30 years on: The brutal Bonfire Night murder of Blackpool pensioner defies detectives
On November 5 1988, it was the last weekend of the Blackpool Illuminations, and holidaymakers and seasonal staff were packing their suitcases ready to hitch a ride back home, or to wherever there was work to be done.
The people of Blackpool were putting the finishing touches to their backyard bonfires.
The clocks had gone back and the nights were drawing in sooner. It was rainy and overcast.
It was the last day Harry Howell would be seen alive.
Howell was a 74-year-old former mechanic who lived alone in a flat on Ibbison Court, off Central Drive, following the death of his common law wife, Elsie Flegg, in October 1988. He was known to his neighbours as a solitary man who enjoyed a drink at local pubs such as The George on Central Drive, The Brunswick in Bonny Street and the Royal Oak in South Shore.
He was last seen alive on this day in 1988, by a woman walking her dog. He was standing on his porch with two men and two women on the pavement outside.
On November 22 1988, his blood-soaked body was found slumped in a chair in his lounge by window cleaner John Johnstone, 70. He had been bludgeoned on the head with a blunt weapon, police believe, on Bonfire Night – the day he was last seen. Thousands of pounds in cash had been stolen from the flat, along with a wallet and a gold watch which bore the inscription ‘To Harry Flegg on his retirement’.
The grisly murder of the defenceless old man sparked a massive police investigation involving 80 officers, two TV reconstructions on Crimewatch and inquires in East Lancashire, North Yorkshire, London and Wales - but 30 years on, the question remains: who killed the quiet widower who didn’t seem to have an enemy in the world?
On his retirement in 1999, former detective chief superintended Bill Hacking, who headed a taskforce of 50 police officers in the hunt for Mr Howell’s killer in 1988, told how he was haunted by Mr Howell’s murder.
He said: “There were no witnesses, no forensic. 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.” In three decades, only two possible suspects were ever identified: a dark-haired man in his 40s who was seen knocking at Mr Howell’s door two weeks before his body was found, and the mysterious ‘butty man’, a tall, thin man in his 30s who went into Burton’s confectioners on Central Drive and purchased two beef and horseradish sandwiches for ‘the old man who called there every day for a pie’ on the day of Mr Howell’s death.
Two beef and horseradish sandwiches, found in a Burton’s bag, were found in Mr Howell’s flat by police.
In 1989, an artist’s impression of the ‘butty man’ - thin, with hooded eyes, sharp cheekbones and dark hair parted on the left - was broadcast on BBC Crimewatch, resulting in more than 100 calls, but he was never traced.
Police believe the motive for Mr Howell’s murder was money.
The partially-sighted pensioner, during his regular visits to the pub, had let slip that he preferred to keep his life savings in his flat rather than in a bank or building society.
His cash, wallet and gold watch had been swiped. Detectives also discovered a hidden hoard of more than £2,000 in his flat.
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.”
In 1989, authorities drew up similarities between Mr Howell’s murder and the murder of Jack Shuttleworth, an 88-year-old former bus driver who was battered to death in his shed in Ingleton on August 3 that year.
He too was a loner, who never invited people into his house apart from family members.
But on the day of his death, he was charmed by a passing mechanic as he worked on his car, and invited the younger man in for a cup of tea.
It was a decision that would cost him his life. His guest, Brian Newcombe, 51, was serial criminal on a killing spree.
Newcombe, from Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, had a criminal record spanning more than 30 years, was on the run from police, and had committed 30 crimes in six weeks starting with the theft of £35,000 worth of jewellery from a landlady.
After beating Mr Shuttleworth to death with a piece of wood and stealing his wallet, he fled to Preston, where he bought a ticket to Inverness.
There he met 55-year-old Margaret McOnie, a widow from Glasgow, whom he whisked away on a six-day tour of the Orkney Islands before killing her with a rock on August 16.
He was arrested in Mansfield on August 30 following a national manhunt and taken to Skipton for questioning, where he confessed to murdering Mr Shuttleworth and Mrs McOnie - but not Mr Howell.
Ten weeks later, Newcombe hanged himself in Armley Jail while awaiting trial.
So far, no leads or lines of inquiry have led police to Mr Howell’s killer.
However, a Lancashire police spokesman said the case remains open.
He said: “This case, as with all undetected murders, remains open.
“No unsolved murder or serious sexual assault is ever closed and we remain committed to delivering closure and support for the victims and their families as well as reassuring our communities, regardless of the passage of time.
“Undetected cases are regularly reviewed by a senior investigating officer who investigates any new lines of enquiry should new opportunities, such as advances in scientific techniques, or new information become available.
“It is important that those who have committed appalling crimes, however long ago, are brought to justice so that we can bring comfort to those loved ones still waiting for answers.”
TIMELINE OF THE MURDER
NOVEMBER 5, 1988
Harry Howell is last seen alive.
A mystery note reading ‘No milk, gone away for two weeks holiday’ is seen on Mr Howell’s door. The note later disappeared.
Window cleaner John Johnstone finds Mr Howell’s body.
Police appeal for help from jewellers about Mr Howell’s stolen gold watch.
An artist’s impression of the ‘butty man’ is produced.
JANUARY 12, 1989
Mr Howell’s case is featured on Crimewatch, resulting in more than 100 calls.
A jeweller in Accrington reports three men had tried to sell him a watch similar to the one stolen from Mr Howell’s flat.
A fresh Crimewatch appeal is made.
Blackpool detectives liaise with North Yorkshire police following similarities with the murder of Jack Shuttleworth