later on 29 June 1989, Cooper attacked again in broad daylight. Peter and Gwenda Dixon from Witney, near Oxford were enjoying their last holiday walk on a coastal path near Littlehaven when Cooper attacked them. He tied Peter Dixon up, forcing 51-year old Mr Dixon to reveal his bank card details, he then shot them. Peter was shot three times and Gwenda Dixon twice in an execution-style killing. Their bodies were discovered in thick undergrowth six days later - it was clear that Gwenda had been subjected to a sexual assault.

                                                      Richard Thomas

                                                       Helen Thomas

Witness sitings
Cooper withdrew just over £300 from Peter Dixon's bank account after the attack. Police released an artist's impression of the suspect, based on witness sightings of a scruffy man acting suspiciously at cashpoints in nearby towns. Many years later, the jury at the murder trial would be asked to compare this drawing to the footage of Cooper on Bullseye. But the similarities were not noted at the time.

Instead, police followed several false leads. One suggestion was that the Dixons had been killed because they had stumbled upon a secret IRA cache on their walk. Despite two Crimewatch appeals for information about the scruffy man and thousands of police interviews, no concrete leads were found. Slowly, the case was wound down, though it was never closed.

Burglaries and an armed robbery

During the same period, Cooper continued to terrorise communities in Pembrokeshire. He carried out a number of burglaries, stashing the stolen goods in local hedges and bushes. In 1996, he threatened five teenagers with a sawn-off shotgun in Milford Haven, only two fields away from Scoveston Park. Disguised by a balaclava, he demanded money, then subjected two of the girls to serious sexual assaults.

That same year, he also committed an armed robbery at an isolated dwelling nearby, occupied by a lone female in Sardis. But his luck was running out. When the woman raised the alarm, Cooper fled the house, discarding his balaclava, gun and gloves in undergrowth on his way home.
Police found the items, and in January 1998, Cooper was jailed for 16 years for burglary and armed robbery. During the burglary investigation, police took a large amount of evidence from his house and surrounding fields. That evidence would be vital for pinning him to the murders and the rapes later on.

                                                        Peter Dixon

                                                   Gwenda Dixon

Operation Ottawa: Closing the net
In 2006, police reopened the case files on the murders and the Milford Haven attacks. After two years of sifting through thousands of exhibits, witness statements and images, police noticed similarities between all three cases: a similar geographical area, a rural location, the use of a shotgun and the attempts at robbery. John Cooper became their number one suspect, but police still needed evidence.

Fortunately, police had retained enough evidence from the murders that forensic scientists were able to conduct a thorough re-examination. DNA technology and the process of investigating cold cases had advanced a lot since the 1980s, so scientists could test far more evidence than before.

The evidence: Shorts

Scientists examined a pair of shorts that they had found in Cooper's house while gathering evidence for the burglaries trial. Sensitive DNA technology revealed that a minute fleck of blood on the shorts matched Peter Dixon's profile. In addition, there were fibres on the shorts that were identical to those found on Richard Thomas's sock and on the Milford Haven victims' clothes. This linked Cooper to both murders and the rape.


Forensic scientists found glove fibres from the branches that had been used to hide the Dixon's bodies and on tapings taken from their bodies. This linked Cooper to the murder scene, as it was known that he had thrown away a glove in hedge near his house, found amongst jewellery from his burglaries.

Fibres from the balaclava worn by Cooper during the attacks were found amongst floor sweepings taken from a shed belonging to him.


In an interview with Cooper, police were alerted to the potential relevance of the shotgun used in the Sardis robbery. The forensic team found that the gun had been repainted. Below the layers of paint was DNA matching Peter Dixon's profile.


Cooper also stole keys from his victims - 503 sets of keys were recovered from his property and cess pit, including keys stolen during the course of burglaries. They included a key from a property belonging to Richard and Helen Thomas.

Armed with the evidence, police arrested and charged John Cooper. After a nine week trial, the man described as "highly predatory" by the judge was convicted of two double murders, rape and a sexual assault and five attempted robberies. Twenty five years of painstaking work by the police and the forensic team had finally delivered justice to Cooper's victims and families.


Dena Thompson is every man's worst nightmare.

For almost 20 years, she used sex and deception to extort hundreds of thousands of pounds from a string of lovers.

But her most powerful weapon was murder. This is the story of how police caught The Black Widow.

Her victim

Richard first met Dena through a lonely hearts column in 1998 and was instantly smitten. But unbeknownst to him, for Dena, their courtship was merely a game and one she had played before.

It was to end in a vicious attack 15 months later – one which Richard was lucky to survive.


In the early days of their relationship, Dena used a number of well-practised ploys to hook her new lover.

She flattered Richard, pretending to share his hobbies and showing an interest in everything he did.

She lied about her wealth, claiming to have £300,000 from a lottery win in an high interest bank account. She even invented a fictitious illness - telling Richard she was suffering from terminal breast cancer.

Dena with Richard Thompson

Finally, came the promise of a new life abroad together. Richard said: "Her skill was honing in on people's hopes and ambitions…it can make you blind to what was happening."

The couple married and, from their Sussex home, they started making plans for a new life together in Florida.

The attack

But eight months later, on New Year's Day 2000, everything changed.

The pair started the day with a bath and as they dried off, Dena suggested they play a game.

She tied Richard's hands behind his back, put tape around his ankles and placed a towel over his face.

But as Richard heard rustling noises coming from the bedroom, he immediately sensed something was wrong and decided to make a bid for freedom.

He said: "Something in me said there's something maybe not quite right here. It was at that point I freed my hands. Had I not freed my hands at that moment, I would not be talking to you now."

As survival instinct kicked in, Richard put aside his feelings of love and trust for the woman he had married. He struggled against her – even sticking his fingers in her eyes as he fought for his life.

He said: "Something then gave. She broke down, then said, 'It's all been a lie'."

Immediately after the attack, Dena packed her bags and left. That night, Richard lay silent – too stunned to tell anyone what had happened.

But the next day, the extraordinary extent of her lies was to become apparent, when an estate agent called at the house.

He told Richard he was there to see Dena – explaining he had been instructed to sell the house. He seemed surprised to see Richard there too, as he said Dena had told him that he was going to be in Florida.

It was then that Dena's plan became clear.

Richard said: "She was going to kill me, tell everyone I was in Florida and then live happily ever after with the proceeds of the house."

With the ugly truth dawning on him, Richard went to the police.

Alarm bells

Officers investigating Richard's story soon noticed worrying similarities with a previous case – and alarm bells began to ring.

Six years earlier a man by the name of Julian Webb was found dead at his home in suspicious circumstances.

Julian's wife had told police he'd been depressed for days before taking a lethal overdose of anti-depressants.

The grieving widow was none other than Dena Thompson.

Fatal attraction

Police looked back over the case surrounding Julian Webb's death and were struck by the similarities to Richard's story.

So they began to trace all of Dena's previous relationships – with a view to reopening the investigation.

They were staggered by what they discovered. Their work revealed a trail of men lured in, and then conned, by Dena.

Police said once these men trusted her, Dena would persuade them to let her deal with their bank accounts. She stole credit cards and used them without her lovers' knowledge. Some of her victims told police they had felt a 'fatal attraction' to Dena, saying it seemed too good to be true, but that they had not been able to resist.

Dena was arrested, but although she admitted conning money from men, she denied trying to kill Richard and claimed it was self-defence.

The jury believed her story and she was acquitted. The Black Widow had got away with it…for now.

Uncovering the past

But the investigating team refused to give up. Police were determined to explore the suspicious death of Dena's previous husband – Julian. So they took the drastic step of having his body exhumed.

Dena had always claimed Julian had taken an overdose of her own anti-depressant, Dothiepin. But forensic tests on Julian's body did not seem to shed any more light on the situation – just confirming that this was indeed the drug that killed him.

Police were mystified. Dothiepin tasted very bitter, so officers couldn't understand how the taste could have been masked.

Dena was questioned again – but gave nothing away.

So, with little more than circumstantial evidence to go on, police started going back through Dena's old statements with a fine-toothed comb.

And they discovered she had lied throughout.

Missing link

Then, a crucial lead emerged, in the form of an American friend of Julian's. When police tracked him down, his testimony was the turning point that transformed the entire investigation.

He told police that on the night of his death, Dena had fixed Julian a hot curry. This was the missing piece of the jigsaw, as police realised she had used the hot curry flavour to hide the taste of the Dothiepin.

So police now knew how Dena had murdered her husband. Then, an interview with a next-door neighbour revealed why she had done it.

The neighbour in question had heard the couple arguing the day Julian died. They were fighting about money.

It was clear Julian had found out Dena had been spending his money. And as soon as he'd discovered her secret, he had to die.

For Dena, it was all about the money. By mixing a toxic cocktail of drugs into her husband's curry, she ensured his death would look like suicide…and she would inherit everything.

Within 24 hours of Julian's death, Dena was on the phone to his employers, asking about how to claim his pension. She had also contacted the mortgage company, asking how to redeem their mortgage.

Dena had subsequently invented a litany of contradictory explanations for Julian's death.

Detective Chief Inspector Martyn Underhill (ret), the senior investigating officer in the case, said: "That was massively damning for me, because she came up with something like nine different versions."

End game

The police had uncovered enough. It was time to charge Dena with Julian's murder. It was a charge Dena denied yet again. But this time, the jury were not convinced by her story. She was found guilty and sentenced to life.

The Black Widow's web of deceit had unravelled and the game was over.


On 25th March 2000, the body of Charalambos Christodoulides (known as Charles) was found in a car inspection pit in a warehouse in Kilburn, North London. He had been beaten and strangled, his body wrapped in duvets and binbags and covered in paint stripper. It would be ten years before his killers were brought to justice.

Charles moved over from Cyprus in the mid-60s. Although he was highly educated, he was a reclusive character who would spend his days going to the bookies before travelling to Leicester Square, where he would sit watching the world go by until 3am. Working as a live-in caretaker at a warehouse, it was his livelihood which would lead to his death.

                                            Charalambos Christodoulides

Police quickly established that Charles was totally innocent of any real crime, but there was still a vast amount of work to do. The warehouse was huge, and police had to search every inch for clues, finding a wealth of forensic evidence throughout. Along with DNA evidence taken from cigarette butts and brown tape used to wrap Charles’s body, police also found footprints and fingermarks which appeared to belong to the Charles’s killer or killers. With thousands of pages of documents, hundreds of witness statements, and a mass of telecommunications data to trawl through, it was inevitable that the investigation would take some time. But, despite the size of the investigation, police gradually exhausted all their early leads.

By late 2001, when DI Brent Hyatt came on board, the focus of the investigation was beginning to move to one man, Thanos Papalexis. The son of a Greek shipping magnate, Papalexis had attempted to make his own way as a property developer, racking up massive debts in the process. As Hyatt and his team began digging into Papalexis’s financial dealings, they began to suspect that Papalexis had planned to buy the warehouse where Charles was living, before selling it on for a quick profit. But there was one problem; the man looking to buy the warehouse had no idea that Charles lived there, and Papalexis thought he would call off the deal if he found out.

Suddenly, it appeared that Papalexis had a motive for getting rid of the caretaker. Coming under increasing pressure to complete the deal from both sides, it seems that Papalexis panicked and decided to get rid of the problem – Charles.

                                       The tape used to wrap Charles's body

As Police trawled back through their evidence, they found evidence linking Papalexis to the scene. This did not mean he was guilty – he had been in the warehouse on a number of occasions attempting to seal the property deal. Police were closing in on Thanos, but they had another issue to deal with. Fingerprints and footwear impressions recovered from the scene suggested that more than one man had committed the murder. Detectives had to find out who these men were.

As the murder team continued their painstaking search for the killer, Papalexis was long gone. With his business failing and blood on his hands, he decided to make a fresh start by moving to Palm Beach, Florida. Living a playboy life, he threw lavish parties at his rented mansion, spending vast amounts of money on private jets and prostitutes. In 2004, while dating the high–class escort Rebecca DeFalco, he even admitted to killing a “nobody” who was getting in the way of a deal. It would come back to haunt him in court.

                                The car pit where Charles's body was found

In 2003, detectives had their first major breakthrough. Ylli Xhelo, an Albanian asylum seeker, was arrested on a drugs charge. His DNA matched that taken from the scene. 3 years later, Robert Baxhija, another Albanian, was again arrested on a similar charge. Again, his DNA linked him to the scene of the crime. The following year, while re-examining hundreds of old exhibits, police found Baxhija’s fingerprint on the binbag used to tie up Charles’s body. Police, beginning to build a strong case, had also found out that both the Albanians had worked for Papalexis at the time of the murder. The net was tightening.

With enough evidence to charge, police finally arrested Baxhija and Xhelo in 2008. Following a search of Papalexis’s solicitors, they now had proof that he had planned to sell on the warehouse after purchase. With this proof of motive, police were ready to make an arrest. In November that year, he was arrested in a pizza restaurant in Palm Beach and extradited.

During a lengthy trial, Papalexis denied all knowledge of the murder while Baxhija and Xhelo claimed that Papalexis had forced them into it. In September 2009, a jury unanimously decided that Papalexis was guilty. The other two were convicted following a retrial in 2010.

Still devastated ten years after Charles’s murder, the conviction is finally a chance for his family to get some peace.