Police report progress on decade-old murders

New investigation links brutal rape to the killings

More than a decade after the senseless murders of two lone women terrorised a seaside town, detectives have announced that they have reopened the cases, linking them to a third violent attack on a young female.

Clare Letchford, 40, and 70-year-old Beryl O'Connor, who lived 100 yards apart, were found strangled and their bodies set alight in their homes eight days apart in 1998.

Their murders led to fears that a killer was targeting women in Hastings, East Sussex, but, despite several arrests, no one was ever charged.

Sussex Police's major crime branch earlier this week revealed that there had been "significant and exciting" developments in the two cases which linked them to the rape and attempted murder of a 19-year-old Czech student the day before Mrs O'Connor died.

Detective Chief Inspector Trevor Bowles, who has been investigating the murders for 18 months, said he hoped to have a case to put before the Crown Prosecution Service within weeks.

On the evening of 18 January 1998, firefighters arrived at Ms Letchford's basement flat to find her burning body, covered in cushions and clothing, in the hallway. A pair of shoelaces were tied around her neck. Eight days later a similar gruesome scene greeted the fire service at Mrs O'Connor's home. The pensioner, known as Dornie, was discovered in her bedroom covered in newspapers. In both cases, the women lived alone and it did not appear that the intruder had forced entry or stolen anything. Nor were there any obvious signs of sexual assault.

A day earlier, British Transport Police (BTP) officers were called to investigate a brutal assault in which a 19-year-old Czech student was left for dead on a Hastings to London train. The teenager, an English language student who had been in the country just three months, was raped and attacked in the toilet. She was found covered in blood and with severe head injuries.

Despite the apparent differences in the crimes, Det Ch Insp Bowles said that his team was confident that there were strong links between the murders and the attempted murder now being reinvestigated by BTP.

While detectives are keeping an open mind about whether the cases could be linked to other crimes, the senior officer said the focus of the new inquiries was on these three attacks.

"This investigation is over 11 years old but it still resonates in the thoughts and concerns of the people in Hastings. The reinvestigation of the murders of Clare and Dornie is complex and wide-ranging. We will shortly be speaking with the Crown Prosecution Service about the significant and exciting progress we have made," added Det Ch Insp Bowles.

Detective Chief Inspector Alistair Cumming of BTP, added: "Despite the passage of time, the resolve of BTP to detect this dreadful attack on an innocent train passenger has never diminished. It is comforting to the Czech victim that the matter is now being passed to the Crown Prosecution Service."

Post mortems on both women revealed they had died from asphyxia. Detectives at the time said that Mrs O'Connor had been strangled before her killer set light to her body, though it appeared she was still alive when the fire was started.

At an inquest into their deaths, the East Sussex Coroner Alan Craze, recording verdicts of unlawful killing, described the women as vulnerable victims of "despicable and needless" crimes. Four people were arrested at around the time of the deaths but no charges were brought.

Police this week said they were interviewing a 35-year-old man about all three cases. A 46-year-old man from Northern Ireland has been arrested and bailed in connection with Mrs O'Connor's murder.