A dispute between travellers came to a head when violence and mayhem descended on a Welsh cemetery as groups of men fought running battles among the gravestones and relatives visiting loved ones.
The footage – which has not been made public until now – shows groups of boys and men with bats, hammers, knives, and axes attacking each other and chasing rivals around Swansea’s Morriston Cemetery in the middle of the day. Vehicles were also used as weapons to deliberately crash into parked cars and to intimidate and pursue people around the grounds.
During the melee on August 5, 2022, gravestones were damaged, a number of people were seriously injured, and funerals were disrupted. At one stage, three of the brawlers intruded upon a cremation service for a mother-of-five by running into the chapel of rest and spitting on the floor and drinking water from a vase before hiding a weapon among the precious floral tributes – having first wiped it down to try to remove fingerprints.
When the disorder was reported to police by members of the public, firearms officers and a helicopter were dispatched to the scene, and the incident quickly made headlines around Wales and beyond. In the aftermath of the disturbance, police set about identifying the culprits and piecing together the events of the day. The name given to the investigation was Operation Hitchin, and it ultimately led to seven men being jailed and the truth of the shocking incident revealed – that a number of warring extended families had chosen a graveside blessing at a peaceful cemetery to stage their latest violent confrontation.
The officer in charge of the investigation, South Wales Police detective inspector Carl Price, said Operation Hitchin involved some “good old fashioned detective work” with extensive analysis of CCTV footage, dashcam and mobile phone footage, forensics, intelligence gathering, phone data analysis, and working with other police forces as far a field as Berkshire.
He said: “I think people were shocked by this incident – by the scale of it, the level of violence, the location, and the disrespect it showed to others. With the kinds of weapons that were used and way vehicles were driven around the cemetery it is lucky nobody was killed. We brought a lot of different resources to the investigation from extensive analysis of CCTV to forensics, community engagement, and working with cross-border work with colleagues in other forces. There was some good old fashioned detective work here.”
The investigation began with the recovery of a number of vehicles which had been involved in and damaged during the mayhem, and had been abandoned at the scene. Some of these vehicles yielded fingerprint and blood samples, as well as dashcam footage – though attempts had been made to conceal the video. Weapons believed to have been used in the fighting were also recovered from the cemetery and subjected to forensic tests. Mobile phone footage and statements were obtained from some of the witnesses to the carnage, and CCTV footage from in and around the sprawling site was secured. Officers then began the detailed job of tracking the movements of the vehicles involved in the disturbance, both before and after the incident.
As part of the investigation hospitals around south west Wales were checked as officers knew some of those involved in the fighting had been seriously injured. A number of suspects were quickly identified, and several of them were caught on camera by a police helicopter as they tried to dispose of evidence by throwing weapons into a stream on a farm near Gorseinon. Other vehicles which police identified as having been involved in the incident were subsequently found dumped at various locations in the county of Swansea – again there had been attempts to remove incriminating fingerprints.
As the net began to close in on those responsible for the disturbance two suspects went on the run. The pair were traced to Berkshire, and then intelligence led the investigation to the Slough area. A team of Welsh detectives were sent over the border and, working with Thames Valley Police officers, they swooped on the fugitives as they left a gym in the town and arrested them.
Gradually police were able to piece together a picture of the events of the day – how feuding families had clashed in the middle of the day when a convoy of vehicles carrying armed men turned up at a graveside blessing being attended by members of rival families. Vans were attacked with hammers and other implements, while vehicles were used to deliberately crash into other vehicles. As the disorder developed, a series of running battles was fought around the cemetery as rival groups chased each other. It emerged that the disturbance was just the latest in a series of clashes involving various factions of extended families which have seen violent confrontations across south Wales including in Newport, Cardiff, Bridgend, and Swansea.
Those identified by police – from teenagers up to men aged in their late 50s – were subsequently charged with offences including violent disorder, possession of offensive weapons, and dangerous driving. All eventually pleaded guilty.
Sentencing the defendants at Swansea Crown Court, judge Paul Thomas KC condemned the disgraceful scenes at the cemetery. He described how vehicles had been driven around the site “as if it were a racetrack” with lawns churned up by being repeatedly driven over, and a number of headstones damaged. He said what lay behind the feud was unclear but what was clear was that the violence “came as no surprise” to the various factions, and many people were on “high alert” and had known trouble would erupt at the blessing ceremony. The judge said it was “beyond the realms of coincidence” that between them the parties to the conflict had at least one machete, lump hammer, baseball bat, pickaxe handle, shovel, and probably golf clubs which were immediately “available for use”.
Patrick Joseph Murphy, aged 40, of Pen-y-Bryn caravan site, Bynea, Llanelli, was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. The father-of-11 has 17 previous convictions for 28 offences including four assault occasioning actual bodily harms (ABHs), and four public order matters. One of the ABHs involved smashing a glass into his victim’s face, and others saw him punching women in the face. One of the public order offences involved him fighting while in possession of a lump hammer.
Advocate Andrew Evans, for Murphy., told the sentencing hearing his client was at the cemetery to attend the blessing of his grandparents’ grave, something which had been held annually for 20 years. He accepted his client was involved in a brief episode of violence at the start of the incident but thereafter he had been “chased by a heavily-armed mob” and, fearing for his life, sought “sanctuary” in the cemetery’s Remembrance Room. The advocate said it had to be accepted his client has a record of previous offences from his younger days but had, in the defendant’s own words, “grown up” and now runs his own business.
Jeffrey Tawse, aged 23, of Letterston Road, Rumney, Cardiff, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Tom Crowther KC, for Tawse, said the defendant had been the target of unexpected and significant violence and reacted to it by picking up a shovel and using it to threaten. The barrister said five references – including from business associates and a priest – had been submitted to the court, and said his client was a married man with a young child.
James Coffey, aged 45, of Wentloog Road, Rumney, Cardiff, was sentenced to two years and three months in prison. He has a previous conviction for manslaughter committed when he was a youth as well as a previous conviction for violence disorder from 2019 which involved a brawl at a funeral wake.
John Coffey Jnr, aged 24, of Wentloog Road, Rumney, Cardiff, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Tom Crowther KC, for Coffey, said his client was is a family man with a young child, and he sad his reaction to the unexpected violence had been one of “panic and fear and concern for his family”.
Martin John O’Brien, aged 58, of Sandy Road, Llanelli, was sentenced to 16 months in prison. He has four previous convictions for five offences including affray, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, and a public order matter.
Davis Singh, for O’Brien, said his client was the son of Michael and Margaret O’Brien at whose graveside blessing the violence took place. The barrister said O’Brien accepted his behaviour on the day had been “appalling” and would have impacted on others at the cemetery, and he was remorseful for what happened.
John Joe O’Brien, aged 53, of Sandy Bridge, Llanelli, was sentenced to 16 months in prison for their involvement in the disturbance. He has five previous convictions for 10 offences including affray, a public order matter, and wounding with intent.
Advocate Giles Hayes, for O’Brien, said his client was deeply remorseful for his involvement in the incident. He said though his client admitted to being “wild” in his younger years and to drinking too much, he had been out of trouble for more than two decades and was a family man with five children. He said the defendant had set up the well-known Swansea company City Paving with his brother Charles, and he currently runs a caravan site near the old Stradey Park rugby ground in Llanelli.
No custody police photographs of Martin John O’Brien and John Joe O’Brien are available.
The defendants will serve up to half their sentences in custody before being released on licence to serve the remainder in the community
Two teenage children of Patrick Joseph Murphy – 18-year-old John Murphy and 19 year-old Paddy Murphy – were given suspended terms of detention in a young offenders institution and ordered to to unpaid work. Neither has any previous convictions. Robert Chudleigh, for John Murphy, said his client suffered a serious stab wound to the back during the violence, an the injury which meant he could no longer to box competitively having previously represented Wales in the sport Steve Burnell, for Paddy Murphy, asked the court to take into account his client’s immaturity, and he said prior to the incident his client had also boxed for Wales.
Other defendants involved in the disturbance cannot be named due to their ages.
South Wales Police detective chief inspector Mike Owens praised the efforts of the team who brought the guilty parties to justice. He said: “The force was in the spotlight for his this, it was a high profile case and the pressure was on. I want to pay tribute to the diligence of the officers who worked on it, and how swiftly they got results. There was great work between Carl and his team and the Crown Prosecution Service. It was only a small team and they tackled this on top of their other on-going work.”