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Pensioner jailed over 1974 killing of young woman after DNA breakthrough

John Apelgren, 80, was sentenced for 10 years and 6 months over the death of Eileen Cotter, who he throttled before throwing her out of his car.

Emily Pennink
Friday 23 June 2023 13:37 BST
Eileen Cotter whose body was found in Islington, north London in June 1974 (Metropolitan Police/PA)
Eileen Cotter whose body was found in Islington, north London in June 1974 (Metropolitan Police/PA) (PA Media)

A domestic abuser who strangled a young woman nearly 50 years ago has been jailed for 10 years and 6 months.

John Apelgren, 80, hit sex worker Eileen Cotter in the face and throttled her before throwing her body out of his car, the Old Bailey heard.

Ms Cotter’s partly naked body was found on June 1 1974 outside garages known to be a sex worker haunt.

The 22-year-old’s death in Islington, north London, came two years after Apelgren sexually assaulted an 18-year-old guest at his own wedding to second wife Ann Apelgren in October 1972.

Prosecutor Alexandra Healy KC had told jurors the incident only came to light years later when police interviewed Ann Apelgren as part of the re-investigation into Ms Cotter’s death.

That case had been reopened in 2012, when DNA was extracted from samples from Ms Cotter’s body and compared with a then-prime suspect, who was ruled out.

The trail went cold for seven more years until 2019, when former minicab driver Apelgren came to the attention of police for attacking his third wife.

He accepted a caution for the assault and his DNA was flagged as a match to the historical killing, which happened just six weeks after the birth of his first child with his ex-wife Ann.

She went on to reveal to investigators he had mistreated her too – and once applied force to her neck with both of his hands.

Apelgren, from Sydenham, south London, declined to give evidence in his trial.

He was acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter and indecent assault.

On Friday, Mrs Justice May jailed him at the Old Bailey for 10 years for the killing and a further six months for the earlier assault to run consecutively.

The senior judge acknowledged the effect of Ms Cotter’s death on her half-brother, Patrick, who was just five years old at the time and sat in court metres from her killer.

She said: “He was so young when Eileen died that he does not remember her well but his father’s statement made in 1974 says that Eileen used to take her little brother Patrick out all the time.

“Patrick Cotter himself is sure that she cared for him. He has felt her loss all of his life, and as he points out in his statement, the knock-on effects of her death on the family were catastrophic.

Addressing Apelgren in the dock, she said: “By their verdict, the jury were sure that you strangled Eileen Cotter, although they were plainly not sure that you did so with the intent required for murder.

“She must have been terrified, even if the activity had started consensually, when you hit her and when your hands round her neck continued to squeeze.

In his statement, Patrick Cotter said: “No-one ever spoke to me about my sister’s death. I have no memory of her funeral. I have no idea where she was laid to rest.”

Her violent death led to the breakdown of his parents’ relationship and he was taken into care.

Mr Cotter said: “As a result of the traumatic event during my childhood I shut down emotionally. It’s made it difficult for me to form close relationships.

“I only have very faint memories of my sister but I believe she cared for me.”

He concluded: “To sum it up in simple terms, the impact of Eileen’s killing had on my life: I was not only deprived of a sister I had little time to get to know, the knock-on effect also meant I lost my mother to suicide and my father to mental illness and alcoholism, all brought about because John Apelgren took Eileen’s life.

“I would like to see justice for Eileen whose life was cruelly cut short 49 years ago.”

In a statement from the 1970s, the victim’s late father – also called Patrick – detailed his daughter’s short life marred by family tragedies.

Ms Cotter was born three years after Irish labourer Mr Cotter moved to England in 1949.

She was aged just 15 when she found the body of her mother after she committed suicide.

She left school at 16 and worked at a holiday camp in Barry Island in Wales and at a care home in Ireland.

The court was told Ms Cotter had given birth to a son around 1970 but the child died in infancy and she left the family home in Battersea months before her death.

In mitigation, Justin Rouse KC listed Apelgren’s health problems saying the defendant would be affected “significantly” by serving his sentence.

Speaking outside court, Detective Chief Inspector Laurence Smith told PA news agency: “We are just glad we were able to bring some sort of conclusion – or comfort – to Eileen’s family, that we’ve identified the person responsible and secured his conviction.

“All cases are continually reviewed. I think this demonstrates a relentless pursuit of predators and people that prey on vulnerable people in our community.”

“Eileen was a vulnerable lady. She was only 22 when she met her death and she had a difficult life, a very, very difficult life, and we all feel for Eileen when we read into her story.

“She also made time to look after her younger half-brother at the time. It’s a good indication of what sort of person she was. She saw the best in people.

“We have sympathy for Eileen. She was trying to make the best of a difficult upbringing, a difficult period of her life.

“I hate to think what was going through Eileen’s mind in those moments that led to her death.”

Mr Smith praised the original investigators who gathered the physical evidence which would eventually led to Apelgren’s conviction.

The defendant’s “indifferent” reaction to being identified in 2019 made the team “confident we had the right person”, Mr Smith said.

He added: “I’m glad that he stayed alive to face the consequences of his actions all those years ago. That satisfying.”

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