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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.’
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.
by Sam Baker and Joe Middleton
These are the eleven crime scene clues that sparked fears a mass murderer could be on the lose after key evidence from the brutal murders of elderly couples suggests a serial killer has been active in Britain since the mid-1990s.
Police fear that two suspected double murders – in the Cheshire town of Wilmslow – were the work of a criminal not known to authorities.
In both cases police believed that the wives had been murdered by their husbands, but after they were re-examined using modern techniques officers now think they were actually double murders, according to a special investigation by the Sunday Times.
A 179-page report written by Stephanie Davies, the senior coroner’s officer for Cheshire, suggests that the two suspected double murders were in fact the work of a serial killer, known to police, having been active since the mid-1990s.
Bea and Howard Ainsworth were found dead in their bed in 1996 and the second case, involving Auriel and Donald Ward took place in 1999.A number of clues – shown in the graphic below – have indicated that the killer could be roaming the streets of Britain.
For example, the bag covering Mr Ainsworth’s head was covered in blood, suggesting he already had it on when his wife was attacked. And an additional hammer was found at the scene, possibly left by the killer.
A bottle of pills was also scattered on the floor of their home, but the drug was not proscribed to either of the Ainsworths’.
Both the suspected double murders occurred in Wilmslow, Cheshire, in 1996 and 1999 and Cheshire police are now carrying out a review into the findings of the report.
The deaths of Howard and Bea Ainsworth and Donald and Auriel Ward were considered by police to be murder-suicides.
Both couples were discovered lying on blood-soaked beds in their nightclothes.
Similarities between the cases included the extremity of violence, with knives left in bodies at the crime scene; injuries to the head from a blunt weapon and stab wounds; and the fact that the women had been left with their nightdresses lifted.
The report points to “a number of inconsistencies which do not corroborate the original manner of death of being murder suicide”.
Stephanie Davies had voiced her concerns about the similarity in the two cases to colleagues in 1999, but they did not lead anywhere.
Davies produced the report in her spare time by examining police files and crime scene photos and is supported by evidence from her predecessor and a US-based crime-scene analysis expert.
The report calls on the National Crime Agency and Interpol to review cases both in Britain and Europe to check whether other cases might be related.
Nazir Afzal, former chief prosecutor for the northwest, said: ‘We could potentially have a serial killer in our midst. There needs to be a proper review of these cases and others which carry similar hallmarks.’
Three other cases have also been identified by Davies, in 2000, 2008 and 2011, which she believes are also related to the Wilmslow deaths.
Two of the cases took place in Greater Manchester and one in the Lake District and Greater Manchester and Cumbria police forces have now been alerted to the findings in the report.
In these three cases, police said that the husbands had stabbed their wives and hit them on the head before taking their own lives – just as had been said of the cases in the 90s.
A spokesman for Cheshire Police told The Sunday Times: “We are in receipt of the report and it is being reviewed. This is a piece of research which has been undertaken by the staff member, independently.
“As with any case that has been closed, where new information comes to light it is reviewed and acted upon if appropriate. We have notified Greater Manchester Police and Cumbria constabulary.”