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A Mull resident has won an appeal to open a new inquest into her sister’s murder more than 50 years after the tragic crime took place.
Anne Cleave, who has lived on the island since 1996, and her younger brother Colin, have been campaigning to have the case reviewed since their father died in 2003.
Last Tuesday, April 16, the High Court in the Royal Courts of Justice granted the appeal. This means the old inquest in 1966, which named the wrong man, will be quashed.
Elsie Frost was stabbed in the back and head as she walked through a railway tunnel off a canal towpath in Wakefield in October 1965.
She was 14 years old.
Despite a massive manhunt and national coverage, there have been no successful convictions of anyone responsible for her death.
In January 1966, deputy coroner Philip Gill, presiding over the original inquest into Elsie’s death, decided Ian Bernard Spencer, who was 33 at the time, was the guilty man.
Anne takes up the story: ‘Back then the coroner was allowed to name a suspect in a crime if he thought there was prima facie (based on the first impression; accepted as correct until proved otherwise) evidence.
‘So at the original inquest the coroner named Ian Bernard Spencer as my sister’s killer.
‘Spencer was sent to trial in March 1966 and the case was thrown out due to lack of evidence. However, Ian Bernard had to live with that hanging over him for the rest of his life. He died last year.
‘After he was released, the case went into limbo. Nothing happened for years and years and years. I think this was one of the worst parts of the whole thing.’
The Frost family were convinced at the time that Spencer had nothing to do with Elsie’s death.
Anne, Colin and Elsie’s mother Edith died in 1988 and their father, Arthur, in 2003. It was only then, when Anne and Colin were clearing out their father’s belongings, that they noticed he had got rid of a huge amount of family documentation including Elsie’s birth and death certificates and family photographs.
‘We were quite distraught,’ recalled Anne.
‘Clearly dad had just wanted to clear everything away but it had just hung around in the back of his mind, in his heart and at the bottom of his stomach for all those years from 1965 to 2003.’
It was then that Anne and Colin decided they would try and get things going again.
‘Now that dad was gone, it wasn’t going to cause him any more pain and we felt it was our duty to our parents and our sister to try and find out what had really happened,’ said Anne.
‘Mum and dad would have wanted to do something. They just wouldn’t have known what to do.
‘They also deserve a tribute. Despite their deep and enduring grief, they made our lives so much the richer because of their love and fortitude.’
The siblings spent the next few years digging around in archives, writing to anyone they thought could help, including then home secretary Theresa May, and latterly making TV appearances to talk about the case.
In 2015, after pressure from the family and new evidence coming to light, West Yorkshire Police re-opened the case under the name Operation Plainlake.
It was then the file of Peter Pickering, known as the ‘Beast of Wombwell, was discovered.
The Plainlake team found, hidden away in a string of lock-ups owned by Pickering, a stash of damning evidence in relation to another case as well as evidence demonstrating he was aware of Elsie’s case.
A convicted child killer and rapist, Pickering, 80, had been held in secure psychiatric accommodation for more than 45 years. In March 2018 he was found guilty of the violent rape of an 18-year-old woman in Sheffield in 1972. A week later Pickering died in custody.
In July last year the Frost family lobbied the Attorney General for a new inquest where they could ask that the evidence against Pickering be looked at again.
Their request was granted in December 2018 with the attorney general stating: ‘I am satisfied there is new evidence available that was not put before the previous inquest and I believe it is in the interests of justice for the application for a new inquest to be heard by the High Court.’
Now a mother and grandmother, Anne has immersed herself in the community since arriving on Mull. She and her late husband, also called Colin, took over Mull Print from which they published Round & About, the island’s community newspaper until 2003.
Among her many, varied roles, Anne chairs Mull Historical and Archaeological Society and Argyll and Bute Museums and Heritage Forum.
From 2009 to 2017 she studied with the Open University, gaining a BA (Hons) in literature and an MA with Merit in English.
In her garden at home, Anne has planted a tree, which she can see when sitting at her computer. It is a Prunus Autumnalis Subhirtella rosea, the same type the Mayor of Wakefield planted at the crematorium when the family held a memorial service on October 9 2015 – 50 years to the day since Elsie’s murder.
‘I call it my Elsie tree,’ said Anne. ‘It flowers around February 7, Elsie’s birthday.’
Anne now hopes the family will get answers and that her beloved sister Elsie can at last rest in peace.
‘It’s not something you can put to the back of your mind. It’s in the front of your mind all the time every day. Why did my sister, a young girl full of prospects die like this?
‘I think that’s why I have kept myself so busy over the years. Because if I am busy doing things, it isn’t in the front of my mind. It’s still there but it isn’t pervading everything.
‘The new inquest won’t be able to name anyone, but it means West Yorkshire Police can reveal publicly the evidence they found against Pickering being the perpetrator of my sister’s murder. And to us, that is the key thing.’
Anne thanks the following for their support and much valued help over the course of the campaign:
‘First and foremost Colin Frost, my brother, who is almost 12 years younger than me. He lives in Wakefield and has been the front man of Team Frost since we got Elsie’s case back in the public arena in 2015.
‘My son Martin, who was only nine months old when Elsie was murdered, and my daughter Joanne, who lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and children.
‘Then there are my extended family and friends in Yorkshire and on Mull, the Operation Plainlake team at West Yorkshire Police, everyone who supported our appeal on the CrowdJustice website and, last but not least, our fantastic legal team.’