Two murders – 10 years apart – which shocked Blackpool

The Nook'Seventh Avenue murder scene, Blackpool 1978
The Nook'Seventh Avenue murder scene, Blackpool 1978
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For years, the case of the murder of frail pensioner Catherine (Kitty) Weaver was Blackpool’s only unsolved murder.

The fair-haired 64-year-old was viciously stabbed to death with a four-inch blade at a South Shore rest home.

The Nook Rest Home, Seventh Avenue, Blackpool where Catherine (Kitty) Weaver was murdered in 1978

The Nook Rest Home, Seventh Avenue, Blackpool where Catherine (Kitty) Weaver was murdered in 1978

The widow was found dead in her nightdress on the kitchen floor at The Nook, on Seventh Avenue, with a knife by her side. It was later discovered that an intruder had broken in through a kitchen window and left – after stealing a pair of household rubber gloves.

Detective Chief Superintendent Wilf Brooks, then head of Lancashire CID, took charge of the investigation and an army of detectives began the hunt for the killer.

Detectives found the murder weapon, a knife similar to the one found by the victim’s body, in Watson Road park. Nearby were the missing gloves and an Army-style cap comforter, thought to have been ditched by the killer.

At the height of the inquiry, 100 detectives were making intensive house-to-house inquiries, particularly at boarding houses, and checking on people who had recently left the town.

Police at the scene of the murder of Gabrielle Morris, in Bispham, in January 1988

Police at the scene of the murder of Gabrielle Morris, in Bispham, in January 1988

Mrs Weaver – only 5ft tall and weighing just 6st – had moved into the rest home the previous November.

Rochdale-born, and known as Kitty to friends and family, she had spent most of her adult life in Blackpool.

While working at Weavers’ rock factory in Henry Street, South Shore, she began courting Ronnie Weaver – one of the four Weaver brothers. They were married and both later worked for Telefusion, living for many years in a flat above one of the firm’s shops in Bond Street, South Shore. Mr Weaver died in 1969 and the couple did not have any children.

About 12,500 people were interviewed in the six months following Mrs Weaver’s murder. Police took 1,600 statements and 1,700 sets of fingerprints.

The Gazette front page reporting on the murder of Catherine 'Kitty' Weaver, Blackpool, 1978

The Gazette front page reporting on the murder of Catherine 'Kitty' Weaver, Blackpool, 1978

Det Chief Supt Brooks told an inquest in June 1978 that 3,000 men between the ages of 14 and 50 had been seen.

But still there were no apparent leads.

The breakthrough did not come until 10 years later, when police investigated the murder of 70-year-old Gabrielle Morris, at her guest house on Queens Promenade, Little Bispham.

Again the killing had taken place in January – this time January 26, 1988.

Gazette reports on the murder of Catherine 'Kitty' Weaver, Blackpool, 1978

Gazette reports on the murder of Catherine 'Kitty' Weaver, Blackpool, 1978

Her partly-clothed body was found in a pool of blood in her lounge. The spinster died from a stab wound to her back, but had also suffered horrific head injuries after trying to fight off the burglar in her seafront home.

Police also said there had been some “sexual interference.”

The sturdily-built, dark-haired Miss Morris had lived in torment and fear for 13 years – after suffering head injuries, when she was attacked in bed with a hammer. A masked intruder had tied her up, ransacked her home and escaped with more than £100, on November 27, 1974.

Det Supt Jack Ashton, who led the investigation into the murder, sealed off the guest house – which paid dividends when a thumb print was found.

Even before the conclusive print, Det Supt Ashton had decided to arrest former cabbie Michael Downs – who he had suspected for the Weaver murder ever since his days as a bobby on the beat.

Former local bobby Dave Milner had also detained Downs after a burglary at the South Shore home of two spinsters.

Michael Downs - before his conviction for murder in 1989.

Michael Downs - before his conviction for murder in 1989.

Michael Downs, then 44, unemployed, had served six months in 1963 for manslaughter in Libya, after killing an Arab taxi drover in Benghazi during his army national service. This fact was not known to police who had questioned him in the Weaver case, but found no evidence which pointed to him.

A cut clothes lines was a link between the killings – and other cases. In 1978, a clothes line had been cut in the yard of The Nook and was used to bind Mrs Weaver. A similar rope was also taken from the garden at Miss Morris’s guesthouse.

The clothes line was cut when Miss Morris was attacked with a hammer and left for dead in the burglary – which it emerged had also been committed by Downs – in 1974. And in 1980, at the burglary of the house of the two spinsters, a clothes line was cut.

Downs – born on December 31, 1944 – pleaded not guilty to the two murder charges, but admitted manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

In 1989, a jury at Manchester Crown Court returned after 50 minutes with guilty verdicts that he murdered both women.

The judge made a recommendation he should service at least 25 years.

Downs was described by a psychiatrist as an “extremely dangerous man.”

The petty thief was described as being like a time-bomb, triggered by upsets in his life. He had struck after the break-up of his marriage. He killed again after a double blow – when he got the sack days after being told to pack his bags by the new woman in his life.

One detective said: “He had a kink about elderly women. When something upset him, his mind entered a dark world. He got drunk and sought sexual gratification in the senseless killings.”

Downs’ case was looked at by the High Court in 2005, as part of as part of a review of hundreds of life sentences passed in the UK under the Human Rights Act 1998.

Mr Justice Smith said his minimum sentence should not be reduced.