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Murder probe DNA screening starts

Detectives are expecting thousands of men to take part in mass DNA screening in the hope of solving the murder of grandmother Valerie Graves.

Men aged over 17 began attending the voluntary sessions at the Millstream Hotel in Bosham, West Sussex, at 9am today, more than a year after the artist was bludgeoned to death as she house-sat for friends in the village.

Police have launched a large scale manhunt for the 55-year-old's killer who still remains at large despite a £20,000 reward being offered and a Crimewatch appeal being made.

Police have also interviewed 9,500 people in relation to the investigation and posters have been placed around the village asking volunteers to come forward and be tested.

Detective Superintendent Nick May, from Sussex Police, said over the next three weeks, men aged 17 and over were being invited to the hotel to give a voluntary sample which would be matched to the limited DNA profile they have of Ms Graves' killer, in order for them to eliminate a large group of people from the investigation.

Participants will be shown a video about the process before they provide a thumb print and a swab is taken from the inside of their cheek in a process which lasts no longer than 15 to 20 minutes, Mr May said.

He continued: "It's then packaged up and couriered to our forensic provider where the samples taken here are compared against the profile of the person that we believe murdered Valerie.

"If that's a negative then the samples taken here are destroyed.

"There are really strict, legal safeguards in place to ensure that we treat those items with respect and that we do not use them for any other investigation."

Mr May said he believed there were about 5,000 men living or working in the area who could come forward to give a sample and claimed detectives were not clutching at straws by carrying out the mass sampling.

He said: "This is part of a thorough investigation. What we are looking to do here is to eliminate the people who live in and around Bosham so that we can actually make the pot of people we have been looking at smaller.

"We in Sussex have not done a mass screening like this for some considerable time.

"However, there are examples elsewhere in the country where it has been successful.

"We are very confident that we will find the murderer of Valerie Graves.

"Whether it comes precisely from this line of inquiry or from others we will see, but this is what we are concentrating on at the moment and is the best chance we have to eliminate people who live in and around Bosham to help us focus in and find the murderer."

Ms Graves, a mother-of-two, is believed to have been killed with a claw hammer in a ground floor bedroom in Smugglers Lane, Bosham, on December 30, 2013.

She was bludgeoned as she house-sat with her sister Jan, mother Eileen and her sister's partner, Nigel Acres, while the property's owners holidayed abroad over Christmas.

But despite an exhaustive inquiry, no-one has been charged.

The death of Ms Graves shocked the small community of Bosham, which featured in an episode of the ITV crime drama Midsomer Murders.

Last month Ms Graves's two children Tim Wood, 32, and Jemima Harrison, 35, spoke - with Mr Acres - ahead of the first anniversary of her murder.

The family said Christmas was put "on hold" as they faced their first festive season without her.

Nigel Acres, the partner of Ms Graves' sister, said: "We would ask anyone who is eligible to attend one of the screening sessions and give their DNA.

"This is a difficult case and we know the police are doing all they can to solve it.

"The DNA screening is an important part of the investigation. Please help."

Myles Cullen, Chichester District Councillor for Bosham, said: "The police are doing all they can to solve this.

"I would encourage all men in the area to come forward to give their DNA.

"I have given mine and it is so easy. You just open your mouth for a few seconds for the swab and roll your thumb across a pad for your thumbprint to be taken."

The DNA screening sessions are taking place at the Millstream Hotel today and tomorrow, from Monday February 2 to Saturday February 7 and from Tuesday February 10 to Sunday February 15. All sessions are from 10am to 8pm.

Anyone with information about the murder should call Sussex Police on 101, quoting Operation Ensign, or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

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