Every time Robert Hodgson closed his eyes, all he saw was the face of a screaming woman begging for mercy as she was beaten to death.

But Hodgson’s anguished confession about his weird dreams became a nightmare – and led a jury to convict an apparently innocent man. Nigel Burton reports.

AS a young man Robert Hodgson was a thief, a drunk and a liar... but it now seems he was not a murderer.

In and out of borstal from the age of 11, Hodgson became a “bedsit-hopper”, drifting from town-to-town, dossing on the floors and sofas of friends and acquaintances.

He had convictions for car theft and had spent time in prison – but was not a violent man and would usually shy away from a confrontation.

Unfortunately, Robert Hodgson also suffered a mental illness that led him to make things up. And the fantasy world that he wove led directly to his conviction for a killing he apparently did not commit.

Hodgson, who grew up in Tow Law, County Durham, has had to wait almost 30 years for scientific advances to prove him innocent.

Five people confessed to the murder of barmaid Teresa de Simone, but only one – Robert Hodgson – was ever brought before a court. He was charged because the story he put forward was so chillingly authentic that detectives were in no doubt that he was the so-called “crucifix killer”.

But DNA tests on material worn by the victim carried out last year proved there was only a one-in-a-billion chance he was the killer.

Teresa de Simone’s body was found on the back seat of her car on December 5, 1979, by the landlord of the pub where she worked.

The 22-year-old, who also worked as a gas board clerk, had been strangled and raped.

Her killer throttled her using her jumper and a crucifix chain around her neck. It was a slow and cruel death.

Detectives believed the murderer had been lying on the back seat of the car before Teresa got behind the steering wheel to drive home.

Despite a nationwide hunt, the case went cold, until – almost a year to the day later – a man came forward with a chilling confession.

Robert Hodgson, a North- East man serving time for car theft, had written to the principal of Wandsworth Prison asking if he could talk to someone about a terrible crime.

Hodgson, a protestant, was sent to a catholic priest, Chaplain Father Frank Moran, who agreed to hear his confession.

The 29-year-old’s story was shocking. He told Fr Moran that he used to drink heavily and sleep it off by breaking into cars.

Fr Moran told the trial at Winchester Crown Court: “He said he was sleeping in a car in Southampton about 2am, when a woman got in and started to scream.

“He said to stop her screaming he put his hand over her mouth; he was frightened, and she was frightened.”

The girl tried to scream again and Mr Hodgson grabbed her around the neck.

Then he remembered tearing at her clothes.

Mr Hodgson told a prison officer he needed to confess because he could see a mental image of the girl screaming as he tore at her dress and hit her with a wine bottle.

When police arrived, Mr Hodgson confessed to the killing, describing how he strangled her.

He also confessed to two more murders – that of a homosexual and a newspaper seller – but these could not be traced. Even though two of the three “murders” appeared to be figments of Mr Hodgson’s imagination, police were certain he was the crucifix killer.

The prosecution used blood type analysis to prove the murderer had the blood group A or AB. Hodgson fell into that category, but so did a third of the male population.

Detectives said Hodgson gave them details of the killing unknown to the public, including the way Teresa died, the body’s position in the car and the whereabouts of her clothing in undergrowth.

Hodgson protested that his confession was all lies. He was described in court as a pathological liar, but a jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life behind bars.

Hodgson’s father, Jack, protested his son’s innocence and refused to believe he could commit such a heinous crime.

The former miner told The Northern Echo: “He must have got something on his mind and just said this. He has spun a yarn or two to the police many times. He has been a roamer all his life, but he has never hurt anyone.”

Hodgson’s conviction is expected to be quashed at the Court of Appeal next week.

For him, his nightmare is almost over.