PART of Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, the pretty town of Wilmslow is a favourite of top footballers and showbiz stars.
But the town that is home to ex-Man Utd manager Sir Alex Ferguson is at the centre of a serial killer controversy for the second time in 12 months.
It was in August last year that a bombshell leaked report from coroner’s officer Stephanie Davies revealed that the apparent murder-suicides of two elderly couples could have been part of a pattern involving up to FIVE double murders.
In each case, police believed husbands had battered and stabbed their wives to death before taking their own lives.
But Davies, a civilian investigator who works for Cheshire police, compiled a 179-page report suggesting a serial killer had actually targeted older couples during a 15-year killing spree in the North West.
Her findings led to a major review by three police forces — which rejected her theory.
Now Davies finds herself under investigation for allegedly sharing police files with American sleuth Steve Chancellor, who helped her with the report.
She has had her home searched and been subjected to two interviews by officers from Cheshire’s professional standards department, a real-life equivalent to AC-12 from hit BBC show Line Of Duty.
And now she awaits a decision by the CPS on whether she will be charged, as well as facing an internal disciplinary hearing that could result in her losing her job.
Davies wrote in her report, which even identifies a suspect: “This individual will not stop killing until someone or something stops him.”
‘Death was just so undignified’
It was April 1996 when Howard and Beatrice Ainsworth, the first to die in the series of murder-suicides, were found dead on their marital bed at their Wilmslow home.
Beatrice had been repeatedly bludgeoned with a hammer and had a bread knife sticking out of her head. Her face was partially covered with a pillow.
Howard was found next to her with a clear plastic bag tied round his head with a ligature.
Beatrice had been suffering from a stomach ailment and a suicide note written by her husband stated she had become delirious.
It read: “It looks as though our lives have gone so have given her some sleeping tablets and I will have to throttle her.”
The couple had joined a right-to-die group six years earlier and a sign at the top of the stairs read: “Do not resuscitate.”
It appeared to be an open and shut case — but Davies pointed out several inconsistencies in her report.
Howard showed no sign of being agitated when neighbour Margaret Farror inquired after Beatrice as he mowed the lawn the afternoon before their bodies were found.
Blood was found on the bag and ligature round Howard’s neck, suggesting it was over his head when Beatrice was attacked.
A bottle of pills and two glasses were found in the bedroom, but no drugs were taken by the couple despite the claims in the suicide note.
Davies suggested Howard could have been forced to write the note under duress from a killer.
Bizarrely, the hammer used to bludgeon Beatrice had been washed and left in the bathroom sink.
And Beatrice’s nightdress was also riding up in a manner described by American sleuth Chancellor as “degrading”.
Three years later, in November 1999, the bodies of another happily married couple, Donald and Auriel Ward, were found dead on their blood-stained bed in similar circumstances at their home just three miles away.
Like Beatrice, former nursery worker Auriel, 68, had a pillow partially covering her face and suffered blunt trauma to the head and knife wounds and had been suffocated.
Retired chemist Donald, 73, had a knife sticking out of his chest and his throat had been slit.
Like the Ainsworths, there was no evidence of any domestic violence before their horrific deaths.
Coroner Nicholas Rheinberg ruled Donald killed his wife of 45 years and took his own life while suffering mental illness. However, coroner’s officer Christine Hurst considered the case suspicious.
She passed on files to her successor, Davies, who sought advice from Chancellor after attending one of his training courses in Utah.
They then identified three more suspicious murder-suicide cases (detailed on the right), two in Manchester and one in Cumbria, involving older couples.
Chancellor remains adamant it is “entirely possible” a serial killer could be responsible and finds the cops’ rejection of the theory “unbelievable”.
He said: “I was just shocked when they came back with the review and said they weren’t going to look into it.”
Of the Ainsworth deaths, he added: “Euthanasia was their big thing, which is death with dignity. Their deaths were anything but.
“It’s not just the brutal nature, but also her nightdress. To me, that was just so undignified, degrading almost.
“There was nothing to indicate there had been any history of violence.
“Usually when you have a domestic incident there’s what we call a precipitating event that kind of pushes you forward.”
‘It just really didn’t make a lot of sense’
Chancellor said Beatrice’s stomach virus “was going to run its course”.
And he raised concerns about a lack of blood on Howard’s pyjama top for someone who was supposed to have battered his wife to death.
He added that the washed hammer in the bathroom “didn’t seem to fit” with a man who had just killed his wife and that the suicide note was at odds with what happened.
He said: “The totality of the circumstances are suspicious. It just really didn’t make a lot of sense.”
Chancellor also sees “so many similarities” with the Ward case three years later.
He said: “I don’t know what the chances are of two of these events taking place in the same general area. It just really bothered me.
“It was a combination of both cases that makes me really, truly believe that someone needs to take a look.
“There are a lot of similarities and both took place in the marital bed.
“It was just like, ‘Holy cow’.
“The big questionable thing on the Ward case was that when they were found in the marital bed, they had covers over them, Mrs Ward up to her waist and Mr Ward certainly up to his upper thighs, almost to his waist.
“But when they removed the bedding, they found bloodstains on his lower leg. How did the blood stains only get on his lower leg and not the bedsheets if he’s in bed covered up?
“That had to have been post-event and then they were covered up.”
He added: “Serial killers are experts at conning. They know how to win trust.
“We call it the chameleon effect, where you become whatever the victim wants you to become. A trusted friend, a gardener or anything like that to win their trust. Then you’re able to get access to them.”
For some, the cases are much more cut and dried, though. Retired Scotland Yard murder squad detective superintendent Sue Hill said: “I’m not convinced by the serial killer theory.
“None of the families have ever expressed serious concerns about the official homicide-suicide verdicts.
“There is no apparent motive as none of them were sexually assaulted, nothing was stolen and there were no signs of any break-in.”
Hill, who regularly appears on ITV’s This Morning, added: “I feel we underestimate that old people will make a pact over how they are going to die. In those circumstances, if a husband stabs and bludgeons his wife then it is because they love them and want to make sure they die.”
She added: “There were similarities between the two Wilmslow cases.
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“But it is possible the latter could have been a copycat of the earlier deaths. They lived in the same town and the Wards may well have been aware of the Ainsworth case.
“There is not enough to convince me that any of them were victims of a serial killer.
“But we may never know the truth. Sometimes you just may never know.”