Media Review - Birmingham Live article on Bella in the Wych Elm (2018)

It would appear that Alex Merrill's new book and the facial reconstruction he has commissioned has sparked some interest in the case. I was reading a Birmingham Live article (author Mike Lockley) that came out today. It is so full of errors, I can't even begin to touch on all of them. They do, however, use the facial reconstruction image which is interesting given it is copyrighted by Alex Merrill.

I am presenting the text of the Birmingham Live article here with red highlighted comments to indicate the most glaring inaccuracies and wild suppositions...

In a nutshell, this article is simply one more piece that presents suppositions, theories, rumours and inaccuracies without any substantiating evidence.

Revealed after 75 years: The face of Bella in the Wych Elm
Face of a woman whose ritualistic killing sparked one of Britain’s greatest murder mysteries
[ritualistic killing?]

This is the face of Bella in the Wych Elm, a woman whose ritualistic killing sparked one of Britain’s greatest murder mysteries. [ritualistic killing? Proof please.]

She was victim of a tangled wartime web of espionage and black magic some 75 years ago. [these are just theories - there is nothing concrete]

Bella, whose skull was found wedged in a tree’s hollow near Hagley, in Worcestershire, has never been identified. [not just her skull, also her skeleton - not wedged]

The killer who ritualistically maimed the body – a piece of taffeta cloth was forced in Bella’s mouth, one hand was severed – has never been brought to justice. [ritualistically maimed? no evidence for this]

That may change after Caroline Wilkinson, the expert tasked with rebuilding Richard III’s face after the royal’s remains were found under a Leicester car park, recreated Bella’s features. [at the request of Alex Merrill who published the copyrighted image in his book]

The professor of craniofacial identification at Dundee University used photographs taken at the time to put a face to the name.

She could not use the actual skull, discovered by four young schoolboys collecting birds eggs in thick woodland – and there’s a reason.

That crucial piece of evidence has been lost by police, Birmingham councillor Peter Douglas Osborn, an expert on the Bella case, says.

That has been confirmed by West Midlands Police, where a spokesperson said: “Searches have been conducted by the Police Museum volunteers and they have confirmed that we hold no exhibits, and can find no documentation, that may relate to this case at either of the West Midlands Police Museums

“Additionally, searches were carried out by our Force Records team, who have confirmed that there is no relevant documentation held with the major investigation team or in external storage.”

The skull dates back to a time when Hagley fell within the West Midlands police boundary, she explained.

That has not been the case for many years.

It had been housed at a Birmingham forensics lab, then moved to the police city base, Tally Ho, on the Pershore Road. [Other sources say it was transferred to the Birmingham University medical department]

The skull’s whereabouts are not now known, a spokesperson admitted.

The striking image of Bella, suspected of being a Nazi spy, will feature in a new book, Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?, written by Peter Simmell. [No... the author is Alex Merrill, with his father Peter Merrill]

Birmingham councillor Osborn, who has a keen interest in this country’s most baffling crime, hopes it will at last provide answers.

His late father, Squadron Leader William Douglas Osborn, was tasked with guarding the murder scene on the southern edge of the Black Country when the remains were found on April 18, 1943. [news to me]

“I believe she was killed before 1941,” says Peter. “The reconstruction is impressive. Now it’s a question of asking members of the public to thumb through family albums.

“Anyone who had direct contact with her is probably dead.”

The strange case is the stuff of popular rural sleuth TV series, Midsomer Murders.

And the mystery has endured because of sporadic outbreaks of graffiti in the area, the first appearing six months after the body was found.

Each scrawled message asks the same question: “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?” The tags still occasionally appear today. [No, the early messages were different]

But the more pertinent question is, who was Bella?

Painstaking detective and forensic work revealed the victim was aged around 35 to 40 and had given birth to a child. [Likely aged 30-40 although Alex Merrill, in his book, calls this into question.]

The body had rotted in the woodland for at least 18 months.

The murder was ritualistic and had all the hallmarks of a Satanic ceremony. [Some have linked it to witchcraft, but I'm not sure that is syonymous with Satanism.]

The crime scene mirrored an ancient ceremony known as “Hand of Glory” where bones are scattered to the wind. [This is inaccurate.]

A hand had been severed, a wad of taffeta wedged in the victim’s mouth. [Alex's book debunks the taffeta theory. There was also no forensic evidence of a hand having been severed. Most of the bones from both hands were simply not recovered at the scene.]

One of her arms had been left 13 paces from the skeletal remains – an ancient custom used when a witch was executed. [Source for this? There is nothing in the police files that supports this.]

The choice of tree was also significant. Wych elm plays an important part in the black arts. [Source please?]

Add to the mix the fact that belladonna is the ancient name for deadly nightshade, a plant closely associated with witchcraft. So, too, was the murder scene, Hagley Wood. [Source please?]

The occult theory was cranked up following the murder of Charles Walton in February 1945, on nearby Meon Hill.

He was found skewered to the ground by a pitchfork, and Satanism was suspected by some. Locals remained tight-lipped when approached by the police. [The landowner was the prime suspect.]

Peter believes the Devil worship theories are a smokescreen spawned by MI5, and describes those 13 paces as “convenient”. [Speechless. Absolutely speechless.]

Bella was a Nazi spy, he believes. She was based in the Clent Hills area, an ideal place to monitor the munitions factories studded around the Black Country and Birmingham. [Belief is one thing. Proof is an entirely different thing.]

Others believe she was slain after tripping upon a Third Reich “cell”. [Given that all Nazi and fascist sympathizers were rounded up in 1939/1940... one would wonder who would have populated such a "cell"?]

“I believe the spy story,” Peter says, “but it is circumstantial evidence, there is no proof as such.” [Ah well, that's good then... besides, who needs proof.]

The graffiti is another red herring. “The initial ones may have been done by an ex-lover, attempting to get the case reopened,” he says. “The rest have been copy-cats.” [??? Proof???]

Was body in the tree missing German actress and spy lover?
One name for the victim – dubbed Bella because of the graffiti – has been put forward.

It has been claimed that Czech-born Gestapo agent Josef Jakobs, captured by the Home Guard in 1941 after parachuting into Cambridgeshire, gave interrogators her name and picture. [NOT Czech born!]

She was the spy’s lover, Clara Bauerle, a German actress and cabaret singer.

Before the war, she spent two years working West Midlands music halls, and had mastered a Brummie accent. [This is a far-fetched Donald McCormick rumour being mixed with Clara Bauerle. There is absolutely NO evidence for this.]

Clara had been recruited by the Gestapo and, with Jakobs, was given the job of creating a spy cell over here. [No... the Gestapo were not involved in espionage. The German Abwehr (German Intelligence Service or Secret Service) was responsible for sending spies to England. No evidence that they were tasked with creating a spy cell.]

The pair never made contact.

Intriguingly, no showbiz record of Clara – no films, billboards or record of engagements – exists after spring 1941. [I would actually like to see the billboards and record of engagements prior to the spring of 1941... I'm not aware of any, so this would help my research. As for post-1941... she died December 16, 1942 in Berlin.]

She simply disappeared off the face of the earth. [Well yes... because she was buried in the earth.]

Jakobs was in no position to add to his claims. He was executed by firing squad on August 15, 1941 – the last man to be put to death at the Tower of London. The sentence was preceded by an MI5 tongue-lashing for the Dad’s Army members who captured Jakobs.

The world and his wife knew of his arrest “on account of the inability of the Home Guard to keep their mouths shut”, the spooks said.

At present, Jakobs “confession” is simply one of a string of theories, some credible, some simply incredible. [Very true... read the preceding bits of this newspaper article for some of these incredible theories.]

School lads who found body... and left cops stumped
Police have in the past dismissed any talk of Satanism, and publicly stated the position of scattered bones suggested they had been displaced by wild animals. [And some of the bones were gnawed on... presumably by animals but... wait... maybe some will claim that it was cannibals at the Satanic ritual chewing on Bella's bones?]

They concentrated on claims that Bella was a prostitute, slaughtered by a twisted punter. [They also looked at the idea that she was a gypsy or a missing woman. The prostitute angle was pretty minor.]

There is one thing beyond argument. Detectives attempting to solve the crime hit a wall of silence. [Really? Define "wall of silence".]

The murder was uncovered by Fred Payne, Tommy Willetts, Robert Hart and Bob Farmer, young boys who ventured into the coppice in search of bird eggs.

The vision of what they found would stay with them for a lifetime.

Bob scrambled up an old wych elm tree and let out a piercing scream. There, wedged in a hollow, was a skull. [First I've heard of a piercing scream.]

He would later recall: “There was a small patch of rotting flesh on the forehead, with lank hair attached to it. The two front teeth were crooked.”

It would be some time before the boys, fearing they would land in hot water for trespassing, raised the alarm. [Within 24 hours...]

After all, they were unsure the remains were even human. [I believe they knew that when they left the tree.]

In the end, it was the youngest of the egg collectors, Tommy Willetts, who informed his father about what lurked in the woods.

Police immediately swooped on the dark, eerie parcel of land. What they discovered sent a chill down the spine of hardened detectives.

Pathologist Professor James Webster left no stone unturned in his bid to identify the body.

He found out the corpse was still warm when placed in the tree. Bella had died from asphyxiation, caused by the plug of taffeta. [He only said that rigor mortis had either not set in yet, or that she had been placed in the tree after rigor mortis had dissipated. See note above regarding the taffeta theory.]

Detectives scoured national dental records and every missing person file, but drew a blank.

Now, at last, they have something to work on.

Peter Douglas Osborn believes the image on this page will finally provide the answers that have eluded police for decades. [Maybe... but even Alex Merrill has admitted that a reconstruction is not 100% accurate. Perhaps one of the reasons why the police hadn't commissioned one. Even Webster had considered one back in the 1940s but felt it would narrow the scope of the investigation too much.]


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