The Cumar Killings: “The Wicker Man”

On the Welsh island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) stands a tall hill named “the Witch”, or Y Gwrach. The hill was a holy site to pre-Roman druidic cults, but since then has become a popular destination for hiking by locals and outsiders alike.

In the 1960s, the sleepy village of Cwmmawr (Cumar in English), lying in the shadow of Y Gwrach, was home to a string of horrific deaths that shocked not only the whole island, but the rest of Britain.

In 1963, the Tindle family came to Anglesey for a week long vacation. George, his wife Martha, and their five children went on a pleasant morning walk. When they came to the foot of Y Gwrach, George pulled out his Kodak camera and began snapping pictures. While looking through the viewfinder, George noticed something—a tower or other small structure—on the top of the hill.

George convinced his family to climb up the hill and investigate. When they reached the top, they found an eighteen-foot wicker statue in the shape of a man. George was puzzled and had a look around while his family ate lunch.

George Tindle’s photo. The only known image of the wicker statue

George found a circle of stones around the wicker statue, as well as small piles of charred wood and ash. Overgrown paths ringed the statue and the stones. George figured the place had once been the site of some local festival.

Once lunch was finished, the oldest Tindle children, Stewart, aged 10, and Amanda, aged 8, wandered off to look for frogs in a nearby pool. While trying to catch the frogs, Stewart noticed something glimmering at the bottom of the pool. Thinking it might be a coin or a lost toy, he leaned in closer for a look. But at that moment, his mother’s voice called him back.

Stewart and Amanda found a newcomer in the clearing. It was a kindly old man with bright blue eyes. He introduced himself as Alan Rhys and offered the Tindles tea, which he carried in a large thermos. The Tindles gladly accepted and Alan poured everyone large cups of tea.

As they sat around, drinking tea, Alan told the Tindles how he had built the wicker man himself; the Tindles were impressed and admired the statue.

After a pleasant conversation, the Tindles became drowsy. Soon they were all asleep. Alan Rhys stowed each of the Tindles in a duffle bag, which he hid in the bushes. He gathered up all of the Tindles’ things. Then, Alan carried the Tindles down a seldom-used path that took him to his house on the edge of Cumar village.

When the Tindles failed to return home, their relatives in Birmingham alerted the North Wales Police. Eventually, police investigators came to the summit of Y Gwrach. A junior detective, Owen Clarke, noticed a plastic wrapper that someone had been discarded in the tall grass. There was no wicker man nor any trace that one had ever been there.

Police photograph of Y Gwrach’s summit

Owen spoke to the inhabitants of Cumar. While passing Alan Rhys’s house, he noticed little wicker statues and stylized clay models of human faces in the windows. Recognizing them as symbols of Celtic paganism, the devoutly Anglican Owen Clarke was intrigued. But when he knocked on the door, no one answered. The neighbors said that Rhys was out on one of his regular trips to the mainland.

After weeks of fruitless searching, the police reported the entire Tindle family as missing. Their family back in Birmingham mourned while Owen brooded back in Caernarfon on the mainland.

Two years passed. In 1965, William and Mair Jones, with their 4-year-old daughter Reagan, visited Anglesey over the summer. On a particularly beautiful day, they went for a hike up Y Gwrach. When they came to the top, they found an old man, who greeted them warmly, while he worked on a large wicker statue. The old man, Alan Rhys, asked them to stay for tea. He poured them very generous portions. After twenty minutes, all three Joneses were sound asleep.

As before, Alan Rhys carried the Jones family back to his house. Any sign they or he had been on the summit was meticulously removed.

It was nearly a week before the police came to Y Gwrach. This time, not even Owen Clarke’s keen eyes found a trace the Jones family had been there. As with the Tindles, the Joneses had simply vanished into thin air.

Over Christmas break that same year, the MacDonell family of Scotland visited some friends on Anglesey. Craig and Caitlin, with their two children were driving near Cumar when their car slipped on a patch of ice. They crashed into the ditch beside the road. Fortunately, a local man by the name of Alan Rhys helped pull their car back onto the road. It was a frigid day, so Alan offered the MacDonells tea.

The family sleeping in the back of the car, Alan drove to his house. He parked the car in his carport. He then dismantled it by himself, piece by piece, and sank the dismantled car into the sea, leaving no trace of the MacDonells.

As with the previous disappearances, the police searched but could find nothing. Y Gwrach had man forested gullies on its lower slopes. The working theory was that these families got lost in these gullies and died, perhaps they fell.

On February 2, 1966, Owen Clarke, now a full detective, listened to the dispatcher asking for police units. A large fire had been seen by locals on top of Y Gwrach. Owen was now overly familiar with the hill. He snatched up his receiver and told them he would look into it. Owen drove to the island and arrived around dinner time.

Owen grabbed his flashlight and ran up the hill. There, as a cold winter rain began to fall, As Owen searched the gras and mud, he found the smoldering remains of a fire as well as the stumps of candles.

February 2 is Mary’s Festival of the Candles—or Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau in Welsh. Its analog in Ireland is Imbolc. In Christianity, the holiday celebrates Christ’s presentation in the Temple. However, Gwyl y Canhwyllau is also a pagan celebration of the coming spring. Candles are used in both the pagan and Christian celebrations.

Following this clue, Owen ordered a thorough search of the hill. While that was happening, he returned to Cumar. This time he met Alan Rhys. When Owen knocked on his door, Alan opened it. He was an old man, gray-haired and with a patchy beard. He had on a sweater and knit hat. He looked Owen Clarke over with piercing blue eyes.

Rhys had been among those townspeople to see the bonfire that night. He described his shock that someone had lit such a huge fire—which was illegal—on such a rainy night. Owen asked to come inside, to which Rhys readily agreed. Alan Rhys’s house was small and dirty. The old man clearly didn’t care to clean the place. Owen found more Celtic symbols, such as replica torcs hanging over doorways and animal statuettes on shelves. They were the only clean things in the house. Owen didn’t care to look in the cellar: he feared it’d be filthier than the house.

Police photograph of Alan Rhys’s house.

Rhys offered Owen tea. Out of a sense of professionalism, Owen declined, even though tea was exactly what he wanted on that cold night. Sitting down, Owen asked Rhys about his religion. Rhys replied he didn’t have one, but had a certain amount of respect for the beliefs of his ancestors.

Rhys dove into a long-winded story about how his family had lived on the island since before the Romans came to Britain. Owen cut him short to ask more about the fire. Owen wanted to know if Rhys saw anything else—movement on the summit or unusual sounds. Rhys said no, he hadn’t.

Aside from being a police detective, Owen was an avid gambler and was very good at spotting tells. Owen later said that as he was talking to Rhys, the man’s nose twitched and his eyes took on a watery character. When speaking of the bonfire, Rhys’s voice changed very slightly, becoming thinner than it had been moments before.

Owen pressed Rhys for more information but the old man held firm and said no more. Owen left sure Rhys was hiding something. But he needed proof. The search of the hill revealed nothing, much to Owen’s mounting frustration.

Over the following weeks, Owen became obsessed with Rhys. Owen spent his free evenings and weekends in Cumar, spying on Rhys from a distance and monitoring his movements. However, his superiors discovered his secret hobby and had him transferred off the island.

On May 1—May Day—another fire was spotted that night atop Y Gwrach. This time, a woman from Cumar, Catherine Llewelyn, had been outside when she saw the fire. She thought she saw shadows moving in front of the flames. And she claimed to have heard drums.

Police detectives found another smoldering pile of ash and branches of hawthorn and blackthorn. However, most disturbing was the blackened human arm—the size of a child’s—lying among thick grass near the ashes. The investigation became a murder case.

Park rangers were enlisted to nightly monitor the summit, which was closed off to visitors for the rest of the investigation.

Owen Clarke was called back to Anglesey in June. When he reviewed the evidence of the fires, he saw na obvious connection. Both fires took place on pagan holidays. Both times symbolic objects were left behind—candles on Candlemas and the branches on May Day. Owen guessed the next fire would be on August 1, or Lammas.

Owen and a small force of police climbed to the top of Y Gwrach on August 1. There, they waited in a hideout for nightfall. However, late in the afternoon, a severe thunderstorm came out of nowhere. The winds whipped water their faces. At last, the team scrambled back down the hill, sure no one would be able to light a fire in this weather.

But when Owen looked back behind him, sure enough a fire blazed. By the time he burst onto the summit, soaking wet and panting, there was no one there. A pile of ashes steamed in the rain surrounded by soggy loaves of bread.

Owen sat in his car, draining a bottle of whiskey as his mind churned over the evidence. He couldn’t let go of Rhys as the primary suspect, even though the man had been questioned multiple times now by different officers. Owen made up his mind: he wouldn’t rest until he had clear proof of Alan’s guilt.

When he entered Cumar, his car was stopped by a lady under an umbrella. It was Catherine Llewelyn. After asking why Owen was there, she divulged her own dislike for Rhys. Catherine was proud of her garden. Rhys, however, had a much better one but had refused to share his secret with Catherine.

After discovering Owen suspected Rhys, she agreed to help in any way she could. It was agreed that Catherine would keep an eye on Rhys and report his movements to Owen. Owen himself returned to Cumar whenever he had any free time.

Weeks passed. September 22 was fast approaching. In old Welsh tradition, September 22 is known as Alban Elfed and is a celebration of the autumn equinox. Owen knew the next fire—and next murder—would happen then.

When the equinox was only days away, Owen caught his lucky break. Catherine Llewelyn called to tell him Rhys had just left on one of his long trips to the mainland. Owen jumped in his car and sped to Cumar. He arrived after sunset.

Throwing all rules out the window, Owen broke into Alan’s home. He tore the place apart, looking for anything incriminating. When he came to Alan’s bedroom, something caught his eye. In a drawer sat a Kodak camera. What was unusual about it was how clean it was compared to everything else in the house. When Owen opened the camera, there wasn’t any film.

Finding nothing more upstairs, Owen checked the cellar. The cellar had cement walls and a packed earth floor. There was nothing in it except a lot of cobwebs and some boxes with nothing of interest in them. What was interesting to Owen were the plates, littered with crumbs, in stacks on the floor and the strong reek of human waste that permeated the air. Owen found a wooden hatch in what he thought was the far wall, but what was really a dividing wall that split the cellar in half.

In this hidden room Owen Clarke found Stewart and Amanda Tindle, Reagan Jones, and Caitlin MacDonell.

All four were dressed in ragged clothes. They were filthy, pale, and showed clear signs of malnourishment. A bucket in the corner was the source of the foul smell.

Everyone froze. No one said a word. Then the reality of the situation dawned on everyone. The captives realized with wild cries that they were free. Owen took them and raced back upstairs. Leaving them inside, Owen ran to his car and radioed headquarters.

Minutes later, almost every available cop in the region descend on Cumar. The locals were roused from their beds by the wail of sirens. After the police chief saw the place for himself, he contacted a judge in Caernarfon on the mainland. By the morning, a warrant for Alan Rhys’s arrest was issued. Alan was arrested later that day trying to cross back over to the island.

The Alan Rhys case gained nationwide fame overnight. Alan Rhys was charged with murder and kidnapping before being moved to Cardiff to stand trial. His four victims were brought to Colwyn Bay for better care at the city’s hospital.

Alan Rhys, a vigorous old man who kept his head during the initial arrest, changed markedly once he was removed from Anglesey. The longer he was gone, the more time seemed to catch up to him. His back hunched and the lines depend on his face. His once sharp mind devolved into a foggy mess. It didn’t take much for the police to get a full confession out of him.

Combined with the fragmented accounts of the four survivors, this appears to be the whole story: Alan Rhys was born to parents who secretly practiced a form of Celtic neopaganism. Ever since he was a young boy, Alan suffered from terrifyingly vivid dreams and visions.

Six years prior to the Tindles’ murder, in 1957 Alan lost his wife and three children to a house fire. Ever since then, he had to relive that night every time he slept. After much searching and performing specific rituals on holy days, Alan believes he contacted Nodens, a Celtic deity of healing, the sea, and death and rebirth. Nodens would give Alan a new family. However, he would have to make a proper sacrifice: a family for a family.

Alan was patient. He had to wait for the right families to come to Anglesey, as he was apparently forbidden or unwilling to take locals. After kidnapping the Tindles, Joneses, and MacDonells, he then sacrificed the “extraneous” members of each family on different holy days.

The four victims he kept alive were the same age and gender as Rhys’s dead family. Stewart and Amanda replaced his two oldest children; Reagan replaced his youngest daughter, and Caitlin replaced his wife. Apparently, on the autumn equinox, Alan was going to perform a ritual that would have bonded his four victims to him forever. What that meant exactly, he never said.

Caitlin said that Alan told her she was an avatar of Sulis, another pagan goddess. Nodens had promised Alan more children from Caitlin. And it was true she was pregnant when taken to the Colwyn Bay hospital. However, she never said who the father was and refused to talk about it.

Alan Rhys was convicted of ten counts of homicide, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The public outcry was so great and the crimes so heinous that Alan Rhys was sentenced to death. He was hanged on December 18, 1966. The press dubbed him the “Wicker Man”.

wicker_man copy
Digital scan of a 1966 newspaper headline

Stewart and Amanda Tindles returned to Birmingham, where they moved in with their grandparents. Reagan Jones returned to Ebbw Vale. Caitlin gave birth to a baby boy on January 1, 1967, whom she gave up for adoption.

After being praised as a hero by the nation’s media and awarded for his gallantry, Owen was quietly asked to retire since he had been off-duty when he broke into Alan Rhys’s home without a warrant or just cause. Owen Clarke obeyed and went off to live in a house in the Welsh countryside. All that mattered to him was that Alan Rhys was stopped and his victims freed. Anglesey would be troubled by Rhys no more.

There were of course many unanswered questions about the case. How had Alan put all his victims to sleep so easily? No drugs of that potency were found in his home. And how did he hide the bodies of his sacrificial victims so well? Indeed, how did he build and light the wicker men during storms?

The answers to these questions and more were never found by the police.

That brings this chapter to an end. Mourning the losses they suffered, the victims of Rhys returned to their homes. Owen Clarke walked out of the spotlight. Everything was peaceful again. That is until years later when people once more began disappearing on the little island of Anglesey.

But that is a story for another time…

Read the final conclusion here

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