While there are some murders that become eternally embedded in the national consciousness, most are remembered only by the communities they impact. In Murdertown, Anita Rani visits the people and places haunted by these terrible crimes, gaining insights into the cases from detectives, journalists and the victims’ loved ones.
In Wakefield, Anita chronicles the tragic story of 51-year-old Wendy Speakes, whose peaceful evening relaxing after work was shattered by a man who tricked his way into her home and subjected her to a brutal assault before killing her. The fallout from this 1994 murder, and the arduous struggle by police to pinpoint the man responsible, are chronicled here in forensic detail.
The enigma of Elsie Frost
Decades before Wendy’s murder, another crime horrified Wakefield, and it still has a painful resonance today. It was on an ordinary October day in 1965 that 14-year-old Elsie Frost was walking home after a day at a sailing club. While she was passing through a tunnel beneath a railway line, Elsie was viciously attacked, sustaining multiple stab wounds.
The discovery of the young girl’s body triggered a massive manhunt, with more than 1,200 statements taken from hundreds of people across Wakefield. Detectives struggled to understand the motive for the murder – was Elsie targeted simply at random to satisfy a monster’s bloodlust? Had she perhaps stumbled across illegal activity, and killed by someone in a panic?
The focus eventually fell on local 33-year-old, Ian Spencer. Despite having a solid alibi, Spencer was twice hauled into court before the judge threw the case out. It wasn’t the end of his ordeal, however. Continuing harassment by police so traumatised Spencer that he would make a point of noting down his exact movements – whenever he left the house or travelled anywhere – for the rest of his life.
Almost half a century after her death, Elsie’s sister wrote to the BBC about the still-unsolved murder, prompting West Yorkshire police to re-start their investigation. A major breakthrough finally came in 2016, when a 78-year-old man was arrested in connection with Elsie’s killing. He was Peter Pickering, known as the “Beast of Wombwell” for raping and killing 14-year-old Shirley Boldy in Wombwell, close to Barnsley, in 1972.
Detained in a secure psychiatric hospital, Pickering died of natural causes in 2018, before he could be charged. Elsie’s brother Colin Frost described this as a 'hollow victory' for the family, who had longed to see Elsie’s killer in court.
Murdered by her boyfriend’s father
When Wakefield teenager Rachel Barraclough started seeing Carl Hughes in 1996, her family were concerned. Rachel was a bright, happy-go-lucky, warm-hearted girl poised for a career in beauty therapy, and her parents worried about her clear attachment to the jobless, aloof Carl. Rachel was so besotted that she wrote in her diary 'I think if he leaves me I will die of a broken heart'. She even forgave him after he assaulted her during an argument, leaving her with a black eye.
What nobody could have guessed was that the threat to Rachel’s life would come, not from Carl, but his father, Stephen Hughes. The 47-year-old, who worked as a chef in a Wakefield hotel, arranged to meet with Rachel one September day in 1997 – the pretext being that he would patch things up between Rachel and his son.
Instead, he lured her to an isolated patch of wasteland, where he sexually assaulted Rachel before stabbing her to death. Stephen Hughes would later deny meeting her that day, but his lies were undone by CCTV footage which showed the two of them walking together. The cameras had been switched on just a week before Rachel’s murder, and proved instrumental in bringing her killer to justice.
Carl, who was initially suspected of being the culprit, and was interviewed multiple times over three weeks, had to come to terms with the fact that his own father had killed his own girlfriend. While sentencing Stephen Hughes to life, even the judge couldn’t restrain his emotions, telling Hughes 'I hope you never get out.'
An early stalking ground of the Yorkshire Ripper?
The grim saga of Peter Sutcliffe has been revisited and re-assessed many times since his capture in 1981. There’s still much discussion and outrage over the notoriously mismanaged manhunt, which was hampered by a hoax tape and widespread misogyny (one senior detective openly differentiated between 'prostitute' victims and 'innocent girls'). There are also lingering question marks over the sheer extent of the Yorkshire Ripper’s crimes.
While Sutcliffe was convicted of killing 13 women and attempting to kill seven others, many have suspected of having carried out more. And, while his known stalking grounds were cities including Leeds, Bradford and Manchester, he’s also been linked to at least one attack in Wakefield.
As reported in the Wakefield Express, the attack took place in 1972 – three years before Sutcliffe committed his first known murder. The victim was a 19-year-old typist who had been walking home from the pub when she noticed she was being followed by a bearded man with dark, long hair. Moments later, he grabbed her, telling her to 'shut up' and hitting her in the back of the head.
Thankfully, someone living on the street heard the scuffle and came out to investigate, causing the attacker to flee. The woman reported the incident to the police, but they failed to follow up, or even contact her again. It was only years afterwards, when she saw a photofit of the Sutcliffe on TV, that she had the horrified realisation that her attacker may have been the same man. If so, Wakefield came within a hair’s breadth of being one of the Yorkshire Ripper’s murder scenes.