Howard Hughes was convicted on 18th July 1996 at Chester Crown Court, of the rape and murder of 7-year-old Sophie Hook who went missing from a tent in her uncle’s garden in Llandudno, North Wales in the early hours of Sunday 30th July 1995.
The Police thought that Howard was a ‘reasonable suspect.’
This meant that he had a record of minor criminal offences mainly for burglary, stealing bikes etc but including a juvenile conviction for assault in 1984 for which he had been on probation.
His habits, e.g. cycling around at night, were classed as ‘unusual.’
Many of his difficulties stemmed from a chromosomal deficiency XYY syndrome (as attributed to Stefan Kiszko) and his dyslexia which was, for a long time, not diagnosed. He was an unusual person who was present in the area and hence someone likely to be interviewed.
And that it seems, was enough to issue a warrant for his arrest.
Howard had no history of sexual offences (or violence of this extreme kind).
His unusual practices such as cycling around at night and shaving his body hair were very long standing. They were by no means unique to the night of Sophie’s murder. Therefore while they appear as circumstantial evidence these practices may be of no real evidential significance.
Part of the explanation for Howard’s liking for being out at night was that he enjoyed spending time with people night fishing on the pier which he had done on the night of the murder.
Howard was, very frightened of the police. On one occasion he broke an ankle jumping out of a window to escape after one officer allegedly punched him in the mouth (photographs of the injury to his mouth were taken at the time). The morning after the murder, however, he was at home, acting calmly, going to the newsagents and following his normal routine (he was also apparently wearing the same clothes as the night before).
Howard had made a complaint about his previous treatment by the police which was due to be heard on 31st July, the day after his arrest. This complaint concerned an allegation that a policeman had assaulted him (a separate incident to the one mentioned above).
Howard was picked up at 3.50 pm on the Sunday for a crime committed in the early hours of that morning. He remained in custody as the prime suspect. Were other possible leads followed up?
Howard was out and about in the area around the time.
While this can be seen as circumstantial, it can also be viewed as unsupportive of the case against Howard because as mentioned above he was often out at night, but more significantly…
Howard was spoken to by patrolling police at 2.55 am. He was sitting on the promenade near the end of the road in which Sophie’s Uncle’s house was sited.
He was casually smoking a cigarette.
One of the other children (aged about 12) said that Sophie was still in the tent at 2.30 am.
If he is correct about this there would have been precious little time for Howard to commit the crime before being seen by the police and he would surely not have sat casually on a bench so close to the house if he had done such a thing.
Sophie’s body was found on the beach at 7.10 am and experts believed she had been in the sea for at least 3 hours.
This leaves very little time for Howard to go from the promenade to the house, abduct Sophie, commit the crime and take her to the sea, if as experts suggested, the body was thrown into the sea from the cliff head known as The Little Orme which would involve a considerable walk from the house up a steep hill.
It seems unlikely that Howard would either be relaxing near the promenade after committing such a crime and equally unlikely that he would proceed to do such a thing immediately after speaking to the police and knowing them to be observing him.
Howard claims he was spoken to a second time by the police around 4 am – 4.30 am while sitting on a bench having a cigarette. At this time he says he was on the main road which leads out of Llandudno back to his home in Colwyn Bay under the “Welcome to Llandudno” sign, still very near to the house where Sophie was staying.
No police record has ever confirmed that this took place. If true, it would strongly suggest that Howard should have been eliminated as a suspect both from a point of view of timing and from the view that such casual behaviour in the immediate aftermath of committing such a crime would surely be inconceivable.
There were however a number of sightings of someone fitting Howard’s description at various times and places, some of which were described in unused material.
It seems a clear picture of Howard’s movements that night has never been established.
Howard gave information to his father which led to the location of Sophie’s night-dress
Following the visit of his father around 1 pm on Thursday 3rd August Howard gave information via his father of the location of the clothes. The finding of the clothes is probably the most compelling evidence against Howard.
Howard said he had found “something that might be helpful”, he did not identify it as Sophie’s clothes although the prosecution questioned how he knew it “Might be helpful”.
Howard claimed he found the night-dress (which he referred to as a T-shirt) by the side of a road about half a mile from the house close to a derelict property which may have been occupied at the time by one of the witnesses described in . He picked it up with the intention of using it as a substitute for toilet paper.
He did not use the night-dress for this but carried it for a while before throwing it away over a hedge (he had not previously given this information in any previous interview).
“Deet” (insect repellent) was found on Sophie’s clothes and was worn by Howard
Howard admitted he had found the clothes, this would have been stronger evidence had he denied it.
No ”Deet” was found on the tent, tent flap or on Sophie’s sleeping bag, which it would have been had he entered the tent.
Two other witnesses gave evidence at the trial…
One claimed Howard had said to him that he wanted to commit this type of crime.
The other said he saw Howard carrying a bag with a body in it.
Both these witnesses were shown to be entirely unreliable and were typical of the type of witness used to bolster the evidence in such cases, even to the point of being suspects themselves or having charges against them dropped in return for giving evidence. One of these people had served a five-year sentence for child abuse.
The use of such witnesses is a typical feature of miscarriages of justice and should be regarded as of no value in establishing a case.
Indecent Photographs were found in Howard’s room after his arrest!
When the police searched Howard’s home after his arrest indecent photographs of one of his young nieces were found.
This could not be used in Court because of its prejudicial nature.
It no doubt influenced the views and approach of interviewing police officers.
It may also have influenced the views of his father (who later gave damming evidence) because he was apparently aware of the existence of the photographs 2 weeks before the murder and had not informed the police or confronted Howard. He may then have felt prejudiced or even partly responsible for what he (perhaps) now believed his son had done to Sophie.
Furthermore Howard later claimed that when he confessed to his father he was not confessing to the murder but to taking the photographs.
Due to the prejudicial nature of this evidence the defence could not risk using it, even though it does give possible explanations for both Howard’s father’s claims and Howard’s supposed confession.
A child aged around 7 or 8 years old said that she had been asked by a man with a bike to go with him earlier on Saturday 29th July. After Howard’s arrest she was asked to attend an identity parade during which she picked out Howard as the man involved.
She had not originally described the distinctive figure of Howard and had described a man wearing a denim jacket with a large picture on the back.
Howard did not possess a jacket like this.
A former soldier suffering from Gulf War syndrome and/or stress related to the war went absent on the night of the crime from a local psychiatric unit, very close to the house where the children were camping. He returned in the morning with wet clothes which suggested he had been in the sea. Shortly after this he committed suicide. It is disrespectful in the extreme to suggest this gentleman had any involvement in the crime on the basis of this. However this event illustrates how in a town the size of Llandudno numerous events may be taking place at night which could be interpreted as circumstantial evidence.
Howard was not the only person out and about and acting in an unusual way.
The identity parade was apparently carried out with the men sitting down.
This seems curious as Howard’s height (6 foot 8 inches) is probably his most memorable feature.
The child’s evidence was given to the Court by video. Her first statement was along the lines of “I was nearly taken away by the man who killed Sophie”.
It is hard to imagine a more prejudicial statement coming from a child in a case like this.
The defence argued that the police had influenced her while the prosecution said it was evidence that Howard was building up to the crime.
This type of evidence was eventually discredited in the Stefan Kiszko case and may beg the questions of whether this event happened in the way described, of when exactly this event was reported to the police and whether the person concerned was in fact Howard.
Howard’s father gave evidence that Howard had confessed to him on a visit
As a vulnerable suspect Howard was entitled to welfare visits from his family. He requested such a visit and was visited by his father around 1 pm on Thursday 3rd August. His sister Heather was excluded from the first 15 minutes or so of this visit as was his solicitor Mr Ray Woodward.
Consequently Howard met his father alone.
During this one-to-one visit Howard gave his father information about the location of the clothes and according to his father confessed to the murder of Sophie.
However this confession evidence raises numerous concerns…
Howard’s relationship with his father was extremely acrimonious, it is very surprising that Howard would choose a welfare visit from his father. Howard’s parents had split up in very bitter circumstances and Howard due to his dyslexia etc had never been the type of son his father wanted. Howard’s mother maintains that her husband was violent towards her before they split up to the extent that doctors advised her to leave him and the police had to be called on numerous occasions. Also that Howard was protective towards her in the face of her husband’s aggression.
Howard was much closer to his mother and sisters.
Howard’s view of the confession is that his father simply wanted him out of the way for good.
The information about the clothes was given to the police immediately after this visit. Howard’s father however did not inform the police of the confession until over 8 hours later around 10 pm having had discussions with some other family members. This delay might suggest that Howard’s father had become convinced by the police or by the photographs that Howard was guilty and hence became prepared to claim a confession and firm up the evidence.
As explained in Howard claimed he had admitted to his father about the photographs not the murder. When his sister Heather was allowed to enter the visiting room Howard was crying and saying “I’m sorry”.
He maintains not for the murder but for the obscene photographs of her daughter.
In the notes of an interview with reporter Coreena Ford of the North Wales Weekly News on 8th August 1995, five days after Howard had been charged, his father Gerald Hughes makes some very circumspect statements such as “whoever has done this” and “I only hope they find the person responsible”.
This suggests that either he is being very cautious for a man whose son has confessed to him or he is still wrestling with doubts about recent events.
There is no doubt that the police, by their own admission, intended to use this meeting as an opportunity to gather evidence against Howard. Consequently a decision was taken to install a covert listening device. However this decision was, according to the police, abandoned due to shortage of time (i.e. time to acquire a machine from elsewhere). In a casual conversation after Howard’s conviction a comment was made to Howard’s solicitor by a serving policeman that the reason for not recording was due to having no battery for the machine.
This seems strange in that most recording machines would use mains power perhaps with a battery for backup only.
This raises serious questions….
The interview between Howard and his father has no corroboration or safeguards.
(At appeal Howard’s lawyers maintained that had the confession been made to a police officer the rules of PACE would have required 16 legal safeguards to be in place. With his father there were none.)
It seems extraordinary that the police would allow a potential and intended evidence gathering exercise to go ahead rather than await the arrival of recording equipment.
(In fact they denied the defence assertion that equipment was delivered from Llandudno on Thursday morning once the visit had been authorised).
The temptation to suggest that the visit was recorded and the tape ”lost” because no such confession took place is hard to resist.
Howard had been in custody and subject to expert police interviewing for four days without confessing and then almost immediately it is claimed he confesses to his father, with whom his relationship had broken down long ago.
(It has to be accepted however that this did happen in relation to the information about the clothes).
At appeal Howard’s lawyers argued that as the conversation was not recorded Howard should have had the opportunity to comment on it at the time, however he was not told about it at the time only that he was being charged on the basis of new information.
Uncorroborated confession evidence is a notorious feature of miscarriages of justice and must be treated with great caution.
While the finding of Sophie’s night-dress does provide circumstantial evidence, the defence were surely right to argue at both trial and appeal that the confession should not have been admitted in evidence.
On the balance of probabilities it seems reasonable to suggest that the confession as described by Howard’s father may never have taken place.
Based on the lack of actual ‘evidence’ and the shaky testimonies of the two main prosecution witnesses, is this case just another example of the authorities seeking retribution by fair means or foul?
And going by the obvious flaws that run through the entire procedure, would you have found Howard Hughes guilty of the murder of Sophie Hook, ‘Beyond A Reasonable Doubt?’