Published: 06:00, 27 June 2020
| Updated: 06:41, 27 June 2020
The murder of a young woman found strangled in a park left a community shocked and her family devastated.
20 years after the man responsible was put behind bars, Gerry Warren remembers the "loving and devoted" mum and the painstaking investigation which brought her killer to justice...
As a woman walked her dog through a Canterbury park on a summer's day in 1999, she was stopped in her tracks by the most tragic of sights.
Because there in the undergrowth, just a few feet from the edge of the field, was the body of a young woman.
Police and forensic teams descended on the scene - typically a haven for picnic-goers and football-playing children - and St Stephen's park quickly became the centre of a murder investigation.
The victim was identified as 23-year-old Claire Streader - a young mum who had failed to return home from a night out in the city.
She had been found beaten, with her jumper pulled up around her neck and the arms used to strangle her.
Her death in such brutal circumstances, and with a sexual motive suspected, sparked alarm across the city, especially among young women.
Claire had an eight-year-old son and lived with her parents, Peter and Ann Streader, in Downs Road.
Mr Streader, who worked for BT, not only had the heartbreaking task of formally identifying her body but also telling their grandson that his mother was dead.
He then tearfully faced the media to help launch an appeal for information.
"The two worst things which ever happened to me in my life have happened over the last few days," he said, wiping his eyes with a tissue as he addressed the cameras.
"To have to go into a mortuary and identify your daughter's body and then go to tell my grandson his mum has died is terrible and no one else should have to do that."
Detectives quickly focused their attention on Claire's movements that night and who she had contact with.
They discovered she was out in the city when she bumped into taxi driver Merrick Rogers, who was celebrating on the eve of his 24th birthday.
A slightly-built young man, he had known Claire since primary school.
With Claire's boyfriend going off to meet work colleagues, she and Rogers enjoyed a drink at various pubs in the city.
Establishing Rogers was the last person to see Claire alive, police began to take an interest in his movements that night.
They checked out his account of events that evening in minute detail and cracks began to appear.
He had indeed met and drank with Claire in various pubs, as witnesses testified, but he claimed they had parted company outside the Seven Stars in Orange Street at about 10pm.
Claire wanted to go home because she had an early start in her job at a care home the following morning.
Detectives visited Rogers at his home in Forty Acres Road, Canterbury, the next day.
He told them he had offered to walk Claire home but claimed she declined and made her own way, leaving him to head for the Three Tuns pub in Watling Street for another drink.
But nobody had seen him in the Three Tuns and he could not be found on CCTV taking the route he claimed to have walked through the city centre.
Suspicions were further raised when police asked for the clothing he was wearing that night, including a distinctive red shirt, which witnesses said he had on.
He gave them a red shirt, but it was not the same one.
Rogers then claimed he had ripped the shirt he had been wearing by accident while putting it on and then thrown it away.
The cabbie was arrested on suspicion of murder on June 12, 1999 - 11 days after Claire's body was discovered.
Forensic scientists discovered a key piece of evidence in the case against Rogers.
Close examination of Claire's body had revealed saliva on her bra and breast which matched that of Rogers.
He could not explain how it had got there, telling detectives he only gave her a "peck on the cheek" as they parted company outside the Seven Stars.
Rogers was charged with Claire's murder on June 14, and his trial began in June the following year at Lewes Crown Court, where he denied killing her.
His family told the media they were shocked, insisting "he doesn't have a violent bone in his body".
Rogers, who lived with his parents in Forty Acres Road, told his father, Colin: "I didn't do it, dad. You have to believe me."
His supporters pointed to other recent attacks on young women in the city, which they said implicated another individual.
Many hours were spent examining how Rogers' saliva came to be found on her bra strap and breast, which the defence attempted to suggest could have passed through her jumper.
Damning CCTV evidence was also presented by the prosecution after detectives had pored over hours of footage to track the movements of Rogers.
Vitally, he could not be found on the camera of a high street shop covering the route he told officers he had taken to the Three Tuns.
After hearing three weeks of detailed evidence, the jury returned to the courtroom on June 29 - 20 years ago today - and delivered a unanimous guilty verdict.
Jailing Rogers for life with a 14-year minimum sentence, Judge Mr Justice Gage described him as "a dangerous young man" who had committed a "horrific crime".
"Having spent the evening with Claire, you took her to an isolated place and attacked her and strangled her with the sleeves of her jumper," he said. "It seems that the motive was a sexual one.
"Quite what it was that caused you, a man of good character from a respectable family, to behave in this way, only you know,"
In the years which followed, Rogers continued to deny his guilt and earned an appeal hearing in 2006, at which his defence barristers claimed the DNA evidence was weak and could be explained by "innocent secondary transfer".
It was suggested Claire may have touched her cheek after Rogers had kissed her and later adjusted her bra, accounting for his saliva being found there.
They also questioned the CCTV evidence and pointed to reports of a man not matching Rogers' description who was seen entering the park with Claire.
But the Appeal Court upheld the conviction, much to the Streader family's relief, although his minimum term was reduced to 12-and-a-half years.
Mr Streader said at the time: "I fear he [Rogers] will continue to be dangerous because he is deluding himself if he still believes he didn’t kill her.
"I have never doubted his guilt from the evidence I heard. As far as I’m concerned he’s evil.
"I dread the thought of him being out. It won’t be the first time the parole board has got it wrong."
Mr Streader believed the death of his wife Ann, at the age of 61 in 2008, was hastened by the distress of losing their daughter in such horrific circumstances.
He died himself in 2015, shortly before Rogers was released after 15 years behind bars.
The notorious killer was banned from revisiting Canterbury, but sparked anger by posting a picture on Facebook of himself grinning and holding two drinks.
The images were instantly recognisable, his face barely changed from the haunting mugshot of 20 years ago.
A tree and plaque now stand at the spot where Claire was strangled in a callous murder that shocked the city.
They were a source of comfort for her family, and on the 10th anniversary of Claire's death Mr Streader told KentOnline how he wanted Claire to always be remembered.
"You almost don't believe it's real at first, you somehow answer all the police's questions as if she's still there," he said.
"It still seems unreal. We have been living a nightmare when we had been looking forward to old age and retirement.
"After this, Ann didn't want to do anything anymore. She never went into town again, she hated Canterbury.
"We've been through the worst, but it never gets any better."
Poignantly, of the man who murdered his daughter, Mr Streader added: "I try not think about him. I try to remember Claire."
More by this authorGerry Warren
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