Forensic Detection & The Horton Vendetta

SECRECY_CROPTucker, James. “Secrecy rules in village of fear.” Sunday Times [London, England] 15 Apr. 1984: 4. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. (Web. 21 June 2017.)

This extract from James Tucker’s 1984 ‘Village of Fear’ scenario may have started out as a snappy headline for a quirky piece of Sunday Times journalism, hinting at dark deeds and perhaps even darker relationships in a remote English hamlet, but I wager even he, who went on to craft his own excellent crime novels under the pseudonym, Bill James, was staggered by the audacious plot line and denouement of this true murder mystery. Here is the crime story that proves Mark Twain’s adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

The small hamlet of Horton, near Chipping Sodbury, England, was buzzing with news of the explosion. Neighbours and villagers wished Maggie Backhouse a speedy recovery and were aghast at the news that this appeared to be a deliberate act of murder. Indeed, the detective leading the inquiry, Detective Inspector Tom Evans, was reported in the media as saying, “There has been a recent history of anonymous phone calls to the home threatening the husband and family.

It was assumed by all, that the intended victim was forty-three year old Graham Backhouse, but on that morning of 9th April, 1984, it was Maggie Backhouse who set off from their home at Widden Hill Farm to collect supplies from the local vet.

Her husband, Graham had lent Maggie his car as her own had suddenly developed a fault. She turned the ignition key which triggered the bomb that nearly led to her death. She had managed to stagger away from the car before collapsing in agony and was then rushed to hospital.

volvo.JPGPolice examining Backhouse’s Volvo after the explosion  (Weston Media Publishing)

Graham Backhouse was distraught as he had his doubts about how seriously the police had been taking the previous telephone threats to his family. He had made constant calls to them about these threats to his life and the explosion now proved how deadly serious they had been, not only to himself, but to his wife and their two young children, Harry aged ten and Sophie aged eight. They could have all been in that car that morning – it did not bear thinking about.

However, over the proceeding weeks, Detective Inspector Evans had been taking Graham Backhouse’s claims very seriously, that he was a victim of a conspiracy to murder. He had told the police of anonymous telephone calls, and showed them some letters clumsily printed in block capitals that threatened his life in no uncertain terms. It was reported that Backhouse admitted to having had a number of affairs with local married women and, as a result, certain people perhaps had reasons to dislike him intensely, but to want to murder him would seem to be excessive.

Prior to the car bomb, what had really brought home the gravity of the threat was an extremely gruesome discovery. On his rounds, a stockman at the farm had discovered the severed head of a sheep carefully impaled on a stake close to  the farmhouse. There was a note attached. Written in block capitals were two words:

                                   YOU NEXT

Apart from the prospect of an irate husband wanting revenge on the farmer for seducing his wife, there was, Backhouse claimed, a dispute over land boundaries and rights of way with a neighbour, Colyn Bedale-Taylor aged sixty-three. It is well-known for arguments over land rights to far outweigh any falling-out over sexual indiscretions.

This appeared to the police to be the strongest motive to explain the threats to Backhouse’s life. However, Colyn Bedale-Taylor denied any knowledge of such behaviour and there was no evidence against him next.JPG

A forensic detective holding up the threatening letters Backhouse claimed to have received (Weston Media Publishing)

With Maggie Backhouse injured in hospital, and not knowing what the next action of the attacker might be, Graham Backhouse and his family were given twenty-four hour police protection while the investigation continued.

The analysis of the home-made bomb, believed to have been planted to kill Graham Backhouse, revealed two sections of metal pipe packed with powder extracted from around a dozen or so shotgun cartridges. Loaded with thousands of lead pellets, the bomb had been carefully positioned to face upwards through the driver’s seat. It was a miracle Maggie Backhouse had survived such a deadly booby-trap.

Now revealed by the local press as a village vendetta, locals awaited the next episode in the story with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.

On April 18th, when Detective Inspector David Edwards called to see Graham Backhouse, he told D.I. Edwards, rather ungratefully and curtly, that he was fed-up with the police presence and wanted to get back to normality. He suggested that while his wife was safe in hospital, and the children were with relatives, the police should withdraw their surveillance and this might tempt the ‘bomber’ out into the open and more likely to be caught. He was willing to take this chance to end the uncertainty. The police agreed to withdraw their surveillance on condition that they fitted a panic alarm button linked to the police station. Backhouse agreed.

On the evening of April 30th, the newly installed alarm did indeed alert the police to the fact that something was happening at Widden Hill Farm. When they entered the farmhouse they were confronted by a bloody scene.

The body of Colyn Bedale-Taylor was lying in a passageway and with a large bloody hole in his chest. He was clutching a craft knife tightly in his right hand.

Police constable Richard Yeadon recalls;

I stepped over the body and saw Mr. Backhouse lying in a curled-up position in the entrance to the lounge. He was sobbing.”

The police constable could see extensive injuries to Backhouse’s chest and face. Backhouse looked up at the police officer and said several times, “I did not kill his son.

Colyn Bedale-Taylor was clearly dead. He had been shot through the chest with a double-barrelled shotgun.

It seems that the vendetta had reached its climax – Backhouse’s mysterious, would-be assassin had been slain and Backhouse had survived. He and his family were now safe. But why had Bedale-Taylor attacked him like this? Why was Backhouse repeating over and over, “I did not kill his son.”?

Backhouse needed skilled medical attention to deep cuts to his face and body. In fact, one wound ran from ear to chin, and required eighty stitches. He explained to the police that Bedale-Taylor had called with a craft-knife claiming, rather oddly, that he had been asked to come and repair some furniture. Backhouse felt very threatened by this bizarre and unexpected visit and told him there was no furniture to repair.

He then claimed that Bedale-Taylor had said that God had sent him, and then accused Backhouse of being the cause of his son’s death in a car crash eighteen months previously. Bedale-Taylor then confessed that he had been the person who sent the threatening notes, rigged up the sheep’s head warning, and made and planted the bomb in Backhouse’s car.

Bedale-Taylor then lunged at him with the scalpel-sharp craft knife.

Backhouse had run inside, grabbed his gun and demanded that  Bedale-Taylor leave immediately. He refused and continued his frenzied attack on Backhouse, accusing him of killing his son Digby.

Backhouse had then shot Bedale-Taylor in self-defence. He told the police, “I ran into the hallway and grabbed a gun; Bedale-Taylor was still after me. I shouted I had got a gun but he still kept coming and I shot him. He fell back and I shot him again and that was it.”

It all fitted the scene that had confronted the officers that night. It seems the case was closed.

For one man, however, Home Office forensic detective, Geoffrey Robinson, it was not as clear-cut as it appeared. He had been to the crime scene and made a painstakingly detailed investigation of that scene and the evidence left behind by the two men in their bloody, murderous confrontation.

In Robinson’s analytical mind was an image of Colyn Bedale-Taylor, a man possessed with extreme anger, according to Backhouse, a man clutching a craft-knife and lunging at his victim to slash and kill. Then there was Backhouse himself, a man taken aback by such a frenzied attack, running to grab his gun and, after first warning Bedale-Taylor to end his knife attack, shoots him as the only means to stop any more injuries to his face and his body.

Robinson was truly puzzled. He had a dilemma to solve between the physical scene and the forensic scene. What had really happened that evening was so vivid as a result of his investigation it was as if he had been there himself.

The key to his understanding was his expert analysis of the pattern of the many blood spills across the crime scene. He examined every single drop of blood wherever it lay. He knew that during frenzied fights, particularly when one person is being attacked with a knife, that by defending your face and body with your hands, blood will spurt, drop and splash in all sorts of ways that reflect the intensity and direction of fight and flight, or the desperation of the fleeing, twisting victim, trying to prevent death or serious injury.

For him, blood drips, oozes, sprays, smears and gets flung – so what is called blood spatter analysis (or bloodstain pattern analysis, BPA) will give a unique view of something that was not witnessed, yet leaves a picture almost as clear as if it had been.

spattersBlood spatter analysis : typical patterns found at a crime-scene

Robinson also looked at how the furniture had been disturbed, fallen over or damaged as happens during a fight and its relationship to the sequence of events will show if a chair fell onto the blood, or the blood onto the chair, or gun butt, or knife handle or whatever was used. It depicts movement very clearly.

The puzzle for Geoffrey Robinson was that the blood droplets showed a victim who seemed to have stood still whilst being cut with a knife, rather than fighting off his attacker. Blood flung from such a fight such as Backhouse described would appear in exclamation mark shapes everywhere whereas the blood evidence in the room was in the form of circular drops, allowed to fall from someone standing still.

Kitchen chairs had been knocked over onto the perfectly formed droplets with ‘crenated’ or toothed edges. There was no blood splashed onto the chairs, except a long smear left on a chair back by Backhouse’s hand. Yet, despite this evidence of a bleeding hand, no blood at all was found on the gun he grabbed in desperation to shoot his attacker.

Geoffrey Robinson’s suspicions were confirmed by the position of Colyn Bedale-Taylor’s body in the passageway from the front door to the kitchen. There were no blood droplets along the passage to link with the those in the kitchen. The forensic picture was therefore, of Backhouse shooting Bedale-Taylor at point-blank range with no suggestion of any attack to support a claim of self-defence.

Backhouse then, (following Robinson’s forensic analysis), must have inflicted the craft-knife wounds upon himself while in the kitchen. Robinson conjures up an image of Backhouse standing still and steeling himself against the intense pain as he cut deeply into his own face and body, the blood dropping into tell-tale perfectly formed circles rather than the splashes, smears and exclamation marks of a genuine victim fleeing and fighting. Lastly,thought Robinson, Backhouse would have toppled the chairs to give the impression of a fight.

In addition to the forensic detective’s discoveries, Dr. Kennard, a pathologist, explained that one of Backhouse’s wounds – a cut that ran diagonally from his left shoulder to the right side of his waist – could only have been inflicted by an attacker if Backhouse had remained completely still while the perfectly formed arc was cut into him by his assailant. Also there were no ‘defence cuts’ on the backs of his hands received when you attempt to ward off a thrusting or slashing knife attack.backhouse

GRAHAM BACKHOUSE (Weston Media Publishing)

The clincher – if one were needed – was the fact that Colyn Bedale-Taylor’s right palm was covered in his own blood which could only have got there immediately he was shot as he instinctively clutched at his chest. If Bedale-Taylor had been clutching the craft-knife after he’d been shot, a portion of his right palm would have been less bloody where the knife had been held. More likely – had he been holding the knife when he was shot – it would have fallen from his grasp as he was blasted backwards. The craft-knife had obviously been placed in Bedale-Taylor’s hand after his death.

Detectives had also uncovered additional information about Graham Backhouse that swiftly turned into a motive for engineering the whole threatening letter scenario, and much more.

Their suspicions had been aroused from the moment he called the ambulance immediately after the car bomb went off. As detectives were to reveal later, Backhouse made a serious error when he telephoned for an ambulance. He told the control centre that his wife had been injured ‘in an explosion,’ yet at that time when news reached him from those working on the farm that  his wife had been injured, no one had mentioned to him exactly how she had been hurt until after he had called for an ambulance and went to the scene and saw the the bomb damage to the car himself.

Graham Backhouse was seriously in debt, owing £70,000 or so, and needed money. Just prior to the car bomb incident, he had substantially increased his wife’s life insurance from £50,000 to £100,000. Mysteriously, her car had broken down and on that April day it was Graham who suggested she took the car he had booby-trapped deliberately to murder her.

Unfortunately for Backhouse his wife had survived, and now he had a problem to ensure the police had a suspect for this attack. No one knows how he enticed Colyn Bedale-Taylor to Widden Hill Farm on 30th April, to be murdered in cold blood, but it was planned and plotted just as all the alleged threatening telephone calls, notes, the decapitated sheep’s head and the attempt to murder his wife had been planned and plotted.

Backhouse was charged with the murder of Colyn Bedale-Taylor and the attempted murder of Margaret Backhouse. Right up to the end he continued to try and substantiate his original story. Even in custody at Horfield Prison, he persuaded another prisoner to smuggle out an anonymous letter to the editor of the Bristol Evening Post stating it was Colyn Bedale-Taylor who had been responsible for the vendetta against him. Unfortunately for Backhouse, the power of forensic analysis stepped in once more and proved the so-called anonymous letter had, in fact, been written by Backhouse. They had already discovered a note pad in Backhouse’s farm office that bore the impression of the words YOU NEXT.

A question posed by a neighbour in Jame’s Tucker’s original, speculative journalistic piece when all of this had only just began was now well and truly answered:

SECRECY_new crop_resizeTucker, James. “Secrecy rules in village of fear.” Sunday Times [London, England] 15 Apr. 1984: 4. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. (Web. 21 June 2017.)

Graham Backhouse was given two life sentences at his trial on the 18th February 1985.










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