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Exeter Stories

Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >> │

The Woodbury Common Murders ... When thieves fall out!


This account is collated from newspapers reporting the trial by Peter Hinchliffe

In 1981 a new name started to be mentioned amongst the criminal fraternity of Exeter. Graham Gillard lived in a large house at the top of Dunsford Hill, Exeter, the house was set in extensive grounds with tennis courts and swimming pool. He was a business man with interests in the portable gas industry with depots across the South West, but he had financial difficulties. He was mixing with unusual company, seemed to be friendly with the local villains, but had no convictions himself.

The Police were not greatly surprised when Gillard reported a burglary at his house, and claimed that £16,000 worth of property had been stolen, enquiries revealed that plenty of his associates were more than capable of carrying out the burglary, some of the more sceptical officers in the C I D wondered if the burglary actually occurred, the unkind suggested that it might be a false insurance claim!

Those same doubtful policemen were even more jaundiced when soon after the burglary, a mysterious fire gutted the house. There were other enquiries into a number of crimes that had happened in an around the city, burglaries and robberies, which seemed to have unanswered connections to Gillard–there was much innuendo, but no proof.

Amongst the local villains were two brothers David and Michael Brooke and they were to figure greatly in the subsequent enquiries and trial. The big break for the Police came initially from basic and routine police work. Even though it was very doubtful that the burglary at Gillard's house was genuine, the police circulated lists of allegedly stolen property to local dealers who may be offered the items. One such dealer contacted the police to say that Michael Brooke had indeed arrived at his premises with an item on the list. When Brooke returned for his money he was met by C I D officers and arrested.

Brooke was interviewed but said nothing of any help to the investigating officers, he was held in custody whilst detectives enlightened him of his precarious position, leaving him to carefully consider it. After 3 days he was bailed.

On his release the Brooke brothers, Michael and David, together with two other well known local villains, Michael Sowden and Stephen King, met Gillard to discuss the action they should next take. They were concerned that the police were becoming relentless in their enquiries into the group.

Michael Brooke believed that he would be re-arrested and convicted, his criminal record was such, that he was likely to receive a lengthy prison sentence. He also felt that he had been unfairly treated by Gillard, he warned the others that he thought about becoming a “super-grass”, doing a deal with the police to obtain a shorter sentence by giving Queens evidence.

Michael Brooke lived with his 18 year old daughter Tina Ellacott, and there were suggestions that this relationship was incestuous, she was certainly pregnant and accompanied him almost everywhere. They lived together in a cottage at Chumleigh in mid Devon.

Gillard became very concerned and fearing his own arrest, arranged to meet up with Stephen King and his common law wife Wendy. Gillard took his wife Patricia to this meeting in a local restaurant, the four of them planned to kill Michael Brooke, who they feared would inform the police of the criminal activities, in which they had all participated. They also discussed killing Tina Ellacott, there was disagreement as to whether her execution was really necessary.

The discussions included the disposal of the bodies, Gillard and King planned to dispose of Brooke’s body by taking it out to sea, and weighting it down so that it would sink. Gillard devised an alternative disposal; to put it in a reservoir and sink it. Another idea was to put the body in some quick sand where it would sink, or to bury it in a shallow grave on Woodbury Common. King obtained some concrete blocks, chains and ropes, and had them in his car.

A plan was devised that they should lure Brooke to Woodbury Common on a Sunday evening, on the pretext that he could commit a burglary at an isolated house. On the Sunday of the intended murder, Gillard started to create an alibi.

Michael Sowden one of Gillard’s associates had been arrested, convicted, and was serving imprisonment at Channings Wood Prison. His girlfriend Beverly Coles, had a prison visit arranged for that day. Gillard drove her to the prison, where they both saw Sowden. Gillard told him that Michael Brooke “knew too much” and they were going to deal with him. They all three agreed that they would say that Gillard was sleeping with Miss Coles, if the need arose.

That Sunday evening Gillard went with Stephen King to Chumleigh to collect Michael Brooke, they met at his cottage and then went to the Red Lion pub where they had several drinks. They were seen leaving together in Gillard's car, to drive to Woodbury Common.

At Woodbury Common they got out of the car where Stephen King clubbed Brooke with a hammer and Gillard shot him twice at close range with a shot gun. Having killed him they lost their nerve and became squeamish of handling his body, instead of putting it somewhere so that it would not be found, they left it under a bush, close to a well used beauty spot on the common.

Both men then got into Gillard’s car and he drove again to Chumleigh and Brooke’s home. They roused Tina from sleep. They told her that the burglary had been successful and Brooke had stolen £20,000, he was waiting for her to come out to Woodbury, so that they could go to Spain. She packed a case and rode off with King and Gillard.

When they arrived at Woodbury Common, King claimed that Gillard murdered her. Her body was left near her father's, and they were soon found by people using the common.

A Major Enquiry was established, and from a very early stage David Brooke was alleging that his brother had been murdered by Gillard, and he was threatening revenge. There was plenty of evidence readily available. Eventually Graham Gillard and Stephen King were charged with murdering Michael Brooke and his daughter Tina Ellacott.

The witnesses at the trial were a procession of thieves, villains, and the unrighteous, identified as such by the Queens Counsel, who was representing the “honest and wrongly accused” Gillard (well, at that time he had no convictions) Whether any of them had ever told the truth before, at the trial, or since, is open to conjecture. Much evidence was given that Michael Brooke and Gillard had committed many crimes, including the burglary on Gillard’s house and the subsequent burning down of the property.

There was one witness who could not be described as “reluctant”, she was Wendy King the common law wife of Stephen King. In his summing up the Trial Judge remarked on her “contribution to the case”, she had made nine statements to the police amounting to 52 pages, a further 40 pages she provided for King’s solicitor, and gave 19 pages of evidence at the “old fashioned committal proceedings”. At the trial she spent 5 days in the Witness Box.

The case largely depended on which version of the events described by Wendy King was to be believed–the jury did not take long to make their mind up, finding Gillard and King guilty of murder, and Mrs Gillard guilty of conspiracy to murder.

Mr Justice Sheldon sentenced Mrs Patricia Gillard to 12 years imprisonment. He sentenced the other two to life imprisonment, in the case of Graham Gillard that was the punishment he served, for a few years later he died suddenly whilst playing football, in Parkhurst Prison.

Stephen King remained in the prison system until 1999 when he was sent to Broadmoor Hospital because of his mental condition. He remained there for several years before being transferred to other mental institutions. In July 2014 he murdered a female worker at a mental hospital in Gloucester. In January 2015 he was convicted in the name Ryan Mathews and sentenced to Life Imprisonment, the Judge making a recommendation that the sentence should be for the “whole of his life” which he will probably spend in Broadmoor.

 

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