Killer caught over forged signature

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metal pen signature on paper

A Ferrari-driving killer who thought he got away with murdering his heiress girlfriend and plundering her family's bank accounts was caught out by an alert building society clerk who spotted a forged signature.

Donald Graham, 60, was jailed for life with a minimum term of 32 years by a judge at Newcastle Crown Court after he was convicted yesterday of murdering his film extra lover Janet Brown in 2005 and successfully concealing her body.

He made her elderly parents Eric and Olive Brown believe she was still alive by sending them letters and cards in her name from Europe, then plundered their bank accounts when they also died.

They had intended their estates should go to Guide Dogs for the Blind if their only daughter died before them, the court heard.

Mr Justice Openshaw said Graham was caught out years after he killed Ms Brown - around mid-June 2005 - when a Skipton Building Society clerk spotted a signature which did not match that of her father.

Graham was posing as Mr Brown, a retired accountant, and was trying to shift money when the employee became suspicious and alerted the society's national fraud department, who began writing to their customer who was now, unknown to them, dead.

They were not happy with Mr Brown's apparent responses and the police were called in, and what started as a fraud investigation in 2009 turned into a murder hunt when officers became concerned about Ms Brown's disappearance.

Graham must have been "astonished", the judge said, when her parents fell for his claims that she was still alive and did not raise the alarm.

The 45-year-old had been due to go on a holiday for a week to France with Graham, but he pulled out, lying that his wife was seriously ill.

He used Ms Brown's refusal to cancel the trip as a cover for killing her, then made her parents believe she had opted to stay abroad and was working in France and Switzerland.

The judge said: "As the months and years passed he must have come to believe he had indeed got away with murder."

Just before she disappeared, she transferred £300,000 into her married lover's account.

He went on to strip another £285,000 from the Brown family, the judge heard, and tried but failed to get hold of their £300,000 farm.

Graham, who lived on a 40-acre property in Sparty Lea, south west Northumberland, hid her body so well it has never been found.

The judge said: "He was once a JCB digger driver, he could have disposed of her in some deeply-dug pit or put her down one of the many mine shafts in the area, or buried her in some wild and remote place.

"That he disposed of her body is obviously an aggravating factor."

The murder was driven by financial gain, the judge said, which was another aggravating feature.

Graham was sentenced concurrently for his "audacious" later frauds on his victim's parents, which he committed after gaining their confidence.

He began to do Mr Brown's shopping and slowly gained his trust and confidence, making regular visits to their home at Plane Trees Farm, Lowgate, Hexham, Northumberland.

This meant he was able to gain access to all Janet Brown's bank documents and personal affairs and Eric Brown's cheque book and details of his pension.

Even after both parents died Mr Graham went on to arrange their funerals without telling relatives but did obtain a death certificate which with all the other information he had gained meant he went on to strip their estate of all their assets through false telephone calls and false withdrawal slips.

He was badly in debt and was struggling to fund the finance agreements on the sports cars, including a Ferrari, which he loved.

The judge said: "All these offences were made possible only by the murder and he used the money to fund his extravagant and flashy lifestyle."

He added: "The defendant has been convicted of a terrible offence, and must now pay the price."

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