Shocked neighbours ask: just what did happen to James?

Police hunt man seen with empty wheelchair as mystery deepens of dead mother and body in suitcase
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Wilting bouquets and a lone policeman outside a garden gate were among the few signs yesterday of the terrible tragedy that has visited the Midlands estate where James Hughes died.

Behind the ordered facades of Loxley Close, a modern close on the edge of Redditch, the neighbours of Heather Wardle were quietly dealing with their shock. Ms Wardle, 39, who had four children including James, was found hanged a few days ago.

Reaction to her death was tinged with disbelief, and pity, as residents came to terms with the discovery of a suitcase in her backyard last Wednesday. Crushed into it was the body of Ms Wardle's severely disabled son who, although 22 years old, had a mental age of 18 months. The corpse was so badly decomposed that it was identified only by dental records. Pathologists are unable, thus far, to tell how long James had been dead.

Ms Wardle, her children and partner Brian Kirby were well liked in the area. How, neighbours ask, could Mr Kirby have been a suspect, interviewed by the police before being released? Was it possible that Ms Wardle had hidden James's body in the case after his sudden death from a fit or a fall, which had perhaps happened because she couldn't cope?

"We haven't heard the whole story yet," said Derek Matthews, a neighbour. "I used to see Brian with James. I think everyone knew Heather. My daughter went to middle school with her and said she was such a bubbly girl, so clever and bright. She couldn't imagine that after all those years bringing James up, she'd do anything to harm him. It's just been a hell of a shock."

A friend and neighbour of the family said: "Heather was a lovely woman – no one would have expected this. It's a real shame."

"When something like this happens, you just think of your own," said one woman. "I didn't know the family but I'd see Heather and say hello. It was shocking, but people are getting back to reality now. Life goes on."

It was a refrain echoed by many on the estate. Its winding closes and multiple cul-de-sacs offer plenty of places for children to play outside, as Ms Wardle's children were often seen doing. The houses are well kept, with tidy gardens, trees and hedges, although the shops still unlet and with shutters down in the small precinct suggest that this estate has its problems like any other. But it is not the kind of place, residents said, where such a tragedy would be expected.

Customers at the chip shop talked mainly of how sad it all was. The man selling chips, like many others, did not want to give his name. "If something like this happens in London or Birmingham, then no one would bother so much," he said. "I knew the mother. She'd come in with the younger children. The older boy would also come in but I've been here 22 years and I never knew before that he had a disabled brother.

"We don't know the background. Maybe when the results of the tests on the body come back, we'll find out a bit more."

By last night, the police presence outside Ms Wardle's house had been reduced to a lone officer posted on the gate while a few colleagues searched inside.

Blue and white police tape blocked an alleyway behind the house, and the white peak of the forensic officers' tent in the back garden was visible above the fences. Media attention had switched to nearby Fulbrook Close, where Mr Kirby's mother lives. Police inquiries were focused on tracking down a man seen pushing an empty wheelchair by the nearby Arrow Valley lake last Monday.

All that lingered in Loxley Close was horror at the double tragedy, and a desperate desire to understand what led to it.