The murder of PC Albert Willits in 1925

Albert Willits was born in Walsall in 1901. He was part of the Wolverhampton Borough Police and was posted to Bilston Road Police Station in Wolverhampton. PC Willits reported for duty at 6am on Sunday 18th January 1925. His patrol area included the General Hospital, All Saints Road and Vicarage Road, and it was while walking his beat, in the latter, that he spotted three young men. Something about them roused his suspicions and being a diligent officer he made the effort to find out why they were on his patch so early in the morning. This action cost the brave young policeman his life.

PC Albert Willits

Far away in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, the day before three young men absconded from the local reform centre for young offenders. Industrial homes and reform centres were used to house children who had been involved in criminality (sometimes as little as one minor theft) potentially for several years.

On the way to a church service they slipped away and were not noticed to be missing for nearly two hours. They were by then some distance away, having caught lifts with passing vehicles all the way to the Midlands. They continued on the journey, presumably all heading for their homes, and in the early hours of Sunday they were in West Bromwich. All three were spotted several times on the road between there and Wolverhampton, but each time offered the explanation that their destination was Stafford. They were allowed to carry on.

The only reliable account of what transpired when they were questioned by PC Willits comes from the youngest of the three boys - 14 year old George James Dixon. The other two said very little. William Crossley, 19, was challenged by PC Willits, who swung his arm round and knocked off the officer's helmet. Edward Patrick Heggerty, 18, had picked up a loaded revolved earlier in the journey in Luton, recovering it from some turf at the side of the road - presumably from an earlier offence or another offender who had informed him as to the location.

PC Willits followed Crossley across the road and when he was about to catch up with him again, Heggerty walked up from behind and three shots rang out. George Dixon stated he saw the flashes from the other side of the street. "The first one missed, but the other two hit him in the back of the head." All three then broke into a run, and fled down a nearby alleyway. They hurried off as fast they could in the direction of Stafford knowing that it would only be a matter of time before the area was swarming with police. An attempt was made to break into a food shop on the Stafford road a little later, but they were heard by the owner and once again fled the scene.

They were right about the police arriving quickly, the gunshots had been heard by a number of locals: Nurse Skinner - from her bedroom; Jessie Dando - who lived opposite the alley; and Thomas Lawley and Frederick Chew - who were returning from working a night shift. Mortally wounded as he was, PC Willits still managed to blow his whistle, which was heard by his colleagues PC Bourne and PC Wycherley. They found him dying on the pavement, almost opposite Sutherland Place. It took but a few minutes to carry the badly wound young officer to the hospital, but to no avail, he died on arrival. This started a full scale murder hunt, involving every available officer on the force and all the cars and motorbikes that could be mustered. The massive hunt ended in Stafford, at 5.15pm, when the trio were arrested by PC Churchward. The weapon, used to such devastating effect by Heggerty, was never found. Thanks to George Dixon's statement, he was not charged with Wilful Murder and escaped the sentence of death by hanging, passed on the other two by Justice Salter, at the Stafford Assizes. Instead he was charged with theft and sent to the workhouse.

PC Willits' funeral was attended by over 4,000 who lined the route and 500 police officers from both the Wolverhampton and neighbouring forces. He left behind a widow and a 9 month old child. After a service in Saint Peters Church, PC Willits was laid to rest in Merridale Cemetery. In 1943, his widow, Dorothy, joined him in his eternal sleep. She was 42. As to his two murderers, neither of them were hanged - the Home Secretary gave them a reprieve following calls for mercy and instead they were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Albert's son Derek was later traced by local officers in Wolverhampton, when it was part of the West Midlands Police, and he was asked to unveil a plaque at Wolverhampton Central Police Station to remember his father.