Picture the scene - your head is about to hit the pillow when you get an urgent call. There has been a serious stabbing and you're needed on scene immediately to investigate.

That was the reality for Detective Superintendent Andy Howard who vividly recounts the moment he was sent in to investigate the brutal murder of 22-year-old Reece Heffernan on Halloween 2021.

The young Tilehurst man, described as "clean hearted" and "much loved", was set upon by a group of armed drug dealers who knifed him outside a house on Romany Lane. 

The killing rocked the community - and DS Howard, who led the investigation which saw three men jailed for Mr Heffernan's murder, has spoken out after receiving an award for his work.

He this week attended an awards ceremony at Thames Valley Police's Sulhamstead training centre on May 1 where he was given a commendation by Chief Constable Jason Hogg.

Speaking exclusively to the Reading Chronicle, the seasoned detective recounted the tragic investigation and shared some of the complex methods for bringing Mr Heffernan's killers to justice. 

The officer said: "I had literally just put my head down on the pillow - as is never the case at 11 o'clock on Sunday evening ... and there was a call from the on-call detective inspector at that stage, indicating that there'd been a serious incident in Tilehurst, a stabbing.

"I don't believe at that stage that it had actually been confirmed as fatal, but certainly the prognosis was looking very poor.

"So I was made aware very early, and I made arrangements to go down, meet with the team, and start to coordinate the response."

DS Howard soon realised there were a number of evidential difficulties in the case from the get-go.

Although CCTV footage was recovered at the crime scene, Mr Heffernan's killers had taken pains to conceal their identities.

He later learned that vital forensic evidence was destroyed by the gang in an effort to cover their tracks.

Nevertheless, DS Howard's work in previous investigations gave him a keen sense for how to proceed.

He said: "Inevitably, in an investigation like that, there's an awful lot that's pretty dynamic at the start, lots of information coming through, lots of bits of partial information.

"Your role as the senior investigating officer, in that early stage, is trying to establish what you're dealing with there.

"If you've got a victim, am I able to identify the victim? If I've got a crime scene, is that crime scene sufficient for what I've got?"

A big break came early on, when investigators obtained CCTV footage showing a silver MG driving up and down Romany Lane at the time of the incident.

Two masked figures got out of the vehicle and approached a group, which included Mr Heffernan.

They set upon the victim with knives, before jumping back into the car.

The vehicle was destroyed by the perpetrators shortly after the attack - but, using CCTV evidence, investigators were able to link it to 24-year-old Carlos Fonseca, a resident of of Fawn Drive, Reading.

In time, two other suspects - 18-year-old Tuviah Thompson-Hordle, of Brant Close, Wokingham, and 17-year-old Charles Lynch, from Earley - would also come onto the police's radar.

This pair were the knifemen filmed attacking Mr Heffernan, while Fonseca drove the getaway car.

An officer working under DS Howard conducted an exhaustive search at one of the suspects' homes - where he discovered a pair of SIM cards hidden in a box of cereal.

These placed the users at the scene of the stabbing.

Despite the circumstantial nature of much of the evidence involved, DS Howard was under pressure to bring the case to trial.

He said: "We still went to trial about eight months after the attack on Reece - which, for a case of this nature, with the complexity of evidence that we had to rely on, that does place time pressures on you to be able to produce, identify evidence, so you can present it in court.

"You really are under pressure to make sure that you haven't missed something really important."

All the way through the investigation, the victim's family were being supported by Thames Valley Police.

DS Howard said: "We have trained, dedicated family liaison officers who were appointed to support Reece's family during this whole investigation.

"In fact, to some extent, that still continues now. We still occasionally have conduct with Reece's parents.

"That family liaison element is absolutely critical to maintaining their trust and confidence."

In August 2022, a jury at Reading Crown Court convicted Fonseca, Lynch and Thompson-Hordle of murder.

They received life sentences.

This marked the culmination of DS Howard's work, and that of his team.

He said of this: "Every murder conviction brings with it a sense of pride, but they never really feel like something to celebrate, because of the context.

"Unfortunately, someone has died, and, with a murder investigation, they've died in fairly tragic and, more often than not, completely unnecessary circumstances."

Nevertheless, DS Howard feels satisfied that his team was able to piece together a complex web of evidence in fraught circumstances.

This factor was highlighted by Chief Constable Hogg when he bestowed his award on the inspector.

DS Howard said: "What we were proud of here was that there was very little direct evidence, in terms of forensics, eyewitnesses, etcetera.

"We had to build a case based on lots of little crumbs of evidence."