Ken Wells was invited back to Reading's Festival of Crime Writing for the second year in 2009 and I can understand why. Introduced with what can only be described as loving devotion from someone on the organising team, he delivered a punch that drew on fact as well as the black humour that pervades in the various bodies that investigate our real crime. Wells retired from the Thames Valley Police in 1993 and is now curator of their museum, based in Sulhamstead, near Reading. The museum is not publicly funded and produces all revenue through income generation; he was at pains to point out. In his role as curator and in providing talks in other arenas, Wells serves the museum well. In the introduction we were told of his TV appearances: not only in a (yes, it seems I couldn't escape her that day) Martina Cole programme, but also in Jeremy Paxman's The Victorians.
Last year he had spoken about the history of the Thames Valley Police, but this year, after a very brief introduction on the same, he delivered what he described as a new talk. He pointed to someone in the front row as he told us that he given this talk once before and that it hadn't gone down too well with that lady's students. So, with a title "A Riddle of Maggots" combined with that comment, the squeamish ought to have been leaving there and then. No one did and I am pleased to report that no one squirmed or fainted later. This was a hard crowd.
Ken informed us that when he retired in 1993, he had dealt with over 290 cases of murder or suspicious death in his career as a scene of crime officer; a role carried out today by civilians. The case he concentrated on was that known as "The Lydney Murder", dating back to the 1960s. Two boys had gone out to the woods outside Bracknell, Berkshire in search of maggots as bait for a fishing expedition. There, they found a mound of leaves with a decomposing body underneath it. At first the call was not taken seriously, but on realising the distress the boys were in, the Police went out to investigate.
When Ken arrived on the scene, he saw a body "alive with maggots" and called the forensic pathologist, in this case the late Professor Keith Simpson. Due to the unusual circumstances, Simpson decided to visit the scene himself and asked Ken to collect the maggots. All had to be carefully recorded against the parts of the body from which they were removed. To determine a time of death, this case suffered in that there was no useful body temperature to record and rigor mortis had come and gone. But at the time, Simpson was one performing ground-breaking work on the life cycle of maggots in cases of death. Once meteorological findings for the area had been collected and the maggots examined, Simpson estimated the time of death to be 16/17 June.
Also found at the scene and plucked from the body was a single beech leaf, although the woods contained no beech trees.
Where sheer luck can play a part in an investigation, when they checked the missing persons' files at Scotland Yard, there was someone reported missing within the right timeframe. Additionally, they were able to retrieve finger prints from one hand only for the index and ring fingers. These would only prove useful if the victim had a record and luck came into play again. The body did have a record and it matched to the missing person, one Peter Thomas from Lydney in Gloucestershire who was reported missing on 16 June.
On searching Thomas's house, they found links to William Brittle. Thomas had inherited £5,000 and seen Brittle's advertisement for investment in a business venture. He invested £2,000, with the initial payback due on 16/6 of that year. Also discovered on the body at the time of the post mortem had been a severe blow to the neck. Further investigation led to the discovery of beech leaves in the boot of Brittle's car and that the man himself was an expert in karate.
In his defence, Brittle tried to claim gambling had taken place, but no witnesses could be found to support this assertion. With the evidence presented a conviction was achieved.
If he's back again next year, and I'm sure he will be, do go along to see Ken Wells in action. He's a man who clearly loved his job with Thames Valley Police as well as his role now, and with a lot of pride in both. He also knows how to engage an audience, to the extent that there was quite a bit of banter across the room. Given the topic, anyone outside the room could have listened and thought the audience callous with all the laughter. But they weren't. They were lovely. Just as the delightful Ken said.