Special report by Kate Balding
Investigative work on a cold case by a Lewisham-based homicide detective led to the conviction of a killer who had been living under a false identity for almost four decades.
Paul Bryan, 63, from Hammersmith, was given a life sentence by Judge Nigel Lickley KC at the Old Bailey today and will serve a minimum of 24 years for the fatal stabbing of 63-year-old father of three, Roman Szalajko, in February 1984
The cold case was re-opened during a procedural review in 2013, Bryan was identified through a DNA match and crucial discrepancies in documents were discovered by Lewisham’s Detective Sergeant Quinn Cutler, then in a specialist unit locating ‘hard to trace’ persons linked to serious crimes.
Bryan could not be traced to any address, employment or tax records after 1989. The court was told it “looked as if he had simply disappeared”.
To find him, Cutler examined records of all possible matches to the name ‘Paul Bryan’ and discovered one profile, of a slightly older Welshman, had been registered as married, some years after being registered as deceased.
After Cutler had connected the two profiles, a marker could be placed on Bryan’s passport which identified him as an individual wanted for murder but by this time he was moving between Spain, Crete and Portugal.
It was not until he travelled back to the UK of his own accord on November 19, 2022, that the Met Police were alerted and able to detain him on arrival at Stanstead Airport.
After the sentencing, Cutler, now a homicide detective based in Lewisham, told ELL: “When I first identified that PB was living under a false identity I was obviously very satisfied that we had been able to track our suspect. However, bringing someone to justice is a drawn out process and the real satisfaction came at conviction, and that was not just for me personally but for Mr Szalajko’s remaining family who were greatly impacted by Roman’s murder over the years.”
Prosecutor Louis Mably KC, told the jury Szalajko had been on the phone to a friend, Michael Peddubriwny, when he answered the door to 22-year old, Bryan 39 years ago. Still on the call, Peddubriwny heard Szalajko’s repeated cries for help before the line disconnected.
Police found Szalajko dead at the scene and ‘slumped’ in a chair. A ‘small amount of blood’ was reported seeping from his stomach onto a white vest. Yet, due to limitations in forensic technology at the time, the case went cold.
In the intervening years, advances in forensic technology allowed DNA evidence from the original crime scene to be re-examined and as a result, genetic material on a bottle of Polish mead and strands of Szalajko’s hair were newly matched to a profile on police databases.
This led detectives to Bryan, who had been arrested and then released in 1997 for a minor drug offence. Despite the suspects’ absence, police continued their investigation using DNA material taken from a hairbrush obtained from Bryan’s late mother, and created a “surrogate” genetic profile. This confirmed a direct match to evidence found at the crime scene.
When questioned, Bryan told the police he had been in a serious car accident in Lisbon in 1989 which affected his memory and that fingerprint evidence connecting him to the Kennington murder four decades prior was “bullshit”.
“If you told me Queen Elizabeth died that day in that flat and I did it, I’d have no more an idea. I think I’d remember if I killed someone.” he told investigators.
At his trial in November, ELL watched a straight-faced Bryan unwrap a sweet from his pocket as the prosecution read out Facebook messages sent between Bryan and Diane Price, an old friend, after the two had crossed paths in recent years.
In these messages, Bryan recalled Diane’s mother’s name, Sue, and recounted how he had no trouble recognising his friends’ face despite claiming severe memory loss in relation to the fatal knife stabbing.
During the trial Bryan declined to give evidence but Cutler indicated it was likely Bryan had been working as a “minder”, killing Szalajko in relation to an elderly wealthy Polish woman that he had been assisting with her will.
Cutler told ELL “There were a number of people who stood to benefit or lose out as a result” but who put [Bryan] up to it, only he knows.”
Due to the historic nature of the case, a great number of the original witnesses have since died and their evidence could not be re-visited during the trial.
Bryan denied the charge of murder but pleaded guilty to assuming the identity of the Welsh man, who was seven years his senior. He claimed to have done this to appear more attractive to his older partner.
At the sentencing, Judge Nigel Lickley KC said: “There was no need to use violence of such an extreme nature towards Roman Szalajko” and that the “suffering and damage” he caused had affected people to this day.
In a victim impact statement, disabled pensioner, Szalajko’s daughter-in-law Julie, spoke of the “shadow” cast over the family for nearly 40 years.
Her husband Gerard fell under suspicion over his father’s death and turned to alcohol, which ultimately led to his early death aged 48 in 2006.
She said: “I want Paul Bryan to know that even though this happened almost 40 years ago, the impact on my family has been a painful and long-lasting one.
“Roman was always a gentleman towards me and knowing the truth about his murder is a great comfort to me and my family. Seeing Bryan being brought to justice gives us great peace and comfort after all these years.”
Her son Dean said: “I know my dad was not the person he ended up as but unfortunately, my dad’s life ended the day Roman’s did, the pain and stigma it caused eating into him for the rest of his life.”