Murder on the village green

It was a quiet London suburb until a serial killer bludgeoned two women to death and attacked at least four others. With police still scrabbling for clues, Terry Kirby finds a community in fear
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Twickenham Green is an attractive place: a conservation area, an estate agent's dream. A white cricket pavilion sits to one side of the grassy expanse, there are chestnut trees around its edge, the surrounding roads are clean and full of pretty villas, and a decent assortment of boutiques, restaurants and pubs can be found nearby.

Twickenham Green is an attractive place: a conservation area, an estate agent's dream. A white cricket pavilion sits to one side of the grassy expanse, there are chestnut trees around its edge, the surrounding roads are clean and full of pretty villas, and a decent assortment of boutiques, restaurants and pubs can be found nearby.

Hard to imagine, then, that in this area of south-west London, in the middle of the belt of affluent, leafy "river villages" that line the Thames from Barnes to Hampton, there is someone who likes to stalk blonde-haired women, and attack them from behind for no obvious reason, using a "hammer-like" object to batter their skulls. And then leave them to die.

"He left her just there, just where the wicket keeper stands," says Tony Bendelow, secretary of Twickenham Cricket Club, pointing to the worn brown patch on the edge of the cricket pitch in the middle of the green, where the bloodied body of Amelie Delagrange, 22, was discovered just over two months ago.

The student from France, living in London to improve her English, was attacked while walking from a nearby bus garage to the room she rented in a road just off the green. It's not clear why she ended up in the middle of the grass - it was not a short cut to her home: it's possible she was running away from her attacker.

Anyone who heard her cries probably assumed, points out Mr Bendelow, that it was just the teenagers who gather there on warm evenings to drink alcopops and smoke what he calls "funny fags".

In fact, the person who saw her lying there believed she was just another drunk youth, until he saw the blood on her head. Although still breathing, she died in hospital from her injuries. Her murder was indicative of "the mad actions of a predator", said her grieving parents Jean-François and Dominique when they came to lay flowers and cards at the scene.

Their daughter was the second murder and fifth victim in a sequence of at least six similar attacks since January last year, all either around Twickenham Green or within a five-mile radius. And while the rain has washed away the bloodstains where Ms Delagrange lay, as long as the person responsible remains at large, the fear they will strike again remains high. Women - and men - are taking extra care after dark. Police stations have offered free "shriek alarms" to anyone who wants them.

Marie Thompson, 22, a student who lives in a house facing the green, confesses to being "freaked out" by the fact that her age, sex and blonde hair make her what she terms an "ideal candidate". Sitting in Harrington's tapas bar, with a clear view of the cricket pitch, and where the manager raised the alarm after the body was discovered, she shivers: "It's just horrible to realise you could be a target. You have to be careful. It could happen to anyone.''

Her friend, Sinead O'Riordan, 24, who works part-time behind the bar at Harrington's says: "It is such a quiet area, you just don't expect murders on your doorstep. But there is one good thing to come out of this, which is that it has made us all more careful about our security.''

And it is not just women. "No one feels safe any more. Even our male customers won't walk across the green after closing time. It is pretty scary when you think about it," says Peter Anderson, assistant manager at the Prince Albert public house. "Although the police have now introduced more CCTV and patrols, people still prefer to walk around the edge of the grass.''

The first attack, although it was not initially recognised as such, took place in Walpole Gardens, a road of substantial Victorian villas a short distance from the green and near Strawberry Hill railway station. On a snowy January evening last year, a 17-year-old girl was found by her father lying unconscious and with a 6cm-deep head wound, just a few yards from her home. At first, although her injuries were so bad she spent 10 days in hospital before being allowed home, it was believed she had slipped and fallen on the snow; she had no memory of what had happened.

A few weeks later and a couple of miles to the south, in Hampton, in almost identical circumstances, Marsha McDonnell, a 19-year-old student, with blonde hair, was attacked while walking home from a night out with friends in Kingston. Once more the attack took place within sight of the victim's home. She was also hit from behind, with no obvious motive. But this time the victim did not survive the massive head injuries.

When news of Marsha's murder broke, the parents of the 17-year-old realised their daughter may have been the victim of the same attacker. After re-examining the circumstances, police concluded there was probably a link between the two; but investigations drew a blank.

As police compared the accounts of witnesses and checked the whereabouts of all potentially dangerous psychiatric patients in the area, alarm among the local community spread. Both police and Richmond upon Thames College, where Ms McDonnell studied, issued stern warnings to all young people, particularly women, to take "extreme care".

After all, this is not an area, unlike some other parts of the capital, such as Islington, where high crime levels and affluence sit uneasily side by side; Twickenham and Hampton are comfortable, deeply bourgeois suburbs, the kind of areas people choose to live in precisely because they want their children to be able to grow up safely and walk home at night without fear.

It was for exactly those reasons that Ute and Phil McDonnell chose the area to bring up their four children, of whom Marsha was the second eldest: the couple moved to Hampton from the country when their family began to grow. "We wanted to be nearer good schools and things like that," says Mrs McDonnell, at their home, "but we didn't want to go further into London - this area seemed a good compromise. It seemed so safe, peaceful and green, a lovely area to bring our children up in. It's got a nice vibe. It's hard to imagine something so awful as this happening."

At the end of March last year, police had the breakthrough they were looking for: a tip-off led to the arrest, at his home in Hampton, of a 16-year-old youth who has never been named. But although words such as "prime suspect" were bandied about, questioning proved inconclusive and he was detained under the Mental Health Act for observation, a procedure where such a person can be held almost indefinitely and without charge. Detectives kept their fingers crossed; there were no more attacks.

In November last year, Dawn Brunton, 36, and blonde, was attacked from behind while walking home in Hatton Cross one dark evening; she was found slumped in an alleyway. Although the similarities were obvious, there were also compelling reasons why this could have been an entirely separate incident - Hatton Cross is some way from Twickenham and Hampton, the victim was older, and the attack happened earlier in the night. The investigation continued; police held their breath.

Six months passed. Late one night in April this year, Edel Harbison, 34, an accountant, left Harrington's to walk home; a short distance away she was attacked; she was found slumped on the pavement near the green. Ms Harbison has no memory of the attack which took place just yards from Walpole Gardens. The man being detained under the Mental Health Act started looking less and less like a "prime suspect", and more like a case of mistaken identity.

In August came the murder of Ms Delagrange. Although the similarities were obvious, the police resisted the idea of formally linking the cases. Four days after the murder of the Ms Delagrange, another women, aged 28, so far not identified, was attacked in Hounslow Road, Feltham; she was found unconscious on the pavement.

It was still nearly a month before police were prepared to formally link what to everyone in the locality appeared obvious: that these attacks were probably all the work of the same person, a serial attacker and now double murderer.

Detective Chief Superintendent Andy Murphy stressed that there were no forensic links or common descriptions: "Links? Blonde females, late at night, geographical area, struck across the head with a blunt instrument,'' he told a press conference. But he said: "There still remain discrepancies.''

Apart from a reconstruction of Ms Delagrange's last movements, there has been relative silence from the inquiry since then. But police stress the investigations remain active, with more than 80 officers involved. Much of their work now is an unglamorous paper exercise - sifting through around 7,000 documents, many from people who were in the areas at the time of the attacks and many due to the publicity the case has attracted. These will be scrutinised to identify new lines of inquiry: perhaps someone of the same description was seen near the scene of all the attacks; perhaps a particular car can be related to all the locations. Ms Delagrange's keys, purse and personal stereo were dumped seven miles away in the river at Walton-on-Thames, something police believe happened shortly after the murder, raising further questions about how the attacker got there.

Movements of offenders with records of similar offences are being checked; so are their alibis. Other factors have to be considered: do the gaps between attacks imply someone was only in the area at those times because they were working elsewhere? Or perhaps in prison? Four men, aged between 22 and 42, three of whom live in the area, have been arrested and questioned; all have been bailed. The youth held under the Mental Health Act is now 17 and still being detained for observation.

As with all serial offenders, police know the one thing in their favour is that the very nature of the crime creates the compulsion to attack again. And that is so often the way they are caught: on their way to the next attack. It happened with the Yorkshire Ripper and with the Black Panther. Until then, there can be no moving on for the families of the two dead young women; no closure for the others attacked. The 17-year-old victim of the first assault became, say her parents, a shadow of her former bright young self, while Ms Harbison says she is still suffering from her injuries.

Last Tuesday, two months after her death, the Delagranges returned to Twickenham Green for a memorial service for their daughter. They were accompanied by her sister, Virginie, 32, her boyfriend, Olivier Lenfant, 26, and Gérard Errera, the French Ambassador to Britain. Earlier they planted a tree on the bank of the Thames nearby, where their daughter had loved to walk. It was very important, said M. Delagrange, to know it would be there for years to come. His daughter, he did not have to say, would not be.

The McDonnells have shared the grief of the Delagranges since the moment they heard the news of a second murder. Sitting at the pine table in her kitchen in Hampton, surrounded by cats and family photographs, Mrs McDonnell, 48, says: "We knew, when they told us what it was like for them; they looked so alike."

They needed no reminder of their pain. At least the Delagranges do not have to walk past the place their daughter died, as Mrs McDonnell has had to, four times a day, to take her seven-year-old son Jake to and from the local school. All around are better memories of Marsha, who would have been 21 this month; in the front room is a cabinet of photographs, mementoes, books, jewellery, taken from her room. Marsha and her boyfriend were keen photographers - pictures by and of her line the stairs.

Mrs McDonnell admits to being the rock that has kept the family together: "I could go completely mad, but you can't. You have to keep on going, you have to fight off the shadows. Some days are better than others.'' It is worse, she says, for Marsha's circle of friends, who still come and sit around the kitchen to talk and remember her. "They are so young and it's going to be a dark cloud hanging over the rest of their lives, that's what angers me.''

And, so long as the attacker remains at large, possibly someone who also lives around these quiet, tree-lined roads, full of other mothers with pushchairs, she fears greatly for the safety of her two other daughters, Natalie, 23, and Maya, 16, both young, both blonde haired; their movements are now much more circumscribed. And she will not allow their photographs to be published. "Who knows who is out there, looking for more victims? Something horrible could happen again any time.''