Serial killer feared as cats are poisoned

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THE CAT-FLAPS of Coxhoe in Co Durham were firmly fastened yesterday and every feline inhabitant confined to quarters as police officers launched an investigation into crimes that have left the former mining village in a state of profound agitation.

Few care to articulate the rumours of a cat serial killer which have spread through the village in recent days but the words on the posters pinned to local telegraph poles say everything: "Poisoner" and "Be vigilant", they warn.

The rumours began circulating around the quiet village, near the cathedral city of Durham, on Sunday night, hours after Helen and David Murray-English, IT managers who live in one of the modern detached houses on Ashbourne Drive, discovered Lily, their four-year-old black cat, dead in the front garden.

The couple might have put it down to misfortune were it not for the calamity about to befall Andrew Keelty, 34, an engineer, and his wife, Amanda, 31, a digital artist, who live across the road. Returning later in the day from a weekend break in the Lake District, they were told by a neighbour that Sacha, their four-year-old cat, had also been found dead. By nightfall, a second Murray-English cat, nine-month-old Bluebell, had vanished from the cul-de-sac and the police were called in.

Coxhoe's amateur sleuths have discovered a number of coincidences. The dead cats were found within hours of each other, both in the street, both yards from the front doors of their homes and both with foam coming from their mouths.

Lost cats of every shape and size have been recalled in the past four days - such as the Ashbourne Drive casualty whose recent death was put down to a garden accident, and the tabby which mysteriously vanished from the same cul-de-sac only last month. At least five appear to have gone in just one year.

"I know some people have an aversion to cats but if Sacha was poisoned deliberately it was a cruel and heartless thing to do," said Mrs Murray- English, 34, who was going out for Sunday lunch when she found Lily, lying dead in their garden.

"We would have normally taken her to a cattery while we went away for the weekend, which was to celebrate my birthday. But our neighbour said he would pop in, feed her and let her out. She never strays far and had a gentle nature. It does make you wonder if there is somebody with a grudge against cats living in the street."

Coxhoe is not alone in nursing its suspicions. The east Lancashire village of Lumb is still no nearer an explanation of a baffling sequences of cat disappearances which happened within a few weeks. There is an abundance of theories and, in the words of PC Bill King, the neighbourhood officer, "none of them are pleasant".

The creatures have been taken for the fur trade, say some. A serial cat killer is on the loose, claim others. There is even a suggestion that the cats have been sold to research laboratories. Talk of catnapping is not always urban myth in these cases. Nigel Hibbs, a serial cat killer, was convicted of tempting pets to their deaths with cyanide-laced sardines and kippers four years ago.

But Durham Police played its cards close to its chest yesterday. "An officer attended the scene. At this stage it is not known what the cause of death was," said a spokesman. "The beat officer for the area has been informed and we have promised to give the area close attention in case this was a deliberate act."