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Ipswich mum’s brutal death has haunted family and detectives for last 25 years

PUBLISHED: 05:30 21 November 2018 | UPDATED: 11:50 21 November 2018

Karen's mother Geraldine and sister Angie speaking on the 25th anniversary of her death  Picture: RACHEL EDGE

Karen's mother Geraldine and sister Angie speaking on the 25th anniversary of her death Picture: RACHEL EDGE

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The family of a brutally murdered Ipswich woman have made an impassioned plea for help in finally bringing her killer to justice, 25 years on.

Karen Hales' home in Lavenham RoadKaren Hales' home in Lavenham Road

Karen Hales was 21 when stabbed to death in front of her 18-month-old daughter, Emily, and set on fire at her home in Lavenham Road on November 21, 1993.

Her long-term partner, Peter Ruffles, had left the couple’s home to go to work at 3.50pm.

Shortly before 4.40pm, Karen’s parents, Graham and Geraldine, called at the house and found the front door unlocked. They entered to be confronted by the smell of smoke, before Mr Hales discovered his daughter’s body in the kitchen.

Mrs Hales, who is registered blind, was spared having to see her daughter’s remains.

Karen Hales was murdered at her Lavenham Road home in IpswichKaren Hales was murdered at her Lavenham Road home in Ipswich

Despite a manhunt, national media attention, and a £50,000 reward, the shop assistant’s killer has never been caught.

A team of detectives collected more than 600 witness statements but would eventually come away empty-handed. Two people were arrested and released without charge; an E-fit of the killer was released, but no motive for the killing was ever established.

Karen Hales' murder remains unsolved in 25 yearsKaren Hales' murder remains unsolved in 25 years

With no sign of forced entry, police believed Karen opened her door and was, therefore, likely to have known her killer. There was heavy snow on the ground at the time, but no footprints leaving the rear of the property. Two kitchen knives were missing from the house, but have never been found. Nor has Karen’s purse, which contained a small amount.

Advances in DNA analysis are unlikely to move the case on as most evidence was destroyed when Karen’s body was set alight. But detectives and Karen’s family still have hope of a breakthrough.

The Karen Hales murder case was one of the biggest in the history of Suffolk ConstabularyThe Karen Hales murder case was one of the biggest in the history of Suffolk Constabulary

With Karen’s sister by her side, Mrs Hales, now 73, and still living in Barham, where the girls grew up, said: “We are tormented by not knowing why this happened. It’s on our minds all the time.

“If anything good came out of that horrible day, it’s that we saved Emily. Had we not got there when we did, she wouldn’t be here today.

“Her dad, in particular, is tormented by what Karen’s body looked like. He has flashbacks even after 25 years.”

Police have never been able to trace a man seen in an alleyway between Lavenham Road and London Road, wearing a blue parka coat with a fur-lined hood, around the time of the murder.

Karen Hales with her daughter, EmilyKaren Hales with her daughter, Emily

Karen was careful about allowing people in her home, and would have been more cautious after a scare the night before she was killed, when someone turned the handle of her front door.

Psychologists suggested Karen knew her killer and invited them into the house. It may have been an acquaintance from work or her personal life, they said.

Although a motive remains unclear, criminal profilers thought the scene was consistent with a sudden assault, motivated by anger, due to the weapon being a knife from Karen’s kitchen and the fire being started with materials in her home.

Detective Superintendent Andy Smith has been leading the investigation for several years.

Karen Hales' sister Angela and Peter Ruffles, Karen's boyfriend, at a press conference in November 1993Karen Hales' sister Angela and Peter Ruffles, Karen's boyfriend, at a press conference in November 1993

He said: “It’s hard to find words that truly reflect the horror of this crime – a 21-year-old woman with her whole life ahead of her, stabbed multiple times, set on fire and left alone with Emily.

“We are massively disappointed to have not brought the person or persons responsible for this to justice – but we haven’t, and will never leave this case alone.

Two knives similar to those used in the murder of Karen HalesTwo knives similar to those used in the murder of Karen Hales

“There are several hypotheses; a burglary gone wrong, someone with mental health issues, someone who knew Karen.

“We’re keen to make sure we’ve spoken to everyone who knew Karen or had some form of interaction with her in the preceding days and months.

“We want to make sure a message goes out for people to reflect on what they have already told us. They may still have the golden nugget of information.

“I also appeal to people who may know the person responsible; may have direct knowledge of the events or an individual behaving out of character.”

Ipswich murder victim Karen HalesIpswich murder victim Karen Hales

Karen’s daughter, Emily, now 26 and a mother of her own baby son, only learned the basic details of what happened when she was approaching the end of primary school. She recalls nothing of her mother’s murder but has since come to knows her as a “bubbly, happy young woman, full of life”.

In a written statement, Karen’s partner, Peter, said: “I think of how different things would be if Karen was still here, seeing Emily grow up, and also her grandson.

Karen Hales' headstone  Picture: LUCY TAYLORKaren Hales' headstone Picture: LUCY TAYLOR

“Emily misses her mum enormously and it is such a shame that this has happened. I hope that if anyone knows anything, however small it may seem, they will contact police and help catch whoever is responsible for this.”

•In 1994, the BBC’s Crimewatch programme broadcast a reconstruction of Karen’s death.

Karen with her boyfriend Peter RufflesKaren with her boyfriend Peter Ruffles

In November 2005, an Ipswich Star-backed consortium offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of Karen’s killer.

But the appeal proved unsuccessful as no one came forward to provide crucial information and claim the reward, financially backed by Suffolk police, Ipswich businessman Roy Sallows, Call Connection, Ipswich Borough Council, AXA, the Elizabeth hotels, the Ipswich Partnership, SnOasis and the Galley restaurants.

An identical purse to that belonging to KarenAn identical purse to that belonging to Karen

DS Roy Lambert, leading the investigation at the time, said police had received about 30 calls following the launch of the reward, but most had revealed information already known to the force.

DS Andy Henwood took over the case in April 2007 following the retirement of DS Lambert. DS Smith now leads the case.

Anyone who believes they may have information which could assist with the investigation should contact the joint Norfolk and Suffolk major crime review team on 01953 423819, email unsolvedcasereviews@norfolk.pnn.police.uk or upload information via the digital portal at mipp.police.uk/operation/3637020114K39-PO1.

Alternatively you can call the charity Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.

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