January 3 2015
– Even in an affluent village like Bosham, they call the mansions on Smugglers Lane the “expensive seats”. Clustered on the southernmost tip of the peninsula, past old fisherman’s cottages and converted oyster sheds, the large detached million-pound plus houses dotted along the quiet lane overlook a creek leading to Chichester Harbour. On the other side of the road, stubble fields glisten with hoarfrost.
Unlike the day trippers strolling through Bosham’s historic centre, at this time of year few people venture down towards Smugglers Lane. Scant Christmas decorations illuminate the street. There is little need for cheer in the long nights when many of the wealthy homeowners choose to stay away altogether, preferring warmer climes to the chill winds whistling in across the English Channel.
Such was the case a year ago, when company director Malcolm Chamberlain and his wife Caroline, who own the £1.6 million mansion Hove To on Smugglers Lane, asked their friend Valerie Graves to housesit while they spent the festive period with their children in Costa Rica.
Miss Graves, 55, a talented artist and grandmother-of-two, moved in for Christmas. She was joined in the six-bedroom property, by her 87-year-old mother Eileen – who had recently been released from hospital after suffering a bout of pneumonia – her older sister, Janet, and her partner, Nigel Acres. The family were very close. Miss Graves had only moved back to Sussex from Scotland two months previously in order to help care for her poorly mother.
At around 10pm on December 29, after an evening together watching television, everybody drifted off to bed. Miss Graves went to sleep in a ground-floor bedroom. The next morning, Janet and Nigel came downstairs to prepare breakfast and noticed her door had been left open. While Mr Acres, a 60-year-old architect, drove to the nearby farm shop to stock up on provisions, Janet went to wake her sister. She discovered her lying in a pool of blood, bludgeoned to death.
Valerie Graves as a man arrested on suspicion of murdering a grandmother as she house-sat for friends in a small village has been released on bail
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The sight of her battered body has left, so said Mr Acres in a police press conference last week, “a horrific mental image which she has not been able to get out of her mind”. He was speaking alongside Miss Graves’s two children, Tim Wood, 32 and Jemima Harrison, 35. Both fought back tears as they described spending their first Christmas without their mother. Mr Wood says his three-year-old daughter, Evie, now calls her “nanny in the sky”.
One year on, rumours swirl and many in Bosham still take extra care to ensure the doors and windows are locked at night. This week, the plot took a new twist: the whole village has come under suspicion. Sussex Police has announced that it wishes to DNA test every male above the age of 17.
Officers will match the DNA against what they believe is the murder weapon: a heavy-duty claw hammer found a few weeks after the murder in nearby Hoe Lane. The hammer was retrieved at a time when much of the area was submerged in flood water. As a result, the sample is not complete enough for a search on the national DNA database. It can, however, be used to eliminate suspects.
Already, officers have interviewed more than 9,500 people (the population of the West Sussex village twice over) including Miss Graves’s family, but there has been little progress. Lines of enquiry have ranged from police appealing to mental health workers about potential suspects, to the property featuring on an advert on a website for swingers. The advert – now long removed – said the house could be used as a venue for “casual sex” and a “discreet relationship”. Mr Chamberlain denies ever creating the account. Early on in the investigation, police arrested a 22-year-old local man on suspicion of her murder, but he was released without charge.
Prior to Miss Graves’s death, the closest Bosham residents had come to murder was in 1998, when an episode of Midsomer Murders entitled “Written in Blood” was filmed here. Now such violence has become a reality, and the killer remains at large.
Over the past few days, officers and volunteers have been out on the streets encouraging residents to attend the DNA screening sessions at the village’s Millstream Hotel – which are voluntary, although a force spokesman admitted obviously attention would also be paid to those who choose not to come forward.
Detective Superintendent Nick May, of Surrey and Sussex Major Crime Team, says the DNA screening, which involves taking a mouth swab and fingerprints, will only be used to check against this particular crime. Police have promised that any samples given will not be added to the national database, where the profiles of more than 5.7 million people are stored.
It is thought that Sussex Police has never attempted a mass DNA screening before, although the exercise has helped crack several murder cases in other force areas which detectives had virtually given up hope of solving. It was first used successfully in a murder inquiry in 1987, when Colin Pitchfork, a 27-year-old baker, was convicted with the help of genetic fingerprinting following the rape and murder of two girls. In 1998, Avon and Somerset Police solved the murder of 18-year-old Louise Smith after DNA samples were taken from 4,500 men living in her home town of Chipping Sodbury. The same force considered employing the technique again in 2011 while investigating the murder of 25-year-old architect Joanna Yeates.
Hove To, on Smugglers Lane, sealed off by police following the murder
It may be a controversial practise, but in Bosham, people seem willing to comply. Ben Knight, a 28-year-old graphic designer who has lived in the village since he was 15, is one of many to think it a good idea.
“We only started talking about it in the village the other day when the anniversary came up and we saw the leaflets,” he says. “I’ll give police my DNA. The idea is to rule people out and you can get ruled out of it completely.”
In the Breeze Café in the village centre, waitress Eliza Birkett, a 19-year-old student at the University of the West of England in Bristol, says all the male members of her family have already stepped forward to give their DNA to the police even before the screening has officially started.
“The police know it’s a male and they have ruled out people at the house but so far someone has got away with it. We younger lot still feel very on edge about her murder – we haven’t forgotten what happened here.”
On a cold winter’s day the café bustles with visitors, as does the harbourside pub the Anchor Bleu. Manager Ben James, who like many here has already been interviewed by the police, says he doesn’t believe the murderer was a resident of Bosham.
“The police have particularly been asking questions about transient people: foreigners looking for part time work, that sort of thing,” says the 38-year-old. “Most people don’t think it was anybody who actually lives here but there is always that little bit of uncertainty.
“It has been a whole year and there hasn’t been any real progress. People are worried, we had some talking about it in the pub yesterday. They are much more wary about locking their doors and making sure windows are shut.”
Some, however, are less than convinced the screening will make a difference. Jacqueline Chapman lives three doors down from the murder house, which is now being privately rented by four local men in their mid-20s. “I cannot believe it is local people who could have done this so it might not get the police very far,” says the 77-year-old. “At the same time, it’s all they’ve got to go on. In a year they have got nowhere.”
John Holloway, a retired Detective Constable at Sussex and Lancashire Police who has lived in Bosham since 1995, says he feels the screening could be a “stab in the dark”. None the less he will willingly go himself, despite having already been interviewed by officers some time ago.
“Some people might be a bit apprehensive but myself I don’t have any problem with it,” says the 71-year-old. “If you haven’t done anything wrong it is pretty well 100 per cent fool proof.
“Bosham is a pretty law-abiding area and people will be very supportive of the police. Some elderly people are obviously concerned as to their welfare. They will sit down and watch Midsomer Murders and make comparisons.”
For Holloway, who himself has helped investigate numerous murders during a 30-year police career, the killing of Valerie Graves has all the hallmarks of a cold case. Even with the mass DNA screening, it could remain unsolved for a long time yet. The murder may have resembled that of a television whodunit; but that final question remains worryingly open-ended.
– Joe Shute