Murder At Birch

The trial of Private J C Leatherberry and Private George Fowler, both from the 356th Engineer Service Regiment USAAF made legal history on both sides of the Atlantic. For the first time two prisoners who were jointly charged with the same murder would be tried by separate courts. All evidence would have to be given twice, before a Judge and nine other US officers who were present.

The two accused of murder

On Monday 24th January 1944, the court at Ipswich Town Hall sat for more than fourteen hours to decide the fate of these two men.

Only six weeks before, the strangled and badly beaten body of 28-year-old Harry Claude Hailstone, a taxi driver from Maldon Road Colchester Essex was discovered. The body was found in a ditch in the grounds of Birch Rectory just a few feet from the main road. Police Constable Snowling of Copford found the body the day after his abandoned taxi was found, close to one of the American camps in the area. Such a crime was a rare occurrence in the 1940’s and the severity of this one made the police particularly anxious to find the person or persons responsible. Detective Superintendent G H Totterdell of the Essex Police was put in charge of the case. ‘Tot’ as he was affectionately known, was a well-respected man who had forty years experience and twenty murder investigations behind him.

The discovery of both taxi and body gave several clues straight away. There were clear signs of a struggle in the cab, with many bloodstains. Also a jacket with the sleeves turned inside out, this was an indication that it had been pulled from it’s wearer from behind. The drivers wallet was empty, it was later learnt that it contained less than twelve pounds cash. The vehicle itself was parked on the right-hand side of the road, given the number of US servicemen in the area, made it quite possible that it’s last driver was an American!Newspaper Headline

Hailstones murder was another tragedy in a list that had plagued his family for several years. His mother was the first air raid victim in Colchester of the Second World War. In August 1940, a bomb hit her house and she was struck on the head by flying debris and died one year later. In April 1942, his brother Roy Hailstone was killed in action and some years earlier another brother had died.

During the search for Hailstone, a bloodstained overcoat was found on the outskirts of Tollesbury Essex, a few miles from the scene of the crime. The coat had the name ‘Captain J.J Webber’ written inside the collar. After some simple detective work, it was found that the coat was of Canadian origin and its owner had been stationed at the 18th Canadian General Hospital, Cherry Tree Camp Colchester, three days before the incident. Captain Webber was traced and brought in for questioning. He explained that on December 5th 1943, he was waiting on Liverpool Street station London for a train to return him to camp. Here he began talking to another serviceman who was waiting for the same train. They shared the journey home and when back in Colchester, Captain Webber invited his new acquaintance back to his camp for a drink. It was here during an opportune moment, his new ‘friend’ ran off with his coat and several other belongings. In his haste he left behind a regulation issue gas mask. The mask was labelled ‘J Hill, H Company’. J Hill was traced; he was from the 356th General Service Regiment who were currently stationed at Birch helping with the construction of the airfield. He explained that although he was the owner of the gas mask, he had lent it to Private George Fowler also of the same regiment. Fowler was brought in for questioning and it wasn’t long before he admitted that he and another serviceman (Private J C Leatherberry) from the same unit had decided to go absent without leave to London. The two men met at the White Horse Pub near their camp and planned to go to London for a few days. On arrival back at Colchester they would hire a taxi back to camp at Birch, on the way robbing the driver. Leatherberry denied all knowledge or involvement in the crime, but after more bloodstained clothes were found in his possession, both men were arrested.

During the investigation, Private Fowler was interviewed three times, each time his statement was different. He also attended an identity parade where he identified Leatherberry as the other man involved in the crime. The most incriminating piece of evidence was the samples of blood taken from the accused fingernails, were confirmed as that of Hailstone’s. It belonged to a rare blood group that even basic 1940’s forensic techniques could decipher.

On December 19th 1943, the two men along with all the evidence were handed over to the American authorities. They were held in custody for one month and on January 19th 1944, their court marshal began at Ipswich Town Hall. Both men told many stories and invented many different alibis to try and convince the court that they were innocent. Both men claimed they were in London at the time of the murder; they produced several witnesses who claimed to have been in their company when it happened. Eventually the two accused got so confused with their conflicting stories, they finally broke and blamed each other for the murder.

None of this convinced the jury; so on the 24th January 1944 their fate was decided. The only admission of the crime came from Private Fowler, who was charged with murder and given life imprisonment. It was judged that Leatherberry was the instigator of the crime and was charged with murder and sentenced to death by hanging.