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Stephen Hough: The teen killer who evaded justice for 40 years

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There is something deeply distressing, on a visceral level, when a child commits a murder. It seems to violate an unspoken natural order, inverting the innocence we take for granted.Kids Who Kill: Evil Up Close, probes some of these cases, including the story of Stephen Hough, who committed his crime at a young age but – thanks to the questionable police practices of the time, and sheer bad luck – managed to evade justice for decades.

It was on 7th January 1976 that a 15-year-old Flintshire girl, Janet Commins, asked her mum for permission to go swimming with friends. Her mum, thinking Janet looked a bit under the weather, said no. But Janet was determined to go out, and snuck out from the family home, leaving a note saying she’d be back in a few hours.

But Janet never came back. And, after a police hunt that dragged on for four excruciating days, her body was eventually found near a school field. She had been sexually assaulted and throttled – a revelation that stunned the community.

People were frightened it would happen again

As a local councillor, Alex Aldridge, would later say, 'It had a profound and devastating effect on Flint.' More than 120 police officers embarked on a frenetic manhunt through the wider area, knocking on doors and questioning around 10,000 locals. A local woman, Ann Dunn, recalled: 'There was a lot of fear at the time. People were frightened it would happen again.'

Detectives focused their attention on men aged between 17 and 22, who were expected to tell police about their movements on the day Janet disappeared. One of the people questioned was Stephen Hough, who had turned 17 in the week after Janet Commins's murder. Hough’s choice of alibi was clever. He confessed to committing another, considerably less horrifying crime on the day in question: namely, stealing petrol by siphoning it from vehicles belonging to the gas board. For this, Hough was prosecuted, fined and discounted as a suspect in the killing.

Meanwhile, the spotlight fell on a teenage member of the traveller community, Noel Jones, whose girlfriend told police he had allegedly confessed to killing Janet Commins. After days of intensive questioning, Jones – who was barely literate – signed confession statements. He was later convicted of manslaughter and given a 12-year jail sentence.

With an innocent man serving time for the crime he committed, Stephen Hough was free to carry on his life. On the surface, he was an ordinary, blameless member of society, joining the army and getting married. Yet his violent urges were still there, and in 1988 he was sentenced to five years in a military prison after a shocking, rage-fuelled incident in which he had lunged at a hotel receptionist and wrapped his hands around her neck.

Decades later, in 2016, Hough was arrested for the sexual assault of a teenage girl. As part of the case, a sample of his DNA was taken, and this proved to be the breakthrough which nobody saw coming. The genetic information was added to the national database and matched with samples that had been taken from Janet’s body back in 1976. This DNA from the crime scene had been extracted from historic evidence slides in 2006, when cold case detectives were investigating the possibility that Noel Jones had had an accomplice.

The match with Hough’s DNA in 2016 changed everything. Here was ironclad proof that police had caged the wrong man, and that the real culprit had been moving about freely for so many decades. Yet, even in the face of all this, Hough denied the charges, which meant things had to go to trial.

One of those who gave evidence was Noel Jones, who’d been imprisoned all those years ago for what Hough had done. Jones testified that his nightmarish experience had 'absolutely destroyed' his life. The flawed police practices of the time were also laid bare, with one of the original investigators of the killing admitting that Noel Jones had not been offered a solicitor during his initial questioning, and that 'there was no requirement in those days for a person to be advised that he could have a solicitor'.

At age 58, Hough was found guilty of manslaughter, rape and sexual assault, and was handed a 15-year sentence, with the judge taking into account the fact that Hough had been 16 at the time of the killing. In 2019, Noel Jones was formally cleared of the crime, with the Court of Appeal ruling he was 'wholly exonerated from involvement in this terrible case'.