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Julia James verdict: Callum Wheeler found guilty of PCSO's murder


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By Lydia Chantler-Hicks and Sean Axtell

A young man described as "a complete and utter loner" has been found guilty of murdering PCSO Julia James - as her family paid touching tribute to her outside court.

Callum Wheeler, 22, bludgeoned the mum-of-two to death while she walked her dog on a rural footpath near her home in the hamlet of Snowdown, between Canterbury and Dover, last April.

He had denied murder, but this afternoon a jury found him guilty following a trial at Canterbury Crown Court.

Wheeler refused to stand as the jury foreman delivered the verdict, but was picked up to his feet by officials.

Gasps were heard in the public gallery, where Julia's family were seen to comfort each other.

Sentencing was adjourned pending psychiatric reports, with the judge saying the hearing should be heard in Canterbury

Speaking on the steps of the court afterwards, Martin Yale, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "Julia was a loving mother, wife, colleague and friend.

"Her loss is greatly felt. Nothing can make up for what Callum Wheeler has done, but we hope today can bring some solace

"Callum Wheeler's actions before, during and after the attack left absolutely no room for doubt that he was the man responsible for Julia's death."

He added that Wheeler's actions were "cowardly and callous", and Julia "had the right to walk her dog and to enjoy freedoms without fear of violence".

Martin Yale, of the CPS, addressing the media outside of the court, with Julia's family behind Picture: Barry Goodwin
Martin Yale, of the CPS, addressing the media outside of the court, with Julia's family behind Picture: Barry Goodwin

Julia's husband Paul James also paid tribute to Julia on the steps of the court.

He said: "She just helped everybody and she just couldn't do enough.

"Julia was the funniest person I ever met. I can't explain how much I love her. You have to feel that - you can't explain it in words. She was just amazing- I'm so proud of her. I just hurt so much.

"She was so small but she was massive. She stood 10 foot tall."

He also spoke out about the verdict and said: "We got what we deserve today."

Julia's daughter Bethan added: "It's been surreal. It's been like an out of body experience sometimes.

"But we needed to see Callum Wheeler in that room and for him to be held accountable for what it is he's done."

Julia James' husband and family outside court Picture: Barry Goodwin
Julia James' husband and family outside court Picture: Barry Goodwin
Paul James Picture: Barry Goodwin
Paul James Picture: Barry Goodwin
Julia's daughter Bethan and son Patrick Picture: Barry Goodwin
Julia's daughter Bethan and son Patrick Picture: Barry Goodwin

The verdict brings to an end a murder case that began after the PCSO was found dead on a footpath about 400m from her home, on the afternoon of April 27 last year.

Wheeler, who was waiting in the woods, had "ambushed" and "chased down" Julia before hitting her "again and again and again" on the head using a metre-long handle of a railway jack- a tool used to lift pieces of railway track.

Following his arrest, while he was on remand in custody, Wheeler told police that if he was released he would go back to the woods to "rape and kill" women. He also said Julia had "deserved to die".

Police say no motive was established for the horrific and senseless crime, while describing Wheeler as "a complete and utter loner" who had no friends and spent the majority of his time watching TV in his bedroom.

His trial began last Monday and was initially expected to last four weeks, but has instead ended after just six days after Wheeler's defence decided to offer no evidence.

In the course of the hearing, presided over by judge Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb, harrowing details of the brutal murder emerged.

'Ambushed and chased down'

Julia had been walking her Jack Russell, Toby, in countryside near her home on the afternoon she died.

She had been to visit a spot in Ackholt Wood, known to her and her husband as the "butterfly place" due to its abundance of butterflies.

But as she turned back and headed home, she spotted Wheeler lurking in the woodland.

Prosecutor Alison Morgan QC told how Wheeler had been waiting "for Julia James or another vulnerable female" to "ambush".

Julia tried to flee, "desperate to get away from her attacker".

Julia James was found dead by woodland near her home in Snowdown on April 27 last year
Julia James was found dead by woodland near her home in Snowdown on April 27 last year

But unable to outrun him - hindered by the Wellington boots she was wearing - he caught up with her and struck her over the head.

"She fell to the ground, she broke her wrist, then when she was face down on the ground he struck her again and again and again," said Ms Morgan.

"She had no chance of survival."

Injuries 'completely unsurvivable'

Giving evidence at the trial, a pathologist described Julia's injuries as "the worst I have seen".

Dr Olaf Biedrzycki, who carried out her post-mortem, concluded Julia’s cause of death was blunt force trauma to the back of the head.

“She had catastrophic head and brain injuries, including numerous full thickness lacerations of the scalp,” he explained.

Julia James with her dog Toby, who she walking the day she was killed. Picture: Kent Police
Julia James with her dog Toby, who she walking the day she was killed. Picture: Kent Police

“(The weapon) must have been something heavy,” he went on

Dr Biedrzycki called Julia’s head injuries “very serious” and “completely unsurvivable”.

He added the severity of Julia’s brain injuries indicated there was “no doubt she was unconscious after the first blow”.

She suffered a fractured nose and left eye-socket, alongside numerous relatively minor facial injuries.

Dr Biedrzycki deemed all of those injuries were likely caused by being attacked from behind.

A fracture to Julia’s left wrist was caused by “falling onto an outstretched hand” to break a fall, he added.

When the judge Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubba asked how many blows Julia sustained, Dr Biedrzycki said: “It would be just a very rough estimate.

“It’s not one or two. Whether it’s eight, nine, 12, 15, 16 - I really don’t know.”

What happened next

Julia's body lay on a path beside Ackholt Wood for about an hour and a half before it was found by a family out for a walk.

They had discovered Toby wandering while still wearing a lead, before finding Julia and calling 999.

The court was played harrowing footage of the moment PCSO Emma Carmichael - the first officer on the scene - approached Julia's body.

As the officer touched her back, she could be heard saying: “Hello, can you hear me?”, while repeating “hello?”.

Julia James with her husband, Paul James
Julia James with her husband, Paul James

PCSO Carmichael could then be heard speaking on her police radio: “I don’t reckon this female is alive, but I don’t want to touch her any more, because I think this is suspicious.”

Huge police investigation

What followed was one of Kent Police's largest murder investigations to date.

About 1,100 police officers and members of staff were involved in the probe, which saw 5,000 residents spoken to and 20sq km of land scoured over 33 days.

Almost 7,000 hours of CCTV footage were viewed by police, as they tried to find Julia's killer.

More than 1,400 members of the public contacted police with information and officers carried out extensive fingertip searches in the fields near to where Julia lived.

Road checks where they stopped around 500 vehicles to seek information from occupants.

The photo that helped trace a killer

A huge breakthrough came in the form of a photo taken by a local gamekeeper the day after Julia's murder.

A clear image taken by Gavin Tucker the day after Julia's murder shows Wheeler in countryside between Aylesham and Snowdown, and led to Wheeler's identification. Picture: Kent Police
A clear image taken by Gavin Tucker the day after Julia's murder shows Wheeler in countryside between Aylesham and Snowdown, and led to Wheeler's identification. Picture: Kent Police

Gavin Tucker was "suspicious" when he spotted Wheeler - carrying a duffle bag containing what turned out to be the murder weapon, wrapped in carrier bags - on his land less than a mile from the murder scene.

It was not the first time he had seen him.

A previous encounter on his property in September 2020, seven months before Julia's death, had also left him uneasy.

"The way he came across to me...I just didn’t like the way it was," he told the court this week.

Dashcam footage of Mr Tucker's encounter with Wheeler on the afternoon of April 28 shows him challenging Wheeler.

Wheeler reportedly said he was “new to the area” before running off.

But not before Mr Tucker had taken a clear image of Wheeler, which he sent to police.

The image shows Wheeler carrying the murder weapon in a bag on his back, shrouded in a Tesco carrier bag.

Police initially released the image to other law enforcement in the hope of identifying him.

But on May 7, they released it via the press and within a matter of hours, Wheeler was identified by a member of the public and was arrested by police.

'No motive'

At a pre-trial press briefing, police told the media they had not established a motive for the senseless murder.

Wheeler had lived in Sunshine Corner Avenue in Aylesham with his father and one of his two brothers for about two years prior to the shocking crime.

He had previously lived in south-east London, and his mother, who is separated from his father, still lives in the capital.

Police described Wheeler as "a complete and utter loner" with a history of mental illness, but were not able to establish a motive for Julia's murder.

Det Supt Moss said: "To be honest, I really don't know why he did it."

During the trial, the court heard there were “no signs of sustained or violent sexual assault” on the mother-of-two.

Julia James with her son, Patrick, and daughter, Bethan, on the day she married her husband Paul James
Julia James with her son, Patrick, and daughter, Bethan, on the day she married her husband Paul James

But prosecutor Alison Morgan QC added: “The lack of such injuries would not necessarily rule that out.”

Wheeler’s DNA was found on Julia’s clothing such as her coat and Wellington boots - and on a white vest top she was wearing beneath two layers of clothing, said the prosecution.

Ms Morgan told the jury they must consider how the DNA came to be on her vest top, “underneath her grey jumper, underneath her blue coat” - and “what the defendant must have done, must have touched, for it to be there”.

Final movements tracked by smartwatch

An Apple watch worn by Julia the afternoon she died revealed valuable information about the moments leading up to her death.

Data extracted by police showed the route she had taken from her home, through her back garden gate, around a field and to "the butterfly spot" in Ackholt Wood.

The data shows she stopped there - likely to admire the butterflies as she often did - before turning back.

But moments later she pauses, where it is thought she spotted Wheeler in the woods.

Data taken from Julia's Apple watch revealed the exact route she walked on the afternoon of her death. Picture: Kent Police
Data taken from Julia's Apple watch revealed the exact route she walked on the afternoon of her death. Picture: Kent Police

Det Supt Moss said: "Her heart rate and pulse increases at the point when she spots Callum Wheeler."

"She's seen Callum Wheeler, and rather than go back the way she came [through Ackholt Wood] she's come through the field instead, to avoid him, or because she's got a better chance of being seen by other people in the field than in the woods."

Julia had seen killer before

Julia had encountered Wheeler in the vicinity of Ackholt Wood in the months before she was killed.

“Julia James was herself aware of the presence of a strange male in the area of Ackholt Wood,” the prosecutor told the jury.

“She commented to her husband that she had passed someone she described as ‘a really weird dude’ on the Ackholt Wood bridle path."

Julia with her dog, Toby
Julia with her dog, Toby

Julia’s husband, Paul James, was walking with her in February 2021 - two months before her death - when she pointed the man out to him.

This encounter took place “just metres away from where Julia would be killed”, Ms Morgan told the court.

After Julia’s death, Paul helped police put together an e-fit of the male walker, which bore “a striking similarity” to Wheeler.

Mr James later identified Wheeler in an identity parade as the man they had seen.

Wheeler seen carrying murder weapon

Wheeler was spotted roaming the Aylesham area carrying the murder weapon in the days before and after the killing.

The jury heard that on April 26 - the day before Julia’s death - a witness saw Wheeler walking in Spinney Lane, carrying a bag with a long, red object protruding from one end of it.

“If that is correct it means the defendant was roaming around this area armed with that metal bar 24 hours before he came to attack Julia James,” said Ms Morgan.

On the day after Julia’s death, Wheeler “went out again, carrying the weapon he had used to murder her”, covered in a Tesco carrier bag.

“Why he did that is known only to him,” said Ms Morgan.

“It could be that he was goading the police that were in the vicinity, or it could be that he was looking for somewhere to dispose of the weapon.”

A CCTV image showing Wheeler in Roger's Close, not far from his home, carrying the murder weapon. Picture: Kent Police
A CCTV image showing Wheeler in Roger's Close, not far from his home, carrying the murder weapon. Picture: Kent Police

Ms Morgan says that in the days after the tragedy, Wheeler “continued to tour around the area, sometimes carrying his bag, sometimes carrying his murder weapon”.

She told the jury he was out “playing games... running around trying to avoid police officers... running in and out of hedges, and into wooded areas”, and “kept a check on the police cordon”.

On April 30 - three days after Julia’s death - two witnesses reported seeing a man “looking weird”, standing in Spinney Lane and watching police as they guarded the crime scene.

Wheeler is also said to have been out carrying the murder weapon again on May 4 - a full week after Julia’s death.

Wheeler's arrest

When police arrived at Wheeler's home, he had barricaded himself inside his bedroom and a "loud banging" was emanating from inside.

Callum Wheeler, pictured during his arrest. Picture: Kent Police
Callum Wheeler, pictured during his arrest. Picture: Kent Police

Bodyworn police footage played to jurors showed the dramatic moment officers burst into Wheeler's bedroom and arrested him, with the jack handle visibly propped against the bedroom wall.

PC Ben Redpath told the jury: "There was some banging coming from inside the bedroom - it was very loud, very aggressive."

Wheeler protested his innocence and made death threats towards the police.

As he was booked into custody at Maidstone Police Station he said: "Sometimes I do things I cannot control," PC Redpath told jurors.

The murder weapon and forensic evidence

Officers seized the suspected murder weapon from Wheeler's home, along with items including clothing, a black-and-blue duffle bag, and a laptop.

The murder weapon. Picture: Kent Police
The murder weapon. Picture: Kent Police

The murder weapon - the long handle of a jack used to lift sections of railway - weighs almost half-a-stone and measures almost a metre in length.

It was found with Wheeler's skin cells and Julia's blood on it.

Wheeler's skin cells were also found on Julia's top and one of her Wellington boots, while Julia's blood was also found on both of his trainers.

Crime scene investigators remove items including a laptop and what is thought to be the murder weapon from Wheeler's home in Sunshine Corner Avenue, Aylesham. Picture: UKNIP
Crime scene investigators remove items including a laptop and what is thought to be the murder weapon from Wheeler's home in Sunshine Corner Avenue, Aylesham. Picture: UKNIP

'Julia was deeply loved'

Some of Kent Police's leading officers have paid tribute to Julia and spoken of the impact her murder has had upon the force.

Deputy Chief Constable Tim Smith said: "This case is obviously extremely poignant for us.

"The impact on the force has been far more profound, I'd suggest, than perhaps any other murder cause we've had in the county because of that deep connection.

"She was very deeply loved. She was very well known by staff, including myself - I'd met Julia on a number of occasions.

"There's a very personal impact on us as a force. We miss her greatly."

Assistant Chief Constable Tom Richards talks to the media in Aylesham in the days following Julia's murder. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Assistant Chief Constable Tom Richards talks to the media in Aylesham in the days following Julia's murder. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Assistant Chief Constable Tom Richards described Julia as "a dedicated PCSO who devoted many years to supporting the people of Kent".

Having joined in 2008, she first worked in Ashford before moving to cover the Canterbury area.

"She helped so many communities in Kent to flourish," ACC Richard added.

"Julia provided safeguarding and support to some of the most vulnerable victims and witnesses of domestic abuse.

"She really cared. She cared for her community, she cared for the people she served."

Speaking after the verdict Kent Police Chief Constable Alan Pughsley said: "Julia James was much loved by all who knew her, and our thoughts and deepest sympathies remain with those she left behind.

"We are extremely grateful to all those people who provided us with information and offered to look after our teams as they embedded themselves into the community for many months. It has been an unsettling time for everyone but made easier by the kindness and hospitality of Aylesham residents who were an incredible source of strength to us all and showed clear admiration for Julia.

"We may never know why Callum Wheeler went out and committed such a reprehensible crime that day but I hope that Julia’s family can take some comfort that he has been found responsible. Whilst I am pleased with this result and the relentless efforts of officers who worked day and night to ensure justice for Julia’s family, it is impossible not to also be overwhelmed with sadness.

"Our officers commit to giving every aspect of their lives in the defence of others, particularly the vulnerable, but to lose someone in this way has had such a big impact on the policing family.

"Julia will not be forgotten by her friends in this force and I have created an annual award in her name for the Police Community Support Officer of the Year."

Detective Superintendent Gavin Moss added: "We left no stone unturned to collect the evidence we needed that led us to Wheeler. Our presence in the area was supported by the community whose help was paramount.

"This was a very challenging investigation from the outset as it was such a rural location with no CCTV anywhere near the crime scene and a limited number of leads. It required a mix of expertise within the force and from other parts of the country. Specialist officers searched a vast amount of land and my teams were working around the clock to harvest all the evidence available.

"Information from the public was without doubt the key to being able to identify Wheeler, which ultimately led us to the DNA evidence that ensured his conviction. The passion and determination from all those involved in this investigation, to seek justice for Julia’s family was very evident from the outset. I am immensely proud of everyone who was involved.

"I hope that Julia’s family can now rest a little easier knowing that Wheeler has been convicted."

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