On Friday 22 May 1953 in the small Leicestershire village of Blaby three young boys were playing in Blue Banks Wood, a favourite area for the local kids, when they heard a series of piercing screams. Rushing to investigate the trio made a terrible discovery – a man pulling at the head of what they thought was a young woman. They immediately went for help, they found a group of other boys and returned to the spinney. There they found the body of 12 year old red haired Janet Warner.
The police immediately set up a major search for the killer. The boys said the man they saw had a broken nose, unkempt hair and was wearing a boiler suit. A mobile station was set up and a massive search for clues was undertaken in the immediate area.
By all accounts Janet was a popular young girl, a pupil at Wigston Secondary Modern and a keen horse rider. Her father had become concerned about her when the family dog, which had been taken out for a walk by Janet, returned home alone.
Very quickly Detective Superintendent Guy Mahon of Scotland Yard, who was leading the investigation, named Dublin born Joseph Christopher Reynolds, aged 31, as a man they would like to talk to in connection with Janet’s murder. Reynolds had been living in Leicester for several years, lodging in a house in Uppingham Rd.
Within 24 hours Reynolds had been arrested. He had visited the cinema after killing Janet and then went home to bed. The next day he decided to head to Nottingham but returned to Leicester when he thought the conductress on the bus he was on was looking at him strangely. Spotted by a policeman he tried to make a run for it but was trapped in a cul-de-sac.
On Monday 25 May he appeared in Leicester County Magistrate Court charged with Janet’s murder. Superintendent J.A. Clayton said Reynolds had made a statement which would later be given in evidence. Reynolds remanded in custody.
A quiet funeral was held for Janet on Wednesday 27 May but a crowd of over a hundred people gathered outside court when Reynolds appeared again a few days later. He was once again remanded in custody. He appeared in court again on Monday 22 June 1953. He matter of factly told the court that “the girl was very brave in death. I hope I will be half as brave.”
On Monday 26 October 1963 the trial of Joseph Christopher Reynolds was over in less than five minutes. Reynolds pleaded guilty and when the judge Mr Justice Pilcher, asked if he had any statement to make before a sentence of death was pronounced on him Reynolds said “nothing my lord. I deserve the extreme punishment for my crime. I am heartily sorry for the little girl and the grief I caused her parents.” Reynolds muttered a prayer as the judge had the black cap, signifying the death penalty, placed on his head. His parents told the Daily Mirror that “Joseph was always a strange boy. He hated to mix with other people. His one passion was poetry.”
At the beginning of November the Sunday People published a series of letters that Reynolds wrote to a friend from his prison cell. The People were convinced the letters proved that Reynolds was insane and should not be hanged. Because the letters were written whilst Reynolds was on remand they were not censored and offered an insight into his state of mind at the time. In one he says “I am happy in my dreams, but the reality of life depresses me. I cannot take it.” In another he says “life is only for the strong and the strong live and prey on the weak. That is the true way with nature.”
A Harley Street specialist believed the letters shows Reynolds was schizophrenic. As to insanity though, Reynolds clearly knew the wrong he had done saying “of course I am only a criminal lunatic who has committed a horrible crime.” On 14 November the Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe decided there were insufficient grounds to interfere with the death sentence pronounced on Reynolds.
Christopher Reynolds was executed on the morning of Tuesday 17 November 1953, a crowd of 300 people waited outside the prison for the notice of execution to be posted. Before he was hung Reynolds told police that he had felt a compulsion to kill for some ten days or more and had intended to kill a man whom he had seen walking along a canal bridge close to the spinner every day. On that particular day the man, Dennis Goodger, didn’t walk along the bridge as he was now working in a different district. Goodger told the People that he was “the luckiest man in the world today.” He also said that every day when he crossed the bridge a man was hanging around and often asked him the time. “It was always just turned five o’clock” he said. “He used to give me a strange out of this world look and I got more and more suspicious.” As soon as Goodger learned of the murder he went to the police. It was a vital step in identifying Reynolds.
Reynolds became the last man to be executed in the county of Leicestershire.
After the murder the Spinney was cleared of all its undergrowth.
At his trial it was revealed that Reynolds had previously been sentenced to three years in jail for attempted murder. In 1945 he attacked Margaret Reeves who was on holiday in Barry. Reynolds approached her on the beach and holding a knife to her threatened to kill her. She screamed and tried to get away. Reynolds stabbed her twice and punched her in the face before making a run for it.
In late August 1947 Reynolds was one of three men who escaped from prison working party by jumping from a lorry bound for Cardiff prison.
Despite the horrific nature of the case it was overshadowed in the press by the trial of Rillington Place serial killer John Reginald Christie which was taking place at the same time.