The events which preceded the discovery of a homeless man’s brutally battered body on Hove seafront are still shrouded in mystery. Reporters Kimberly Middleton and Ben Parsons look at the impact the murder of Lea Williams has had on the homeless community, as the police continue to hunt for his killer.
Last Monday evening (February 11) three people made a discovery they will never forget.
At 8.30pm, during their routine walk around Brighton and Hove checking on the city’s homeless, AntiFreeze charity volunteers reached the arches at Hove Pitch and Putt.
In the renowned spot frequented by rough sleepers lay Lea Williams’ battered body, covered by a duvet.
The 45-year-old had been repeatedly hit on the head and face with a heavy object.
In their first statement to the press, police said Mr Williams may have known his attacker. Behind the week of high-profile police investigation, thorough forensic investigation of the food wrappers, bedding and drink cans left in the arch and even searches in the shallow waters of the sea, the street community was left shocked.
Workers on the front line said the close-knit group of people who look out for each other has been hit hard.
Already vulnerable, sleeping under the stars on the cold, hard floor, without a door to lock to keep people out or shut themselves in, many homeless people say Mr Williams’ death has left them feeling even more exposed.
Scared on the streets
Homeless Bill Paton, 50, said: “It’s scary. Who’s next?
“I didn’t really know Lea. But it’s not a nice thing to happen to anyone.”
Another man, who did not want to be named, said: “We didn’t get on, me and Lea, but I wouldn’t want to see him dead.
“We’re all part of a community. Whoever did this deserves to go down.”
Sarah Mitchell, who manages the city’s Rough Sleepers Street Services relocation team, said Mr Williams’ death had shocked the homeless community.
Shocked and vulnerable
She said: “Lea kept himself to himself and isolated himself from the street community. He had very few friends.
“The impact of his death might not have been the same as if it was one of our more renowned clients.
“But it definitely was a shock and people are feeling vulnerable because of it.
“You wouldn’t want to know one of your fellow community members had had an ending like that, in such a violent way.
“There is a lot of normalisation that goes on with the street community, who are probably the most visible, yet invisible people in our community.
“If you’re a member of the street community the general public just walk past and don’t acknowledge you.
“You are more likely to be a victim of crime than a perpetrator, but the homeless don’t report it to the police.
“If someone abuses them the response is, ‘Well what do you expect, I’m a rough sleeper’.
“Fighting isn’t an uncommon thing in the street community. There is a high level that can go on.”
She confirmed the rough sleepers team was working with two men who Mr Williams was friends with.
She said: “Whenever there’s any death of one of our service users we identify those particularly at risk or in need as a result to safeguard them and make sure they are getting support.
“It could be a drug-related death or it could be a murder. If people are distressed we can arrange for them to see counsellors. We have done that in the past.”
A hard, dangerous way to live
Julian Haddow, pictured below, is the project manager for AntiFreeze, part of homeless and educational charity Off The Fence.
His workers who made the horrific discovery a week ago have been kept anonymous for their safety and to allow them time to recover.
He said: “Living as a rough sleeper is very dangerous. People choosing this lifestyle need to be aware of the risks.
“There are many health risks – extreme weather conditions, as well as violent attacks by members of the public and in Lea Williams’ case, brutal murder.
“Here in the UK homeless people die 30 years before the national average, meaning that homeless men are dying at 47 and women at 43. Lea was aged 45 and drives this horrific national statistic home in a very real way.
“At Project Antifreeze we have sadly had seven men from the rough sleeping community die on the streets of Brighton and Hove in the past 12 months. All the other deaths were due to health reasons, such as heart failure, hypothermia and sickness, but this does not make it any easier to deal with.
“We often get asked why people are homeless. As we befriend them and are allowed to be part of their lives, we get to know the often sad life stories that are behind the many men and women sleeping on our streets.
“We are always amazed by the incredible sense of community amongst the rough sleepers. They look out for each other and therefore a death hits the community hard.
"Sometimes the rough sleepers organise wakes on the seafront, where they can get together and mourn the loss of their friend, and we have had the privilege to be invited to these small gatherings in the past.
“Lea Williams’ death is tragic and he will be missed in our centre, on our night shifts and in the homeless community. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family at this sad time.
“We will remember Lea for his friendly face and for his requests for a ‘good-night prayer’ every night shift before we were allowed to leave the pitch and putt.”
The Lea Williams inquiry
Police have been unable to find anyone who saw Lea between 8.45am on Sunday February 10 and 8.30pm on Monday February 11.
Without eyewitnesses, forensic evidence and the post-mortem could provide the best guess for the time of his death.
The body, the state of the blood found at the scene, and any leftover food or dirty crockery, could give a sense of how long he had lain undiscovered.
Officers have remained tight-lipped about the clues from the post-mortem.
But police chose to stage their witness appeal between 6pm and 8.30pm last night.
No murder weapon has been found, despite searches of Hove Lagoon and the beach.
Detectives say it is “certainly a possibility” that it has been thrown in the sea and washed away.
After Lea's death the killer covered him with a duvet.
Detective Chief Inspector Ian Pollard told The Argus: “It suggests his killer tried to hide him so he would not be found.”
Officers have trawled the city agencies that work with homeless people to try to build up a picture of his acquaintances and whether anyone has gone missing.
Apart from the missing murder weapon, police will be analysing the mass of food, drink, bedding and clothing found in the alcove where Lea lived.
The scene of the crime may offer vital clues – microscopic hairs, fibres of clothing, or blood left by the killer.
And officers will be asking whether his lifestyle, the people he associated with or his recent movements may have been linked to his death.
As well as house-to-house inquiries at the properties overlooking the scene, they will be recovering CCTV to retrace Lea's movements in the hope they have caught the killer on tape.
All the information will be fed into the police's HOLMES computer database and cross-referenced.
And a major crime analyst will turn that evidence into a timeline. The gaps – or the coincidences – could throw up the lead which leads to justice being done.
Lea’s killer must be caught and brought to justice, say police
Last night (February 18) police went back to the scene to hand out flyers a week after the discovery of Lea Williams’ body.
Officers believe people holding vital information about the killing have not yet come forward.
By handing out flyers with information about his death and pictures of Mr Williams, police hope to jog their memories.
MURDER VICTIM: Lea Williams
Detective Inspector Wendy Burton said: “I would like to thank those members of the street community and local residents who knew Lea and have already contacted us.
“I cannot stress enough how important it is for anyone who knew Lea or knows why someone would want to inflict such horrendous injuries on him, to please get in touch. His killer must be caught and brought to justice.”
The last reported sighting of Mr Williams was on the morning of Sunday, February 10, in the alcove where he had been living for the past year.
Anyone with information should call 101, quoting Operation Depot, or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.
See the latest news headlines from The Argus:
- Train company accused of agreeing 'remedial plan' to increase cancellations
- Bomb scare at Brighton and Hove High School
- Man padlocked himself to lorry as police try to evict Brighton squatters
- Medics who aided Shoreham Airshow disaster survivors honoured for bravery
- Blundering cops wrongly seize poppers believing they were illegal