Skip to main content

The 'Steeltown Murders': Wales' first serial killer

A magnifying glass graphic with the Flag of Wales in the background

The 'Steeltown Murders'

On 17th July 1973, a passer-by came across the body of 16-year-old Sandra Mary Newton in a culvert close to a disused mine near the village of Tonmawr, Wales. An autopsy confirmed that Sandra had been raped and then strangled to death with her own skirt before being dumped in the rural location.

Detectives were keen to trace Sandra’s last known movements, and they quickly established that she had last been seen on the night of 14th July. She had been out in Briton Ferry with a group of her friends. They speculated that Sandra had been picked up by her killer since she was found some miles away in a place only accessible by vehicle. Moreover, due to the isolated area, they theorised the killer was a local man.

Detectives appealed for information, but nobody could provide any further insight into Sandra’s murder. The investigation was led by Detective Chief Inspector Indris Jones, who commented in the media: ‘There is a strong possibility that this person might kill again.’

As the investigation continued, the bodies of two other teenagers were discovered on 16th September. 16-year-olds Pauline Floyd and Geraldine Hughes were discovered face down in a roadside copse not too far from an oil refinery at Llandarcy on the outskirts of Swansea. They were both clothed and around 100 yards apart. They had been raped and strangled to death with pieces of rope that were found wrapped tightly around their necks.

A man named Walter Watkins had made the grim discovery and told the Liverpool Daily Post: ‘I was taking my usual morning walk through the woods when I saw what I first thought was a doll lying in wet grass. It was in an open patch a little way behind a tree. When I went closer, I saw a girl lying face down.’

The night before the bodies of Pauline and Geraldine had been found, the two teenage girls were out at the Top Rank nightclub in Swansea. Once again, detectives theorised they had been picked up by the killer and then driven out to the isolated area. They also determined that Pauline had attempted to escape and was likely running in the direction of where her father worked when she was intercepted by the killer.

Despite the glaring similarities between the murders of Pauline and Geraldine and Sandra, detectives didn’t initially connect them. They appealed to the public for information and they received their first lead promptly. An eyewitness reported seeing a white Austin 1100 on a layby close to the roadside copse where the two bodies were found. Detective Chief Superintendent Ray Allen stated: ‘We intend checking every car of this description.’

The belief that Pauline and Geraldine were picked up by their killer was further solidified when a local man named Philip O’Connor informed detectives that he had seen the girls sheltering from the rain at a bus stop near the club after it closed at 1am. He said he then watched on as a white car swerved to the side of the road and pulled up alongside Pauline and Geraldine. Moments later, they both climbed in.

It wasn’t until October that detectives linked the three murders and dubbed the killer ‘The Saturday Night Strangler’. A special incident room was set up at Skewen Police Station and detectives were working around the clock to try and identify a suspect. They began to perform a countrywide check on all cars that matched the description of the one seen in the layby close to the second crime scene. By December, over 8,000 cars had been checked but none of the drivers could be linked to the murders.

Despite the exhaustive investigation, which included questioning thousands of people, the case went cold. The months transformed into years and forensic science advanced tremendously during that time. In 1998, the case was re-opened and the evidence was sent off to a special research lab in Birmingham to be tested.

Despite the passage of time, a profile of the killer was identified on the clothing of Pauline and Geraldine. Detectives scanned the national database to see if a link could be made but it was unfruitful. They next began looking back through the persons of interest named in the initial investigation and requested DNA samples to compare.

On 6th June 2002, detectives announced that the killer had been identified as Joseph Kappen, a former nightclub bouncer from Port Talbot. He had died from cancer in 1990 at 49-years-old. Kappen had been looked into as a person of interest during the initial investigation. At the time, the Port Talbot steelworks employed 13,000 men and detectives had considered each of these men persons of interest and planned to interview all of them. One of the employees was Kappen.

Detectives had learned that Kappen owned a white Austin 1100 and when they embarked on his home, they found that the wheels were missing and it was on blocks in the yard. Kappen commented that he couldn’t have committed the murders because his car was not roadworthy. If detectives had looked into his alibi, they would have learned that Kappen had been stopped by police just the week after the murder during a random stop and check. He had been driving the Austin 1100.

When detectives began looking back through persons of interest, Kappen’s name cropped up. When they learned that he had passed away in 1990, they made contact with his relatives who provided DNA samples. These DNA samples matched the DNA profile found on Pauline and Geraldine’s clothing. Detectives wanted to positively connect their murders with the murder of Sandra, and a forensic expert was able to extract a DNA profile from swabs taken from Sandra’s body. It came back as a match to the DNA found on Pauline and Geraldine’s clothing.

Detectives were sure that Kappen was the killer, they just needed more evidence. Kappen’s body was subsequently exhumed, and his DNA proved that he was the killer of all three girls.

In the wake of the development, detectives announced that Kappen was suspected of other crimes, including the 1973 disappearance of nine-year-old Christine Markham from Scunthorpe. Detectives learned that Kappen had lodged in the area at the time and had worked as a lorry driver in Scunthorpe. However, since Christine’s body was never discovered, there was no DNA to compare and detectives later ruled out any link between Kappen and Christine.

Joseph Kappen still remains a suspect in a number of other unsolved rapes in the Swansea area.