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Killer took dead man’s identity as he hid from justice for 40 years, court told

24 Oct 2023 5 minute read
Forensic tests which were unavailable in 1984 resulted in a DNA breakthrough

A killer evaded justice for nearly 40 years after he assumed the identity of a dead Welshman and travelled to the Continent, a court has heard.

Roman Szalajko, 62, was fatally stabbed after he answered the door to his flat in south London in February 1984.

The identity of his killer remained a mystery until a cold case review in 2013 when a fingerprint was linked to Paul Bryan, who was 22 at the time, the Old Bailey heard.

However, the suspect, originally from Hammersmith, west London, appeared to have disappeared without a trace, jurors were told.

An officer eventually tracked him down after discovering Bryan had stolen the identity of a dead man with the same name, jurors were told.

Following his arrest at Stansted Airport last year, Bryan, now 62, admitted having a false identity document but denied the murder of Mr Szalajko.

Opening his trial on Tuesday, prosecutor Louis Mably KC said the Polish victim was a longstanding UK resident and a divorced father-of-two.

He had a number of “lady friends” but lived alone in a flat in Kennington, south London, which has since been demolished.


A known gambler, he was “secretive” and kept large amounts of cash at home, sometimes going out with thousands of pounds in his wallet, jurors were told.

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 cut, jurors heard.

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 lengths of hair on the floor, Mr Mably said.

An investigation was launched and evidence was collected from the scene, including fingerprints, clothes, the telephone, the clumps of hair pulled from the victim’s head, and £1,000 in Spanish pesetas.

But, as lines of the original inquiry were exhausted, the case was closed later in 1984 and the exhibits stored.

Photo issued by the Metropolitan Police of Roman Szalajko, who was fatally stabbed after he answered the door to his flat in south London in February 1984.

In 2013, previously unidentified fingerprints on a “Polish mead” bottle from a wardrobe in the victim’s bedroom matched the defendant’s on the police database.

Efforts to find Bryan were frustrated because there appeared to be no records of his existence after 1989, jurors were told.

Mr Mably said: “It was as if he had completely disappeared. A complete blank.

“One police officer was able to pull the scraps of evidence together, and began to unwind the steps the defendant had taken from the late 1980s to disappear from public view.”

Emergency passport

Records showed that, three days after the murder, Bryan had applied for an emergency passport, his old one having expired in 1977, jurors heard.

That was the last passport issued in his name and it ran out in May 1984.

The only post-1989 record was an arrest in 1997 when he had given police his name and was noted as being with a woman called Sylvia Bryan, Mr Mably said.

There was no record of a female relative called Sylvia so police searched for all Paul Bryans and found a Welsh Paul Bryan born in 1955.

Mr Mably told jurors that police examined the 1998 marriage record of the Welsh Paul Bryan to Sylvia, a widow and tour operator.

He said: “But there was a problem. By 1989 the Welsh Paul Bryan was already dead – he had died in 1987.

“The alarm bells went off and the suspicion was this defendant had assumed the identity of the Welsh Paul Bryan and further investigation found that to be the case.”

In 1989, a passport was also issued under the identity of the Welsh Paul Bryan, which was later renewed.


Meanwhile, forensic tests which were unavailable in 1984 resulted in a DNA breakthrough, jurors were told.

In Bryan’s absence, cells from his late mother’s hairbrush were compared with traces on the victim’s vest and clump of hair and found to be a close DNA match, Mr Mably said.

The hunt for Bryan finally ended on November 19 last year when he was arrested at Stansted Airport as he stepped off a plane from Lisbon in Portugal.

Initially, Bryan attempted to “brazen it out” and pretended he was a different Paul Bryan, Mr Mably said.

But swabs were compared with the DNA at the murder scene and found to be a “perfect match”, the court was told.

In a police interview, he admitted his true identity but told officers he had lost his memory after a serious car crash in Lisbon.

He claimed he had assumed the false identity because he had married an older woman.

Mr Mably said: “When questioned about the presence of his fingerprint at the scene, he said it was ‘bullshit’.

“When told about the presence of his DNA on the vest and hair, his response was ‘F****** hell. This is like a bad nightmare’.”

The trial before Judge Nigel Lickley KC continues.

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