On 5 May 2023, Helen Hewlett was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Her crimes were stalking and soliciting murder. She had not tried to kill her ex-lover herself, she had chosen to hire someone to do it for her.
It was not easy. She had to go onto the ‘dark web’, it cost her $20,547.47 US dollars of Bitcoin. There is some doubt whether the people who took the money were killers, or just conmen. But she set out to hire a killer.
The law against paying someone to murder another person was consolidated in 1861, with the Offences Against the Person Act.
We are all familiar with the concept, which is as old as history itself. Tap in the phrase ‘assassinated Roman politicians’ into a search engine and a lengthy list will appear. It is a scene often played out in films, on television, or recounted in history books: a person scorned or wronged by another seeks vengeance by hiring an assassin.
Yet it remains something that the vast majority of the public will never encounter and in turn, is what makes the crime itself, that of hiring a killer, all the more fascinating. From the beheading of King Ethelbehrt II on the orders of Offa of Mercia in 794 AD to the modern day cases of Robert Lotts and Flash Day there are many tales of gold and blood-stained tragedy that crisscross East Anglia.
In 2005, Robert Lotts of Farcet, Cambridgeshire, hired professional killer Paul Glen to attack a rival businessman, Vincent Smart. Lotts had made contact with Glen via two third parties: his brother-in-law Wayne Wright and Victor Dark.
Lotts pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm, but together with middleman Wayne Wright, were found not guilty of conspiracy to murder. Dark was found not guilty on all charges. Hired killer Paul Glen stabbed Robert Bogle, the flatmate of the intended victim and not the target, to death in a tragic case of mistaken identity. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Lotts went on to serve four years in prison before being contacted by a neighbour, Yvonne Chainey, who wrote to him offering £5000 to kill a friend she had fallen out with. Chainey was found guilty of soliciting murder and sentenced to an indefinite hospital order.
There is the case of Flash Ashley Day, who changed his name to Flash by deed poll when criminal proceedings against him began. He hired Ryan Haynes of Lawford in Essex to stab his stepfather in order to claim the inheritance. Day was introduced to Haynes by a third party, Scott Moffat, who was cleared of any involvement in the plot.
Haynes stabbed the victim multiple times using a Rambo style hunting knife, but miraculously he survived. Day was sentenced to twenty-five years for conspiracy to murder. Haynes got seventeen years and three months for attempted murder and conspiracy to murder.
Doubts and frets
Alongside these stories are the ones where an assassin is alleged, or suspected, but never proven guilty. Or worse, that the person convicted is innocent.
The rumours of the Kray twins hiding bodies in Essex are well established – oil drums buried in the marshes, coffins of the recently departed gaining additional passengers before their final journey.
The infamous murders at Rettendon in Essex – which would go on to inspire the films Essex Boys and Rise of the Foot Soldiers – have been dogged by claims that the two men convicted of the murders, Jack Whomes and Michael Steele, were innocent and that it was a contract killing.
Christopher Nugent was murdered in December 1987. His killers were Stephen Gray and Gary Runham, hired by James Dowsett, Nugent’s business partner. At the trial at Norwich Crown Court in March 1989, Dowsett claimed to have paid them £7,500 to break Mr Nugent’s arms. The prosecution argued that he had paid £20,000 for the murder. Dowsett was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
However, in 2003 The European Court of Human Rights found the prosecution had not fully disclosed all the evidence to the defence and that, as a result, Dowsett did not receive a fair trial. But his subsequent appeals were rejected.
It’s unlikely any readers of East Anglia Bylines have incurred expenses of this kind. But think of this. An early case of soliciting to murder was Regina v Most in 1881. The defendant had written an article, published in a newspaper, lauding the recent assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II as wonderful news and an example to revolutionaries everywhere. The defendant was convicted for inciting his readership “to the murder of the Emperor Alexander, or the Emperor William, or, in the alternative, the crowned and uncrowned heads…from Constantinople to Washington”.
If you’re given to calling for the execution of people you don’t like, or jesting about luridly apt deaths for them – take care!