A man who stalked women in the woods has been found guilty of bludgeoning a police community support officer to death.
Callum Wheeler chased and ambushed Julia James, 53, with a 3kg metal railway jack as she walked her dog near her home in Snowdown, Kent, in April last year. The 22-year-old, an unemployed school dropout, was convicted of murder after a six-day trial at Canterbury crown court.
Officers from Kent police paid tribute to James, a “dedicated and devoted” police community support officer, who joined the force in 2008 and worked with victims of domestic abuse.
Deputy chief constable Tim Smith said the case was “extremely poignant”, adding: “Many of our staff knew Julia intimately and as a friend. The impact on us has been far more profound than any other murder in the county. Julia was very much loved and known by staff of all ranks and roles.
“There is a very personal impact on us as a force … This is quite different for us to deal with and investigate because of Julia’s legacy. We miss her greatly.”
In her closing speech on Monday, the prosecutor, Alison Morgan QC, described Wheeler as “an angry, violent, strange, highly sexualised man” who waited in Ackholt Wood in Snowdown for “a lone female” to attack.
“There is no mental health defence available to him,” she said.
But the defence barrister, Oliver Blunt QC, drew the jury’s attention to the “oddity” of Wheeler’s behaviour and questioned whether he had the “requisite intent” to kill.
The court heard James had twice spotted Wheeler lurking in the woods in the months before the murder, telling her husband, Paul, that she had passed “a really weird dude”. In February 2021 the couple saw him loitering in the same place.
Several witnesses also spotted Wheeler acting suspiciously in the area in the days leading up to the brutal attack on 27 April last year. In that same period, Wheeler visited pornographic websites 42 times and searched the word “raped”.
After his arrest on 7 May 2021, he exposed himself to female police officers and tried to masturbate in front of them before asking to be “spanked”. He also told custody staff that if he was released he would rape and kill women because they deserved to die.
He said: “You can’t go into the woods and expect to be safe.” He added that he would go back to the scene of his crime and “have sex with women without their consent”.
James, a mother of two, had been walking her jack russell, Toby, to an area of Ackholt Wood she knew as “butterfly corner” when she spotted Wheeler in the same spot as before. Her Apple smartwatch revealed how her heart rate and pace increased dramatically and she suddenly changed direction as she ran for her life. But Wheeler chased her down and struck her over the head with a railway jack.
She fell face down on the ground and broke her wrist as Wheeler repeatedly struck her over the head, inflicting what a pathologist described as “unsurvivable injuries”.
There was no evidence of a sustained or violent sexual assault, the court heard. But the prosecutor questioned why Wheeler’s DNA had been found near the breast area of a vest James wore under a grey jumper and coat.
The level of violence and random nature of the attack led police to believe Wheeler may have killed again. He spent the days after the murder roaming around the area with the murder weapon – a 97cm-long cylindrical bar used to lift train tracks – protruding from his bag. It was later found propped up against a wall in his bedroom.
The senior investigating officer, Det Supt Gavin Moss, said: “I can never say what was going on in his mind, but the level of [police] resources used was justified because we cannot know that he wouldn’t have done it again.”
Born in Southwark in February 2000, Wheeler is the youngest of three sons. He has a history of mental health problems – but none that were deemed relevant to the case – and dropped out of school at 15, failing to achieve GCSEs.
He moved to Aylesham, Kent, with his father and younger brother about two years ago after his parents separated.
Police described Wheeler, who has no previous convictions or cautions, as an “absolute loner” who did not even have a relationship with the brother he lived with.
Moss said: “Wheeler wasn’t studying. He wasn’t working. I would describe him as a complete and utter loner … This was somebody who had a life that existed of absolutely nothing. He’d spend most of his time watching TV in his bedroom.
“He had no friends. Normally we’re able to explore about associates [but] even his mobile telephone had very few contacts so we knew very little about him.”