Two strangled little girls huddled together in the wilderness
and a teenager stabbed to death in a graveyard a decade later; were the crimes random incidents
of homicidal violence or were the slayings connected by the resinous web of fate?
To American ears, Moulsecoomb estate in Brighton conjures images of Downton Abbey,
but the reality is far closer to Cabrini-Green—“estate” being the British moniker
for the urban blight we in the States have christened “the Projects.” Poverty and drug abuse
were two constants in the lives of Moulsecoomb residents in the grim years of Margaret Thatcher’s reign,
yet still an air of bonhomie prevailed;
when Nicola Fellows, age ten, and her nine-year-old neighbor Karen Hadaway
failed to return from a playdate on October 9th, 1986 more than two hundred locals assisted in the search of nearby Wild Park.
searchers stumbled upon the missing twosome
snuggled in a thicket,
Karen’s head nestled in Nicola’s lap. At first blush the rescuers thought the girls were simply
sleeping off the effects
of a traumatic night lost in the forest,
but a closer look revealed an eerie stillness—Nicola and Karen reposed not in slumber
but in the eternal tranquility of death.
An autopsy would later reveal that a cavalcade of depravity had transpired
beneath Wild Park’s leafy boughs:
both girls had been beaten, brutalized and strangled—Nicola had been sexually assaulted both before and after death, and the state of Karen’s clothing indicated she’d likely been molested as well. A crowd began to gather at the crime scene,
and the odd demeanor of unemployed roofer Russell Bishop, age nineteen, drew the attention of detectives.
Bishop had been an avid searcher, perhaps too avid,
and he was known to both girls; he played cricket
with Nicola’s father Barrie and he’d bunked at the Fellows’ flat for a time.
Since the murdered girls bore no defensive wounds
investigators believed they’d gone to their fate like little lambs to slaughter—the killer must have been someone they knew and trusted, investigators theorized.
Detectives scoured the thickly-wooded crannies and copses of Wild Park,
but only a single piece of physical evidence connected to the crime could be found:
a blue and white Pinto-brand sweatshirt, discarded on the path Bishop would have traveled on his route home; the garment was spattered with blood and ivy spores from the crime scene and fibers consistent with the shirt bespeckled the girls’ clothing.
Other clues, however, were scant;
the field of forensics was in its infancy at the time, and despite fifty-one hours of vigorous interrogation
Bishop denied killing the girls or owning the incriminating shirt.
His wife claimed to recognize the Pinto sweatshirt, however,
and buttressed by her testimony and Bishop’s inconsistent statements regarding his whereabouts at the time of the crime investigators were confident of his guilt.
Arrested three weeks after the girls’ murders, Bishop’s trial began in late November of 1987.
Law enforcement may have had an abiding belief in Bishop’s guilt
but their case was far from airtight—an odd demeanor and inconsistent statements are incriminating
but far from incontrovertible evidence of guilt.
Even if the jury believed Bishop was an oddball with a shaky alibi
who had once owned an identical Pinto shirt
their decision would have been a difficult one, but midway through the trial
the Crown’s case was dealt a fatal blow—Bishop’s wife recanted her identification of the sweatshirt,
claiming law enforcement had unduly pressured her to implicate her husband.
To the horror of the Fellows and Hadaway families the Crown’s case came tumbling down like London Bridge; it took the jury less than two hours to vote for Bishop’s acquittal.
it’s important to remember that acquitted is not synonymous with innocent;
a jury’s failure to convict doesn’t retroactively bestow blamelessness on a defendant
if he in fact perpetrated the crime—juries can only grant freedom from incarceration,
not clean hands and a clear conscience.
In this case, the jury may have found insufficient evidence tying Bishop to the girls’ murders,
but his arrest and conviction on abduction, molestation and attempted murder charges three years later seems to indicate investigators may have had the right man all along.
Luckily, Bishop’s subsequent victim survived her assault;
snatched off the street while roller-skating and left for dead at Devil’s Dyke,
the seven-year-old schoolgirl picked Bishop out of an identity parade and DNA evidence confirmed his guilt;
he’s currently serving a life sentence for the attack. Galvanized by his conviction,
victims’ advocates waged a successful campaign to abolish the prohibition against double jeopardy in the UK,
yet justice for Nicola and Karen remains elusive;
in September of 2006 the British High Court ruled the case lacked substantial new evidence
and declined to reprosecute Bishop for the girls’ deaths.
Currently eligible for parole,
Bishop is one of the longest-serving British inmates not imprisoned for murder; authorities have never released the results of modern-day DNA analysis of the infamous Pinto sweatshirt,
and the crusade to hold Bishop accountable for Nicola and Karen’s murders rages on.
The most recent activity in the investigation of the girls’ slayings was a bizarre side note:
in April of 2009, twenty-three years after his daughter’s murder,
Barrie Fellows was arrested on charges of sexually abusing Nicola. The senior Fellow’s predilection
for racy videos had caused a commotion in the British press during the search for the girls’ killer,
and rumors of incest had been whispered in the community at the time of Nicola’s death.
Soon after his belated arrest, however,
the Sussex Police dropped the charges against Mr. Fellows, issuing a press release which stated:
“When there are serious allegations made…the public rightly expects us to investigate.
[W]e will not be taking action.”
Mr. Fellows claims he was arrested in retaliation for his vocal criticism of local law enforcement,
and although the true motive of the Sussex police is unclear the timing of Mr. Fellows’ arrest is curious at best.
Dubbed “The Babes in the Woods” by the British press,
Nicola and Karen’s murders are among the United Kingdom’s most high-profile unsolved crimes;
in 1986 venerable British television show Crimewatch dedicated an episode to the girls’ slayings,
and nine-year-old neighborhood resident Katrina Taylor was chosen to portray Nicola in the reenactment.
As the years passed and the quest to convict Russell Bishop wended fruitlessly through the British courts
Nicola’s Crimewatch doppelganger grew up besieged by the societal ills and poverty endemic in Moulsecoomb;
as 1996 dawned Katrina Taylor was a nineteen-year-old high school dropout
with a new baby and a three-hundred dollar a week heroin habit.
of a drug-dealer’s girlfriend’s residence at 10 Bolney Road,
located conveniently across the street from the Taylor family home.
Neisha Williams’ flat was not only burgled but ransacked;
clothing was set alight, and a washing machine was yanked from the wall,
flooding the entire apartment. Understandably furious,
Neisha Williams decided to bypass the creaky British judicial system
and mete out a more timely street justice—she used her underworld contacts
to scout for the stolen items, and when Katrina traded some of the purloined jewelry for thirty dollars’ worth of heroin the young addict’s fate was sealed.
Once the burglars had been identified Neisha Williams and her minions ran amok through the streets of Moulsecoomb intent on revenge;
the Williams crew soon located one of Katrina’s male accomplices and proceeded to beat him senseless, repeatedly stabbing him in the legs with a screwdriver for good measure.
The gang then staged a violent invasion of the Taylor family home;
unable to find Katrina in the residence the assailants battered her sister instead—street justice may be timely, but it’s an inexact science at best.
Neisha Williams wasn’t the only one
who managed to identify the burglars—less than a week after the crime Katrina and her two male accomplices were arrested by the Sussex Police.
Katrina’s cohorts wisely opted to stay in the safety of the jail awaiting trial,
preferring prison food to the spectre of Neisha Williams’s wrath.
Katrina, however, was determined to be released on bail to care for her then-eight month old daughter;
her maternal instincts would cost her her life.
Once freed on bond Katrina managed to avoid her tormentors for approximately eight weeks
but in close-knit Moulsecoomb the odds were stacked against her,
and on July 4th Neisha Williams’ brother Simon spotted the young mother exiting a hotel.
Hustled into his white Renault
and then frog-marched to Neisha Williams’ new residence at 77 Centurion Road,
Katrina must have been terrified.
It was time to pay the piper, and the piper was howling for blood.
Accounts of Katrina’s ordeal at 77 Centurion Road diverge, but all parties agree
that while in the flat she was accosted by an angry quartet consisting of the Williams siblings,
Neisha’s boyfriend Trevor Smith, and Smith’s friend Fergal Scollan.
At 11:15pm screams were heard emanating from a nearby graveyard,
and the next day a man walking his dog found Katrina’s bloody corpse slumped against a tombstone—she’d been stabbed six times, once in the arm and five times in the chest.
The death penalty may have been abolished by the British judicial system
but in the murky realm of street justice capital punishment abounds, even for minor crimes like burglary.
Witnesses had spotted Katrina being swept into Simon Williams’ Renault,
and the Williams posse’s vendetta against the young mother was an open secret on the streets of Moulsecoomb;
Smith, Scollan and the Williams’ siblings were swiftly arrested.
As is often the case in crimes involving multiple perpetrators,
at trial the finger-pointing flew fast and furious:
the Williams siblings claimed Smith and Scollan had led Katrina off to her doom, but Smith and Scollan claimed the Williams siblings had been the ones who ushered the victim to her grimly-ironic murder site.
Absent any forensic evidence,
the jury opted to believe the Williams siblings
despite the fact that Simon Williams admitted to disposing of the murder weapon;
he and his sister were acquitted of Katrina ’s murder,
although Neisha Williams was sentenced to two years in prison on false imprisonment charges.
Trevor Smith and Fergal Scollan were convicted of first degree homicide for Katrina’s death and sentenced to life in prison in July of 1997;
two years later, however, the verdict was successfully appealed on procedural grounds—a superior court ruled the judge had delivered improper
and the pair’s murder convictions
Smith and Scollan may have drawn the short end of the stick during the original blame-casting free-for-all, but the pair’s luck was about to change.
At their retrial, held at the Old Bailey in October of 1999,
Neisha and Simon Williams refused to testify against their one-time codefendants, opting to hew to the underworld code of omerta—apparently snitches only worry about stitches when their own freedom is no longer imperiled.
Without the Williams siblings’ testimony
the chances of convicting Smith and Scollan receded faster than the hairlines on the Royal family;
absent witnesses and forensics to tie the defendants to the murder weapon
the case never even made it to a jury—after viewing the Crown’s evidence the judge granted the defense’s motion for a directed verdict of acquittal.
Smith agreed to plead guilty to a charge of false imprisonment in exchange for time served,
and that, as they say, was that:
Smith and Scollan were back on the streets of Moulsecoomb by teatime.
Like the families of the Babes in the Woods,
the Taylor clan is embittered by law enforcement’s failure to hold anyone accountable for their daughter’s death.
In addition to the four acquitted defendants
Katrina’s mother Kathy blames the Sussex Police for her daughter’s murder; as she told a journalist from The Argus,
“If police had acted differently when the whole thing started then Katrina would be here now.”
Law enforcement had declined to press charges against the Williams crew
for their home invasion and battery of Katrina’s sister; had they done so, the foursome would’ve been behind bars at the time of Katrina’s demise and thus unable to mete out their fatal dose of street justice.
Nicola Fellows, Karen Hadaway, Katrina Taylor: three dead girls, their murders yet unavenged.
The Crimewatch reenactment isn’t the only link that binds them together;
the same vein of injustice courses through both crimes as well.
So did Katrina’s portrayal of one of the Babes in the Woods lead inexorably to her death?
Of course not—Katrina signed her death warrant when she participated in the robbery of a drug-dealer’s girlfriend, not when she played a murder victim on television;
the person who plunged the knife into Katrina’s chest is solely responsible for her murder, with heroin and poor choices aiding and abetting the crime.
The girl who portrayed Karen Hadaway on the Crimewatch episode is alive and well, as are the scores of other actors who’ve played victims on the show over the years.
But that said, better safe than sorry;
if you see a casting call for a Crimewatch reenactment of Katrina Taylor’s murder I’d definitely suggest you stay home.