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Dartford's most shocking murders

An illustration of Dartford

What dark pasts do our communities conceal? Katherine Kelly finds out in Murdertown, a true crime series which unravels sinister secrets and shocking crimes across the country, using insights from police officers, journalists and those whose lives were changed by the murders.

In Dartford, Katherine Kelly investigates the tragic case of teenager Claire Tiltman, who was found dying on a roadside in 1993. Stabbed more than 40 times, the young girl had no enemies to speak of, and she hadn’t been robbed or sexually assaulted. It seemed like a motiveless, savagely senseless attack. Who could the culprit be, and why would it take decades for the full truth to be confirmed?

Lin and Megan Russell
Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: Lin Russell and her six-year-old daughter Megan, who were found bludgeoned to death on an isolated footpath near Chillenden, near Canterbury, Kent, in July 1996

A Comparable Savagery

The Claire Tiltman murder took place in the sleepy, residential area of Greenhithe, just to the east of Dartford. And it was far from the only horrific, opportunistic killing to occur in an unlikely nook of Kent in the 1990s. Three years later, just over an hour east of Dartford in the serene and rustic community of Chillenden, there unfolded one of the most notorious and controversial crimes in British history.

On one ordinary afternoon in July, Dr Lin Russell was walking home with her two young daughters Megan and Josie, and the family dog. In broad daylight, on a quiet lane in the countryside, they were suddenly confronted by a terrifying, hammer-wielding figure who methodically tied them up using strips of towel still wet from the girls’ swimming gala earlier that day. He then rained down blows on them, one after the other.

Lin, Megan and their beloved dog were killed. Josie, by some miracle, survived the devastating injuries, to recount the near-unbelievable story to the police. The nation was appalled by the slaughter, but – despite a conviction being secured – the case continues to provoke fierce debate all these years later. The man caged for the crime was Michael Stone, a one-time heroin addict who’d already been in and out of prison.

The case against Stone hinged largely on an alleged confession he gave to another prisoner while locked up. His legal team insist the confession never happened, and that the true culprit is serial killer Levi Bellfield, most notorious for raping and murdering Milly Dowler. In an ironic twist, Bellfield – like Michael Stone – is also alleged to have confessed to the Russell killings in prison, and also denies ever having done so.

The Devil’s Disciple

Returning to Dartford itself, those with an interest in true crime may be interested to learn it was the hometown of one of Britain’s lesser known serial killers: Patrick Mackay, dubbed the “Devil’s Disciple”. While he lacks the widespread notoriety of the likes of Peter Sutcliffe or Ian Brady, Mackay’s blood-splattered CV stands comparison with Britain’s very worst killers.

Abused by his father, who then on his deathbed weirdly implored his brutalised son to “be good”, Mackay exhibited clear signs of amoral and violent impulses from the beginning, bullying children, stealing from adults and even setting a pet tortoise on fire. While still a teenager, he was declared by one psychiatrist to be a “cold, psychopathic killer” in waiting.

Mackay more than fulfilled this ominous prediction. The Nazi-obsessed killer, who collected Third Reich memorabilia and even put together his own home-made Nazi uniform, committed a string of murders in the 1970s – most infamously, that of his own friend and mentor Father Anthony Crean. The kindly priest had always tried to look out for the errant young man, and was repaid for his compassion with an axe attack. Mackay hit him so hard with the axe that the priest’s skill was split open. Mackay has been locked away ever since.

The Martin Mystery

Dartford was also the location of an enigmatic, generations-old case which still puzzles detectives and true crime researchers today. This was the 1946 murder of Sheila Martin, a young schoolgirl who was raped and then strangled with her own hair ribbon in a wood not far from central Dartford.

Her murderer was never caught, but a possible connection was made with another child murder which took place just 10 days before, hundreds of miles away in South Wales. Muriel Drinkwater, like Sheila Martin, was also assaulted and killed in some woods near her home. The Drinkwater case triggered a massive police manhunt across the Welsh countryside, with over 20,000 men interviewed.

Researching both cases, true crime author Neil Milkins believes the same man was behind both crimes. This man was Harold Jones, a convicted child murderer who’d already served decades in jail for killing two young girls in the early 1920s. However, in the absence of definitive evidence that the killings were committed by the same hand, the mystery will likely never be solved.