The star of Happy Valley, Liar and Cheat, Katherine Kelly is accustomed to twist-filled, fictitious tales of crime. But in Murdertown, the stories are very real, with Katherine chronicling killings and their aftermaths.
In Nuneaton, Warwickshire, she delves into the tragic case of Naomi Smith, a teenage schoolgirl who walked out of her mum’s home to post a letter one evening in September 1995. She would never return, and what followed was a gruelling murder investigation which would rely on the then-trailblazing work of DNA experts.
Nuneaton itself has a cherished place in English literature, being immortalised in Victorian novelist George Eliot’s book, Scenes of Clerical Life. But its history hasn’t always been so genteel. The murder of Naomi Smith rocked the local community, while – just a year earlier – the manager of a local building society was killed in a case that stunned detectives…
When the body of Nuneaton building society manager Carol Wardell was found by a motorist just outside town in 1994, it marked the start of a murder investigation unlike any seen in the area before. Police immediately headed for the victim’s home, where they were presented with the sight of her distressed husband, Gordon, bound and gagged. Meanwhile, the building society branch had been robbed.
Gordon Wardell told detectives that he’d come home to the nightmarish sight of Carol being held at knife-point by a man in a clown mask. Gordon said he’d then been punched to the floor and passed out, never seeing his wife again. However, during a tearful press conference, Wardell was asked uncomfortable questions about a previous conviction he had for grievous bodily harm.
It turned out Wardell had actually done time for stabbing the wife of his school science teacher when he was just 17. ‘As soon as I was asked about it I told them,’ Wardell clarified in the press conference. “I was open about it.’
His clothes had been found neatly folded next to his gagged body when police turned up
But alarm bells were already going off in the minds of detectives. Not only did Wardell have this deeply worrying backstory, but there were also gaps and inconsistencies in his story. Little snags – like witnesses not confirming his account of where he’d been the night of the murder, and the way his clothes had been found neatly folded next to his gagged body when police turned up – raised suspicion. Experts also confirmed there was no known drug that would have sedated Wardell in the manner and length of time he claimed.
Wardell was eventually arrested and convicted of what the prosecution called ‘an elaborate scheme to quite literally get away with murder’, killing his wife, robbing the building society and then tied and gagged himself to await the police. Dubbed an ‘extremely dangerous, evil and devious man’, he was handed a life sentence.
In February 1832, when future literary great George Eliot would have still been living in the area, Nuneaton witnessed a murder that became a scandal. The victim’s name was Mary Green, though she was universally known as Polly Button, perhaps because she worked as a weaver.
Polly had several illegitimate children and was therefore scorned as a ‘low’ woman by the cultural standards of the time. One of her lovers was a married carpenter called John Danks, whose secret trysts with Polly left her pregnant. When Danks’ wife found out, he cut Polly’s throat. It clearly wasn’t a very well-thought-out plan, as Danks confessed soon after.
Indeed, Danks did not cut a particularly fearsome figure, being described by a contemporary report as lacking any kind of ‘forbidding countenance, nor was there anything in his appearance indicative of a mind capable of committing the crime’. While Danks remained calm and impassive during the hearings, his wife was in a more fretful state, described as seeming to be ‘in a state of derangement, sometimes crying, and at other rolling her eyes about with a wild and vacant stare at those around her.’
Danks was executed in front of a crowd of Nuneaton citizens, and the crime passed into local folklore, even inspiring a children’s skipping rhyme:
‘Jack Danks played his pranksOn poor old Polly ButtonHe took a knife to please his wifeAnd cut her up like mutton.’
In 2017, Nuneaton witnessed a trial which could have sprung straight from crime fiction. A complex, contradictory case featuring a savage and seemingly inexplicable crime, and two suspects who rampantly blamed each other. The victim was Dionne Clark, a 27-year-old woman who was found dead and tied up with duct tape in a house in Nuneaton. The suspects were her own close friends, Dominic Wallis and Elizabeth Ellis, also in their 20s. Wallis’ parents were implicated for perverting the course of justice by helping the pair tidy up the aftermath of the crime. The trial saw Dominic Wallis and Elizabeth Ellis turn on each other. They both verified the three of them – Dionne, Dominic and Elizabeth – had spent the night drinking and smoking crack. Then, for some reason, extreme violence was inflicted on Dionne.
According to Elizabeth Ellis’ testimony, the horror began when Dionne tried to show Elizabeth how to sniff gas from a canister. When it didn’t work, and liquid gushed into Elizabeth’s mouth, a row broke out and Dominic smacked Dionne in the face. From there, the violence span out of control, with Dominic torturing and beating Dionne while Elizabeth allegedly felt too frightened and powerless to stop him. ‘I felt manipulated by Dom and he had said if I ever tell the truth he would do the same to me and my family,’ Elizabeth testified. ‘I was traumatised and still felt under Dom’s control and brainwashed by being with him all day.’ However, Dominic’s testimony flatly contradicted this. He alleged that, when the fluid from the canister squirted into Elizabeth’s mouth, she lashed out at Dionne and punched her in the face, then tied her up while Dominic Wallis looked on. ‘I was standing there allowing it to happen,’ Dominic Wallis testified. ‘I shouldn’t have done it but I let it happen.’
Wallis’ parents, Kingsley and Karen, also spoke about their role in the whole mess, claiming to have fully believed Dominic’s story that Dionne had been involved in a street fight, and that they’d simply found her dead after a night of drinking and drug abuse. Dominic and Elizabeth were both found guilty of murder, while Kingsley and Karen were found guilty of perverting the course of justice. But what really happened between the two killers and their victim, and who really took the lead, will likely never be known for sure.