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Portsmouth: crime profile

A serial sex killer, a Ripper connection and a famous miscarriage of justice

Katherine Kelly – the star of acclaimed dramas Cheat, Happy Valley and Liar – returns to CI for the new series of Murdertown. Each episode delves into a brutal crime that impacted a community in the UK, piecing together contributions from journalists, detectives and those personally connected to each case to form a revealing picture of just what happened.

In Portsmouth, Katherine Kelly looks at the disturbing enigma of Allan Grimson, a seemingly fine and upstanding Royal Navy officer who had a secret sadistic side which led him to commit barbaric acts on those closest to him. One psychiatrist described Grimson as the most psychologically complex killer he’d ever dealt with, and there are still question marks over how many he may have murdered.

A connection with another killer

Portsmouth has a connection with another killer: Peter Tobin, a Scottish man convicted of slaying three women and widely suspected of having an even higher body count to his name. Portsmouth was the hometown of Tobin’s wife Cathy Wilson, and she returned there to settle after her relationship with Tobin fell apart in 1990. Four years after that, Tobin was convicted of sexually assaulting two teenage girls at his flat in Havant, less than eight miles from Portsmouth. The girls had come to visit a neighbour and innocently knocked on Tobin’s door to ask if they could wait there until the neighbour got back. Tobin assaulted them at knifepoint and then went on the run. He would serve 10 years of a 14-year sentence.

In 2006, while working as a handyman at a church in Glasgow, Tobin crossed paths with a Polish student named Angelika Kluk. He raped, bludgeoned and stabbed her, before burying her under the floorboards of the church. But his eventual conviction for Angelika’s murder proved only the tip of the iceberg. Excavation of a property where Tobin once lived uncovered the remains of two other girls – Vicky Hamilton and Dinah McNichol – who had gone missing in 1991. It turned out that even before Tobin’s initial conviction for the sex assaults on the two 14-year-olds, he’d already raped and murdered Vicky and Dinah.

Tobin was given a whole life prison sentence in 2009. Interestingly, it’s been widely speculated Tobin may also have been 'Bible John', an unidentified serial killer who operated in Glasgow in the late 1960s, although witnesses and experts disagree about this.

Jack the Ripper in Hampshire?

Peter Tobin may not be a familiar name to many true crime buffs, but there are some who believe Havant, near Portsmouth, was once the stalking ground of the most infamous serial killer of them all: Jack the Ripper. In November 1888, the year of the Whitechapel murders, a letter with a Portsmouth postmark was sent to the authorities, signed 'Jack the Ripper' and saying 'It is no good for you to look for me in London because I am not there.' Shortly after this letter was sent, a vicious and shockingly motiveless murder was committed in Havant. The victim was a young boy named Percy Searle, who’d been sent on an errand by his mum in the early evening. While walking home, he was set upon in the street and repeatedly stabbed in the neck. The only witness was another boy, Robert Husband, who claimed to have seen a 'tall man' committing the murder.

Husband himself, despite being just 11, was soon the prime suspect in the killing. It was alleged he couldn’t have seen the assault from the vantage point he’d claimed, while a newspaper report stated that he’d 'developed a very brutal temperament of late, and had frequently been reproved for his cruelty to animals'. Husband was even said to have called himself 'Jack the Ripper' while playing with friends.

The boy was eventually acquitted due to lack of any real evidence – the lack of any fresh blood on his hands or clothes was a critical point in his favour – and became something of a celebrity in Hampshire. Robert Husband was even used as a kind of mascot in an advertising notice for a local tavern where he worked. It read: 'Lovers of justice! Come and see the innocent little boy, Robert Husband, who was accused of the wilful murder of Percy Searle, behind the bar of the Newtown Tavern.' Since then, Ripperologists have connected the Portsmouth letter with the Searle murder, citing the superficial similarities with the Whitechapel murders. Others point out the Ripper targeted women, not boys, and that Husband may indeed have been the killer after all. The 'Havant tragedy', as it was called, is destined to remain officially unsolved.

A tragic miscarriage of justice

A little further out from Portsmouth, in nearby Southampton, a murder case that unfolded in 1979 led to one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history. A young woman named Teresa de Simone was found raped and murdered in her car after a night out at a club in central Southampton, sparking a frantic hunt for the ruthless maniac who’d preyed upon her. The breakthrough came with the confession of a habitual petty criminal called Sean Hodgson, who was known to have a personality disorder and to be a compulsive liar. Despite the fact he’d also confessed to two other entirely fictitious killings, he was convicted of the murder in 1982, and would spend 27 years behind bars before his conviction was quashed in 2009.

The real culprit, confirmed by DNA testing which didn’t exist at the time of the murder, was actually Portsmouth man called David Lace, who was just 17 when he raped and killed Teresa. Lace, who’d had convictions for robbery, had been stricken with guilt and actually confessed to police in 1983 that he had forced his way into Teresa’s car where he assaulted and strangled her with the seatbelt.

Shockingly, the confession was set aside and forgotten because of minor misremembered details in Lace’s account. He would go on to commit suicide in 1988, and his guilt was only established when his remains were subjected to DNA testing. Sean Hodgson would die from natural causes in 2012, just three years after spending almost three decades in captivity for a crime he didn’t commit.