True crime series Murdertown provides an up-close, forensic look at terrible crimes committed across the length and breadth of the country. In each episode, Anita Rani visits a different community to meet those impacted by murder – from the friends and relatives of the victims to the police officers who carried out the painstaking detective work that caged the killers.
In Oxfordshire, the focus falls on the murder of Vikki Thompson, a 30-year-old married mum of two who was savagely beaten to death while walking her dog in 1995. A prime suspect was quickly pinpointed by police, and when he went to trial it looked like justice would be done. But the quest for justice would take far longer than anyone could have predicted.
The ‘sick, childish’ killer
Vikki Thompson was murdered in Ascott-under-Wychwood, a village around 20 miles from Oxford. The latter is synonymous with its world-renowned university and the make-believe detective work of Inspector Morse. But, in 1991, a very real killing would horrify the student population and perplex police in the city.
The victim was 19-year-old English student Rachel McLean, who was in a seemingly happy relationship with 22-year-old John Tanner, a handsome and popular New Zealand national studying in Nottingham. In April 1991, Tanner came to visit his girlfriend. They had a relaxed time together in her student house; Tanner watched the FA Cup semi-finals on telly while she studied. Later that day, he strangled her to death.
Hiding her body in the floorboards of the house, Tanner returned to Nottingham the next day. He attempted to cover his tracks by posting a letter to his dead girlfriend, thanking her for “such a wonderful weekend”. He also rang the student house, innocently asking Rachel’s housemate if his girlfriend was there.
Several days passed before police were notified about her disappearance. A search of the house didn’t uncover her body, and Tanner was questioned. He played the part of the concerned boyfriend, even taking part in a televised press conference to appeal for help. ‘In my heart of hearts I know she is still alive,’ he said.
The breakthrough came when Rachel’s body was finally discovered in the cavity of the house. Tanner, whose unflappable demeanour had already aroused suspicions, was arrested within the hour. It later transpired that Rachel had long been desperate to be rid of the possessive Tanner, writing in her diary that he was a ‘sick, childish – ‘. Faced with the prospect of losing her, he’d flown into a rage and killed her.
Tanner was handed a life sentence but was released after only serving 12 years. He returned to New Zealand, where in 2018 he was jailed again – this time for assaulting his partner.
The Widow’s Killing
Generations before Rachel McLean’s tragic death, another woman was murdered in her own home in Oxford. She was a 54-year-old widow named Anne Kempson, whose killing in August 1931 continues to inspire debate today.
Anne Kempson was brutally battered, her throat stabbed by a sharp implement. Her house had been ransacked, leading police to suspect it had been a burglary gone horribly wrong. Making enquiries from door to door, they spoke to a neighbour, Mrs Andrews, who recounted that a vacuum cleaner salesman called Seymour had knocked on her door the day prior to Anne’s murder.
Seymour claimed all his money had been stolen while he’d been swimming, and the Andrews household had kindly put him up for the night. The following morning, before Seymour left, Mrs Andrews noticed he had a hammer and chisel among his belongings. This account understandably raised red flags with the police, and a national manhunt was promptly underway. It ended with Henry Seymour, a known criminal, being apprehended in Brighton, and charged with murder.
The trial took place that same year. Seymour was found guilty and executed at Oxford Prison in December. But was he really guilty? Some writers and criminologists believe this may have been a dreadful miscarriage of justice. In his book The Oxford Murder, local author Michael Tanner highlights how there was no hard proof implicating Seymour, and that defence witnesses actually testified in court that they’d seen Anne Kempson alive after Seymour had left the area.
Could it be that Seymour’s shady past as a fraudster lead a biased jury and judge to dismiss evidence in his favour and condemn him to death for a crime he didn’t commit? We’ll likely never know for sure.
‘I’ve Done Something Bad’
One of the most distressing crimes in the history of Oxfordshire occurred in May 2015, when 48-year-old Janet Jordan, her 44-year-old partner Philip Howard, and her six-year-old daughter Derin, were found dead at home in Didcot. They had been slain with a hunting knife, and the killer was Janet’s own son, 21-year-old bodybuilding fanatic Jed Allen.
After attacking his half-sister, his mother and her partner, Allen wrote ‘I’m sorry’ in blood on a bedroom wall before going on the run. His friends were alerted to the fact something awful had happened when he texted them to say ‘I’ve done something bad’. Days later, Allen was himself found dead, having hanged himself in woodland.
Much was made in the media of Allen’s alleged ‘Wolverine obsession’, and the fact he’d posed for a photo with steak knives clenched between his fingers like the Marvel character. But the finer details of the case would point to a far sadder and more nuanced explanation than a lethal fantasist driven by sheer bloodlust.
Allen had been a troubled, fearful young man who’d been diagnosed with depression and had recently posted a video online screaming ‘This is a mad house, I can’t take it anymore’. His relationship with his mother had been a complex, traumatic one – she had long struggled with alcoholism and mental health problems, developing a heroin addiction which her frustrated son sometimes had to finance. His mother’s boyfriend, Philip Howard, also reportedly used heroin and had been thrown out the house in the weeks prior to the murders.
‘This was a very dysfunctional family and there were many, many problems,’ a friend of Allen’s later told a newspaper. ‘It was a desperate situation. But nothing can justify the course of action he took.’