In the first part of a Gazette series focusing on the Fylde coast’s unsolved murders, Julia Bennett looks at the brutal slaying of the Blackpool pensioner, whose killer has been on the run for 33 years
IT is the crime which haunts more Blackpool detectives than any other.
Partially-sighted pensioner Harry Howell was battered to death in his own home in Ibbison Court, off Central Drive, on Bonfire Night in 1988.
Three decades on, and, despite a massive police investigation – which at its height involved 80 officers, two TV reconstructions on Crimewatch and inquires in East Lancashire, North Yorkshire, London and Wales – the 74-year-old’s killer has never been brought to justice.
As the years have gone by, and detectives who originally worked on the case retire, many talk about the failure to nail the murderer as their lasting regret.
On leaving the force in 1999, Det Chief Supt Bill Hacking, who led the investigation, said: “There were no witnesses, no forensics. We put a lot of effort into it and spent weeks and months going over everything.
“It’s one of many things I will remember about my career, because it’s the only murder case we didn’t solve.”
When Fleetwood’s former top detective Mike Kellett was promoted to lead Blackpool’s CID in 1997, he did not hide the fact the case on top of his hitlist was that of Harry Howell.
Under The Gazette headline of “Still Haunted By The Memory of Murder”, Det Chief Insp Kellett said: “I worked on that case in 1988 and I have added information to the file since. It could be one day we will solve it.”
Tragically, 23 years on Harry Howell’s killer is still at large. But the case is not closed.
Five years after the pensioner’s murder, his sister Elizabeth believed police had given up hope. She told The Gazette: “All I want to know is if they are still making inquiries. If they got the killer I could be satisfied.”
Police responded by telling Mr Howell’s family the case was very much still open.
The murder is one of many serious crimes which lie on the files of Lancashire Police’s Cold Case Review Team.
Leading detectives reiterate the mantra they will never close the case until it is solved.
Mr Howell was found slumped in his living room chair in his sheltered accommodation at Ibbison Court on November 22, 1988.
Police believe he died 17 days earlier at the hands of a killer armed with a blunt instrument, which was used to bludgeon Mr Howell to the head.
Thousands of pounds in cash was stolen from the flat.
Because Mr Howell had probably been lying there for more than a fortnight, it delayed the start of the police investigation, creating difficulties for people trying to remember what could have been vital details.
Police believe the pensioner died on November 5, the last weekend of the Illuminations season, after which holidaymakers went home and hoteliers and their staff either headed off on their own holidays, or left town to find work elsewhere.
Mr Howell’s body was found by window cleaner John Johnstone, when he saw the pensioner’s front door had been damaged.
A retired physical training instructor in the RAF, Mr Johnstone said he was suspicious when he saw what appeared to be a body lying in the lounge and went to alert the warden.
Two weeks earlier Mr Johnstone, who died within a year of the murder, had noticed a stranger who knocked at the door and left when he got no reply.
The man was in his 40s, 5ft 7in tall with dark hair. He was never traced.
Many suspects were questioned, more than 6,000 people interviewed and 2,000 statements taken by police. The vital clues that would trap the killer included a mysterious sandwich buyer, whom police have yet to track down.
Two beef sandwiches were bought by a tall slim man in his 30s at Burton’s confectioners on Central Drive – a short walk from Mr Howell’s home.
Crucially, they were the only beef and horseradish sandwiches in the shop that day.
The mystery man told the shop assistant they were for ‘the old man who called there every day for a pie’.
Police believe that was the day Mr Howell died. When his body was found, two beef and horseradish sandwiches – left in a Burton’s bag – were found in his flat.
Other absent pieces of the puzzle include the murder weapon. Mr Howell’s missing wallet and gold watch which bore the inscription “To Harry Flegg on his retirement”
Det Insp Brian King, of the force major investigation team, said: “We review cases like this all the time and keep in touch with relatives to keep them up to date. We review forensic evidence. The key thing is to see what developments have been made in the forensic world. We also revisit witnesses. At the time of the murder, people may not have wanted to speak to the police but that might change.
“Every one is treated as a live murder -– none of them are put to bed.”
* Anyone with information can call Blackpool Police on 08451 253545 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.
TIMELINE OF TRAGEDY
NOVEMBER 5, 1988 – Harry Howell is last seen alive by a woman walking her dog. He was standing in the porch with two men and two women on a pavement outside.
NOVEMBER 7 – A mystery note seen on his door saying “No milk, gone away for two weeks holiday”. The note later disappeared.
NOVEMBER 22 – Window cleaner John Johnstone spotted Mr Howell’s body lying in the lounge. A murder hunt is launched.
NOVEMBER 28 – Police appeal for help from jewellers about a gold watch stolen from the flat.
DECEMBER 7 – An artist’s impression is issued of a man detectives want to interview in connection with the murder. The man had earlier bought sandwiches in nearby Burton’s confectionery shop, which were later found in Mr Hopwell’s flat.
JANUARY 12, 1989 – Reconstruction of Mr Howell’s last movements featured on TV’s Crimewatch. More than 100 calls received on the night of the programme.
JANUARY 21 – Murder hunt switched to Accrington after a jeweller reports three men had tried to sell him a watch similar to one stolen from Mr Howell’s flat.
FEBRUARY 9 – A fresh Crimewatch appeal is made.
AUGUST 7 – Blackpool detectives liaised with North Yorkshire police following similarities with the brutal murder of a pensioner in Ingleton.
* As yet none of the new leads or inquiries have led police to Mr Howell’s killer.
THE VICTIM: HARRY HOWELL
HARRY Howell was described by those who knew him as a quiet man.
His ferocious murder shocked friends and neighbours in Ibbison Court. To them Mr Howell was the old chap who lived alone in a flat and generally kept himself to himself.
But some fear he may have unwittingly brought about his own death.
Mr Howell, whose common law wife Elsie Flegg had died just a month earlier, had worked for many years at Leyland Motors. He moved to Blackpool upon his retirement.
He enjoyed a drink in local pubs such as The George on Central Drive, The Brunswick in Bonny Street and the Royal Oak in South Shore.
He is said to have let slip in pubs about his nest egg of several thousand pounds, telling friends he opted to keep his life savings in his flat rather than at a bank or building society.
Detectives who found his body in a pool of blood also discovered a hidden hoard of more than £2,000 his killer missed.
Supt Hacking said: “Certainly, people knew about his nest egg. The £2,000 found confirms our belief that robbery was the motive.
“The money was not easily noticeable and it may well be that the killer or killers thought they had all his money and didn’t continue to look further.
“Mr Howell also carried a substantial amount of cash on him in a brown fold-over wallet, which we are trying to find.”