Fugitive who assumed identity of dead Welshman found guilty of murder
A “fantasist” killer who assumed the identity of a dead man and travelled around Europe to evade justice for 39 years has been found guilty of murder.
Enforcer Paul Bryan was 22 when he fatally stabbed 62-year-old Roman Szalajko at his flat in Kennington, south London, in February 1984.
Afterwards, he took on the identity of a dead Welshman with the same name and embarked on a new life travelling around Portugal, Crete, Spain and France.
The Army reject became a suspect when his fingerprints were identified from a bottle at the scene during a cold case review in 2013.
But it took a tenacious Scotland Yard detective another decade to track him down and arrest him as he stepped off a plane from Portugal.
The defendant, now aged 62, originally from Hammersmith, west London, admitted having a false passport and was found guilty of murder on Tuesday following a trial at the Old Bailey.
Speaking outside court, Detective Sergeant Quinn Cutler, who had searched for Bryan over 10 years, said he was “personally very satisfied” at the result.
He told the PA news agency: “I’m more satisfied for the Szalajko family who have spent 40 years wondering what happened to their father and grandfather.”
Mr Cutler described Bryan as a “fantasist” who lived off his wife’s earnings as a tour operator before returning to the UK after her death.
The Lewisham-based officer said: “He has lived the majority of his life as another person. He pretends to be American, he pretends to have been in the Army and being Awol.
“Nothing he says is true and it’s very hard to understand what he has actually done for the last 40 years.
“What we know he has done is be involved in the murder of Roman Szalajko back in 1984 from the very strong forensics my colleagues in the forensic command were able to identify.”
He said the evidence suggested Bryan had been a “heavy” or “minder” and had killed Mr Szalajko while enforcing a debt or getting paperwork after a property deal went wrong.
The court had heard the Polish victim, a divorced father of three, was known to be “secretive” and a gambler who kept large amounts of cash at his flat, which has since been demolished.
On the morning of February 7 1984, Mr Szalajko was on the phone to a builder friend, Michael Peddubriwny, when he broke off, saying in Polish: “Excuse me a moment, there’s someone at the door.”
As the line was left open, Mr Peddubriwny heard the victim say loudly in English: “What do you want? Help! Help!”
Mr Peddubriwny shouted down the phone: “Roman, what’s going on?” but the line went dead, having been deliberately cut.
He called 999 in a “panic” and two police officers went to the flat, where they found Mr Szalajko slumped in a chair in the living room with a fatal stab wound to his stomach.
His body was still warm to the touch, there was evidence of a search, and the constables noticed clumps of the victim’s hair had been pulled out and thrown on the floor.
Other evidence collected from the scene and stored included fingerprints, the victim’s clothes, his telephone and £1,000 in Spanish pesetas.
Cold case review
The case went unsolved until the cold case review led to the identification of Bryan’s fingerprints on a “Polish mead” bottle in the victim’s wardrobe.
Mr Cutler then picked up a paper trail and scraps of evidence to track down the suspect, who appeared to have vanished in the late 1980s.
He said: “There was no record of him having a job since the Eighties, he had not paid any tax, he did not have a passport and he did not have a driving licence.
“It was like he did not exist and we could not find him and that’s when I became involved and we had to look at methods to locate where the real Paul Bryan was at that time.”
He discovered that three days after the murder, Bryan, who was born in 1961, had applied for an emergency passport.
After that, the only other record related to his arrest in London in 1997 for a minor drug offence.
Mr Cutler said: “That gave us a window into Paul Bryan’s life because when he was arrested he was in the company of a lady called Sylvia Bryan. We were able to use family trees and genealogy to find out Sylvia Bryan must have been his wife.
“It was from that we were able to track Paul Bryan’s marriage certificate and when we got the marriage certificate we found out it was a different date of birth. Not 1961 but 1955 and a man named Paul Bryan.
“However, when we checked 1955 Paul Bryan we found out he was actually dead and this Paul Bryan had then gone on to get a passport and driving licence and was living in Portugal married to Sylvia Bryan.
“We were at that point sure we had found the real Paul Bryan with the 1961 date of birth. Somehow he had found out Paul Bryan 1955 had died and assumed his identity.”
Meanwhile, forensic tests which were unavailable in 1984 resulted in a DNA breakthrough.
Cells from Bryan’s late mother’s hairbrush were compared with traces on the victim’s vest and clump of hair and found to be a familial DNA match.
In November last year, police struck lucky when Bryan applied for a new passport and travelled back to the UK of his own accord.
Mr Cutler said: “We were surprised to see him come back to the UK and I think he was equally surprised to be greeted by members of the Met Police getting off a flight at Stansted Airport.
“That afforded us the opportunity to take his DNA to compare to the crime scene and we got a one in a billion hit that Paul Bryan was the male involved in the murder of Roman Szalajko back in 1984.”
On his arrest, Bryan tried to pass himself off with his false identity but “eventually he realised the game was up”, Mr Cutler said.
Bryan dismissed his fingerprint at the murder scene as “bullshit”, and when confronted with his DNA on the victim’s vest and hair said it was “like a bad nightmare”.
Mr Cutler went on: “He also feigned having amnesia and claimed he could not remember what he was doing in 1984 but as the case has gone on we have been able to show he has no memory loss and he’s just lying.”
At his trial, Bryan had denied murder but declined to give evidence in his defence.
It was claimed on his behalf that he had gone to Mr Szalajko’s flat as a “minder” to get some documents but it was another man, who died last year aged 89, who stabbed the victim.
The jury deliberated over two days to dismiss the claims and find him guilty.
Judge Nigel Lickley KC remanded Bryan into custody until sentencing on December 8.
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