John Sweeney: ‘THE SCALP HUNTER’

by Peter Stubley

John Sweeney was violent to every girlfriend he had – and celebrated murdering two of them in a series of pictures and poems.

He was born in Kirkdale, Liverpool, on 13 October 1956, and spent most of his early life with his mother in Skelmersdale where he trained as a carpenter and joiner.

After travelling around Europe from 1976 he married Anne Bramley. They divorced in 1979 but remarried two years later and had two children.

In November 1982 he was bound over to keep the peace by magistrates in Ormskirk, Merseyside, after his wife complained to police she had been threatened.

Officers found Sweeney waiting in the walk-in wardrobe at the couple’s home with a hammer and one hand and an axe in the other.

They divorced again that same year and Sweeney moved to London, where he met Melissa Halstead, a dentist’s daughter from Ohio and a former model with the world-famous Ford Agency in 1986.

Melissa, described in court as a ‘free spirit,’ was trying to make a living as a freelance photographer.

SHARED HOUSE

She first lived with him at a shared house in Bethune Road, Stoke Newington.

Sweeney – who now describes the relationship as ‘love-hate’ – was arrested by police three times following her complaints of domestic violence.

He was once heard shouting at Melissa: ‘Who do you think you are? I’m the one who says what you can and can’t do.’

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Melissa Halstead

In September 1987 he hit Melissa in the face with a stool at her home in Eaton Place, Knightsbridge, and was fined £5 for assault occasioning actual bodily harm.

Three months later he was again fined £5 for kicking her in the legs. Then on April 20, 1988 he was bound over to keep the peace following a row.

It was after this incident that Melissa foretold her own death to her sister Chance O’Hara.

Ms O’Hara said: ‘She told me that if she ever went missing that John Sweeney would have killed her.’

In October 1988 Melissa was deported for working in the UK without a permit and went to Vienna, Austria.

Sweeney followed her there, broke into her flat and tied up her flatmate before searching for any evidence of a new lover.

TICKET TO AMSTERDAM

Melissa persuaded him to leave and bought him a ticket to Amsterdam but a few days later on November 4 he arrived back at her front door.

Later that same day he was arrested after fracturing her skull with a hammer as she took him up to her flat.

In her statement to police, Melissa said: ‘He had already threatened me in London with a knife because he said I was going to leave him and he couldn’t cope.

‘Then, I only ever wanted to help him and have only ever seen the good in him. Now I know he must have really hated me.’

Sweeney told police that he only wanted to ‘surprise’ Melissa and claimed it was just an ’emotional act’ after they had been arguing.

‘I wasn’t thinking about anything,’ his statement read.

While in prison he painted a picture depicting two sets of hands and feet, which he later described as: ‘That is her being the puppeteer and I am in a man trap.’

Incredibly, Melissa pleaded with the judge for leniency and Sweeney was given a suspended 12 month prison sentence and a ten year deportation order.

Chance O’Hara said: ‘I asked her if she had lost her friggin’ mind. I could not understand why she would release someone from prison that had already beaten her with a hammer.

‘She said that John had cried and begged her and he had no one else and that he was sorry and that he would leave her alone if she would get him out one last time.’

ON/OFF RELATIONSHIP

After his release in March 1989 they flew to Germany together to continue their on-off relationship before heading towards Amsterdam

Melissa disappeared from her basement flat in late April the following year.

On May 3, 1990, officers from the municipal police in Rotterdam, 80km south of Amsterdam, spotted an army surplus kit bag floating on the surface of the Westersingel canal.

Inside they found the naked remains of a female folded in half and bound with lengths of sisal rope.

Her head had been sawn off at the neck and the hands were also missing.

At that point the body could not be identified and was buried in a Rotterdam cemetery.

Sweeney continued to work as a carpenter in Amsterdam until he returned to the UK in Christmas 1990 and started a relationship with Australian Delia Balmer in 1991.

He moved into her home the following year but she too found him controlling, possessive and violent.

Miss Balmer later said in evidence at the attempted murder trial: ‘I let him move in because I was soft and stupid. I’m too honest and trusting.

PET TARANTULA

‘He kept a pet tarantula and had a ringbag full of horror magazines. He would sit with cups of tea just staring at his tarantula. I couldn’t figure it out.’

In November 1994 he held her hostage at gunpoint after she told him to leave her home in Leighton Grove, Camden.

Describing him as a psychopath, Miss Balmer told jurors: ‘He said if I ever screamed he would cut my tongue out. I was his rubber doll.

‘He pressed the gun to the back of my head and pulled the trigger to the first click. I knew if he pulled it a second time it would blow my head off.

‘I could see the dark, empty, evil look coming into his eyes and his hands started to shake.’

After tying her to the bed, Sweeney then boasted how he had killed Melissa Halstead after finding her in bed with two German men.

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Patricia Fields

 

He also claimed he cut them all up and threw them in the canal – but the next morning pretended it as a joke.

She managed to escape after a friend came to the door and Sweeney was arrested.

Police found a green canvas rucksack containing a groundsheet, a length of rope, masking tape, surgical gloves and a saw blade.

AMBUSHED WITH AN AXE AND A KNIFE

But he was released on bail and three days before Christmas he ambushed Miss Balmer her with an axe and a knife as she arrived home on her bicycle.

She only escaped death thanks to a neighbour, Jiles Allen, who armed himself with a baseball bat and managed to chase Sweeney away.

Delia was left with wounds to the head, chest and arms as well as psychological damage and told the jury: ‘I died that day.’

Sweeney then went on the run, first turning up at the home of his friend Kevin Pratt in Kentish Town.

He confessed that he had killed Melissa and two German men in Holland and that there was a £10,000 reward.

At Christmas he went to the home of his ex wife Anne Bramley in Northampton, saying that police had raided his mother’s home in Skelmersdale.

He told her he had ‘done something really bad which would make her hair stand on end’ and confessed that he had killed three people.

Eleven days after the frenzied axe attack, he even wrote to detectives hunting for him and described Miss Balmer as an ‘evil witch’.

In an incriminating play on words he wrote, ‘It was an AXEident’.

FALSE NAMES

Sweeney then began a fugitive lifestyle, staying in hostels using a series of false names including Joe Johnson, Joe Carol and Michael Fawcett.

He spent some time in Germany from September 1991 and again in 1992 and 1993 before returning to London.

In September 1995 he moved into a bedsit in Digby Crescent near Finsbury Park, which he filled with depraved artworks and erotic carvings.

He later told police that his life consisted of working on building sites as a carpenter during the day and smoking cannabis and drinking beer alone at home at night.

By late 2000 Paula Fields, a Liverpool-born prostitute and crack addict, had become a regular visitor to the flat to see both Sweeney and his brother Tony.

She had come to London with two of her three sons in 1998, staying at the Highbury Hotel in Highbury Grove and working at a laundrette.

But her life went downhill after the boys were taken into care in 2000 because of her ‘chaotic lifestyle’.

She began a relationship with Sweeney, who complained that she stole his money, tobacco and mobile phones.

PICTURES ON THE BEDROOM WALLS

On December 13 her niece Melissa Fields met ‘Joe’ and saw pictures of women along his bedroom walls.

She described how Sweeney started shouting aggressively at Paula because she had taken his mobile phone.

A neighbour claimed he was woken up in the early hours of the morning by a male voice screaming and shouting: ‘No, no, no.’

Detectives now believe this may have been Sweeney’s reaction after his true identity was discovered by Paula Fields.

Paula was last seen at 9.30am on December 15 visiting the Digby Crescent address.

Her body was not found until February 19, 2001, when boys out fishing in Regent’s Canal spotted bags in the water.

When they pulled one out, bricks and an object wrapped in bin liners fell out. They were the severed remains of Paula Fields.

Her body had been cut into ten separate pieces and placed in six different bags. Her head, hands and feet were missing.

Sweeney left his home shortly after Paula Fields’ disappearance and moved to a house in Charteris Road, Finsbury Park.

Detectives launched a manhunt for Sweeney and a month later on March 23 he spotted by a policeman at a building site in Shoe Lane, Holborn, working under the name Joe Johnson.

KNIFE IN THE WAISTBAND

He was surrounded by armed officers before he could reach for a knife hidden in his waistband and arrested.

In his work locker, police found a loaded 9mm Luger pistol.

At Charteris Road, officers recovered two loaded sawn-off shotguns,  a Webley and Scott .410 and a Savage Arms Corporation 16-gage, and a huge stash of bullets and cartridges.

They also found a brown wig, a machete, an axe, a rounders back, bin liners, cable ties and a garrotte made of bamboo.

As well as his disturbing artwork and a wood carving of a pair of buttocks fashioned into a bench, he had also scrawled notes about his life on the run.

One read: ‘On the wrong side of the law on the wild side of life with nothing left to lose.

‘No escape from the past, watching for the police down every street, any day could be my last.

‘It gets up my nose being on my toes. If I go for a newspaper or a pint of milk, I’m dressed to kill.

‘It ain’ much fun being married to a gun – but misery or pleasure nothing’s forever.’

During his police interview Sweeney was questioned not only about the attack on Delia Balmer but also the murders of Paula Fields and Melissa Halstead.

He told police he had 30 or 40 different relationships over the previous 20 years but insisted they were mostly not violent.

SANE WOMAN

Sweeney said he ‘didn’t think he had ever seen a sane woman’ and admitted using cannabis, heroin, speed and LSD.

After denying any role in the disappearance of Melissa Halstead and Paula Fields, he was charged only with the attempted murder of Delia Balmer and firearms offences.

When he was convicted of the Balmer attack in 2001, he had to be manhandled down to the cells from the dock of the Old Bailey after growling at the jurors: ‘It’s a f****** kangaroo court.

‘I didn’t expect nothing else. You’re a f****** disgrace.’

In March 2002 Sweeney was given four life sentences and told he would not be considered for parole for another nine years.

It was to be another six years until the body found in Rotterdam was confirmed to be Melissa Halstead.

A full DNA profile for the unidentified remains was only added to the Dutch databanks on 12 June 2007 and a match was reported in November 2007.

The official confirmation on January 29, 2008, sparked a renewed investigation.

In April 2010 Sweeney was taken from Gartree Prison, Leicestershire, and questioned about a ‘timeline’ of his life. He was charged with both murders on April 26.

Further confirmation of his ongoing fascination with death was seen in drawings recovered from his cell.

One showed a headless body cut into 13 pieces – a chilling reconstruction of what happened to Paula Fields, Melissa Halstead and perhaps other unknown women across Europe.

Sweeney will die behind bars after he was ordered to serve a whole life sentence for butchering two girlfriends and dumping them in city waterways.

He refused to come to the Old Bailey to hear Mr Justice Saunders tell the court: ‘These were terrible, wicked crimes. The heads of the victims having been removed, it is impossible to be certain how they were killed.

‘The mutilation of the bodies is a serious aggravating feature of the murders. Not only does it reveal the cold-blooded nature of the killer but it has added greatly to the distress of the families to know that parts of the bodies of their loved ones have never been recovered.

‘The method of disposal of the bodies demonstrates there was a substantial amount of planning which went into the killings.

LIVE OR DIE

‘Why the killings occurred, I cannot be sure, but I am satisfied that this defendant is controlling in his relationships with women and chillingly that control extends to deciding whether they should live or die.

‘I have no doubt that the seriousness of these offences is exceptionally high and a whole life order is the appropriate sentence.’

The names of two further victims, a Brazilian known as Leani and a Columbian, Maria, were given to police by Sweeney during a police interview in 2001 in which he boasted he had been with ’30 to 40 women’.

He described them as former girlfriends and they have not been traced.

Police have also looked into possible links with the a woman’s body found cut up in a canal in Amsterdam in 1992.

OBSESSION

His obsession with murder and the devil in hundreds of drawings and wood carvings.

One of the most chilling pictures titled the ‘Scalp Hunter’ shows him as a satanic figure with a bloody axe tucked into his beltline and a lock of hair hanging from its blade.

In a direct reference to the attack on Delia Balmer, it bears the date ’12/94′ and the words ‘Came too late, stayed too long.’

Sweeney’s name and date-of-birth scrawled along the axe head with the words ‘Made in Liverpool.’

He also wrote: ‘I will live and die as I choose, I don’t believe religion or the f***ing law, there are no rules, my life’s an open door.’

On the back, surrounded by kisses, were the words ‘inspired by and dedicated especially to Delia. May you die in pain.

Another, entitled ‘Leighton Park Goldfish Bowl’, features a shark hovering menacingly over a smaller female fish inside a fish bowl.

A third called ‘Cornered Cockroach’, depicts Miss Balmer’s face on an upturned cockroaches’ body with a huge military boot ready to stamp inches above it.

On the sole of the boot is ‘satan’s number’ 666 and the words, ‘May you never die till I kill you’.

SENSE OF HUMOUR

Sweeney claimed the drawings were not ‘a confession of what he wanted to do’ to Delia Balmer, but just indicated his ‘black sense of humour’.

He also made telling references to Melissa Halstead in his artwork and verse.

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One of the killer’s sick sketches

In one picture called ‘One Man Band’ he painted her gravestone – and then covered it with correction fluid.

Once treated with ultra violet light to reveal the inscription ‘RIP Melissa Halstod bon on 12th December 56’ (sic).

The word ‘died’ was followed by a dash.

And a poem written on a lottery scratch card read: ‘Poor old Melissa/Chopped her up in bits/Food to feed the fish/Amsterdam was the pits.’

A second poem read: ‘Melissa – we met all of a sudden in London/Trouble with the law, England no more.

‘She took my prick all the way/Played catch me if you can down in Milan/A bad trip in Vienna, blood spilled/Amsterdam was not much better, love killed.

‘When I am dead and gone maybe we will be as one.’

Another piece of artwork titled ‘Goodnight Vienna’ showed a bag bathed in red light fastened with a rope.

NAKED BODY

Sweeney had also drawn a picture of Melissa – a naked, headless and handless woman with the ankles and wrists bound.

A further poem read: ‘The trigger goes click, the dead don’t talk. Thoughts of a lunatic, out for a walk. Seen the full moon, feel like dynamite, thoughts of arrest, bridge to cross. Torture never stops, fills me with death. Its a mental nightmare, getting a breath of fresh air.’

Other drawings recovered in 2001 detailed his hatred of police.

One found hanging in his bedroom showed a huge Christmas tree with a toilet roll as the star and policemen-baubles dangling by their necks from the branches.

Towards the bottom of the tree, one of the officers is being stabbed by a pencil and there are blood droplets coming from the wound.

Another bizarre sketch, with the words ”Kill the Bill” emblazoned across it, shows a finger and thumb holding a penis with a keyhole drawn on the end of it.

It is dated November 1994, and warns  “Evil is at hand” and says “The day my brain died”.

Other phrases stamped across the picture include “I’m not really prejudiced against the police, I hate them all equally” and “Stab them up the arse on ejaculation”.

Another picture appears to show a man committing bestiality with a sheep wearing a policeman’s helmet.

Written on the top of the sketch is “Where men are not men and sheep are paranoid”.

Further down it says “Fight evil with eviler things” and ‘I’m not prejudiced against wooley-backs, only policemen, I hate them all equally’.

There is also a knife in the picture with 666 written on the blade.

Another sketch, dated June 3, 1995, says “High Noon – the road to my horizon” and “Bang, Bang, Bang. They all fall down”.

It depicts a man with a revolver in a holster and a policeman lying on the ground in front of him. The words “Wishful thinking” have been crossed out to read “Wishful dreaming”.

Other pictures include a sketch dated June 5, 95 showing a man being chased by a pig dressed as a policeman.

Sweeney described the artwork in court as ‘nonsense’ and said he had spent the 1980s and 1990s taking drugs including LSD and cannabis.

He added: ‘It’s all bullsh*t. Its all drunken tosh. I was stoned out of my head when I did this. It is all just nonsense.’

 

 

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