Murderer jailed for killing grandmother during bungled burglary

Victim  Valerie Graves.
Victim Valerie Graves.

A Romanian burglar has been jailed for the murder of Borders grandmother Valerie Graves in West Sussex almost six years ago.

Cristian Sabou, 28, was given a life sentence with a minimum tariff of almost 24 years at Lewes Crown Court on Monday.

Cristian Sabou, murderer of Borders grandmother Valerie Graves in 2013.

Cristian Sabou, murderer of Borders grandmother Valerie Graves in 2013.

Mrs Graves, 55, had only moved south from the Borders to Bracklesham Bay in West Sussex to care for her elderly mother Eileen, then 87, months earlier.

The artist was killed by Sabou on Sunday, December 29, during a bungled burglary while she was house-sitting for friends in Smugglers’ Lane in Bosham.

The mother of two was found dead the next day by her sister Jan, having sustained head and facial injuries.

Days after her killing, a 30cm claw hammer was found by police search teams about 600 metres away, and it was later confirmed as the murder weapon.

It was only in September last year that detectives finally got the breakthrough they’d been waiting for after receiving a tip-off from Romania suggesting that Sabou could be the killer.

Checks revealed that he had left the UK that month to return to Cluj-Napoca in Romania.

It was also discovered that in 2013 Sabou had been living in a caravan on an industrial site near Chichester in West Sussex and had accompanied a friend to the house he later killed Mrs Graves in to do odd jobs there.

Police secured a European investigation order in February, enabling them to seek a DNA sample from Sabou, later found to match one obtained in 2014 by forensic scientists, and that led to an arrest warrant being granted.

Sabou was arrested at his address in Dej in Romania in July this year and extradited to appear at Brighton Magistrates’ Court accused of the murder of Mrs Graves. He pleaded guilty to that charge at crown court this week.

The court heard that Sabou, armed with a hammer, cycled to the house in Smugglers’ Lane after hearing that its owners had gone away.

Believing it to be empty, he got in through an unlocked rear door to the bedroom Mrs Graves was sleeping in.

It is believed she then woke up after realising an intruder was present and Sabou panicked and repeatedly hit her with his hammer, leaving her fatally injured, then fled.

Prosecutor Philip Bennetts told the court: “The level of force used was extreme, not dissimilar from the forces experienced during road traffic collisions.”

Sabou was caught after his ex-wife Claudia became suspicious upon seeing him get agitated while reading a report about the investigation into the murder, the court heard.

Defence barrister Kerim Fuad said Sabou deserved credit for accepting his guilt and sparing Mrs Graves’ family the ordeal of a trial.

Sentencing Sabou, judge Christine Laing told him: “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.

“Valerie Graves was a much-loved mother, grandmother, daughter, sister and friend.

“She celebrated her 55th birthday on Christmas Day.

“Extreme bruising and fractures to her hands show that in the final moments of her life she had desperately tried to defend herself from you.

“I am quite satisfied that it was a sustained attack, and the terror and trauma for her in the final few moments of her life is unimaginable.”

Speaking after the case, detective chief inspector Jon Fanner said: “Since the tragic murder of Valerie in December 2013, we have never given up hope that we would solve the case and achieve justice for Valerie and her family.

“Valerie was a loved mother and grandmother who was enjoying time with her family at Christmas when her life was brutally brought to an end.

“My thoughts and sympathies are with Valerie’s family and friends who have always supported our investigation, showing strength, patience and dignity during a traumatic period of their lives.

“Although Sabou admitted killing Valerie, it was only when he was finally arrested over five years later. He will now face many years in prison.

“I hope Valerie’s family will be able to find some peace, knowing that her killer is finally behind bars.”

It was only earlier in 2013 that Mrs Graves had left her home near Maxton after living in the Borders for about 10 years.

She had set up her own craft studio and gallery called Fin Taw at Harestanes visitor Centre near Jedburgh, specialising as a fibre artist making toy hares, after graduating with a degree in textile design from Heriot-Watt University’s Galashiels campus in 2007.