Night out in Honiton led to murder

War-time crime left young GI facing the firing squad.

It was a night out in Honiton that ended in murder.

A heinous crime, sparked by a drunken brush with the law, would, ultimately, see a US court martial sentence an American soldier to execution by firing squad - the first in the United Kingdom.

Private Alex Miranda made history when he was shot to death in the grounds of Shepton Mallet Prison on May 30 in 1944.

But there was nothing remarkable about his crime, except it was senseless and cold-blooded.

It has been described as “an open and shut case, with no mitigating factors”.

The young member of the 42nd Field Artillery Battalion was stationed at Broomhill Camp (now fields adjacent to St Rita’s Conference Centre, in Exeter Road) when he decided to enjoy a night on the town in Honiton.

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The date was March 4 in 1944 and, by dawn, one man would be dead and Miranda condemned.

Local war-time historian Steve Parsons has retraced Miranda’s steps on that fateful night for a new book, Scenes of Murder - Then and Now, edited by Winston Ramsey.

He shows where, at shortly before 12.15am on March 5, Miranda was caught by police urinating in a recess that once existed at the former North’s Bakery premises in High Street.

Special Sergeant William Durbin and PC North, who described Miranda as “nasty” and “abusive”, took him to Honiton Police Station where he was kept for 15 minutes before being collected by military personnel in a jeep and driven back to camp.

At the station, he had accused the officers of lying and threatened them. “I will rip your guts out,” he was alleged to have said.

His mood did not lighten when he returned to the camp.

After a brief spell in the guardhouse, he entered his quonset hut and complained about his treatment. The noise woke up First Sergeant Thomas Evison, who asked what was going on.

Miranda, who was worried he would be bullied for coming to the attention of the police, accused him of snoring too loudly and words were exchanged before Sergeant Evison turned on his side and went back to sleep.

Moments later, Miranda went to his bunk and lit a cigarette. He was observed smoking for some length of time, before he left the hut and then returned to his bunk.

He then took a M1 Carbine from a rack behind a stove in the hut and shot the sergeant while he slept.

Witnesses said he was laughing hysterically. “Your worries are over now, boys,” he is reported to have shouted. “I have shot the First Sergeant and I will turn on the lights so I can show you.”

Two young Americans who came to Honiton in the war were destined never to see their families again.

After his execution, Miranda’s remains were buried in the dishonoured plot at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Later, they were moved to a walled-off area at Oise-Aisne in France.

However, in 1990, the Pentagon granted Miranda’s nephew, Louis Martinez, permission to exhume the body for reburial in Santa Ana Cemetery, California.

Sergeant Evison’s remains are buried at Cambridge American Military Cemetery at Madingley - Plot C, Row 5, Grave 42.

The full, detailed account of his murder is recorded in Scenes of Murder - Then and Now, published by Battle of Britain International Limited.

Photographs include an old picture of High Street, showing Honiton’s former police station, a scene of Broomhill Camp and even the inside of the quonset hut.

The book, which features more than 40 murderous crimes, is priced �39.95.

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