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DEATH IN THE FENS – the killing of John Auger

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WISBECH HAS HAD ITS FAIR SHARE OF MURDERS.  Some might say more than its fair share. In recent times, we have had, in no particular order, Una Crown, Virginja Jurkiene, Jolanta Dumciuviene, Dainus Kigas, Christopher Garford, Erikas Ulinskas, Alisa Dmitrijeva, Emily Bates and, if you include manslaughter, Fred Barras. For a town with a population of 30,000 or so, this might seem excessive, and you are free to draw your own conclusions from the list of names. But Wisbech was not always an idyllic rural paradise, despite the rosy memories of some residents. In 1967, a brutal killing happened in the area which, although the perpetrators were eventually convicted of manslaughter, achieved national notoriety, and resulted in the case being handled by top detectives from Scotland Yard.

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 On the night of March 10th, 1967, The Woodlands, (above) an old, sprawling farmhouse in Outwell, was invaded by three men wearing stockings and balaclavas over their faces. The owner, John ‘Robbie’ Auger. a wealthy fruit farmer, was beaten to death with an iron bar, and his safe was dragged out, and put into his truck, which the killers drove away. Auger’s wife had been bound and gagged during the attack, and the crime was discovered when Auger’s daughter Audrey, aged 33, returned home to find her stricken father and helpless mother. She alerted a neighbour, saying, “Come quickly, Dad’s been attacked..”

 

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WITHIN DAYS the investigation into Auger’s death was moved ‘upstairs’. None other than Detective Superintendent Wallace Virgo, of Scotland Yard, was brought in to spearhead the search for the killers. At this point in the investigation, there were over sixty officers involved in the search for the perpetrators. Days passed, as the police rounded up ‘the usual suspects’. At first, based on the initial eyewitness accounts, police were looking for five men, and the search was beginning to focus on the Waterlees area of Wisbech. Two weeks after the death of Mr Auger, the police swooped.

David Warden, of Guild Road Wisbech, was arrested in a betting shop in Hill Street on March 23rd, and said, “I suppose somebody has squealed. I was there, but you will have a job to make this one stick” He is also alleged to have said,“You will look sorry if you’ve got the wrong Warden.” and “Even if you are from the Yard, you won’t prove anything. I was there….but there was nothing left behind and you know it.”

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Patrick Joseph Collins had been arrested at his parents’ home in Moseley, Birmingham. He said, “If only I could turn the clock back I would not have done what has been done. I will tell them about it when I get to Wisbech.” When arrested, he had tried to hide under the bed, and was told he was being arrested for housebreaking. He said, “Thank God: I thought you had come about something else” He said he had been at Outwell, but denied doing “the thumping” The third man arrested was Barrie Paul Cooper, who lived with his schoolteacher mother at the School House, Sutton St Edmund.

The initial legal proceedings took place at Taverham Magistrates’ Court, and the three men were represented by Mr Kenneth Land (Southwell, Dennis and Land) When the case was moved to Terrington Magistrates’ Court, a new element entered the proceedings. It became apparent that witnesses were being threatened, and here there is a distinct similarity to the events surrounding the trial of Tony Martin, over thirty years later. Wallace Virgo said, “Members of the public who have come forward as witnesses in this case have been threatened and intimidated.” On March 31st, the men were remanded after threats to intimidate witnesses at Terrington St Clement Magistrates Court (below).

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Later in the proceedings, Kenneth Holman of 134 Lynn Road was called to the witness box, but refused to take the oath. He later returned, and gave evidence. He was  declared to be a hostile witness. On April 20th, Collins said, after unsuccessfully applying for bail, “I have had time to think about this. As far as I am concerned, I know nothing about anyone being threatened, and I think the Superintendent should not have said that”
The eventual trial took place at Hertford Assizes, where the Presiding Judge was Mr Justice Glyn-Jones , who had represented the parents at the Aberfan enquiry. Other people declared to be hostile witnesses were Valerie June Foley, who was asked if she lived at 24 Guild Road, but denied it. She refused to look at a statement she had previously made to the police.

Friends of the suspects leapt to their defence. Warden said he had been to the fair, went to his parents’ home, watched TV and then fell asleep in the chair. John Richard Warden, of 33 Bath Road, said he had come home to find his son asleep in the chair. Grace Evelyn Warden corroborated the story. At the time David Warden was living with Sandra Setchfield, but was always “popping in and out.”

At the trial, Mr Michael White, the landlord of The Bowling Green said that Cooper and Warden had been in there drinking, but did not return as they usually did before closing time. They had been whispering, and talking to each other outside. Cooper claimed that on the night of the murder he was trying to break into a garage in Lynn Road, Wisbech, to steal cigarettes. Due to give evidence, Kenneth Osborne Holman failed to arrive, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Holman was widely believed to have been intimidated into silence and he was later sentenced to three months in jail. Cooper was known as a local thief, had been in prison, but had no record of violence.

Against a background of intimidation, local loyalties and the fear that hardened criminals inspired amongst Waterlees residents, there were eventual convictions. The verdict was that the men were guilty of manslaughter. Glyn Jones said that it was “One of the worst cases of manslaughter ever to come before me.” Cooper was judged to be the planner and was sentenced to fifteen years for manslaughter and five for burglary, to run concurrently. Warden, who used the violence received twelve and five, as did Collins. No-one, apart from the criminals themselves, has ever suggested that there was a miscarriage of justice in 1967. In his statements, Warden seemed to be saying that yes, he had done it, but the police would be hard pushed to prove anything, as the killers had been meticulous about leaving no traces.

VirgoAnd yet, and yet. In 1977, Commander Wallace Virgo (left) head of the Serious Crime Squad, was convicted of corruption, and sent to jail . As the ensuing corruption investigations widened, the obscene publications squad was replaced in its entirety with a new group of officers drawn from the uniformed branch, and in all over twenty detectives were dismissed or required to resign. When the cases ultimately came to trial in 1977 the presiding judge Mr Justice Mars-Jones summarised those involved as having engaged in “corruption on a scale which beggars description” Ten years earlier, had the case-hardened and confident London detectives arrived in the relative backwater of the Fens and ‘done a job’ on some local men who were certainly career petty criminals, but not very bright?

The jury’s verdict was certainly unequivocal, and the three men were perhaps lucky to have only been convicted of manslaughter. The last executions in mainland Britain had been in August 1964, so the three were never going to face the death penalty, but they were certainly reprieved from a much longer life sentence. The killing of John Auger is by no means an unsolved crime, but the suspicion remains that there were others involved who did not face justice.

FOR MORE TRUE CRIME IN THE FENS, go to our podcast section, where there is enough murder and mayhem to satisfy the most ghoulish local historian.

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THE KILLING OF JOHN AUGER

Outwell

This is a tale of brutality – and total incompetence. An elderly man is battered to death, and his killers escape with a safe containing small change. Get the full story by clicking the podcast link.

THE KILLING OF JOHN AUGER

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