Inside the village of hate

It was a peaceful, sleepy rural parish. Then the poison-pen letters started to arrive. By Mary Braid
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Someone is very, very sick," says the middle-aged regular staring bleakly into his lunch-time pint, at the King William IV pub in the quiet, pretty Leicestershire village of Countesthorpe. The landlord, Richard Gurney, nods his agreement. "And the police seem to have come to a dead end."

Across the road, just 50 yards away, protected from the drizzle by a glass-covered noticeboard, the "sick" person's work is on very public display.

Police have released several tantalising extracts of his or her anonymous, malicious messages, delivered in thin, spidery handwriting, during a two- year hate-mail campaign. One taunts "A Jezebel and Judas among you", another asks "What is it like to have so many people know you?" and a postscript sinisterly teases "Watch this space."

It might be the opening to a murder-in-a-rural-idyll type of thriller. Except that this is for real. The handwriting is on show all over Countesthorpe, where everyone is at pains to point out that nothing untoward, until now, has ever happened. The hope is that someone in the local pubs and shops will recognise the writing and contact the police.

Rising up behind the glass-covered display is the picturesque St Andrew's Church, attended by the six people from two families who have been targeted by this hate-mail campaign.

Since May 1997, when the local vicar, Tony Johnson, received the first of a vicious stream of letters, 50 posters accusing the victims of what Reverend Johnson obliquely refers to as "immoral behaviour" have mysteriously appeared in Countesthorpe's 15th-century square, and appeared stuck to bus stops and other spots offering maximum display and embarrassment.

It is a creepy, unpleasant business. The posters, it is assumed, are put up in the dead of night. How else could the orchestrator of the hate campaign, with the nice line in biblical slurs, have escaped detection? Especially when the police have gone to such lengths to trap him or her - even bringing in DNA tests to examine saliva traces on the backs of stamps, and setting up hidden surveillance cameras.

This week Countesthorpe finally went public with the scandal. Its hand has been forced by a threat to "disrupt and destroy" the wedding next month at St Andrews of a young couple who are related to the six hate- mail victims.

By yesterday the campaign, and the resulting publicity, had rather floored the inhabitants of the village, which takes its name from a niece of William the Conqueror. There has not been so much fuss since the Beeching Plan severed Countesthorpe from the national rail network.

"It is a total surprise to everyone that this is happening here," says Ken Mason, 68, chairman of the parish council, who is a little shell-shocked by the 24-hour media blitz. He says that when he was young, a local company adopted a pig looking over a wall as its corporate emblem. Until now, he says, a pig looking over a wall was a big event in Countesthorpe. "No one famous even comes from here," he adds glumly. His female assistant points out, however, that he has forgotten the two VCs at the local old folks' home.

"We are trying to give police all the help we can because we worry that the situation will escalate," says Mr Mason. "The frightening part is the threat to the wedding. I think you have to be concerned about the mental well-being of someone who writes these things. I just wish the person responsible would stop writing and go back to a normal life." He is, none the less, ambivalent about the decision to go public. "It casts the village in a bad light."

Still, it is something to mull over on a quiet night. Has he any theories? He does have a theory, it transpires, about why the handwriting has not been recognised. "It looks as if it has been written with the left hand by a right-handed person. I think there is an attempt at disguise."

At St Andrew's Church centre they are not naive. They know that this story, at the height of the newspaper silly season, plays nicely to the metropolis's fascination with rural life. But Rev Johnson, a street-wise, level-headed man, who came into the church late after 15 years as a headteacher, insists that this is no storm in a teacup in a navel-gazing village.

The police, he says, are taking it seriously because the situation is serious. Just ignoring the problem and hoping that it will go away has not been an option for some time.

The victims wish to remain anonymous, and villagers closed ranks yesterday to keep it that way. But one of the six - who is believed to be middle- aged - has released a statement that suggests she sees no humour in the story: "It has caused my family a great deal of stress and heartache."

Rev Johnson says the raft of "totally unfounded" accusations has also been sent through the post to 15 other church members. No one will talk in detail about them, but they would seem to relate to adultery and other un-Christian behaviour. "Our first concern is for the victims of this campaign, but I am also concerned for the person who is doing the writing," says the vicar.

But has he any clues to offer as to who is creeping around the village in the middle of the night? He offers several. The writer seems to be anti-Church as well as anti- the six victims. The prose is religiously loaded. "This person takes the high moral ground in a very immoral way," says the vicar wryly.

And the mystery grudge may have been nursed for years.

"We cannot pin this campaign to any event, broken relationship or jealousy," he says. "But I doubt that we are dealing with a young person because of the language used, and because the writer makes reference to events going back some 20 years."

This week letters from police asking for information are being delivered to every house in the 7,000-strong village by volunteers from St Andrew's Church.

Countesthorpe has changed greatly in the last 30 years, despite the green wedge that separates it from Leicester, and the growth of the city has brought many newcomers to the village. Still, it is hard to believe that the police have no idea who is responsible.

It is likely that the posting of the handwriting samples was partly an attempt to make the hate campaigner go away. But the writer of the malicious letters is proving to be tenacious. And perhaps the village will have to wait until that August wedding, for the writer's identity to be revealed.

Hate Letters Straight from the Heart

JEALOUS CHORISTER Hugh Murphie, 37, of Muirton Place, Perth, sent choir master and former nun Susan Cassidy letters accusing her of having a lesbian affair. Murphie had known Ms Cassidy for 20 years and she was godmother to one of his children. He became obsessed with her after she raised the funds to take him to Lourdes and sent anonymous letters to schools where she worked, claiming she was a lesbian. Murphie was discovered when his DNA matched saliva samples from a stamp from one of the letters (he claimed he could not write due to chronic fatigue syndrome). Murphie was found guilty of breaching the peace and fined pounds 500 at Perth Sheriff Court.

A PUBLISHER sent 600 letters to every resident of the Devon village where his former girlfriend lives after she left him. Villagers and members of her family were subjected to post containing explicit details of her supposed sex life. He was eventually fined pounds 1,700.

A POSTMAN who was fined five shillings (25p) for riding his bicycle without lights waited for more than three decades in order to get his revenge. WPC Stella Kilvington received poison pen letters from the postman, who sent the first in a series of threatening letters on the 33rd anniversary of his court appearance.

FAMILIES IN a quiet cul-de-sac in Tuffley, Gloucester have been sent poison pen letters accusing them of "unneighbourly conduct" One young mother was so upset by two notes criticising her for failing to prune her roses that she had the bushes removed. Another resident was criticised for drying clothes on the radiator in the front room. Many residents have been targeted for failing to mow their lawn.