Churchgoing man of 80 jailed for life for murdering 77-year-old wife in car fire

Helen Clarke died from her injuries following the car fire in September last year  (South Wales Police)
Helen Clarke died from her injuries following the car fire in September last year (South Wales Police)

A pensioner has been jailed for life for the murder of his wife of more than 50 years in a car fire.

David Clarke, 80, pleaded guilty to the murder of his 77-year-old wife Helen Clarke at a hearing at Swansea Crown Court in December. On Friday morning, he was given a life sentence with a minimum term of 21 years and eight months.

The couple lived in a cottage on the Gower Peninsula. On 22 September, both were discovered in a burning black Honda Jazz car in Sketty Lane near Swansea Beach.

After being pulled from the car by Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, Helen was treated by burns specialists but died two days later from her injuries. Clarke was also taken to hospital with burns.

She had been repeatedly hit by a hammer prior to Clarke starting the fire, which he did by spraying her with flammable liquid.

Appearing at the crown court in December, Clarke, of Higher Lane, Langland, Swansea, pleaded guilty to his wife’s murder via video link.

The court heard that Clarke was a trained electrical engineer and former competition shooter, who had met his wife at a church service. They married in 1968.

David Clarke (South Wales Police)
David Clarke (South Wales Police)

The couple, who had four children, moved to Zambia and later to Zimbabwe – then called Rhodesia.

In a witness statement, his son, David Clarke J, said his parents had always argued, with his father sometimes being violent and bullying towards his mother – but thought they had “mellowed with age”.

The court heard the couple had begun to seriously argue again in the days before the incident, after Clarke revealed he had an affair some years prior and had orchestrated a recent holiday to Australia to see the woman again.

On the day of the murder, Clarke sent a text message to his children telling them he loved them.

Then, under the pretence of taking his wife to the beach, he drove her to Sketty Lane, where he hit her nine times with a hammer and covered her with flammable liquid.

David Clarke, 80, was jailed for life at Swansea Crown Court (PA)
David Clarke, 80, was jailed for life at Swansea Crown Court (PA)

A passing council workman, hearing Mrs Clarke’s screams and noticing flames from the car, attempted to save the couple – but Clarke pushed him away before driving off and crashing into a hedge with the car going up in a “ball of flames”.

Mrs Clarke later told emergency services “my husband has done this” before she died on 24 September.

Passing his sentence, Judge Paul Thomas KC said: “In September last year, you killed your wife of over 50 years.

“You killed her in an utterly brutal and merciless manner. You killed her in a car on a busy road in Swansea, where children were on the way to school.

“You hit her repeatedly to the head with a lump hammer; you did so on no fewer than nine occasions. You then doused her with petrol and set fire to her.

“You knew that in setting fire to her, she would be caused an unimaginable pain and terror.”

Judge Thomas called the attack “savage”, and said Clarke had appeared to show no remorse for his actions – and sentenced him to life in prison.

In a statement, her family said: “Our mother was a loving, kind and courageous woman who greatly cherished her family, her friends, and the world at large.

“She was strongly committed to her faith, had a laugh which would set a room alight, and a great appreciation for life and the beauty of the world.

“Her passing in such a sudden and tragic manner has been devastating; and our grief is immeasurable. The situation we find ourselves in highlights the complexity and fragility of the human mind.”