In the true crime series Murdertown, Anita Rani sheds fresh light on crimes that rocked communities across the UK. The series takes a forensic look at each case, unweaving the smallest details with insights from detectives, local reporters and even those who were close to the victim, including their loved ones.
In the historic cathedral city of Lichfield in the West Midlands, Anita analyses the story of Wendy Upton, who went missing in 1998. As time went on, police and locals increasingly feared the worst – until a grisly woodland discovery turned this from a missing person enquiry into a murder investigation. Even more disturbingly, it transpired that the killer had been lurking under the noses of investigators all along.
The Cannock Chase Murders
The Wendy Upton case is far from the only appalling crime to have taken place in the West Midlands over the years. In the mid-60s, the region suffered a string of killings that bore an uncanny similarity to the more infamous Moors Murders. Indeed, the time period of the two slightly overlapped, with the first of the so-called ‘Cannock Chase Murders’ taking place just weeks before Ian Brady and Myra Hindley claimed their last victim.
That the Cannock Chase Murders have fallen into relative obscurity since then is strange, given their horrifying nature and the immense manhunt that ensued. It all began in September 1965, when six-year-old Margaret Reynolds was snatched on her way to school in Aston, Birmingham. Police undertook house-to-house searches, questioning tens of thousands of people.
A few months later, five-year-old Diana Tift vanished close to her home in Walsall, around 10 miles from Lichfield. Thousands more people were questioned, with fields, factories and warehouses searched. It was in early 1966 that the bodies of the two girls were finally found on Cannock Chase, a picturesque beauty spot not far from Lichfield. At least one of them had been sexually assaulted before being killed.
Some time then passed, before seven-year-old Walsall girl Christine Darby was taken in August 1967. Her remains were found a short while later, on Cannock Chase. By this time, over 150 detectives were on the case, interviewing over 80,000 people, but the breakthrough only came when the killer finally slipped up. Trying to abduct another young girl in November 1968, he attracted the notice of a witness who noted his car registration. This led police to Raymond Morris, a local man in his late 30s who’d already been considered a potential suspect.
Morris was found guilty of the rape and murder of Christine Darby. A lack of evidence meant he couldn’t be charged with the first two murders, though police believe he was almost certainly responsible. Morris would serve 45 years in prison before dying behind bars in 2014.
The Killing of the Good Samaritan
One April evening in 2019, Megan Newton left the chip shop where she worked, headed home and got changed for a night out. Living in Stoke-on-Trent, 30 miles north of Lichfield, the 18-year-old had everything going on in her life. Passionate about sport, she was a youth football coach and was set on a career in physiotherapy. But her life would be extinguished that night by someone she had thoughtfully tried to help.
He was Joseph Trevor, the 18-year-old son of two retired police officers who, like Megan, looked poised for big things. He was a strong student at the school he attended with Megan and played semi-professionally for Newcastle Town Football Club. That fateful night, Trevor had become intoxicated with drink and drugs and was worried about facing his parents’ wrath. Megan, who bumped into him at a nightclub, suggested he crash at her place instead of going home.
He repaid her kindness by raping her, strangling her and stabbing her to death. After Trevor was convicted of the inexplicably savage and ruthless killing, it transpired he’d previously been accused of sexual assault and had been nicknamed “Paedo” and “Rolf Harris” by some at school. He must now serve at least 21 years and 65 days in prison.
Who killed Judith Roberts?
In June 1972, a 14-year-old schoolgirl named Judith Roberts was grabbed and bludgeoned to death while cycling in a village around eight miles from Lichfield. The outrage defied explanation: there was no sexual dimension to the attack, and there was little reason for anyone to bear such violent animosity towards her.
The crime would have dire repercussions not just for her family, but for a young soldier who was stationed in the vicinity. Andrew Evans was a troubled 17-year-old who suffered severe asthma and was also on medication for depression. When police combed the area and questioned thousands of possible suspects, Evans became increasingly haunted by the case and had a dream where he glimpsed images of a woman’s face. Disorientated and troubled, he decided to approach detectives, believing he may have killed Judith and repressed the memory.
Although police were initially sceptical, Evans’ statement seemed to contain details only the killer could have known. For example, the lack of a sexual motive. Despite a complete absence of physical evidence, and the fact that Evans later retracted the confession, the teenager was found guilty of the murder.
Decades passed by. Then, a member of Greenpeace came to give a talk at Evans’ prison and got talking to the inmate. He passed Evans’ story onto a few TV producers, and media interest in the Judith Roberts case was rekindled. Evans was eventually given the right to appeal, and it was finally accepted that his initial confession had been fuelled by his anxious, confused mental state, nothing more.
Evans was released in 1997, after serving a quarter of a century in prison. He was eventually given around £1 million in compensation for this colossal miscarriage of justice. As for the question of who really killed Judith Roberts – that’s a mystery that will likely remain unsolved.