Key Points:

  • Peter Wrighton, 83, was murdered in woods between East and West Harling
  • His killing comes after the rape of a pensioner in the same area in 1994
  • Tragedy struck again in 2012 when local farmer Stephen Brown died suddenly

By Barbara Davies and Emily Kent

It was in these Norfolk woods, a week ago today, that 83-year-old Peter Wrighton was hacked to death in a crime so brutal that detectives at first assumed he had been mauled by an animal.


Were fate to choose a location for the end of a good man's life in terrible circumstances, surely rural Norfolk's genteel, sunlight-dappled woodlands would not make the shortlist.

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For dog-walkers such as Peter Wrighton, this idyllic spot, between East and West Harling, offered a place of sanctuary and quiet.

Tree-lined pathways are hidden out of sight of the country roads that pass through this remote area of eastern England. On a typical day, the silence is interrupted only by the sound of birdsong and the wind whispering through the pine and oak trees.

And yet it was here, a week ago today, that 83-year-old Wrighton was hacked to death in a crime so brutal that detectives at first assumed he had been mauled by an animal, reports the Daily Mail.

No witnesses. No motive. Just the inexplicable murder of a much-loved father and grandfather - a mild-mannered gentleman without an enemy in the world - and a community left reeling in shock.

Aerial view of the crime scene in where Peter Wrighton, 83, was murdered while out walking his dogs in Norfolk. Photo / Norfolk Police
Aerial view of the crime scene in where Peter Wrighton, 83, was murdered while out walking his dogs in Norfolk. Photo / Norfolk Police

"This was a brutal murder with no motive," said Chief Superintendent Mike Fawcett of Norfolk Police. Not surprising, then, that those who regularly walk their dogs along the same footpath that Wrighton followed last Saturday at around 10.30am, are afraid to return while his killer remains on the loose.

Harling parish councillor Colin Forder said: I have two children and we often take the dog for a walk in the woods, so it's worrying."

His colleague, parish council vice-chair Elizabeth Mould, added: "I was there on my own last Friday, and there are quite a few ladies who also go alone. It's very unusual and scary what's happened."

Another dog walker, who asked not to be named, said the area had been "blighted" by the murder.

The pensioner was a much-loved father and grandfather - a mild-mannered gentleman without an enemy in the world - and a community left reeling in shock. Photo / Norfolk Police
The pensioner was a much-loved father and grandfather - a mild-mannered gentleman without an enemy in the world - and a community left reeling in shock. Photo / Norfolk Police

"We all feel unsafe knowing there is a killer on the loose," he added. "My wife is afraid to go out with our dog on her own."

Locals with longer memories, meanwhile, point out that this is not the first time the area has been the setting of a vicious, unsolved crime.

Scratch even deeper, and it appears this seemingly anonymous and urbane corner of England - specifically West Harling wood - has been fate's place of choice for some truly horrible goings-on.

Take the fact that the attack on Wrighton was carried out just a stone's throw from where a 71-year-old pensioner was raped while walking her dog on June 7, 1994.

While the crimes are unlikely to be linked, it seems curious that two examples of such brutality should occur in such a tiny pinprick of a map reference.

The woman had been walking her West Highland terrier in an area known as The Gallops, which once led to Berdewell Hall, a grand, castellated and moated house that was demolished in 1725.

She was approached by a youth who dragged her into the hedgerow and carried out a vicious, 20-minute sex attack, during which he attempted to strangle her before leaving her almost naked among stinging nettles, badly bruised and beaten. The perpetrator also attacked her dog before fleeing on a dark-coloured bicycle.

This unsolved crime is the subject of an ongoing cold case review and was featured ten years ago on the ITV crime programme Reward: Catching The Criminals.

While detectives managed to obtain a complete DNA profile of the rapist - described as being tall and about 16 years old with dark brown hair shaved at the sides and straggly on top - they have never managed to track him down, despite the offer of a £10,000 (NZ$17,775) reward.

The woman moved from the area shortly afterwards, and it's not known if she is still alive.

In the ensuing 23 years, the sleepy Norfolk village, which had just over 2,000 inhabitants at the 2011 census, has lost much of its innocence.

While residents have reported what they believe to be drug deals going on in the secluded woods, there have been complaints, too, of men of Eastern European appearance camping out in the area where Wrighton was walking.

Dog-owner Terry Ransom, 73, from nearby Attleborough, who used to walk the same path as Wrighton almost every day, said he had taken to carrying a stick since noticing suspicious behaviour in the area.

"There were two people hiding things in the wood about a month ago," he said.

"One was keeping watch and the other one was in and out, and then they swapped around and they were in there for 40 minutes with their car door open.

"Two days later, I was just coming back on the pathway and there was a young boy. He pulled up on his mountain bike, did a wheelie and flung his bike down. Then he was feeling about, picked up a package, smelt it and put it in his jacket.

"I would suggest that it is a well-known drugs exchange area. I cannot see why a random attacker would attack an 83-year-old unless it's to do with drugs."

Only five years ago, the village made national news again when the 52-year-old owner of a pig farm - again, close to where Wrighton's body was found - died suddenly while being investigated by the RSPCA over allegations of cruelty.

Stephen Brown died suddenly after an animal rights group, Animal Equality, filmed workers at Harling Farm - which had previously been approved by the Red Tractor food quality assurance scheme - beating pigs with iron bars.

A completely unrelated crime, but shocking in its brutality.

Turn the clock back even further and the same farm was the scene of tragedy in 1945, when a US Air Force Liberator aircraft, which had been converted into a flying fuel transporter, crashed into a barn shortly after take-off from nearby RAF base Snetterton Heath.

The barn was rebuilt in 1948 and a plaque marks the spot where everyone on board was killed.

Now, as police try to track down Wrighton's cold-blooded killer, it seems the peace and isolation so loved by walkers has been shattered again. The remoteness of the scene is also hampering the evidence-gathering by police.

Police have named Peter Wrighton, 83, of Banham, as the victim of the East Harling murder. Photo / Norfolk Constabulary
Police have named Peter Wrighton, 83, of Banham, as the victim of the East Harling murder. Photo / Norfolk Constabulary

There are no houses near the place where he was killed - only the pig farm, the remains of a Viking burial site and, further down the road, a private preparatory boarding school, Riddlesworth Hall, which was once attended by Princess Diana.

With no other walkers within sight or earshot at the time of the crime, the perpetrator appears to have been able to slip away unseen.

Norfolk police insist there was no obvious motive for Wrighton's killing. Nothing was stolen; his dogs - a nine-year-old Scarteen harrier named Dylan and a 13-year-old trailhound cross, Gemma - were found unharmed, waiting faithfully by their master's body.

Wrighton had been happily married to his wife, Ann, for 59 years and the devoted couple, who lived seven miles from the murder scene in the village of Banham, doted on their two grown-up children, Andrew and Carol, and their families.

Above all, Wrighton was regarded as a popular, kind-hearted member of the community - certainly not the kind of man to have harboured secrets or, had he witnessed any wrongdoing, to have confronted or picked a fight with a stranger.

Norfolk police insist there was no obvious motive for Wrighton's killing. Nothing was stolen; his dogs - a nine-year-old Scarteen harrier named Dylan and a 13-year-old trailhound cross, Gemma - were found unharmed, waiting faithfully by their master's body.

Wrighton had been happily married to his wife, Ann, for 59 years and the devoted couple, who lived seven miles from the murder scene in the village of Banham, doted on their two grown-up children, Andrew and Carol, and their families.

Above all, Wrighton was regarded as a popular, kind-hearted member of the community - certainly not the kind of man to have harboured secrets or, had he witnessed any wrongdoing, to have confronted or picked a fight with a stranger.

It is impossible to imagine why anyone would have wanted to kill this straightforward, family-loving man, who spent his working life as an engineer for what was the General Post Office and then BT, before retiring to Norfolk from East London nearly 30 years ago.

He and his wife were known locally for their love of animals, as well as their charitable spirit. They regularly made donations to the food bank organised by the village church, St Mary The Virgin.

Canon Stephen Wright, the church's vicar, said he had visited the grieving family to offer his condolences. "It's obvious he stumbled into someone or something going on," he said.
"No one knows, and the most difficult thing is not knowing.

"People are feeling they have to lock up more than usual, and they feel worried about taking their dogs for a walk in a remote place."

Nearby residents have told how the Wrightons were active in many aspects of local life.

Retired bookkeeper Mrs Wrighton is a former secretary of the Rex Cats Society, and both she and her husband were long-term committee members at Thetford and District Canine Society.

They were due to attend the group's annual show tomorrow, an event they helped to organise.

Now, instead, a minute's silence will be held in Wrighton's memory. The society's treasurer, Marilyn Clark, said this week: "We cannot believe this could happen to such a wonderful man.

"He was a lovely, gentle, kind person. We're just shell-shocked. Our hearts go out to Ann. Why someone would do that to such a nice person, I do not know."

Police officers appear to be finding the investigation into this "out of the ordinary" murder equally challenging.

Over the past few days, torrential rain has fallen relentlessly across the area, further diminishing the chances of discovering any lingering clues that might help detectives solve the crime. With no obvious leads to find out the identity of the killer, all they can say is that whoever is responsible would have been drenched with Wrighton's blood.

Then there is the missing murder weapon. Police are remaining tight-lipped about what object was used to kill Wrighton, but they have asked those living within a five-mile radius of The Street, a Roman road which runs parallel to the path where Wrighton's body was found, to search their dustbins, garden sheds and outbuildings in case the killer disposed of it while fleeing from the scene.

Around 400 items have been handed in already.

But above all, detectives working on what they have dubbed Operation Graduate are mindful that random, motiveless murders, where victim and killer are not known to each other, are rare.

Wrighton and his two dogs had set off towards East Harling last Saturday morning in his red Skoda Fabia, stopping off briefly at the Post Office during the seven-mile journey, where he was captured on CCTV just after 10am, dressed in a black T-shirt and trousers.

He was killed around 30 minutes later, just moments after parking his car and setting off on his walk.

Norfolk Police are exploring all avenues in the East Harling Murder of Peter Wrighton, 83. Photo / Norfolk Police
Norfolk Police are exploring all avenues in the East Harling Murder of Peter Wrighton, 83. Photo / Norfolk Police

Norfolk police say they are examining several potential motives, including the possibility that Wrighton was embroiled in a "dog rage" incident with another owner. One witness who came forward this week apparently told police he saw two elderly men involved in a heated discussion in the wood on Saturday morning.

Detectives have also appealed for three men who were in the area at the time - but who were not seen together - to come forward.

The first was believed to have changed into a white T-shirt on the road where Wrighton parked his car.

He was described as being over 50 and wearing light-coloured trousers and heavy-rimmed glasses. Yesterday, police said they had located him and would be interviewing him in due course.

The second man was aged 25-30, with a tanned complexion, an athletic build, between 5ft 9in and 5ft 11in tall and believed to have been wearing a blue or grey T-shirt, gym-style shorts and flip-flops.

The third man was aged between 30 and 50, of medium build and wearing dark-coloured clothing. He was seen in the northern area of the heathland without a dog.

Officers are also trying to track down guests who were staying at an upmarket "glamping" campsite less than two miles from the murder scene.

They say that they have heard from 220 potential witnesses so far, and are using metal detectors and dogs over a "considerable area" in their search for clues to this terrible crime.

Meanwhile, the shadow that has been cast over this tranquil village will inevitably remain until the killer is found, with everyone left wondering what else fate might have in store.

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