Every community has its dark side, with the most ordinary streets and houses sometimes bearing witness to terrible crimes. In Murdertown, Anita Rani sheds light on some of these brutal stories, visiting towns and cities across the UK to explore cases of homicide with the help of detectives, journalists and others who were close to what happened.
In the genteel, picturesque city of Bath, her focus is on the tragic story of Melanie Road. In 1984, the 17-year-old was simply walking home after a night out when she was sexually assaulted and murdered. This savage attack sent shockwaves through Bath, and police found themselves dealing with one of the most frustrating investigations imaginable. It would only be an unlikely twist of fate that eventually brought closure to Melanie’s family.
Who killed Melanie Hall?
It was 12 years after Melanie Road’s murder that another young woman called Melanie was murdered while walking home from a nightclub in Bath. The circumstances of 25-year-old Melanie Hall’s death in 1996 were strikingly similar to what happened before, except that this time the victim’s body would not be found for 13 years. It was only in October 2009 that Melanie Hall’s bones were discovered, wrapped in bin bags near a motorway in South Gloucestershire. As her grieving father said 'Thirteen years ago we had a young, vibrant daughter. Happy and with a future in front of her. Today we have a bag of bones.'
This grim discovery proved what detectives had already suspected – that Melanie had been attacked sometime after leaving the club in 1996. She’d been out that fateful night with her boyfriend, and the pair had reportedly had an argument that resulted in him leaving. Melanie herself left sometime after that, having last been seen sitting on a stool by the dancefloor.
Over the many years since 1996, thousands of people have been interviewed by detectives desperate for a break in the case. Her boyfriend was discounted as a suspect early on, and there have been numerous arrests during the investigation, with no charges brought. The belated recovery of her remains in 2009 did provide police with some clues – most notably, DNA fragments found on a rope that had been used to tie the bin liners around her body.
Yet, despite this promising breakthrough, detectives have still been unable to match the DNA to any individual, and the question of who killed Melanie Hall continues to haunt her loved ones and the detectives who’ve worked on the case for decades.
The child killer of Bath
Among the most horrendous crimes ever to occur in the history of Bath were committed by the man who would have the dubious distinction of becoming the longest-serving prisoner in the UK. Born in 1930, John Straffen spent some of his childhood in British-India where his soldier father was stationed. On returning to the UK, the Straffens settled in Bath, and young John found himself in trouble for petty crimes.
Assessed as being 'mentally defective' with a very low IQ, Straffen was eventually committed to an institution for mentally challenged offenders. After several years under observation, which led to doctors concluding he had suffered brain damage from encephalitis suffered in India as a child, Straffen was discharged in 1951.
In July of that year, Straffen crossed paths with a five-year-old girl, Brenda Goddard, who was picking flowers in a field in Bath. He led her to a quiet area and strangled her. Just weeks later, he led another young girl, nine-year-old Cicely Batstone, to a meadow and murdered her too. When eyewitness accounts led detectives to arrest Straffen, he readily confessed to both killings.
Faced with the facts of Straffen’s mental condition, the judge remarked that 'you might as well try a baby in arms', and he was deemed unfit to plead. Straffen was instead regarded as insane and sent to Broadmoor. But this wasn’t the end of the Straffen story. In 1952, he managed to escape by leaping over a wall and was able to roam free for several hours. It was enough time for him to strangle another girl – five-year-old Linda Bowyer.
Despite being previously declared unfit to be tried for his first two killings, Straffen was this time subjected to a regular criminal trial and sentenced to hang. This led to an uproar, with one doctor writing 'It is not the sanity of John Straffen that is in question, but the sanity of the law.' Straffen was duly reprieved by the Home Secretary, and allowed to live out the rest of his days in prison. He died in 2007, having served 55 years.
The murder recorded on voicemail
In summer 2012, a 28-year-old PhD student named Carmen Miron-Buchacra was set upon by her fiancé, and the father of her newborn baby, Paul Keene. Their Bath flat became the scene of shocking violence as the enraged 32-year-old, who’d drunk at least nine bottles of ale and a bottle of cider earlier that day, punched and strangled the mother of his child.
The killing was captured on the voicemail inbox of a friend of Carmen’s, whom she’d rung in fear when Keene had arrived at their flat. Her friend didn’t have phone reception at that time, leading to the message going to voicemail. Later, this harrowing recording would be played to a jury, who’d hear Carmen pleading for her life as Keene first punched her before strangling her to death. Her last words were 'Please don’t.'
During the trial, his defence barrister explained the killing as an outburst of frustration and pent-up rage after a long period of 'psychological bullying' by Carmen, who apparently subjected Keene to 'low-level emotional abuse' and had threatened to take his child away. The fact that Carmen had sent him 'pretty vile texts' was offered up as a kind of mitigation for Keene’s actions.
Controversially, Keene was indeed acquitted of murder, and instead handed a sentence of just over seven years for manslaughter. A statement by Carmen’s family reiterated the 'indescribable ache' of her loss, and the fact that her 'life was full of dreams, hopes and professional and personal accomplishments, where becoming a mother was the biggest of them all.'