A Romanian man who bludgeoned grandmother Valerie Graves to death in a burglary-gone-wrong has been jailed for life.
The killing of the 55-year-old artist at Christmas time shocked the small village of Bosham in West Sussex.
She was found with extensive head injuries in the ground-floor bedroom of a luxury £1.6 million property where she was house-sitting.
The beloved mum sustained extensive head injuries caused by forces similar to a road crash, a court heard.
Cristian Sabou, previously of Dej, Romania, pleaded guilty to her murder when he appeared at Lewes Crown Court on Monday.
The 28-year-old Sabou appeared in the packed courtroom wearing a beige jumper, flanked by three security guards.
Speaking through an interpreter, he pleaded guilty to a charge of murder.
Prosecutor Philip Bennetts QC told the court that Sabou had entered the house as a would-be burglar, expecting it to be empty.
He had worked odd jobs for the homeowners in the previous couple of months.
The court heard that he had been informed that a safe in the house contained a large amount of cash and ingots.
When he entered the home he found Ms Graves, and attacked her.
Sabou struck her with a hammer, causing horrific injuries to her head as she tried to defend herself.
Mr Bennetts said: “There were extensive injuries to her head.
“The level of force used was extreme. Not dissimilar from the forces experienced during road traffic collisions.”
Ms Graves had just moved down from Scotland to be closer to her family, with whom she spent Christmas before she was found dead on December 30.
The killing sparked one of the longest murder hunts in Sussex Police history, but it was not until July 2019 that Sabou was arrested in Romania and charged and extradited to the UK.
She was a free spirit who enjoyed her life and was a talented artistTim Wood, Ms Graves's son
Mr Bennetts told the court that the breakthrough in the case arose when Sabou’s partner saw him looking at his mobile phone and becoming agitated in July 2018.
He said: “She looked at the phone and there was a search result for the murder.”
Opening the page, she found a picture of the hammer recovered by police and confirmed as the murder weapon.
She recognised it as looking like the one Sabou had previously owned.
Police were contacted and Sabou was detained on a European Arrest Warrant.
He agreed to be extradited and arrived at Heathrow Airport at 9.35am on July 19 2019.
DNA from Sabou matched the samples taken from the murder weapon and the door to the bedroom where Ms Graves was staying, the prosecutor said.
Defence barrister Kerim Fuad QC said: “By the defendant pleading guilty to murder, not only has he spared the long-suffering family and friends of Ms Graves the extra and continuing emotional pain of a trial but with that plea today comes a formal and public acceptance of genuine criminal responsibility for his dreadful actions that day.
“This was a horrific violent attack committed to make good his escape.”
He said there is “no light at the end of his tunnel” and called for the judge to impose the shortest possible sentence.
Following Ms Graves’s murder, her son Tim Wood said: “She was a free spirit who enjoyed her life and was a talented artist.
“She had lived in Scotland for about 10 years, a place she loved and which inspired her passion for art.
“This has been devastating for the family and has come as a complete shock.”
Her family described her as “an eternal student who was always hungry for a new challenge”.
Judge Christine Laing QC said: “Rather than simply running away in the hope you could not be identified by a woman waking from sleep you conducted this horrific attack on Ms Graves.
“It was your dishonesty and greed that took you to the house. It was your cowardice and lack of morality that caused you to kill Valerie Graves.”
She jailed him for life with a minimum term of 23 years and 272 days.
Judge Laing said: “Valerie Graves was a much-loved mother, grandmother, daughter, sister and friend.
“She celebrated her 55th birthday on Christmas Day.
“Extreme bruising and fractures to her hands show that in the final moments of her life she had desperately tried to defend herself from you.
“I am quite satisfied that it was a sustained attack and the terror and trauma for her in the final few moments of her life is unimaginable.”