At around 5am on Saturday 3rd May, 1997, petrol was poured through the letterbox of a stone built terraced house in Haywood Avenue, Marsh, Huddersfield. From evidence found at the scene, it took a number of attempts to light the accelerant but, having done so, the flames took hold very quickly and created intense heat and choking black smoke.
It was a Bank Holiday weekend and the country was on good terms with itself, having returned a ‘New Labour’ government in a landslide election victory the previous day. On the Friday evening, in glorious summer sunshine, the communal garden area rang out with happiness as a tea party gathered at number 28 to celebrate the 31st birthday of Debra McCafferty, the owner of the property.
Family members came and went, but by around 11pm everyone was inside and only Debra, her daughter Chantelle, step-daughter Shereen and nephews Joe and Nicky McCafferty remained. The boys were sleeping over as their mother, Tracey McCafferty, was away working in Bristol during that week. They all retired to bed at 11.30pm.
It was Chantelle who was woken up first by the smoke and heat as the fire swept up the staircase, sited behind the front door, cutting off the only escape route. She went to her mother’s room, in a hysterical state, and raised the alarm. Debra and her daughters, were able to escape by jumping from the bedroom window, above the back door, into the garden.
They were attended by a small group of neighbours, one of whom had called 999 at 5.09am, and the ambulance service who were the first emergency responders on the scene.
Debra and Chantelle had been driven back by the searing heat, and paint dripping like lava from the ceilings, when searching for, and attempting to rescue, the two boys. The fire service brought out Joe and Nicky shortly afterwards.
Joe McCafferty was found to be dead on arrival at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, after being driven there at high speed in a police car. The officers who transported him said life was probably already extinct before they got to the hospital and the Coroner later recorded that he had died in the house.
Nicky was badly injured and transferred from the same hospital to the specialist burns unit at Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield where he remained for around two months as an in-patient and many more months as an outpatient.
Their mother, Tracey, had decided to travel back early from Bristol and had called the house at 5am from Temple Meads railway station to let Debra know. By then, the cables in the house had melted and the call did not connect. She arrived in Haywood Avenue at around 10am to be greeted by the horror of her sister’s burned out property.
A police officer guarding the scene urged her to get back into the taxi and head for the hospital. Upon arrival, she was given the news about Joe and Nicky. Overwhelmed by grief, it was the start of a nightmare that still persists to this day. She will never recover from losing a child in such circumstances, or having her family attacked and seriously injured in that way. That goes without saying, of course.
A pain that never goes away
But, over the years, another pain has gnawed away at Tracey, and at Debra and the rest of their close-knit family and loyal friends, and now causes as much, if not even greater, hurt: After 24 years they still have no justice, or closure, from the nightmare. The killer (or killers) remain at large. Probably living in Huddersfield and known to the family.
Adding to the almost unbearable hurt is the overwhelming view that the various investigations, and cold case reviews, into the murder of Joe McCafferty, by West Yorkshire Police, have been characterised by what the family say is lack of a recognisable structure for an investigation of this seriousness and scale, misdirected focus, missed opportunities, and a notably bad attitude and almost complete lack of respect or sensitivity towards a bereaved family. Whom, for too long, they regarded as suspects rather than victims.
The history of the various police investigations and operations, latterly codenamed Platinum, will be analysed in considerable detail elsewhere on this website in a conjoined article published soon. As will be the track record of some of the detectives closely attached to them, in another article in the series. They will make grim reading – and there is little wonder the bereaved family has completely lost confidence in WYP.
A position that is, seemingly, irretrievable after the McCafferty family have battled a reluctant police force for over twenty years to provide updates, follow up leads or act on local intelligence on the murder of a 7 year old boy in the most horrific of circumstances. A mother, her lifelong and best friend, Marie Hawkins, an aunt and another loyal, resourceful family friend, Gail Morris, should not be being having to front the hunt for, not only those responsible for the beyond evil deed, but others who may be shielding him, her or them.
Not least, because of the danger posed to the campaigners by at least one killer still at large in the town. There are no stab vests, or PPE, issued to the McCafferty family, or a code zero call, with dogs, helicopters and carbine wielding AFOs rushing to the scene, if they face mortal danger in their search for the truth. But it is a risk they are prepared to take to find peace and, of course, justice for Joe.
But today, 30th October, 2021, would have been Joe’s 32nd birthday. In the prime of his life, a handsome, bright, characterful boy he would most likely have been married with his own children by now – and having a family tea party in the garden of his own home.
A renewed campaign for justice for Joe
The McCafferty family have decided to mark the occasion with the injection of new energy into what are the core causes in their campaigning:
The first priority, is persuading the appropriate authorities, either WYP Chief Constable, John Robins, or the newly appointed West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Alison Lowe, that the only way forward in the hunt for Joe’s killer is for WYP to hand over all the case files to one of the country’s six other metropolitan police forces, and preferably the Met itself, who can bring the necessary boots on the ground drive, and energy, to a refreshed investigation – and the required resourcefulness, experience and expertise to a re-constructed incident room.
With, as a must have, all the case files belatedly transferred onto the latest version of the renowned HOLMES database system (read more here), or similar document management system, and strict adherence to the College of Policing‘s Authorised Professional Practice (read here). Both these key features, on the evidence the family has seen, regrettably, still absent from the various WYP investigations. The last significant cold case review, which began in 2010 and, apparently, refreshed in 2014, was conducted from paper files.
In which, very significantly, at least one document was recovered that had not been acted on effectively, previously, and led to the arrest of two suspects in 2015. They were interviewed, bailed and then later released from the investigation without charge. To the McCafferty family, and campaigners, those persons arrested remain the prime suspects and are, very understandably, bitter and angry that the information thought so important in 2015 was not acted on in the ‘golden hours’ of the police investigation in early May, 1997.
The identity of the suspects was not given to Tracey McCafferty until 2017 and she still awaits a satisfactory answer from WYP as to why they were not arrested when the intelligence was given to them in May, 1997 when forensic and other investigative opportunities were still available.
Secondly, as a further priority, renewing public, political and media awareness of the case, ahead of what is very much hoped will be a re-purposed criminal investigation. Plans include a leaflet drop within a mile radius of the murder scene, peaceful demonstrations outside the offices of politicians and WYP HQ, slots on radio and television news, articles in print media regionally and nationally, live broadcasts on social media and an hour long documentary on network television.
A third priority, which overlays the other two, is continuing to grow the petition which calls on the Prime Minister and Home Secretary to persuade the appropriate authorities to do the right thing and bring in another police force to help catch those responsible for Joe’s murder (please sign the petition at this link). West Yorkshire Police have demonstrated, even very recently, that they have little enthusiasm for picking up what they now plainly regard as a ‘fish file’.
Wafting away the smell around previous failings appears, to the McCafferty family at least, too dominant in police thinking (read more here). It is also why they believe that WYP, and their State and political gatekeepers, will rail against another force being brought in. Hence the importance of signing and sharing the petition.
Appeal for information about the murder
If anyone has any information at all connected to the murder in 1997, or any other incidents of arson around that time in the Huddersfield area (the police report there were a number of them, including a burned out car on Haywood Avenue in December, 1996) then please contact either Crimestoppers or the present WYP Senior Investigating Officer, DCI Sharron Kaye, via 101 and quoting Occurrence 13100054076 or Operation Platinum, in complete confidence.
Even the smallest piece of information may be the missing piece in the jigsaw that will solve this murder, bring the perpetrators to justice and allow belated closure for a grieving family.
A bereaved mother’s plea to the powers that be
The closing words of this piece must go to Tracey McCafferty (pictured above holding the police poster circulated in 2006). She says, with feeling:
“Quite understandably, my family and those who have been with me on this long journey for justice for my son, have completely lost faith and trust in West Yorkshire Police.
“A very recent telephone conversation with the present SIO, Sharron Kaye, strongly confirmed that. Almost her first words to me were, ‘My head’s a shed’. Not unreasonably, I want clear thinking officers, with a developed strategy, hunting serious criminals. I also want detectives who will answer straightforward questions, that do not prejudice the investigation in any way. Sharron, regrettably, is not that officer. According to her own account, neither is the even more senior officer directing her.
“I asked the previous SIO, Nick Wallen, to leave my home over his crass, insensitive behaviour. His apparent attempts to seriously mislead, and harass me, will stain the WYP involvement in this case, in my mind, forever.
“Joe’s birthday is an appropriate starting point to get this investigation back on track, canvassing the appointment of officers from another police force who are genuinely committed to finding those responsible for his murder.
“My only request to them is, ‘go where the evidence takes you‘, regardless of the consequences for the reputation of WYP”.
Page last updated at 0001hrs on Saturday 30th October, 2021
Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.
Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.
Photo credit: Reach plc
© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.