Grim discovery started global manhunt

WHEN the macabre discovery of blood and scalp tissue was made at the side of a Suffolk road in 2005, it sparked one of the most complex murder probes undertaken in the county.

WHEN the macabre discovery of blood and scalp tissue was made at the side of a Suffolk road in 2005, it sparked one of the most complex murder probes undertaken in the county.

The investigation into the brutal killing of Deborah Townsend took three years, two trials and a close collaboration with the Thai authorities before Christopher Caunter was finally brought to justice.

Crime reporter JOSH WARWICK examines how the case was cracked.

CHRISTOPHER Caunter's unenviable collection of previous convictions includes kidnap, serious assaults and road rage violence.

Today, the 18-stone company director can add murder to that list.

Caunter is beginning a life sentence after a jury decided he had deliberately and callously run over his partner Deborah Townsend, leaving her with appalling injuries from which she could never recover.

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The Suffolk horror story began on July 14, 2005.

When Caunter's failing business was raided by the Inland Revenue, he and Ms Townsend fled to Lowestoft, spending the evening drinking in the Norfolk Arms pub.

But before long, the couple - known for their fiery relationship - began to argue.

They abandoned plans to spend the night at a flat in Lowestoft and instead got into Caunter's rented Land Rover and embarked on the journey which would result in Ms Townsend's death.

At his trial, Caunter claimed 35-year-old Ms Townsend had leapt from the car as they travelled along the A146 at Beccles, falling to her death under the vehicle's wheels.

But detectives were certain Caunter had deliberately run his partner down, reversing over her head as she lay stricken in the road.

His actions after the incident appeared to be those of a guilty man.

Frantic phone calls to his brother, Robert, and friends, preceded the gathering of cash and the hasty purchase of a £3,000 ticket to Thailand from Paris.

Ms Townsend's partially clothed body was found on July 16, rolled up and dumped in the back of a car in Roxwell, Essex. In one last act of indignity, she had been hidden underneath clothing and a towel. Efforts had been made to clean the car.

While Caunter claimed a tragic accident had claimed his sweetheart, a Home Office post mortem examination found her injuries were not consistent with such an explanation.

Instead, medics quickly came to believe that Ms Townsend had been the victim of a gruesome murder.

DESPITE appeals to Caunter, communicated through his family and friends, the 36-year-old steadfastly refused to return to the UK to explain what had happened on that July evening.

So began the complicated legal process to obtain permission from the Thai authorities to ensure Caunter's extradition back to the UK.

Aided by a Crown Prosecution Service specialist lawyer, police obtained a magistrates' warrant by providing sufficient evidence to charge Caunter.

The full case was then outlined and put before a district judge and was then translated into Thai, ready to be handed over to the Attorney General's office.

In January 2006 the extradition papers were formally accepted but it was May 2006 before an arrest warrant and authorisation was granted so that British officers - Suffolk detectives - could assist in enquiries.

This gave them no legal powers but ensured officers could work with the Thai police to trace their man.

On 11 June, 2006 detective chief inspector Rick Munns and detective sergeant Trevor Prior flew to Thailand to start work.

The decision was taken to fly out during the World Cup, with detectives believing the football could draw Caunter out into the bars and pubs to watch the matches.

“I felt that the World Cup would represent a decent chance for us to track him down,” Dci Munns told The Evening Star.

“Brits abroad tend to club together in ex-pat communities and we felt that if the football was on, he would gravitate out to the bars.

“It was quite clear he was not going to come back voluntarily, so on that basis we had to try to go out there and find him.

“We knew from our enquiries that he had holidayed in Thailand a number of times before.

“It was feasible he had gone anywhere but working on the balance of probability we thought he would be in the areas he had previously visited.”

Dci Munns and Ds Prior spent nearly three weeks in Thailand in the resorts of Cha-Am and Hua Hin - and eventually their efforts reaped huge reward.

The police's World Cup hunch paid off when Caunter was sighted in a bar in Hua Hin. He was subsequently arrested by Thai police as he sat in his car at a garage forecourt.

“We realised the only way we would secure his arrest was to go out to Thailand and spend time with the Royal Thai Police,” said Dci Munns.

“We did everything we could to get them on board to help us find him - including giving a presentation in Thai to explain the case and to personalise Deborah and her family so they knew why it was important that we find him.”

After months of hard work, Caunter was brought back to the UK via the Metropolitan Police extradition unit in April 2007.

He was met by Suffolk police officers at Heathrow in the early hours of April 5 and immediately brought back to the county where he was charged with Deborah Townsend's murder and put before South East Suffolk Magistrates' Court on the same day.

Dci Munns said: “We knew he represented a serious danger.

“He had been engaged in violence over a considerable amount of time, some of which had resulted in criminal convictions.

“We were unable to speak to Caunter. We offered him the opportunity, but he did not want to engage with us.

“At the time of his arrest, he indicated he had not killed her and was not going to go to prison for something he had not done.”

However, the jury disagreed.

During the second trial, the court heard how Caunter, who stands 6ft 6ins and weighs 18 stone, had a temper like a “volcano exploding”.

Sentencing him to life in prison, with a minimum of 21 years to be served, Judge John Devaux said: “The evidence has shown that you have been violent in the past on a number of occasions and that you are a danger to others.”