Two weeks ago, Kira and Sam Mandon-Jones walked their rescue dog, Mocha, through fields to Akholt Wood near their home in the Kent village of Aylesham. “And we said: ‘This is such a lovely route. We’ll do it every week.’ But not now,” said Kira, 29.
Two days after their Sunday stroll, the body of Julia James, 53, was found with “significant head injuries” at 4pm on Tuesday 27 April on the edge of that same wood. The police community support officer was walking her jack russell, Toby, a few hundred yards from her home in the hamlet of Snowdown.
With still no arrest, no weapon and no motive, a £10,000 Crimestoppers reward is offered for anonymous information in this horrific and hugely baffling case.
In Aylesham and nearby Snowdown, on the east Kent Miner’s Way trail linking old coalfield parishes, the police presence remains heavy, as does the mood in the close-knit community.
Surrounded by lush fields, peppered with copses, this is a perfect place for dog owners, of which there are many. But women are now reluctant to walk their pets alone, while the local running club is advising its female members to run in pairs.
“I used to go up to the fields. But, the proximity [of the murder] has been scary,” said Kira, a graphic designer. The fact police cannot rule out stranger murder, and media reports of a “killer still at large”, have left her and her husband deeply uneasy. “There’s this kind of feeling that it could be anyone you know,” said Sam, 31, a business analyst.
At the Miners’ Memorial in Aylesham’s Market Place, floral tributes are piled high to the wife, mother, daughter, friend, neighbour and dedicated PCSO who was a “pillar of the community”. “She was just walking her dog,” laments one. “Why?” reads another.
“The flowers are growing. Every single day there are more and more of them,” said Annette Duncombe, 63, who, with her husband, Paul, 66, retired to Aylesham three years ago. “It’s a lovely little place, but this has really rocked the community.”
Annette no longer walks their border terrier, Sidney, alone. “I don’t want to go out on my own, and I definitely wouldn’t go over the fields. She was just like me, walking her dog,” she said. Her husband added: “You’re looking at everybody. It’s changed the way you feel. It’s not nice.”
Kent police, a force “in deep shock” at the murder of one of their own, admits this is a “hugely challenging case”. Its most experienced investigators are leading a team of hundreds, combing fields and hedgerows, searching the disused Snowdown Colliery site, conducting door-to-door inquiries and stopping more than 400 motorists in their search for clues and potential witnesses. Kent police’s chief constable, Alan Pughsley, said on Friday he had called on other forces to help with the inquiry, as he urged the killer to give themselves up.
James, who has a son and a daughter, Bethan Coles, a serving Kent police officer, regularly walked the route from her home. The PCSO, whose work included helping victims of domestic abuse, was not on duty or in uniform when she died.
Hundreds have posted tributes and condolences on Facebook sites used by family members to publicise the hunt for her killer. Some have compared media coverage unfavourably with the frenzy of headlines and the high-profile vigil after the kidnapping and killing of Sarah Everard, 33, whose body was found near Ashford in Kent, in March. The Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens has been charged with her murder.
“Where are the vigils and protests about her [James’] murder?” one of James’ cousins posted in the early days of the police investigation.
Kira Mandon-Jones, who followed the Everard case closely, said: “Some have said it’s because she was a police officer, others because she’s in her 50s. But I think it’s probably more the fact Sarah Everard was missing for so long, and the publicity was to help find her.”
James’s daughter requested that, rather than gathering for a vigil, people lit candles and placed them on their doorstep in memory of her mother last Tuesday, marking one week since her murder.
Police have cautioned residents to be vigilant, to always carry a phone, and let others know of their movement as the inquiry is ongoing.
Elina Petrusevica, 31, an admin worker, said before the murder, she had already feared walking alone because of a spate of dognapping incidents in the area. The women in her running club now always run with others, and she walks her chocolate labrador, Oakley, in populated places unless she is with her partner.
“If I am on my own, I stay in the village. I will not go out into the countryside,” she said, adding she had an installed an alarm app on her phone. “I treat everybody as a potential threat now. If I don’t know you, go away,” she added. “It’s a shame.”
Anyone with information can contact Crimestoppers anonymously on freephone 0800 555 111 or via its website.