A serial killer feared to be behind the double murders of five elderly couples could be on the loose, a sensational report claims.
The dossier by a senior coroner’s officer claims there are striking similarities between the deaths of the couples in Cheshire, Manchester and Cumbria between 1996 and 2011.
In each case the husband apparently went berserk, hitting his wife on the head, before stabbing her and killing himself. All were recorded as murder suicides by various coroners.
The report’s author Stephanie Davies, the senior coroner’s officer with Cheshire police, said at least two cases were so similar they could be the work of a serial offender.
Police yesterday confirmed they were reviewing the 179-page report, while former North West chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal said: ‘The concerns raised in this report need to be taken very seriously.’
Last night, however, relatives of several of the couples rubbished the report, telling the Mail mental health was behind the killings.
Dennis Tong, 63, who found in-laws Eileen and Ken Martin in their Manchester home in November 2008, said the family were 100 per cent sure Mr Martin killed his dementia sufferer wife then himself, adding: ‘Ken had been struggling for a few years. He just crumbled under the pressure.’
Howard Ainsworth was devoted to his wife Beatrice, everyone who knew them said so. The couple lived in a semi in Gravel Lane, Wilmslow – a beautiful part of Cheshire – where the ‘tall, kindly’ figure of Howard, a former park gardener, could more often than not be seen tending his precious lawn.
But not on Sunday, April 28, 1996. Instead the curtains of their home were still drawn at 11.30am. The front door remained unanswered when a neighbour went to check on them.
There was only one thing left to do in the circumstances – call the police. The scene which greeted the local constable when he finally entered the house and went upstairs to the bedroom was truly chilling.
Howard Ainsworth was devoted to his wife Beatrice, everyone who knew them said so (pictured)
Beatrice, a petite 78-year-old who was known as Bea, was on the bed in her nightie with a breadknife embedded in her forehead. She had been bludgeoned several times with a hammer and a pillow partly obscured her face. Howard, 79, was next to her in his pyjamas, propped up against the headboard with a large clear plastic bag over his head.
It was a horrific scenario but especially here in Wilmslow, one of the most sought-after places to live in the country (famous residents include Sir Alex Ferguson, then manager of Manchester United).
Who was responsible?
Detectives concluded Howard had killed Bea and taken his own life. The crucial piece of evidence which pointed to this was a ‘suicide note’ left on a yellow pad on the sideboard next to where the bodies lay.
Bea had suffered recent ill-health from a virus, the note claimed – she had become ‘delirious’. ‘It looks as tho [sic] our lives have gone so have given her some sleeping tablets and I will have to throttle her,’ Howard explained matter-of-factly.
The suicide theory was given added plausibility because the couple had joined a right-to-die group six years earlier and a ‘do not resuscitate’ sign had been left at the top of the stairs.
The coroner agreed with the police version of events. Case closed.
Caption: Eileen and Kenneth Martin, who were both found dead at their home in Davyhulme, Greater Manchester, on November 10, 2008
Now, more than two decades on, there are fears that Bea and Howard Ainsworth may have been murdered by a serial killer who targets the elderly and is still at large.
There are parallels between the deaths of Bea and Howard, it has emerged, and four other cases where loving husbands were thought to have gone berserk and killed their wives before ending their own lives. One of these involved a murder suicide in Wilmslow just three years after the discovery in Gravel Lane.
The ‘serial killer’ claim is contained in a confidential dossier by Stephanie Davies, the senior coroner’s officer for Cheshire. ‘This individual will not stop killing until someone or something stops him,’ it says.
Cheshire Police said they were conducting a review of the findings – the 179-page report (leaked to the Sunday Times) reads like the plot of a film – which was handed to the force last month. Police in Manchester and Cumbria, where some of the killings took place, have also been alerted.
But it is in Wilmslow where the story really begins. There were troubling inconsistencies at the crime scene in Gravel Lane. Howard Ainsworth’s ‘suicide note’ ended with a tender acknowledgement that ‘we have a good life together’.
Those words – his love for his wife – could not have been further removed from the bloodbath in their bedroom. There was no respect for the victim, for example. Aside from the ultra-violence, Bea’s hemline had been pulled up to the hip. Was this really the behaviour of a husband carrying out a so-called crime of compassion?
Auriel and Donald Ward, who were found dead at their home on Lacey Grove in Wilmslow, Cheshire, on November 28, 1999
In fact, the doctor would tell police that Bea was suffering from a stomach bug; she didn’t have any long-term illnesses. Howard also appeared to be in good health. A bottle of sedatives may have been left on a chest of drawers in the bedroom with two tumblers. But the couple had not taken any pills, according to the toxicology reports. Howard’s ‘suicide note’ said they had, remember.
What were the chances of another murder-suicide taking place in Wilmslow? Infinitesimally low.
Yet just three years later, on November 26, 1999, devoted couple Donald and Auriel Ward were also found lying in their bloodstained bed at their home not far away in Lacey Grove.
Auriel, 68, an ex-nursery school teacher, had been bludgeoned and stabbed (like Bea Ainsworth). She had also been suffocated and her head was partially covered by a pillow (like Bea Ainsworth).
Donald, 73, a retired chemist known for his impeccable manners, had a knife protruding from his heart and his throat had been slit. Happily married for 45 years, they doted on each other – and their grandchildren.
The clues that indicate the killer could be roaming Britain’s streets: 1. Howard Ainsworth has his head covered with a plastic bag and ligature 2. Bea Ainsworth had a knife sticking out of her head and injuries from a hammer 3. The bag on Mr Ainsworth’s head was covered in blood, suggesting he already had it on when his wife was attacked 4. Only a tiny amount of bloody was on Mr Ainsworth’s pyjamas 5. Mr Ainsworth’s body is in an odd position, suggesting it could have been moved 6. The tip of the knife in Mrs Ainsworth’s head was shoved in with considerable force 7. The hammer was found washed in the sink, which would be an odd move for Mr Ainsworth to make if he was about to commit suicide 8. Another hammer is also at the scene 9. A possible second ligature is on the floor, potentially left by the killer 10. A bottle of pills was scattered on the floor, but it was a drug not prescribed to the couple 11. A suicide note, from Mr Ainsworth was found, but was he forced to sign it?
After a lengthy police investigation, the coroner Nicholas Rheinberg found the balance of Donald’s mind must have been disturbed and he, like Howard Ainsworth, had taken his life after killing the wife he adored.
Yet he said: ‘This in all respects was so alien to Mr Ward’s personality – his whole life – not a single shred of evidence would suggest there was a timebomb waiting to explode.’
The couple’s four children have never spoken about what happened.
But Mary Colborn-Roberts, a hairdresser who knew Mrs Ward well, said: ‘I remember one of their sons telling me [at the couple’s memorial service] they couldn’t believe their father was capable of such violence.’
Two murder suicides, then, involving elderly couples in the space of a few years in the same small Cheshire town with nothing to suggest their lives would end in such a brutal way.
The coroner’s officer for Cheshire at the time was highly respected Christine Hurst. She was one of most experienced officers in the country who had given evidence at the inquiry into Harold Shipman in 2002.
Who are the victims of the potential serial killer?
Howard and Beatrice Ainsworth were found dead at home in Wilmslow, Cheshire on April 28, 1996.
Mr Ainsworth, 79, apparently bludgeoned, Beatrice, 78 – known as Bea – with a hammer, before stabbing her with a breadknife. He then supposedly suffocated himself with a plastic bag. A suicide note, assumed to have been from Mr Ainsworth, said he had ‘given her some sleeping tablets’.
But no sedatives were found in either of them following toxicology tests and Mr Ainsworth had ‘unexplained bruises’, possibly from being forcibly suffocated, on his lips.
Donald and Auriel Ward died on November 26, 1999 at home in Wilmslow. Mrs Ward, 68, was hit with a ceramic hot water bottle and stabbed with the shards. Mr Ward, 73, slit his throat and stabbed himself.
Eileen and Kenneth Martin died in their garage in Manchester in November 2008. Mrs Martin, 76, had severe head injuries and cuts to her wrists and neck. Mr Martin, 77, cut his throat, slashed his wrists and hanged himself.
Stanley Wilson, 92, and his wife Peggy, 89, died in February 2011. Both were found dead in their bedroom in Kendal, Cumbria. Mrs Wilson had been bludgeoned in the head and face and had knife wounds to her neck.
Mr Wilson is said to have stabbed himself in the neck.
Violet Higgins, 76, was apparently murdered by husband Michael, 59, at their Manchester home in February 2000. Mr Higgins, who had Parkinson’s disease, is believed to have beaten his wife with a rolling pin in bed and stabbed her with scissors.
The Wilmslow cases had caused her sleepless nights. She explains why in a written statement in the report. The photographs of the Ainsworths came across her desk in the spring of 1996 and she says she was ‘appalled at the level of violence’ inflicted on Bea.
By coincidence, Mrs Hurst was in the mortuary when the body of Auriel Ward came in and was struck by how similar her wounds were to those of Bea and how much, it seemed to her, the crime scene resembled the earlier one: the presence of a knife… the angle of pillows covering the women’s faces… both nighties raised above their thighs.
So when Mrs Hurst retired in 2017 she passed on her files to her successor, Stephanie Davies. ‘I hoped that one day these cases would be looked at again,’ Mrs Hurst wrote. They were.
Mrs Davies re-examined the files with the help of one of America’s leading ‘cold case’ police forensic investigators. Their inquiries turned up more murder suicides that seemed to fit the pattern. Among them former police officer Violet Higgins, 76, found dead – also in her nightie – at home with security guard husband Michael, 59, in Manchester.
He had supposedly battered her with a rolling pin and stabbed her with scissors. The police quickly dropped the investigation. The inquest heard evidence Michael was suffering from Parkinson’s and his wife had threatened to put him in a home, a possible motive.
But the coroner stressed what happened was out of character. ‘It was a very sad end to many years of apparent happy marriage,’ he said. Mr Higgins’s brother Daniel also told the inquest he did not believe he was capable of such violence.
The report also raises questions over the deaths of Eileen and Kenneth Martin on the eve of their 55th wedding anniversary in November 2008.
Eileen, a former printer, 76, suffered blows to the head – possibly from a hammer – and had cuts to her neck and wrists. She was found in the garage at home in Davyhulme, Manchester, next to Kenneth, 77, a retired steel erector, who is said to have cut his own throat and wrists and hanged himself.
It was reported as a mercy killing. Kenneth had prostate cancer and was struggling to look after his wife, who had dementia. The night before he died he broke down and told his daughter he could no longer cope.
But Mrs Davies’s report says the injuries Eileen sustained were not consistent with a mercy killing. Kenneth was also frail and had difficulty walking, raising doubts about whether he was physically capable of such an attack.
However, not everyone buys into the theory a serial killer is on the loose. Dennis Tong, who discovered the bodies of Eileen and Kenneth, said the family were ‘100 per cent sure’ Kenneth was responsible.
‘He must have done it on the spur of the moment,’ he said. ‘We know Ken was going downhill. He was a proud man and would not take any help from anybody. We suggested putting Eileen in a home and he just refused. I think he just crumbled under the pressure.’
Michael and Violet Higgins were found dead on February 21, 2000, in Disbury, Manchester and it has been suggested their deaths may be linked to the two re-examined cases from the 1990s
It’s the same in Cumbria, where Mrs Davies’s inquiries also led.
Some time overnight on February 17, 2011, ex-quarry worker Stanley Wilson, 92, is said to have carried out an attack on his retired teacher wife Peggie, 89, at home in Kendal. She was hit on the head and face, strangled then stabbed in the neck. Stanley is said to have stabbed himself in the neck.
The inquest heard Stanley had just been released from hospital and was expressing paranoid fears his wife, son and the nursing staff had been trying to poison him.
His son Graham believes there is no doubt he committed the crime.
‘There isn’t a story here,’ he told us. ‘It was just a tragedy caused by my father’s illness. As we said at the time, the hospital was at fault for letting him out too soon.’
His wife Barbara said the ‘serial killer’ theory had left the family deeply upset. ‘We had no problem with what the police did and how it was all dealt with,’ she added.
However, Mrs Davies believes there were a number of similarities with the Ward case in particular, and she concludes: ‘This individual will not stop killing until someone or something stops him… the acts of dominating the victims, carrying out the murders and fooling the police, are all addictive to him.
‘He will have meticulously planned each murder, ensured he left no forensic evidence and followed the cases in the media.’
It is a chilling prospect.