On May 3rd 2019, the police were called to a home in Calne, Wiltshire. There they found Ellie Gould, a 17-year-old student, dead from multiple stab wounds. The knife used was still in her neck and her hand had been placed on the handle of the knife.
The police quickly arrested her ex-boyfriend, now revealed as Thomas Griffiths, then also 17 years old. In November, he was convicted at Bristol Crown Court of her murder and sentenced to serve a minimum of twelve and a half years.
The evidence apparently showed a ‘frenzied attack’ which included an attempt at strangulation and thirteen stab wounds. Ellie fought back, scratching Griffiths’ neck, but was overpowered. She was found dead by her father in the kitchen of the family home.
The pair attended the same secondary school and had known each other for around five years. They had been dating for three months, until Ellie broke up with Griffiths to concentrate on her exams. She had told friends that he had “not taken it well.”
On the morning of the murder, he walked out of school, drove to Ellie’s home and first strangled her, then stabbed her. He then tried to make it look as if the wounds were self-inflicted, and passed off the defence wounds Ellie had inflicted on himself as ‘self-harm’. He had also sent a series of fake messages to her phone and to friends, playing dumb about what had happened to her.
Until that point, Griffiths had been welcomed into the Gould home by Ellie’s parents. He had celebrated her birthday with them and had frequently eaten meals with the family. They had no inkling that he was capable of such an act.
The reason I’m writing about this story now is that last week school friends of Ellie’s appeared on national radio and TV as part of their campaign for self-defence to be taught in schools. They are convinced that her life might have been saved if she’d known some basic skills to defend herself.
I confess that whenever I hear of such a senseless crime as this, I wonder much the same thing. When I first started writing the Charlie Fox series of novels, Charlie is teaching self-defence classes, having herself been the victim of violent crime. As she tells one of her pupils in KILLER INSTINCT: “It takes remarkably little time to be strangled. You can’t afford to waste it.”
The throat is a highly vulnerable area. Relatively unprotected, usually not covered with heavy clothing, it’s more or less just a narrow tube that houses blood vessels to the brain as well as the main airway. Running down either side of the trachea are the vagus nerves. I go into a little bit of detail about these in HARD KNOCKS: ‘They control just about everything of importance in the body, from the heart and lungs to the abdominal organs. Hit the vagus nerves hard enough and your victim ceases to breathe, his heartbeat stutters, his nervous system crashes. And then he dies.’
In one-third of homicides by strangulation, the hyoid bone is fractured. This is a U-shaped bone in the front of the neck, to which the tongue is anchored. It sits between the lower jaw and the largest cartilage of the voice box, or larynx. Damage to the hyoid is often accompanied by damage to the cervical spine, larynx, pharynx (the area of the throat behind the mouth and nasal cavity) and possibly the lower jaw itself.
Given a choice—or possibly that should be if given no choice at all—I would always choose the throat as my first self-defence target. Doesn’t matter how big you are, or how covered in muscles, the throat is always vulnerable to a well-directed blow.
But if someone grabs you around the neck, there are a lot of ways to avoid being strangled. It fills me with both anger and sadness when I hear of tragedies such as Ellie Gould’s murder. A good self-defence instructor could have shown her a variety of techniques not only to escape such a hold but to put her attacker on the floor while she was at it.
A knife is a different matter. Go up against someone with a knife and you’re going to get cut, like it or not. It takes a different attitude—one you need to have decided upon in advance. But it can be done.
So, if those school friends of Ellie’s decide to set up a petition to have self-defence made part of the curriculum, I’d sign it. Would you?
This week’s Word of the Week is supervene, which means to follow something closely, either as a consequence or in contrast, while intervene means to come between persons or things.
May 1-3, Newcastle City Library, Newcastle upon Tyne.
June 4-7, Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, Bristol.
This blog also appears over on Murder Is Everywhere