ON December 23 1985, millionaire landowners Richard and Helen Thomas were brutally shot and killed in their Scoveston Manor home by John William Cooper who burned the manor down.

Dyfed-Powys Police’s first suspicion was that the crime was a murder/suicide between siblings following an argument over money, a similar conclusion was also jumped to 9 years previously when Griff and Patti Thomas were found dead in their farmhouse in Llangolman.

It wasn’t until the bodies of Richard and Helen were recovered, both with shotgun injuries that could not have been self-inflicted, and with accelerant detected in various rooms of the manor, that the murder/suicide theory was discounted by Police.

Police were also initially looking to trace two unidentified vehicles, a motorcycle and a 4×4 that was driven by a male described as ‘fat’ by witnesses. Both were seen in the area at the time.

Richard and Helen Thomas who were gunned down in December 1985

Haunted by the violence of Cooper’s killings, rumour and half-truths meant that questions regarding Cooper’s actions and motivations would periodically fly around the community for years after he was sentenced to life in prison in 2011.

A lot of those rumours are little more than local hearsay, but somewhere in this haystack of conjecture are a few needles of truth that might point to a motive far darker than simple robbery.

Following the tracks

Gulf Oil Refinery in Waterston was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in August 1968, the lavish opening ceremony gave away no clue about the troubles the refinery faced during construction.

Just one year prior to opening, the summer of 1967, work was proceeding at pace to finish the refinery. Not only did that involve huge chimneys and oil tanks, it also involved railway links to the nearby Herbrandston Junction about 2 and a half miles away.

That railway link was well behind schedule and was not completed until days before the opening ceremony.

Gulf had received permission in 1965 to compulsory purchase the land needed for the railway by an act of parliament, but work on the line was delayed due to land acquisition issues. Most local landowners welcomed the development for financial reasons and aided the project however they could, like renting a field out to the construction firm so they could build a temporary base of operations.

But from the very start, one landowner did not.

The same landowner responsible for the land acquisition issues was so unhappy at the route of the tracks that they even refused surveyors access to the proposed site of the railway via their land, that meant that early plans for the construction needed to use alternative spots (such as Steynton Church tower) to start the surveys needed to plan the course of the railway.

That refusal of access delayed work even further and forced the construction of a scaffold tower on adjacent land for the sole purpose of plotting the railway’s course as planners were not given permission to step foot on any land that belonged to the annoyed party.

Angry at the construction of this railway just 250 meters from his Scoveston Manor home, Richard Thomas made various demands of the construction (such as extra bridges needing to be constructed at short notice) in an effort to slow the work down and to cause as many setbacks as possible.

Mr. Thomas raised so many objections about the construction of the railway that the compulsory purchase deal had not been completed, no monies had been exchanged and the railway line was still in the ownership of Gulf and had not been taken over by British Rail at the time of Richard and Helen Thomas’s deaths at Christmas in 1985, some 20 years after the compulsory purchase permission had been granted. 

Richard and Helen Thomas were gunned down by John Cooper in what some believe to be a robbery gone wrong. After killing the Thomases, Cooper then moved the body of Richard onto the stairs of the manor from an outbuilding, covered areas of the building in paraffin and set the manor house ablaze.

Scoveston Manor with firefighters still in attendance, December 23, 1985

After the deaths of Richard and Helen Thomas, the long Gulf railway construction saga drew to a smooth close and the deal is believed to have been completed and monies transferred by the end of 1986, some 21 years after the initial purchase of the land.

Could Richard Thomas’ behaviour towards the Gulf railway construction have inspired someone to seek an alternative method to finally close the long, drawn-out process of completing the compulsory purchase of the land? 

It could very well just be a coincidence.

We might never know for sure, but what we do know for sure is that John Cooper robbed at least 30 houses, brutally killed 4 people and sexually assaulted 2 young women. But how Cooper became a killer has never been satisfactorily explained which leaves gaps in the story and these gaps are often filled with rumour, half-truths and make believe. 

It’s also important to remember that local rumour also incorrectly labelled Richard Thomas as a homosexual for many years after his death because it was reported that semen was found in his anus during his post mortem, that was when rumours began to fly that a jilted ex-lover of Richard Thomas might be responsible.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the semen was subjected to DNA testing and discovered to be Richard Thomas’s which was believed to have gotten there due to the injuries he received before and after his death.