A Romanian burglar has been jailed for life after pleading guilty to the 2013 murder of grandmother Valerie Graves.
Artist Ms Graves, 55, was house-sitting a £1.6million property in the idyllic Sussex village of Bosham when she was bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer in a ground-floor bedroom, sparking a long-running murder probe.
Over five years later, Cristian Sabou was arrested in the Transylvanian town of Dej, in the north-western part of Romania, and extradited back to the UK.
The 28-year-old today pleaded guilty to her murder at Lewes Crown Court and was jailed for life with a minimum term of 23 years.
Sabou was a handyman who had worked at the property in the previous months. He was told the house would be empty and went back to burgle it of gold and cash over Christmas.
But he woke Ms Graves as he entered the property and repeatedly hit her over the head with a hammer as she tried to defend herself.
Cristian Sabou has today pleaded guilty to the 2013 murder of grandmother Valerie Graves. He has been jailed for life with a minimum term of 23 years
Ms Graves was found bludgeoned to death in the ground-floor bedroom of a luxury £1.6 million property where she was house-sitting.
The murder had long remained a mystery, despite Sussex Police launching its biggest manhunt to find the killer, knocking on more than 700 doors and DNA testing 2,750 locals.
The murder weapon had been found near the scene, a £20,000 reward was offered, and 5,000 people were interviewed, yet the hunt seemed fruitless.
She died just days after her 55th birthday, which had been on Christmas Day.
The artist was murdered with a claw hammer in a ground floor bedroom at a mansione in Bosham, West Sussex – a village featured in ITV drama Midsomer Murders.
She had been house-sitting with her sister Janet, 60, Janet’s architect boyfriend Nigel Acres, 59, and their elderly mother Eileen, 87, while the property’s owners holidayed abroad over Christmas.
Grandmother Ms Graves had gone to bed at around 10pm on December 30, and 12 hours later her sister Janet found her dead in her room, at the rear of the house.
This is believed to be the hammer used by Sabou to carry out the killing six years ago
Nigel Acres (left), the partner of Valerie Graves’ sister Jan, Ms Graves’ son Tim Wood (centre) and her daughter Jemima Harrison (right) made at a public appeal for information in 2014
An inquest decided Valerie Graves was unlawfully killed with the extreme blunt force of a car accident.
She was beaten several times with the round end of a claw hammer, the court heard. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
Sabou had targeted the house for burglary after working in it with a friend, a court in Romania heard.
He had been told the owners would be away over Christmas and made a plan to break in.
Ahead of his extradition, he told a court hearing in Romania: ‘She woke up, I panicked… was under the impression that there was no one in the house.
‘I was 21, I was very young and immature. I never meant to kill anybody.
In a film of his arrest outside his flat he can be heard saying to police: ‘I tell you honestly I did not mean to hurt her. Somebody asked me to get into the house.’
Police at the mansion where Ms Graves was murdered while house-sitting in 2013
In the days after her death Ms Graves’ family paid tribute to the mother-of-two, who had recently moved to nearby Bracklesham Bay to be closer to her family.
Her son, Tim Wood, said: ‘My mum was much loved and will be sorely missed by the whole family. 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’.
At the time of her death Ms Graves had begun to pursue ceramics as a new avenue for her art.
Timeline of one of the longest murder hunts in Sussex Police history
December 30, 2013: A woman is found dead in a house in Smuggler’s Lane, Bosham, West Sussex.
December 31, 2013: The murdered woman is named by police as grandmother Valerie Graves.
January 1, 2014: A post-mortem examination reveals Ms Graves died from ‘significant head and facial injuries’.
January 3, 2104: Police announce they are examining the possibility of a break-in at the home where Ms Graves was house-sitting.
January 15, 2014: A 22-year-old man is arrested on suspicion of the murder of Ms Graves.
January 16, 2014: Detectives are granted more time to hold the man arrested on suspicion of murder.
January 17, 2014: The arrested man is released on bail.
Police at the scene of the murder in 2013, which led to a six-year murder investigation
January 22, 2014: The murder of Ms Graves features on BBC’s Crimewatch programme.
March 17, 2014: A £10,000 reward is posted for information leading to the conviction of Ms Graves’ killer.
March 24, 2014: The 22-year-old man who had been bailed over the murder of Ms Graves is released without charge.
October 1, 2014: The reward for information leading to the conviction of Ms Graves’ killer is doubled to £20,000.
December 23, 2014: Speaking one year on, Ms Graves’ family say Christmas is ‘on hold’ until her killer is caught.
January 18, 2015: Police set up a mass voluntary DNA screening of men who live, work or visit the Bosham area in an effort to eliminate them from suspicion.
December 30, 2017: Ms Graves’ family say they do not want revenge, just answers.
December 27, 2018: Police end the mass voluntary DNA screening with no matches found after almost 3,000 men are tested.
December 30: Speaking five years on, Ms Graves’ family say they fear her killer may never be caught.
July 10, 2019: Cristian Sabou is arrested in Dej, Romania, on suspicion of the murder of Ms Graves.
July 11, 2019: Sabou appears in court in Cluj-Napoca, north-west Romania, where he is told he will be extradited to the UK.
July 19, 2019: Sabou is extradited to the UK and charged with the murder of Ms Graves.
July 20, 2019: Sabou appears at Brighton Magistrates’ Court charged with murder.
November 11, 2019: Sabou pleads guilty at Lewes Crown Court to murdering Ms Graves.