A man who prowled around woodland with a weapon stuffed in his backpack has been found guilty of the murder of a police community support officer.
Callum Wheeler, 22, used a railway jack, a tool used to lift train tracks, to beat mother-of-two Julia James to death as she walked her dog in fields and woodland near the back of her home in Snowdown, Kent.
He was seen roaming around the countryside with the weapon the day before the 53-year-old died, and in the days after as hundreds of police officers scoured the area for clues.
On Monday afternoon, a jury at Canterbury Crown Court found him guilty of Mrs James’s murder.
On arrest, Wheeler told officers “sometimes I do things that I cannot control” and “you can’t go into the woods and expect to be safe”.
He also told a member of police staff that he would return to the woodland and rape and kill a woman, and that Mrs James had deserved to die.
He had no connection to the mother-of-two, and offered no explanation for what he had done when questioned by the police.
A jury at Canterbury Crown Court was told at the start of the trial Wheeler, from Aylesham in Kent, accepted that he killed her but denies murder.
What happened to Julia James?
Mrs James was off duty on the afternoon of 27 April last year, and was walking her dog, a Jack Russell called Toby, near Ackholt Wood when she was killed.
Detectives used data from her Apple watch to find out where she had walked and when, and pinpoint where she was attacked.
Prosecutor Allison Morgan had told jurors: “The evidence suggests that her attacker was waiting in the woods for someone to attack, and then ambushed her.
“Julia tried to escape her attacker but she was subjected to a brutal and fatal attack.”
The court heard that Mrs James had seen Wheeler around Ackholt Wood, near her home in the hamlet of Snowdown in Kent, in the months before she died, and described him to her husband Paul as “a really weird dude”.
The Apple watch belonging to Julia James showed that her heart rate had gone from 97 up to 145 within seconds at the point it is said she spotted Callum Wheeler in Ackholt Wood, Kent on 27 April last year.
On the day that she died, Mrs James saw Wheeler in the same place she had before.
Ms Morgan said: “The defendant was in that same place that Paul James and Julia James had seen him before, and it was at that point that Julia James’s heart rate surged.
“She took a sudden detour off the path that goes through the wooded area.
“She began to move along the edge of the field.”
The prosecutor went on: “She has run out of the wood, doubtless to try to escape her attacker, and has got as far as she could along the path.”
Mrs James then fell, either from a first blow to the head or by tripping, the court heard, and was subjected to a “violent and sustained blunt force trauma assault to the head”.
Ms Morgan said: “Given the serious nature of the violent injuries to her head which caused her skull to cave in, the majority of these injuries must have been inflicted when she was face down on the ground with her hood up.”
The court heard that she died “extremely rapidly” from the injuries.
What have Julia’s family said?
Speaking outside court, Julia James’s tearful husband Paul James paid tribute to his wife, saying he was “so proud” of all the people she had helped in her work, particularly victims of domestic violence.
Mr James said: “She just helped everybody, she just couldn’t do enough.”
He went on: “She was just amazing, I was so proud of her. The work she did was just amazing, to help so many other people, women who were in danger from men, bad men.”
He told reporters: “I just hurt so much.”
Wearing Julia’s engagement and wedding rings on a chain around his neck, Mr James said that the couple would walk in the countryside near their home and have their “us time, away from the stresses of life”.
Asked how he is, Mr James said: “Still extremely heartbroken. I’m not sure if this is a relief yet or not, but I’m really pleased with the result.”
Julia James’s daughter Bethan Coles said the trial has been “overwhelming”.
Bethan Coles, 33, was asked what she thinks of her mother’s killer and told reporters: “I think he’s just a vile excuse for a human being.”
Ms Coles said Callum Wheeler “clearly is a threat to women”, adding that the guilty verdict is “really important for the safety of people in the community”.
Asked if they feel a sense of relief, Mrs James’s son Patrick Davis told the PA news agency: “I would say I don’t because we’re still without our mum.
“But at the same time the big focus is off the trial now and we can begin to grieve as a family together.”
Mr Davis said that emotionally the trial has taken “a huge toll”.
What have the Police and CPS said?
Detective Superintendent Gavin Moss, who led the hunt to find Mrs James’ killer, said the case was particularly poignant for the force.
He said: “The death of Julia had real ramifications throughout the whole organisation, because she was one of our own.
“What needed to happen was that justice needed to prevail, and we needed to do what we did to catch Callum Wheeler, who was a particularly dangerous individual.
“He caused her catastrophic injuries.”
Witnesses were able to provide vital images of Wheeler near the scene, including gamekeeper Gavin Tucker who took a video clip and photo of him walking around with the murder weapon still in his bag the day after he killed Julia.
When the image of Wheeler was released to the public, he was identified within hours and arrested.
Martin Yale, senior crown advocate from the Crown Prosecution said: “This is an extremely tragic case, and it’s something that simply shouldn’t have happened.
“Women should be free to walk their dog in the middle of the day, without fear of this sort of thing happening.
“It’s clearly a tragic case.
“And our condolences go to Julia’s family, the local community, and Kent Police of which she was an employee.
“We just hope that the result in this case can provide some degree of solace to those individuals.”