Carl Bridgewater – Stourbridge – 1978

This a cold case like no other I have profiled so far. The tragic and outrageous murder of 13 yr old newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater has been shrouded in controversy since November 1979 when four men were convicted for the killing. Vincent Hickey and James Robinson went down for life for the murder and Michael Hickey was also convicted of murder and detained during Her Majesty’s pleasure. Pat Molloy got 12 years for manslaughter. But in 1997 the convictions were overturned which can only be described as a outrageous miscarriage of justice which ultimately destroyed the lives of the four men and their familys. 

The release of the four men falsely convicted of Carl Bridgewater’s murder raises one obvious question: who did kill the 13-year-old newspaper delivery boy? It also raises the issue of responsibility and the conduct of the police inquiry – who caused three men to spend 18 years in jail for a crime they did not commit and a fourth man to die in prison while serving a 10-year stretch ?

The case appears to be a classic example of what Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, condemned in 1993 as “noble cause” corruption, in which a small group of detectives were prepared to “massage the evidence” and “bend the rules”. Others might be more blunt and say “make up the evidence to fit the crime”.

Carl Bridgewater (January 2, 1965 – September 19, 1978) (pictured below) was shot dead at Yew Tree Farm on the A449 in Staffordshire (approximately three miles north-west of Stourbridge), when he disturbed burglars while delivering a newspaper to the house on 19 September 1978.

The elderly couple who lived there were not at home. The paperboy entered the property as he was familiar with the occupants; an open door led him to worry and investigate further. He was subsequently forced into the living room of the house and shot in the head at point-blank range. He was already dead when a friend of the house’s occupants found him

The farmhouse was one of the last calls on Carl’s paper-round (the house has since been demolished)

The tragic events and the subsequent miscarriage of justice

A TRIP to the dentist for a check-up and his evening paper round – Carl Bridgewater’s day was just another in the life of any normal teenager

It was only when he failed to turn up for tea that his family had an inkling that something might be wrong.

The 13-year-old’s delivery round included a stop at the home of two disabled cousins and, such was Carl’s helpful nature, that he would let himself in and leave the paper on a chair.

Tragically, it was this act of kindness which saw him murdered in cold blood.

The paperboy had inadvertently stumbled upon a burglary at the isolated Yew Tree Farm, near his home in Prestwood, Stourbridge, and his short life was ended on September 19 1978.

He was forced in to the living room at the farmhouse, and blasted in the head at point blank range.

His body was found 90 minutes later, slumped upright on a settee with his bag still hanging over his shoulder.

It was a chilling crime which remains mired in mystery and the callous murder devastated his tight-knit family.

The boy they had called ‘Atom’ on account of his boundless energy was gone, cruelly taken from them because he had chanced upon a crime.

He was described by parents Janet and Brian as a happy, caring schoolboy who enjoyed spending time with his brother and sister, fishing and attending scout meetings.

For the first eight weeks of the police manhunt, detectives had but believed they had made a breakthrough in November.

Four men robbed a farm about half-an-hour’s drive from Yew Tree Farm.

The getaway car in the robbery was linked to small-time Birmingham crook Vincent Hickey.

He began talking to police but always denied taking part in Carl’s murder.

Hickey and three other men, The Bridgewater Four – as they became known – were convicted of killing Carl a year after his death and the schoolboy quickly became the focal point for one of the most notorious criminal cases in British judicial history.

Patrick Molloy, aged 51 at the time, was jailed for manslaughter, but died in prison in 1981 after suffering a heart attack.

Three other men – 45-year-old Jim Robinson and cousins Michael Hickey, aged 17, and Vincent Hickey, aged 25 – were jailed for life for murder and told they would be behind bars for at least 25 years. But suggestions soon surfaced that Molloy had been forced by police to confess that he had been burgling the farm with the others on the day of the killing.

Vincent Hickey’s mother, Ann Whelan, led a spirited campaign to have the men absolved and was backed by crusading journalist Paul Foot.

Michael Hickey spent 89 days on the roof of Gartree Prison in Leicestershire to protest his innocence and the case began to attract the same profile as the Guilford Four and Birmingham Six.

The campaign gathered pace and in May 1993, Timothy O’Malley, foreman of the trial jury, said publicly that he was convinced the four men were innocent.

In February 1997, after a string of court hearings, the latest in a number of appeals finally saw the men’s convictions overturned.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the trial had been unfair and certain areas of evidence were fabricated by police in order to persuade Molloy to make a confession.

The court added there was evidence on which a jury could convict Vincent Hickey for involvement in the murder, but said he should go free because his original trial was unfair.

Despite the ruling, the Crown Prosecution Service decided against pursuing a retrial against the elder Hickey cousin.

With the three men free, a case was prepared against four officers in the Staffordshire force on charges of fabricating evidence but it was dropped in December 1998.

The finger was later pointed at another notorious criminal but he has insisted that he has nothing to do with the murder.

The Hickeys have lived under an inevitable cloud of suspicion since they were released from prison and speculation about suspects will continue for years to come.

But the Bridgewater family have insisted they never want to see the case reopened because it would prove too painful for them.

In an interview they gave on the 30th anniversary of Carl’s death, his parents said the questions at the front of their minds were not who killed their son, but how he might now be living his life.

“We do wonder what he would have been like today,” said mum Janet.

“What he would have looked like?

“How many children he would have had and what he would have done for a living?

“There’s a lot of ‘if onlys’ when we talk about him.”

VINCENT Hickey is no longer behind bars but says he will never be truly free until Carl’s real killer is caught.

He was one of three men who spent 18 years in prison for a murder he has always denied and as recently as last year he was trying to persuade police to reopen the case.

The 56-year-old said he would always be viewed with suspicion but believes that modern forensic techniques could prove beyond doubt that he was not involved with the killing.

Mr Hickey, who still lives in Birmingham, said he was willing to offer himself for DNA tests that would clear his name.

“I want to know who killed Carl and I will write letters to the police demanding they reopen this case,” he said.

“Even though I was cleared, I still want justice for Carl and his family.

‘‘This has been gnawing away at me for 30 years. I went through a very traumatic time in prison, and am still suffering.

‘‘I have always wanted this case to be reopened and now is the right time.

“There is all this technology the police can use. I’m sure if they carried out new DNA tests the results would lead them to whoever really killed Carl.”

Staffordshire Police said that they would review the case if new evidence was to come to light.

Conviction and sentencing

The Bridgewater Four were Patrick Molloy, Jim Robinson and cousins Michael Hickey and Vincent Hickey. Molloy was the first to be arrested in November 1978, following a similar robbery at a farmhouse in Romsley near Halesowen, some 10 miles away from the scene of the Bridgewater murder. During questioning, Molloy told police that he had been in an upstairs bedroom while robbing the house when he heard a gunshot downstairs. Shortly afterwards, the other three men were arrested.

All denied committing murder, but three of them were convicted. The fourth, Molloy, was found guilty of manslaughter. James Robinson (aged 45) and Vincent Hickey (aged 25) were both sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommended minimum term of 25 years, which would have kept them behind bars until at least 2004 and the ages of 70 and 50 respectively. Michael Hickey (aged 17) was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, though it was anticipated he would serve a shorter sentence than the two others convicted of murder. Patrick Molloy (aged 51) received a 12-year prison sentence on the manslaughter charge; he died of a heart attack in prison in 1981

Case quashed

In February 1997, the latest in a number of appeals finally saw the men’s convictions overturned, after the Court of Appeal ruled that the trial had been unfair, due to certain areas of evidence fabricated by police in order to persuade Molloy to make a confession. However, the Appeal Judges noted that in the light of Vincent Hickey’s confessions to being present at the farm where Bridgewater was shot dead “we consider that there remains evidence on which a reasonable jury properly directed could convict.” 

Despite this, in the light of the judgment, the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to apply for a retrial involving Vincent Hickey in the public interest or proceed with an outstanding armed robbery charge against him.

Vincent Hickey said, “My conviction has been quashed, so I am absolved and as far as I’m concerned that’s the end of it.”

An earlier appeal in March 1989 had been rejected.

Over the years, fellow convicted murderer Hubert Spencer (born 1940) has been mentioned in the media as a possible suspect for the murder. Spencer, an ambulance driver and a neighbour of Bridgewater in Wordsley, was investigated by police in the immediate aftermath of the murder, not least because he drove a blue Vauxhall Viva – the same type of car which had been seen at the farm on the afternoon of the murder. Witnesses also said that the driver of the car was a uniformed man. However, he was eliminated from police inquiries after the arrest of the four other suspects.

Bert-spencer-today-and-right-pictured-in-1979 (released in 2007 – He has always vehemently denied murdering Carl)

Shortly afterwards, 70-year-old Hubert Wilkes was shot dead on neighbouring Holloway Farm. Like Bridgewater, he had been shot dead while sitting on a sofa. Spencer was jailed for life in 1980 and served 15 years before being paroled in 1995. It emerged at once that Spencer had been an early police suspect for the Bridgewater murder, that he knew Yew Tree farm—where the murder had been committed—had coveted antiques there such as those that were stolen during the robbery and had access to shotguns.

The campaign to free and absolve the four men was led by Michael Hickey’s mother, Ann Whelan, and campaigning journalist Paul Foot. Preparations were made for a case against four police officers in the Staffordshire force on charges of fabricating evidence, but the case was dropped in December 1998.

In a ruling condemned as “sick” by prison campaigners, the Court of Appeal agreed with a Home Office-appointed assessor that the cousins Michael and Vincent Hickey should lose a quarter of loss-of-earnings compensation for their free food and accommodation inside. This has set a precedent which is still being used by the Home Office.

R.I.P – James “Jim” Robinson died on 30 August 2007 of lung cancer at the age of 73 – On his release from prison after his sentence was quashed he said “People didn’t want to know. The long, lonely years that we’ve cried and wept and despaired and people have looked at us with hate and contempt in their eyes and called us child-killers. We’re not child-killers.”