In a world far removed from the dreaming spires of neighbouring

Oxford where he worked, a young Scots biochemist was gunned

down in a strange incident that still baffles police. Reporter

James McKillop and photographer Jeff Mitchell investigate

THOSE who knew him best were astounded to learn that their friend

Spike Meenaghan was last seen alive working with a plane at the front

door of his terraced house on the outskirts of Oxford. ''I would not

have thought that he even knew what a plane was for. He was hardly a DIY

enthusiast. You could see that just by looking at his bedroom windows.

Spike was too lazy to put up curtain rails, so he covered the windows

with blankets.''

It was a Saturday afternoon shortly before Christmas, and darkness was

falling rapidly. Not many people were about in the Blackbird Leys estate

at Cowley. Oxford United were playing Cardiff at home, and those not

attending the match were in town completing their Christmas shopping or

just staying indoors.

Having finished the job on the front door, Spike reverted to

character. He went inside and switched on his television set to catch

the Celtic result; he turned up the volume. Spike was an avid supporter

of the famous Glasgow club, and had suffered with them during their many

downs of recent seasons. However, although it was by now almost totally

dark outside, he did not turn on the lights.

What happened next left friends and colleagues numbed with shock. Even

now, more than two months later, they remain dumbfounded. ''It is

totally inexplicable. Spike was a larger-than-life person, both in

appearance and in personality. He got on with everybody with whom he

came in contact. Even though he was 6ft 3ins tall and extremely fit, he

would run away from a fight rather than get involved. He was just one

heck of a nice guy.''

By now it was 4.25pm. Spike was settling in front of the television in

the lounge when something made him go into the adjacent kitchen. He was

not, as has been suggested, going to make a cup of tea. It is possible

he had heard a noise at the rear of his house and went to investigate.

Nobody knows, except, perhaps, his killer.

As Spike entered the kitchen, a single shot was fired through the

kitchen window from outside the house. From the spread of the shotgun

pellets, the victim was between six and 12 feet away from his killer.

Fatally wounded, Spike struggled to the kitchen phone and dialled 999.

He tried to speak into the mouthpiece, but was unable to come out with

anything intelligible. However, the operator traced the call, and police

and ambulance were at the scene in minutes.

The officers had to force their way into the house. But they were too

late. Spike was lying dead on the kitchen floor. Mercifully, he could

not have been in distress for long. The killer had made good his or her


The manner of the death of this 33-year-old post-doctoral research

worker in Oxford University's Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, who

chose to live in the working-class Blackbird Leys estate, has caused

widespread speculation. But many of the rumours have been wide of the


The housing estate in which biochemist Dr Michael Meenaghan chose to

live was made notorious in the early 1990s when young boys nightly put

on ''hotting'' shows for 200-strong groups of spectators and the

television cameras by burning rubber with their skilful handbrake turns

and skids in stolen cars. It was a world away from the dreaming spires,

quadrangles, lawns, and punting, of Spike's work environment.

Among those who have been following reports of the town-and-gown

murder in the local paper has been Colin Dexter, creator of Detective

Chief Inspector Morse. ''This is an obvious case for Morse,'' he told

me. ''Who knows, it might well be at some time in the future.''

Born in Stirling Royal Infirmary on December 4, 1961, Mike Meenaghan

grew up in Bannockburn. He attended the local St Mary's primary school

and later St Modan's High in Stirling.

It was at school that he first developed a taste for stadium rock, an

obsession that was to remain for the rest of his life. Every so often he

would get involved in playground squabbles as he insisted that Emerson,

Lake and Palmer was by far a much better band than Yes. By this time he

was also a devoted Celtic supporter.

His parents were more than proud when he won a place at Stirling

University, where he studied biochemistry. It was there that he

developed his sporting skills. Spike played cricket, but was also

introduced to volleyball. The sport is big everywhere in the world,

except in Scotland. Such was his enthusiasm and skill that he was soon

playing first division in the national league.

It had been a young relative who somehow could never get a tongue

around the name Mike that was to lead to his nickname Spike. It could

not have been more appropriate.

In volleyball, when a player hits an unreturnable ball down into the

opponents' half, it is called spiking. ''There was no greater spiker

that I came across,'' said Rod Ireland, who many years later was to

become his coach and certainly one of his best friends. ''It was not

that he would just smack it down hard. He could see the hole in the

opposition defence and went for that space. He used his intelligence.''

And intelligent he was. Spike was to graduate with a BSc Hons and then

gained his MSc. He was also to get married in June, 1982. He and his

wife, Anne, had a son named Michael after his father. Unfortunately, the

marriage ended in divorce after only four years.

As is often the case in this situation, father and son lost touch.

However, in the months before his death, Michael had been back in

contact and was building up a close relationship with young Mike, who

shared his father's passion for Celtic. Mike, now aged 11, would spend

weekends in Oxford and Spike was very much a devoted father.

With the break-up of his marriage Mike moved to Bristol, where he

worked on his PhD at South Mead Hospital. It was also at Bristol that he

met Jenny, who was to play an important part of his life for the next

five years. Later, it was to develop into a stormy relationship, with

Jenny demonstrating intense jealousy. At Bristol, Mike continued with

volleyball, playing in the first division of the English national


Spike and Jenny seemed a perfectly normal couple when they moved into

18 Monks Close, Blackbird Leys, after Mike took up his research job at

the Sir William Dunn School four years ago. With a salary of only

#18,000, together with Jenny's pay from her job at a bookshop, they

could not afford a lavish lifestyle.

His work focused on the study of the molecular biology of proteins

involved in cell adhesion. The research, carried out under a Wellcome

Foundation grant, tried to establish how cells communicate with each

other and how this might go wrong in diseases.

The work suited Spike down to the ground. He loved Oxford's academic

life and got on well with the other members of the research team. He

also loved the fact that his job did not involve regular hours.

He was perfectly happy to go into his laboratory in the middle of the

night should a culture require his attention. He was more than pleased

that he could have a long lie in the morning. During the summer he and

Jenny would sunbathe in their garden overlooking some spare ground and


But the relationship was turning sour. The police were called after

one major row. There was a break-up and an attempted reconciliation.

Two and a half years ago Spike had discovered Oxford Park volleyball

team. As happens to many players, his knees had been giving him trouble

and he had given up the game. However, his old enthusiasm came bounding

back. Oxford Park had been in the fourth division of the English

national league, but had dropped out as the best players moved on.

Coach Rod Ireland is hugely ambitious, and in Spike he found a

soulmate who could help take the team back into the big time. They

became great friends. Rod is a Wolverhampton Wanderers supporter, and he

and Spike had a common bond over football teams that had seen better


Rod smiles as he recalls Spike's Scottish irreverence. ''From the

start, I was 'Baldy' to him . . . for obvious reasons.''

Everyone who came across Spike recalls his two great passions:

Scotland and Celtic. He was deeply proud of his Scottishness and his

working-class background, and was devoted to his mother who had been

widowed on her birthday. He always made sure he was with her on that


Like just about everybody else who lived on Blackbird Leys estate,

Spike reckoned the area had been given a bad press. About 50% of the

houses are now privately owned, and like anywhere else there are good

and bad elements. However, he almost certainly felt slightly

uncomfortable on the few occasions he supped a pint in the Blackbird

public house, a short stroll from his home.

The pub is on the road where the kids set up their hotting shows --

they still go on, but nowadays they are only occasional and the teenage

drivers have to manoeuvre the stolen cars around islands and over

sleeping policemen put up by the local council. In the past there had

been truncheon charges and near rioting around here. Even today it is

reckoned there is a lot of drug trafficking going on.

But Mike was not into that kind of scene, nor was he a heavy drinker.

His favourite tipple was Irn Bru. His life revolved around work and

volleyball. He loved nights out with the team. He especially enjoyed a

laser quest tournament -- a hugely competitive combat scene in which

opponents shoot space guns that fire nothing more dangerous than

ultraviolet lights.

Certainly, Mike was competitive. Volleyball can be a noisy sport, with

players shouting out team chants and swopping high and low fives after a

point is scored. He ''whooped'' louder than anyone else in the court --

cursing himself when he played a bad shot, but never criticising anyone


He had a tremendous sense of humour and loved laughter. ''He was

always telling jokes, making himself the brunt,'' said team-mate Dr

Chris Blakewell, a fellow scientist. ''Most of the time we could not

understand his accent. But he was great fun to be with.''

It was through volleyball that Spike was to meet Denise Holt, a

34-year-old mother of three young children. Rod Ireland had taken Oxford

Park and a women's team to a tournament in Surrey in July, 1993. They

were one woman short, and a Tannoy message for a volunteer produced


Like Mike she had a PhD, and they got on like a house on fire. By

coincidence they met again in August in Gloucester, and began to keep in

touch. ''Mike was a big softy really. He would send her long letters. He

also ordered flowers through Interflora.''

It was after his wife Jenny found one of those Interflora receipts

that their relationship ended. According to friends a weight had been

lifted from Spike's shoulders. He loved playing with Denise's three

young children. It was difficult to work out who was the biggest kid.

They also believe it was through this experience that he rekindled a

relationship with his own son.

Mike realised that he had been offered a second lease on life. Long

letters and expensive phone calls were not enough. He and Denise decided

to live together, and Mike was planning to move to her home in

Birmingham when he was shot.

He had worked out that if he kept his Cowley home going he could fit

in work and volleyball at Oxford while living with Denise in Birmingham.

He could travel between the two cities if he spent a couple of nights a

week at his Cowley home. A date had been set in January for his move to


First on the agenda was a visit to Scotland to spend Christmas with

his mother.

''What we are really missing is answers,'' said Rod. ''All of us want

to know how this could happen to a guy like Spike.''

So, too, would the Thames Valley police force which, unusually, has

offered a #10,000 reward for information leading to the capture and

conviction of the killer. They reckoned that had there been some

underworld involvement in the murder, then this reward would bring a


It could be cost-effective if it helped shorten the investigation, but

the force also has a duty to apprehend quickly a ruthless killer.

However, so far the reward has not produced information of any


Detective Superintendent David Blair is from the modern school of

police officers. ''We are considering just about everything except

suicide,'' he said.

He admits to being a great fan of Chief Inspector Morse, and does not

worry too much about comparisons being made over this case with the

popular television drama on which filming of one more series is about to


Dr Meenaghan's academic colleagues have been questioned, but Supt

Blair never really believed that line of inquiry would provide any kind

of genuine lead. ''You might find it in fiction,'' he said, ''but in

reality it doesn't happen like that.''

So far, around 800 people have been interviewed and more than 150

statements taken, but this has produced little to go on. Naturally,

those involved in a relationship with the victim have been closely

questioned. This area has been throughly investigated.

By accident or design, the manner of the killing has meant that there

was no forensic evidence left at the scene. Police have searched the

ground nearby, allotments, streams, ditches, and drains, but have not

found the murder weapon or a cartridge. Even today they don't know

whether the murder weapon was a single or double-barrelled shotgun.

Certainly, many people heard the shot. Some thought it was a car

backfiring, others that a firework had been let off. But there were also

those who were convinced it was a gun being fired.

Two doors down from the murder house, Mrs Barbara Andrews said it was

no louder than a champagne bottle being popped. ''In fact, I thought one

of my light-bulbs upstairs had gone.''

There were a few potential witnesses around at the time, but none saw

anything. The safest escape route for the killer would have been over

the fence at the back garden and across the allotments. However, whoever

it was could easily have gone down the side of the house and out the

front gate under cover of darkness.

There have been many theories.Could it have been a burglary that went

wrong? After all, Dr Meenaghan had been burgled just over a year

previously and this had led to him changing locks and fitting window


He also went ex-directory after his phone rang on several occasions,

but no-one spoke. He thought it might be the burglar, considering a

second raid, checking to see if the house was empty. But burglars don't

normally carry shotguns.

Could it have been a contract killing? Professional assassins do not

normally take out victims with a single shot. They would fire more than

once to ensure the victim was dead. Indeed, they would be unlikely to

use a shotgun in the first place. If it was a hit, then it was a very

unusual contract. Significantly, there has been no suggestion from

anyone that Dr Meenaghan was in fear of his life.

Because of the nature of the killing, police have also thoroughly

examined the possibility that there might have been a drug motive. But

this line of inquiry has led nowhere.

Currently, the police are investigating the possibility that this

might have been a case of mistaken identity. Houses in the area with No

18 in the address are being visited. So too are those in similar

locations -- overlooking allotments, for example. People throughout

Oxford with a similar appearance, especially those with a criminal

background, are also being questioned.

That might not be as arduous a task as at first might seem. After all

Dr Meenaghan, at 6ft 3ins and with long, dark hair often tied in a

ponytail, was quite distinctive.

A police investigation on this scale is a process of elimination.

While the lines of the inquiry have now been narrowed, Supt Blair makes

it clear that nothing has yet been ruled out.But a sense of frustration

remains, not only for the police, but also for Spike's closest friends.

Although Denise is involved in post-trauma stress counselling, she has

so far been unable to return to her work.

Spike having died intestate, the house in Monks Close will now be

inherited by his son. Denise, however, was given permission to return

there to collect some personal possessions and Spike's volleyball kit,

which will go to his club where it will be kept as a memento.

Accompanied by police officers, Denise paid an emotional visit to the

house last week. There she found Mike's Christmas present to her -- a

ring. The visit took place on St Valentine's Day.

Her children, aged nine, seven, and three, miss Spike terribly. They

have been told he died in a car crash, but children of that age seem to

have a sixth sense and they know there is more to it than that.

Describing happy nights with Spike, watching football on television

over a can of beer and visits to see Wolves play, Rod Ireland shook his

head and recalled: ''We had planned a visit to Scotland this year to go

to a Celtic match. None of us can comprehend why this should have

happened. It is still impossible to believe he is dead. I thought when I

attended Spike's funeral in Scotland with my partner, Jackie, that I

would be able to let it go. But that has not happened. It was a

beautiful service and I got to meet his friends from childhood.

''But the void is still there. What we all want is an answer. But

there is no answer.''