The killer of ‘free-spirited’ West Sussex grandmother Valerie Graves has been sentenced to life in prison today (Monday, November 11), nearly six years after the murder, police have confirmed.
Valerie Graves, a 55-year-old mother and grandmother, was bludgeoned to death in the bedroom of a luxury home, where she was house-sitting, in Smuggler’s Lane, Bosham in December 2013.
Cristian Sabou, previously of Dej, Romania, pleaded guilty to her murder when he appeared at Lewes Crown Court today, Sussex Police said.
The killing on December 30, 2013, sparked one of the longest murder investigations in Sussex Police history, but it was not until July, this year, that Sabou was arrested in Romania and charged.
Police said Sabou, who was extradited to the UK, was today sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum term of 24 years. A spokesman said it comes after 'one of the largest and most complex investigations carried out by Sussex Police in recent years', which was codenamed Operation Ensign.
According to police, the court heard that on December 29, 2013, Sabou, armed with a hammer, cycled to the house in Smugglers Lane 'after hearing that the owners had gone away and believing the house to be empty'.
The spokesman said: "He got in through an unlocked rear door to the bedroom where Valerie was sleeping.
"It is believed Valerie woke up and Sabou panicked and repeatedly struck her with the hammer several times causing severe head and facial injuries. He then made off and as he cycled away, he threw the hammer away in Hoe Lane.
"Sabou maintained that he did not go to the house that night to kill or harm anyone, his intention was to carry out a burglary and what happened on that night will live with him forever."
Police said that, when sentencing Sabou, Judge Christine Laing said: "It was your dishonesty which led you to carry out the burglary and it was your lack of conscience which led you to kill Valerie.
"I accept that you did not go there to kill or harm, your motivation was greed."
What happened between December 29 and 30, 2013?
In 2013, Valerie Graves had moved from Scotland to Bracklesham Bay, West Sussex to live with and care for her elderly mother, according to police.
Valerie was an artist and described by her family as a loving and a ‘free spirit’.
The spokesman added: "Over Christmas, Valerie, her mother, her sister and sister’s partner, were house-sitting for friends at a home in Smuggler’s Lane, Bosham. Several members of her family and friends visited the house over this time and enjoyed both the Christmas celebrations and Valerie’s birthday, which was on Christmas Day.
"At 10pm on Sunday, December 29, Valerie said she was going to bed and left the lounge taking her books and iPad with her. This was the last time that she was seen alive.
"The following morning Valerie’s sister went into the bedroom to see if she was awake as it was getting late. She found Valerie in bed with blood around her head and could not wake her.
"She rang 999 for an ambulance and when the paramedics arrived, they found Valerie had suffered fatal significant head and facial injuries."
Investigating the crime
Valerie’s murder shocked the community in Bosham and the rest of the county and country.
"Scene guards guarded the house as forensics began the painstaking challenge of collecting vital evidence," the spokesman said.
"In the days after her murder, local officers spent a significant time in the area, speaking to those living and working there to gather information and witnesses.
"Just days after the murder, a 30cm hammer (pictured), was found by police search teams in Hoe Lane, at the entrance to the driveway of Hart’s Farm, approximately 600 metres away from the murder scene. It was confirmed as the weapon used to kill Valerie."
A week later Detective Superintendent Nick May, then head of the Surrey and Sussex Major Crime Team, appeared on BBC TV's Crimewatch programme to make an appeal in the murder inquiry.
"Between January and April the detectives worked with the Crimewatch team to produce a reconstruction of what happened," the spokesperson continued.
"It was aired in April and as well as the reconstruction, featured interviews with Valerie’s family with a fresh appeal for information, and an appeal from us, Sussex Police.
"In the months that followed, officers in Bosham held street briefings with residents to talk about what had happened, reassure them about the investigation which was continuing and ask for any information they may have had.
"Detailed forensic work of the scene was carried out for months and more than 9,500 people were interviewed by officers and 600 statements have been taken as part of the investigation.
As part of the anniversary activity, a year on from Valerie's murder, posters were distributed across the area making a fresh appeal for information.
In November 2014, detectives 'believed they had a breakthrough in the case'.
The spokesman explained: "Forensic scientists had obtained a limited DNA profile for the suspect, which meant they could start requesting voluntary DNA samples to eliminate males from the investigation who lived and worked in the Bosham area, either permanently or as migrant workers.
"Two months later in January 2015 Sussex Police started the largest voluntary mass DNA screening in its history appealing for all men aged over 17 who live or work in Bosham to volunteer their DNA and provide a thumbprint."
The large scale DNA mass screening eliminated 3,059 men in Bosham or those associated to the enquiry in some other way. Enquiries continued over the years and fresh appeals for information were made on the anniversary of Valerie’s death each year.
"However in September 2018, the investigation team received information from Romania suggesting that Cristian Sabou, a Romanian national, was responsible for the murder of Valerie," the spokesman said.
"Checks showed that Sabou had left the UK on in October, 2018 and had returned to Cluj-Napoca in Romania. The information received reported that Sabou been seen looking a pictures of the hammer on a news site and it was similar to one he used himself for work.
"Detectives learnt that in 2013 Sabou had lived in a caravan on an industrial site near the Chichester area close to the A27. He had previously accompanied a friend to the house where Valerie was later murdered to do some work there."
In February this year, police said detectives working with the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Crime Agency Overseas Network obtained a European Investigation Order and work began to get evidence in Romania to obtain a DNA sample from Sabou.
"Once this was completed, tests revealed the DNA sample from Sabou matched the DNA profile obtained in 2014.
"Following this confirmation, a European Arrest Warrant was authorised by a District Judge in the United Kingdom and further work with partners in the UK and abroad continued.
"On July 10 this year Sabou, 28, was arrested at his address in Dej, Romania, by officers from the Romanian National Police, who served the European Arrest Warrant on him.
"Detectives from the Surrey and Sussex Major Crime Team were present in Romania to work with the authorities there.
Nine days later, Sabou was extradited from Romania to the UK in custody and appeared at Brighton Magistrates’ Court on July 20 charged with the murder of Valerie Graves."