Murdered in cold blood: Preston's Judge William Openshaw was killed by a man he sent to prison

Judge William Openshaw
Judge William Openshaw
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As a family home where one of Lancashire most notorious murders was carried out is transformed into a housing development, Nicola Adam looks back at the brutal killing of Judge William Openshaw in May 1981 at his Broughton home

Judge William Harrison Openshaw was a rarity - a senior circuit judge who never lost the common touch.

There are plans to build at the site where Judge Openshaw was murdered

There are plans to build at the site where Judge Openshaw was murdered

Born in Southport, he was a major in the King’s Own Border Regiment during the Second World War, seeing action in North Africa and with the famous Chindits in Burma. He returned to the northern courts circuit as a forthright barrister, becoming chairman of the county’s Quarter Sessions in 1958.

Reluctant to appear standoffish or superior, the 6ft 6ins tall gentle giant’ refused to listen to those who thought it wrong for a judge well known to the criminal classes to have a home telephone that was not ex-directory.

He chose no hiding place - he had nothing to hide - but elected to have his name and address in the telephone book for all to see.

Known to friends as Bill, he was liked and respected as being humorous and understanding but, in court, Judge Openshaw was not a man to cross. His brand of justice was considered fair and dignified to those on the wrong side of the law.

John Smith murdered Judge William Openshaw

John Smith murdered Judge William Openshaw

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The son of former senior Preston judge Sir James Openshaw, he took a stance against violence, particularly muggings, assaults on police and any attacks where weapons were used.

But as Judge Openshaw maintained his high-flying career, another man was plotting his downfall.

From the moment Judge Openshaw sent John Smith to borstal in 1968, he started to develop a warped obsession that he was being persecuted by police and the courts.

To those who knew him, Smith was a loner. He could not mix easily without drink and had no real friends outside his sister’s family. He would spend hours walking alone across the fields around his home village, obsessing and plotting.

Forensics officers at scene of Judge Openshaw's murder

Forensics officers at scene of Judge Openshaw's murder

In fact Smith had murder in mind.

His warped ambition? To be Britain’s most notorious assassin.

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Hidden beneath the floorboards of a Burnley house was a document which would leave top legal, government and police bosses reeling.

It was a hit list and the names on his chilling catalogue of execution targets were all top lawmen. But of all those he grew to hate, it was the one who put him behind bars in the first place who topped the list - William Openshaw.

Forensics officers at scene of Judge Openshaw's murder

Forensics officers at scene of Judge Openshaw's murder

Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back.

On May 11, 1981, Smith heard that his nephew had been sent to borstal for burglary.

His sister Brenda said: “John came home, asked how Wayne had gone on and then said, Oh well, I suppose he’ll learn the hard way.’

“Then he went out again. He just said, See you Bren’ and that was the last I saw of him.”

Hours later Smith boarded a train to Preston. He was seen later that day waving his arms and screaming obscenities outside the town’s crown court.

The next day all hell broke loose.

Stabbed to death’ screamed the headline in the Lancashire Evening Post on May 12.

It read, “A murder hunt was launched today after Lancashire Judge William Openshaw was stabbed to death at his Preston home.

“It is thought the 68-year-old crown court judge grappled with an intruder in the driveway of his home Park House, in Garstang Road, Broughton.”

Preston was in shock. The eminent judge had been found severely bleeding by his wife Joyce. By the time the ambulance arrived it was too late to save him.

Police initially thought Judge Openshaw had disturbed a man trying to steal his car.

His large and leafy home, set back from the road and screened by trees was sealed off by officers. It was set directly opposite Broughton Police Station and officers guarded the entrance to the house’s long drive.

As the community reacted with horror, Mrs Openshaw was telling police how she came face-to-face with her husband’s killer.

She had explained that her husband had gone into the garage and minutes later she heard a voice.

Rushing in, she saw a man in the driving seat of her husband’s green Ford Escort and became alarmed when she couldn’t see her husband. She phoned police then returned to the garage where she saw her husband lying on the ground, covered in blood.

She described her husband’s killer as having a dark complexion, as being aged 20 to 40, with reasonably well-trimmed dark hair.

As Mrs Openshaw relived the terrible last moments of her husband’s life, his colleagues mourned a dear friend.

As a mark of respect the courts were closed. Judge Openshaw had been mid-way through a trial at the Sessions House on the day of his death.

But while townsfolk were stunned the police were on the trail of a killer and there was an early breakthrough.

The news that a Lancashire man was being held in connection with the murder spread like wildfire throughout Preston.

It was John Smith. But he wasn’t in Preston - rather mysteriously he was in Scotland.

In fact Smith, of Worsthorne, near Burnley, was being held by police north of the border.

But he had not been arrested or charged in connection with the murder.

Up in Scotland, Smith appeared before court in Jedburgh charged with abduction, theft, assault and robbery.

A day later he was back before the courts appearing during a 12 minute hearing back in Preston to face a murder charge.

As Smith awaited trial emotions were high for one of the biggest funerals seen in Lancashire for years.

Thirty top northern judges, three bishops and a cast of civic leaders attended the simple service at St Wilfred’s Parish Church in the picturesque Ribble Valley village of Ribchester.

Preston’s Crown Courts - scene of Judge Openshaw’s recent cases - were closed as a mark of respect and so staff could attend the service.

The small cortege, a hearse and two limousines flanked by police outriders, left the Judge’s home in Garstang Road.

Almost 30 minutes later the procession drew up outside the 760-year-old parish church on the banks of the Ribble.

Police officers along the route stood to attention as the cortege passed and saluted with the strong contingent of ex-servicemen lowering their colours.

Around 400 mourners packed into the church, with the service relayed to the hundreds gathered outside.

Rector of Preston, Dr Michael Higgins, gave the address, paying tribute to the “immense courage” of his family. He described the judge as a “rare man” who was both respected and loved.

“It is very easy to see why Bill Openshaw was held in such respect. As a judge he was always scrupulously fair and his judgements were like the man - filled with good, down to earth, common sense. He was respected as a judge, as a man and for his community work, ’ said Dr Higgins.

“He had a good, warm relationship with everyone he came into contact with, from the highest to the lowest. And there was that famous, dry, droll, sense of humour that was so endearing.”

After the service, Judge Openshaw’s body was committed to the family grave beside his parents Sir James and Lady Openshaw and his sister Molly.

Then, in November 1981, with the town barely coming to terms with its collective grief, the murder trial began.

Opening the case for the Crown, Mr Michael Maguire described in detail the “disgraceful and unhappy” incidents of the previous May.

The chilling facts of Smith’s campaign were laid out for all to see.

Openshaw W.H - Park House, Broughton. The entry in the phone book was like an open invitation to a grudge killer like Smith.

The day before the murder, Smith had found the address of the judge and, armed with a hunting knife, boarded the Preston-bound train at Burnley.

“He was full of hate, bent upon revenge, attempting to settle what he considered to be an old score, ” said Mr Maguire. “A long time ago Judge Openshaw had sentenced the defendant to borstal training. That is the motive for this murder.”

He explained Smith walked from Preston Station to the village of Broughton and waited for the judge’s family to go to bed. He then sneaked into the back of the garage at the back of the house and hid in the rafters.

“He waited patiently, hour after hour, for an opportunity to exact retribution for that sentence of borstal training, given to him long ago, ” said Mr Maguire.

At 8.30am the judge had walked into the garage and Smith dropped from the rafters in front of him and stabbed him once in the body shouting, “Now then, I’ve got you.”

The judge fell to the ground and raised his left arm in self defence but it was no use, added Mr Maguire.

The judge would not have recognised his attacker as he fought to fend off the savage knife blows - their first meeting had hardly been memorable.

The court heard as Judge Openshaw lost his desperate battle for life, another man’s ordeal was just beginning.

Walter Hide, a company director from Goosnargh, near Preston, was driving to work when the heavily bloodstained Smith leapt into his passenger seat as he queued at the Broughton traffic lights.

The assailant pulled out a large knife from his waist and warned, “Just do as I say and you won’t get hurt.”.

That was the beginning of a six-hour nightmare ordeal which ended when Smith ordered the car stopped at a wood near Hawick. Mr Hide was tied by his ankles and his wrists round a tree trunk.

As Smith made off in his car, he managed to struggle free of his bonds and ran to call the police.

Smith later made a statement, Mr Maguire told the court, confessing to all three charges he faced - murder, kidnapping and false imprisonment.

“The defendant’s sole motive was revenge. He planned to kill him, he intended to kill him and did in fact kill him in the savage manner I have described.”

A jury of seven men and five women took two and a half hours to reach a verdict on the murder charge by a 10:2 majority.

They were unanimous in finding Smith guilty of a second charge of kidnapping Mr Hide.

When the jury foreman delivered the verdict “guilty”, Smith just smiled calmly and looked up at his sister in the public gallery.

He was sentence to life in prison, knowing he could very well end his days behind bars. But the cold blooded killer had no regrets telling the court, “I’d do exactly the same tomorrow.”

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