Episode 38 - Unsolved Christmas Murder Of Tracey Mertens

On December 23, 1994, Tracey Mertens heard a knock on her door in Rochdale. As soon as she answered it, Tracey was grabbed, blindfolded and thrown into a car. For the hour that they drove, the mother of two went through every possible scenario in her head of what was about to happen to her. But not even in her worst nightmares, could Tracey have guessed the brutality her kidnappers  were going to put her through. 

Burning to Death 

In 1994, Tracey Mertens was a 31-year-old dinner lady and mother of two—she had a 12-year-old son Daniel and an 11-year-old daughter Kelly. Tracey had been together with the father of her children, Joey Kavanagh, since they were teenagers, but the relationship had not been steady for quite some time. The family had recently moved from Birmingham back to Rochdale in November 1994 very hastily without giving any explanation to relatives why they left Birmingham so quickly. 

Tracey’s sister, Sharon, also later recalled how weirdly the 31-year-old had acted earlier that summer. Apparently, Tracey had left Joey, took the kids with her and stayed with her sister in Rochdale for a couple of weeks. During that time, Tracey made sure she did not want Joey to know where she was. In addition, Tracey taped up the letterbox, the glass windows and even the curtains so they would not move. It was evident Tracey was scared—but was she terrified of her boyfriend of 15 years or someone else? Nobody really knew for sure what was going on between Tracey and Joey, but she eventually returned to him, and just months later, the whole family moved to Rochdale. 

When Christmas time came around, Kelly recalls there were no gifts under the tree but always assumed it was because they had “moved so quickly.” The children were still too young to realize how great danger the family really was in. 

Somebody Knows More | Listen Notes

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On the evening of December 22 1994, Tracey travelled 100 miles back to Nechells, Birmingham, to pick up some belongings and the family’s benefits book from their old house. The visit was not in any way planned, and nobody knew Tracey was going to be in Nechells that day. She was also supposed to return to Rochdale straight away. However, something changed, and Tracey spent the night at her sister-in-law’s home nearby and headed to her old house at 10 Cattles Grove the following morning, on December 23. 

Tracey herself would later say that she had been at her old home for about 10 minutes before she heard a knock on the door around noon. When she answered it, Tracey saw two overweight black males in their 30s staring at her before they barged into the house, asking with West Midlands accents: 

Where is Joey?” 

Tracey refused to answer—perhaps she was scared of what would happen to Joey or tried to protect her children by not letting the men know their current address. No matter the reason, the result was the same. As the men did not get what they wanted, they grabbed Tracey, blindfolded her and threw her in the back of a yellow Mark II Ford Escort with a cuddly toy stuck on the window parked outside. For a long time, Tracey lay there in the darkness, not knowing where the men were taking her, what they would do to her, and whether she would ever see her children again. 

For an hour, Tracey was alone with her thoughts before the car stopped in Congleton in Cheshire, 65 miles from Nechells. The two men pulled Tracey out of the trunk and threw her to the steps of Eaton Church without saying a word. Still blindfolded, Tracey felt how her kidnappers poured a liquid all over her—Tracey did not have to see to know what it was. The smell of petrol was enough to cause a feeling of panic to sweep over her. Then, just when the reality of the situation struck Tracey, the two men set her on fire and left. 


It took hours before nobody happened at the scene. Finally, at about 4:10, a passer-by found Tracey thanks to her screams for help. Despite having burns to 95% of her body, Tracey was still miraculously alive and conscious. Her clothes were piping hot and melted in a way that her aid initially thought Tracey was wearing some kind of costume. An empty gas can sat on the ground nearby. 

Tracey was quickly taken to the hospital, where the doctors even stalled to find a blood vessel on her blackened body to administer medication. Still, Tracey was somehow strong enough to talk with the police and give a full account of what happened to her. According to Tracey, the two black men were wearing brown leather caps and thigh-length leather jackets. In addition to Birmingham accents, the men had also spoken to each other in a foreign language. The authorities believed this to have been Patois, the dialect used in Jamaica. Lastly, Tracey told the police that the two men had come to the house and were looking for Joey. They had never been after Tracey, but she was the one suffering the consequences of whatever he had done. For 12 hours, Tracey Mertens fought for her life before succumbing to her injuries in the early hours of Christmas Eve 1994. 

Needless to say, the first person the investigators wanted to talk to was Joey. He did admit to habitual drug use and confirmed he owed a significant amount of money to dealers at that time. However, Joey vehemently denied his issues would have had anything to do with what happened to Tracey. But even if the men were not after drug money, they had still asked for Joey by name—Tracey’s death had everything to do with him. There had also been at least one warning sign. 

Weeks before the brutal murder and sometime after the family moved back to Rochdale, Tracey and Joey’s old home was broken into, and the word “death” was written on the downstairs window. The police believed the vandalization of the house was linked to Tracey’s murder—but unfortunately, nobody came forward saying they had seen who broke into the home at Cattles Grove. However, shortly after Tracey’s death, a couple contacted the police and said they had received a very specific threat because they owed money for drugs. Apparently, an unknown person had called them and said if they did not pay, they would “get what Tracey Mertens got.” But while the lead was interesting, it did not produce any results. 

The police also found it frustrating that even though the men who kidnapped Tracey drove a distinctive car—a Canary Yellow Ford Escort—there were no witnesses who would have seen the vehicle on that Friday between Birmingham and Eaton. Altogether, the killers had taken a huge risk abducting Tracey in the middle of the day, driving busy roads packed with pre-Christmas traffic and burning their victim in the churchyard. Somehow it all had worked in their favour. One big question was why these men had driven all the way to the small village of Eaton? It seemed too specific to be a completely random location—either it had some special significance to the killers, or they wanted to send a message of some kind. 


Another question is why Joey Kavanagh so firmly denied his problems with drug dealers could have been the reason why Tracey was taken and burned alive? Of course, admitting you may have caused your loved one to be tortured to death is not easy, but for sure, Joey knew more than he was willing to say. Months before her death, Tracey left their home and moved in with her sister, clearly terrified of something or somebody—she did not want Joey to know where she was but was it because she was scared of him or people who were looking for Joey? 

Tracey mentioned to the police that the men who took her were talking in a foreign language, which most likely was Jamaican Patois. And in 1990s Britain, Jamaican drug dealers, called Yardies, were known for using extreme violence. To give an example, in 1991 in north London, a female Nigerian drugs courier had her face and breasts ironed by Yardies. They also poured boiling water over her head if she passed out during the torture. This was Yardies’ way to ensure they controlled most of the supply of crack cocaine in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds and Bristol. As John Brennan, Detective Sergeant of the South East Regional Crime Squad, said, Yardies’ power is based on violence to a horrendous degree. If they were ready to torture rival drug couriers with boiling water, why it would be out of reach to think they could send a warning to those who owed them money by torturing or even killing their loved ones? 

If you put two and two together here, the answer to what happened to Tracey seems obvious. However, there is another possibility that is even more sinister than Tracey being killed for a drug debt. 

As mentioned before, Tracey’s trip to their old house in Rochdale was not planned. Apparently, she chose to go particularly to get the benefits book so the family would have money that Christmas. Only Tracey herself, Joey and his sister were aware Tracey would be at 10 Cattles Grove on December 23. Was it a coincidence that the two Jamaican men happened to come to the house 10 minutes after Tracey arrived, or had somebody called them and said she would be there? What are the odds that the house had been vandalized weeks earlier and then that one day when Tracey comes for a visit, the men are there? Definitely, they had not been waiting for weeks at Cattles Grove for Joey or Tracey to show their face. 

One disturbing theory is that Joey actually wanted to get rid of Tracey for one reason or another, and that’s why he sent the killers to the apartment. However, this scenario is quite unlikely as he really owned money, so how Joey would have paid for hitmen? Another possibility is that somebody in the neighbourhood was on the lookout voluntarily or forcefully and contacted the Jamaican men as soon as Tracey showed up at her old home. All these theories sound far more likely that the killers came to the house at the same time with Tracey by chance. 

Another thing is the way Tracey died. The men did not just put a bullet to her head—instead, they took her one hour away and burned her alive while she was conscious. These men could have just held Tracey hostage in her home and ordered her to call Joey and ask him to come to Rochdale. But they did not. They took Tracey and put her through hours of fear and horrible pain—and for what? If Tracey’s death was supposed to be some kind of warning, nothing really happened afterwards other than two young children losing their mother. 

Obviously, we cannot know if Joey eventually paid his drug debts, but as far as the public knows, nothing happened to him after Tracey was burned to death. 

Despite Tracey’s account of what happened to her and very specific descriptions of the Jamaican men and their vehicle, the two suspects have never been identified. However, apparently in 1995, a Birmingham man was charged with conspiring to murder Tracey, but the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence. The police have said they have DNA evidence from a sample—possible from a bloodstain—found at the Cattells Grove house that they use to eliminate suspects. Meaning the DNA sample has not matched with any known offenders on the police database. 

And so, even though it feels like Tracey’s murder should have been an open-and-shut case, it remains unsolved almost three decades later. The murder was featured on Crimewatch in 2009, with the police pleading to the public for information. Just before the show ended, the police received a call from an unknown individual who gave them the name of a suspect and a reason for why Tracey was killed. Detectives from Cheshire Police followed the lead, but nothing seemed to have come out of it. 

Still, someone out there knows who these two men were or saw the Canarian yellow car cuddly toy stuck on the window. Someone has the information to bring justice to Tracey and closure to Kelly, Daniel and the rest of the family. Leading the case, Detective Kate Tomlinson said: 

Tracey met a violent and horrific death at the hands of her killers. 

She was so brave and told the detectives as much as she could before she died. That information was crucial to the investigation team at the time, and several lines of investigation were followed. Despite extensive inquiries, no one has ever been charged with the murder of Tracey. 

Therefore, as Tracey’s family prepares to spend another Christmas day without her, I would personally appeal to anyone with information about Tracey’s death to make 

contact – even the smallest amount of information can be crucial when putting together a case.” 

A £30,000 reward for a tip leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Tracey Mertens’s death still stands. Anyone with any information should contact the Operation Eaton investigation team on 101. Information can also be passed on anonymously, via Crimestoppers, at 0800 555 111. 


To Kelly, losing her mother at such a young age and in such a brutal manner has not been easy— especially knowing Tracey died protecting her children. Kelly hopes that one day, there will be justice for her mother: 

The happiest times of my life were with my mum, the memories I’ve got with her. 

I’ve been through so much on my own when she should have been there. She deserves to be at peace. I don’t think she ever will be until these people are caught. 

Episode Credits: 

Host – Rhiannon Doe 

Voiceover – Kwesi  

Website layout & design – Fran Howard 


Who are the Yardies? 

Unsolved Murder: Tracy Mertens, killed after being set on fire in Eaton 

Unsolved: Tortured, burned and left to die on steps of church 

Tracey Mertens: Fresh appeal over 1994 petrol attack murder 

Tracey Mertens: Unsolved Christmas murder of mum burned alive in Churchyard 

Police find no motive for petrol murder 

‘Big, fat and Birmingham accents’ – What dying mum Tracey Mertens told police about her kidnappers 

Unsolved Murder: Tracy Mertens, killed after being set on fire in Eaton 

1994 Unsolved case of Tracey Mertens – burned alive at Christmastime (Cheshire) 

Yardies using increasingly brutal violence against rivals 

Police follow up new leads in hunt for 1994 killers of Tracey Mertens 

Appeal on 25th anniversary of the death of Tracey Mertens