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Tuesday, December 23, 1997 Published at 09:41 GMT

Special Report

Detectives in fresh bid to solve Christmas murder
image: [ Tracey Mertens was found lying fatally injured on the steps of this Cheshire church ]
Tracey Mertens was found lying fatally injured on the steps of this Cheshire church

Detectives hunting two men who doused a mother-of-two with petrol and set her alight just before Christmas three years ago have made a fresh appeal for help.

Tracey Mertens, 31, from Rochdale, Greater Manchester, died 24 hours after being left on the steps of a church by her killers, who abducted her when she returned to pick up belongings from her former home in Nechells, Birmingham.

She suffered horrific burns and was found by a man who heard her cries as he walked past the churchyard at Eaton, near Congleton, Cheshire on December 23, 1994.

It was a bitterly cold evening but Tracey Mertens' clothes were still smouldering. A petrol can was found nearby.

Ms Mertens was taken to hospital but died in the early hours of Christmas Eve.

Detectives did not get the chance to interview her properly but before she died she told police officers at her bedside she had been abducted by two black men who came to her former home in Birmingham, blindfolded her and took her away in a car.

[ image: Tracey was abducted from her former home in Birmingham]
Tracey was abducted from her former home in Birmingham
She said they were asking after her common law husband and the father of her two children, Joey Kavanagh, a heroin addict who had moved with her to Rochdale.

But Tracey said she did not know who they were but described them both as black, in their 20s, plump, wearing brown leather caps and thigh-length leather coats and said they were driving a scruffy, yellow Ford Escort.

Despite interviewing 2,000 people and taking 1,800 statements Cheshire Police have been unable to trace the two men or discover a motive for Tracey's death.

Detective Chief Inspector Neil Booth, who is leading the inquiry, said: "Mr Kavanagh has been questioned and has maintained he does not know why Tracey was murdered but claims it is nothing to do with his activities."

He said the couple's two children, Daniel, now 16, and Kelly, now 14, were now being looked after by Tracey's mother, Barbara, and he said relations between them and Mr Kavanagh remained cool.

[ image: Tracey Mertens' brother...angry at the inquest verdict]
Tracey Mertens' brother...angry at the inquest verdict
Last month Cheshire coroner John Hibbert returned an open verdict on Ms Mertens and said her death may remain a mystery for ever.

Her family were angry with the verdict and her brother, Mark, left the inquest shouting: "You can't do that !"

He said later: "He should have brought an unlawful killing verdict, there is no way he could bring an open verdict on the evidence we've seen."

[ image: Cheshire coroner John Hibbert]
Cheshire coroner John Hibbert
But Mr Hibbert said: "If you are returning a verdict of unlawful killing you need to have a criminal standard of proof and have to be satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt and I didn't feel the facts presented to me warranted me returning that verdict."

He said he believed Tracey's story but said it had to be corroborated by other evidence.

Detective Chief Inspector Booth says the crime could have been drug-related and he says: "The type of people involved are not willing to assist the police.

"While it is three years down the line it is still difficult to believe a young woman can die in such circumstances without someone knowing.

[ image: Detective Chief Inspector Neil Booth]
Detective Chief Inspector Neil Booth
"I'm sure someone somewhere knows how Tracey Mertens came to be killed. Even if they have one piece of information which they don't think is important. It could be the missing piece in the jigsaw.

"I really can't think of a worse way to die. Her family are still very upset but they are still hoping we can find the people who did this to Tracey."

Anyone with information is advised to ring Macclesfield police on 01625 610000 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

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