Western Telegraph on murder trail for 25 years

First published in Cooper: Double murders trial

FORMER Western Telegraph news editor Doris Goddard remembers the terrible impact the double murders had on Pembrokeshire and recalls the police operations that eventually led to the capture of the county's most dangerous killer.

A SHIVER went down my spine when news came through that John Cooper had been convicted of Pembrokeshire’s infamous double murders.

Relief was followed by overwhelming sadness that the families of Richard and Helen Thomas, and Peter and Gwenda Dixon had to suffer more than two decades of heartbreak before the killer was finally put behind bars.

The double murders were among the most serious unsolved crimes in the UK.

On the anniversaries of the deaths, the Western Telegraph renewed appeals for information about the brutal killings. No-one was allowed to forget.

But it would take more than a quarter of a century after the Scoveston murders in 1985 before Cooper was brought to justice.

When it was confirmed that Richard and Helen Thomas had been murdered, shockwaves ran through a community that was preparing to celebrate Christmas.

How could this happen to such a private and dignified couple? Was it a burglary gone wrong? Rumours abounded. But it was felt by many that this could have been a ‘local’ killing.

The discovery of the bodies of the Dixons nearly four years later stunned the county again.

I remember people expressing disbelief, feeling fear, looking over their shoulders and locking their doors.

The question everyone asked was “Is the killer, or could it be killers, local?”

Then again, as it appeared to be a ‘professional’ style killing, could the Dixons have stumbled across drug runners?

A few months later, police discovered an IRA arms cache, just off the coast path above Newgale. This led to huge speculation that the Dixons were ‘executed’ by an IRA cell landing the arms.

I think many local people wanted to believe this. It was harder for them to accept that there was a murderer in their midst.

Towards the end of 1997, Cooper was put under police surveillance – Operation Huntsman had begun.

The Western Telegraph became aware of police activity, initially thinking it was linked to a drugs bust, but we were warned off.

In January 1998, Cooper was arrested and on a freezing cold day I stood outside his smallholding in Jordanston, watching police officers painstakingly dig and sift through tons of soil.

Inch by inch, with metal detectors, pick axes and spades, they covered the garden and surrounding land and looked in and under hedges. Divers also dragged ponds and drained a lake.

A £250,000 haul of stolen property was recovered, along with tools and more than 500 keys.

But police initially denied they had found a shotgun, and remained silent over whether they were questioning Cooper about the double murders.

Last week, this evil man, who will go down in history as one of Wales’ most notorious killers, was jailed for life.

But what remains so disturbing is that it may not end here.

In February 1998, I interviewed the family of elderly widow Florence Evans. Nine years earlier, worried neighbours had broken into her house near Rosemarket and found her face down, drowned in her bath. She was fully clothed and wearing slippers.

Although the coroner found no evidence of foul play and recorded a verdict of accidental death, relatives remained disturbed about other ‘peculiar features’ at the house and called on the police to reopen their investigations.

What the Western Telegraph could not say at the time was that John Cooper had worked for ‘Auntie Flo’ as an odd job man.

And what would have happened if advanced technology had not trapped Cooper?

When he was arrested last year, police found rope and gloves in his car.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

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