Horror of evil child killer John Straffen who strangled victims

Horror of evil child killer John Straffen who strangled victims

Nearly seven decades may have passed since evil killer John Straffen took three young lives in the space of months, but his name still strikes fear into the people of Bath.

He viciously strangled two of his victims days apart, and was shockingly able to kill a third time when he escaped from prison for four hours.

As Somerset Live reports, there were warning signs during his troubled childhood, but question marks remained about his conviction for the third killing until his death.

Straffen, who died in 2007, spent 55 years behind bars, with only Moors Murderer Ian Brady serving a longer prison sentence.

His first two victims were aged just six and nine, and he later told police he had done it to give the police "something to really do" instead of going after him for trivial offences.

When Straffen briefly escaped prison, he was tragically able to take the life of a five-year-old.

‘Feeble minded’

John Thomas Straffen was born in Borden, Hampshire, but spent his early years in India as his father was in the armed forces.

From 1938, when the family returned to England to live in Bath, Straffen was in virtually constant trouble with the authorities and was sent to special schools.

At age 10 he was sent to "a school for backward children", and on July 27 1947, a 13-year-old girl reported to the police that a boy called John had put his hand over her mouth and asked: "What would you do if I killed you? I have done it before."


Six weeks later, Straffen was found to have strangled five chickens belonging to the father of a girl he had quarrelled with.

When arrested, he cheerfully confessed to burglary and many other low-level crimes.

He was remanded in custody, where the medical officer of Horfield Prison examined him and labelled him ‘feeble minded’.

He was committed to Hortham Colony in Bristol, before being released on licence in 1951. Then, he struck.

On July 15, six-year-old Brenda Goddard was picking flowers on Rough Hill at the back of her home in Bath when Straffen, then aged 21, came across her.

She walked with him to a wood, where he put his hands round her neck and strangled her to death.

He was interviewed by the police in connection with Brenda’s murder and admitted being in the wood, but there was no evidence against him so was released.

Later he would tell them he had done it to give the police "something to really do" instead of going after him for trivial offences.

"It only took a couple of minutes and she was dead"

A few days later, he went to the Forum cinema in Bath and got talking to nine-year-old Cicely Batstone.

He persuaded her to go to another cinema with him.

They caught a bus across Bath and Straffen took her to a spot known locally as the Tumps.

There, he strangled her.

He was picked up by police on suspicion of some minor charges, and as he idled in his cell, he called for detectives and confessed to the Batstone murder.

"I sat behind her," he explained.

"It only took a couple of minutes and she was dead. She was taken by surprise."

After he was arrested, Straffen immediately confessed and was committed for trial at Taunton

On October 17, he was found insane and unfit to plead, the magistrate declaring that, "you might as well try a babe in arms."

Straffen was detained in a hospital "until his Majesty’s pleasure be known", but, at about 2.40pm on April 29 1952, he jumped over the wall and, though the alarm was quickly raised, enjoyed four hours of freedom before being recaptured about seven miles away, in Arborfield, at 6.40pm.

That evening, at about 10.30, five-year-old Linda Bowyer from Arborfield was reported missing.

She, too, had been strangled and almost the entire country jumped to one conclusion.

But, what happened next cast a huge question mark over Straffen’s involvement in her death.

Insane, sane and insane

When Straffen stood trial for Bowyer’s murder at Winchester assizes, the first task of the prosecution was to argue that, notwithstanding the finding of the previous court, he was fit to plead.

Somehow, the judge agreed.

After the prosecution case had opened and called the first witnesses to establish the facts about the murder of Linda Bowyer, they applied to call additional evidence about the two murders in Bath.

This application was resisted by Straffen’s defence as prejudicial, but the judge ruled the evidence admissible.

Then, on the second day, the judge was late into court and explained that "owing to the alleged conduct of one of your members" he was compelled to discharge the jury and start again with a new panel.

One of the first set of jurors had gone to a political club in Southsea in the evening and told those present that he was on the jury for the Straffen case, that Straffen was not guilty, and that one of the prosecution witnesses had murdered Linda Bowyer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the trial was aborted and had to begin once again, with a new jury.

On July 24, Straffen was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on September 4, but a little over a month later he was reprieved by the home secretary on the grounds of insanity.

In less than a year, the authorities had managed to rule him insane, sane and insane.

Instead of hanging, Straffen was jailed, with no hope of being released.

Doubts

In 2001, his solicitors called for his case to be reopened on the grounds that Straffen had never been fit to stand trial.

His story was also taken up by an investigative journalist who used previously confidential records to reveal that Straffen was given a reprieve from his death sentence after a succession of doctors ruled he had been ‘insane’.

The journalist also doubted that Straffen had murdered Linda Bower, who was found with injuries caused by fingernails to her body.

Straffen had chewed his fingernails to the bone, and local witnesses reported hearing a girl’s screams after the time of Straffen’s recapture.

Regardless, the application to reopen the case was turned down in December 2002.

When Straffen died at Frankland Prison in County Durham on November 19, 2007, he was 77-years-old and had been the longest-serving prisoner after being incarcerated for 55 years.

That record was later overtaken by Moors murderer Ian Brady.

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