How PCSO Julia James' murderer was brought to justice by her friends and colleagues

  • ITV Meridian's Kit Bradshaw looks back at the massive police investigation into Julia James' murder

A 22-year-old man has been found guilty of the murder of "fiercely loyal" police community support officer Julia James.

Mrs James was attacked with a railway jack by Callum Wheeler while she was out on a dog walk near her home in Aylesham, Kent, in April 2021.

The investigation which followed involved more than 1,000 police officers - and the impact of Mrs James' death was described as "far more profound than any other case police have investigated in the county".

On the day Wheeler has been found guilty of murder (16 May) - ITV Meridian looks back on how he was caught.

Who was Julia James?

Julia James, 53, had been a serving Kent Police Police community support officer since 2008 and lived with her husband on The Crescent in Snowdown, Kent.

Julia's most recent role within the force, supporting victims of domestic abuse in the Canterbury area, meant she was working from home in the hamlet of Snowdown on Tuesday, 27 April last year - the day she was murdered.

Following Mrs James' death, her family released a tribute describing her as "fiercely loyal", saying "she loved with her whole heart and nothing was too much trouble for the people she cared about.”

Mrs' James' husband Paul said the couple were so in love that they would call each other three or four times a day, and still felt like they were on honeymoon.

The day of the murder

Julia James left her home in Snowdown, Kent at 2:12pm on Tuesday 27 April to take her dog Toby for a walk.

At 2.12pm on 27 April last year Mrs James took a break to take her dog Toby for a walk. She set off from her back garden gate, and took a route across fields towards the nearby village of Aylesham.

She walked through the trees to a spot where she liked to watch the butterflies, pausing briefly, before turning around. It's believed this is where she came face-to-face with her attacker, Callum Wheeler. Julia never made it back home from her walk.

Her body was found shortly after 4pm with severe head injuries, by members of the public who were out walking.

Her dog Toby was found near her body, still wearing his collar and lead.

The court heard she had suffered severe head injuries. The pathologist who gave evidence during the trial described them as "amongst the worst they had seen."

Police investigation

A massive police investigation was launched - involving more than 1,000 police officers. Detectives worked tirelessly to get justice for their colleague, scouring the woodland surrounding the area that she was found dead.

Detective Superintendent Gavin Moss, senior investigating officer, said, "It was very clear from the outset of this investigation that this would be a Category A murder investigation.

"It was of grave public concern and would require a significant amount of police resource in order to identify, locate and arrest the person responsible. 

"We spoke to 5,000 residents in the area. 1,400 members of the public contacted Kent Police with information they thought could be relevant. Fingertip, line search and helicopter search covered an area of 20km/sq.

"33 days of continuous searching took place, including with police dogs.

"CCTV was by far the most time consuming aspect of this investigation. 534 video clips were downloaded, totalling 6,700 hours of footage - Ring doorbells, drones and dashcam as well as conventional CCTV."

"Around 500 vehicles were also stopped during road checks."

After ten days of investigations by Kent Police, a photograph of a suspect was released, and by that evening detectives had identified him as Callum Wheeler. Wheeler was arrested at the house the then 21-year-old shared with his father and brother in Aylesham, just a mile and a half from Akolt Wood.

The photo that was issued by police, used in the public appeal, was taken on Spinney Lane, close to the murder scene the day after the crime.

Former Kent Police Detective, Nick Biddis said, "It's not unusual for an offender to return to the scene of a crime.

Dozens of police scoured fields near Akholt Wood as part of their investigation.

"It's not unusual when police make appeals for people to come forward to help search an area, that the offender may put themselves forward as part of that team.

Wheeler was caught partly thanks to the quick thinking of a local gamekeeper.

The day after the murder they spotted him walking not far from the crime scene - with a large object sticking out of a holdall. We now know was the murder weapon - a railway jack.

When the gamekeeper challenged Wheeler, he ran off - and the witness dialled 999.

Police arrived at Wheeler's home to arrest him, and they found the jack handle in his bedroom - a piece of railway equipment almost a metre long, and weighing around 3 kilos. Forensic analysis later found traces of Julia James' blood on it, and on Wheeler's clothes and shoes.

Wheeler was taken into custody and arrested on suspicion of murder.

Who is Callum Wheeler?

Callum Wheeler was described as "a complete and utter loner" who spied on police as they investigated the death of the woman he had killed.

Wheeler, then aged 21, was living with his father and brother in Aylesham - just a mile and a half from Akolt Wood, where Julia James was found dead.

He had no known friends, few numbers stored in his mobile phone and would spend most of his time alone in his bedroom. He was so isolated that he barely knew his own brother, police said.

Callum Wheeler walking near Pond Lane, Aylesham, carrying what prosecutors claim was the weapon he used to kill Julia James. Credit: Gavin Tucker/PA

In his trial, the jury heard that he accessed a number of pornography websites in the days before and after Julia James' death and looked up rape.

Wheeler, his father and one brother had moved to the Kent village of Aylesham from London two years before Mrs James died, after Wheeler's parents separated and his mother stayed in the capital.

He also had another brother. He was known to go and watch football at the local sports centre on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and played computer games, but had no job and was not studying at the time of Mrs James's death.

Police said that he had left school around the age of 15 and had no formal qualifications.

Investigators are still no clearer as to why Wheeler packed the railway jack in his bag, walked around the Kent countryside and killed an innocent woman.

There was no known connection to his victim and Wheeler told police he did not know her, and he had no history of violence

Family and friends pay tribute to Julia James

In July last year, family, friends and colleagues gathered at Canterbury Cathedral for Mrs James' funeral.

Following the verdict, her daughter Bethan Coles said: "I can hear her in the things I say and the things I do. If I'm lucky I'll turn out to be just like her. She wasn't a victim. She was a feisty woman full of life."

Deputy Chief Constable of Kent Police, Tim Smith, said, "Very few crimes have such a dramatic impact on family and friends as murder. This case is extremely poignant for us as a force because very many of those friends are also colleagues.

Floral tributes were left to Julia James

"They are employees who knew Julia intimately and knew her as a friend. The impact on us as a force has been far more profound than any other case we’ve had in the county.

"She was very much loved. She was known by staff at all ranks and roles, particularly in the east of the county. There’s a very personal impact for us as a force because of Julia’s legacy. We miss her greatly."

Mrs James' husband Paul said he will cherish memories of their honeymoon in Mauritius.

He said: “My heart would flutter every time I’d see her and I would tell her that every day, every morning, every night, and we used to call each other three or four times.

“We were on honeymoon every day, every day it was still a honeymoon.”