Conversations with a serial killer
As a cop, there were some delicious moments when I left the claustrophobic confines of an interview room and punched the air in triumph! Unfortunately, these were rare, since the vast majority of these exchanges – made by fictional television adaptations to feel unnaturally compelling and characteristic of good prevailing over bad ─ followed a rehearsed and predictable routine. However, before I comprehensively extinguish all thoughts of police interviews being some sort of celebration of justice, let me regale you with one instance that still makes me smile. A relatively low-level crime – a burglary at a school – was witnessed by a passer-by who called it into the police. Believing that a suspect had removed something out of school hours and hot-footed it towards a nearby housing estate, they provided a typically vague account of the male offender. Police attended the scene, verified the break-in and loss of a computer, and called upon the support of a police dog. I had the utmost respect for all animals supporting the thin blue line, from the heroic and majestic horses invariably deployed to quell hostile public disorder, to the several breeds of canine who relentlessly pursued their individual talents with a loyalty and endeavor that was simply breathtaking.
On this occasion, the German shepherd immediately picked up a trail leading to a nearby house. Knocking at the door, the uniformed officer was greeted by the sole male occupant who fitted the fleeting description. He was arrested and the house was searched with a negative result. Given that the evening was drawing in, the detainee was immediately placed on a rest period and bedded down in a cell pending interview in the morning. Enter stage left yours truly who picked up this investigation. Reviewing the evidence, I was immediately struck by two huge obstacles – firstly, the fact that the only witness would probably be unable to identify the suspect in an identity parade, and secondly no property had been recovered. Of course, it did cross my mind that the guy trapped-up in one of the gruesome cells could be innocent. Upon accessing his criminal record it was clear that if this were the case, he had either seen the light and reformed magnificently in the short-term, or he had been in the wrong place at the right time. Having already been reminded of his constitutional right not to self-incriminate on three previous occasions (at the time of arrest, upon arrival at the police station, and following a conversation with the duty solicitor), I was expecting a no comment interview as I cautioned him for a fourth time, especially since his brief was sitting next to him. The wily burglar knew that I faced an uphill struggle but nonetheless it was my responsibility to ask him questions within a recorded interview. I was surprised that the smiling suspect with an obvious swagger had decided to talk as he drew confidently from his cigarette. I kept to my interview plan despite his denial of any involvement in the crime and his accusation of police victimization.
Asking where he was during the relevant timeframe, he confidently explained that he was, in true Macaulay Culkin fashion, home alone. What was he doing? Watching television – a British soap called Brookside on Channel 4 – came his assured reply. I contained my delight whilst grasping this unexpected opportunity. Having watched the same program many times myself, I reeled him in with open questions about the plot and one of the central characters – Sinbad the chirpy Liverpudlian window cleaner. Whilst he, no doubt, thought this thick cop was taken in hook line, and sinker, I simply and patiently collected the intelligence knowing that the end game was nearly upon us. I brought the questioning to an end, explaining that I would now contact the television company to check out his alibi. His hitherto radiant posture changed dramatically, but I insisted on enjoying the drama a little longer and made myself a cup of tea. Did I ever make the call? No – his solicitor appeared as I finished my brew requesting a further audience with his client who unsurprisingly changed his story, admitting to the burglary and asking that three other similar offenses were taken into consideration ─ proving that liars can never eclipse an interviewer’s access to the arsenal of open questions. But back to the general reality of policing. Should anyone be surprised that suspects choose the right of silence, especially if they are guilty? Surely it is far better to fully assess police disclosure before making any comment? A frustrating tactic for many investigators, but nonetheless with a high degree of certainty. Given that I didn’t personally interview any serial killers or child rapists, I often asked murder squad detectives and other experienced colleagues about how they coped. I figure that the natural instinct may be to cause significant harm to those sitting opposite, protected by the very same criminal justice system that more often than not had catastrophically failed the victims.
I was regularly disappointed by their collective responses – you learn to be professional. What, I wondered, were the exact limits of this tolerance? I had seen video footage of some interviews of Doctor Harold Shipman who was suspected of murdering at least two-hundred and fifty of his patients. Such was his arrogance that during questioning he turned his chair away from the detectives in the grossest act of intimidation. But perhaps my more seasoned detectives were right, since inevitably a lack of cooperation should be anticipated. The latent confusion that connected with the human capacity to entertain evil, and then somehow majestically step back from the edge of retribution always remained in my consciousness. Whilst co-hosting a series of podcasts exploring a series of unexplained deaths I was given the opportunity to revisit this mystery from a completely different and intriguing angle. Levi Bellfield is a serial killer, sex offender, rapist, kidnapper, and burglar. He was convicted on 25th February 2008 of the horrific murders of Marsha McDonnell (aged 19 years) and Amélie Delagrange (aged 22 years) and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy (aged 18 years). Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was further convicted on 23rd June 2011, of the murder of thirteen-year-old schoolchild Milly Dowler – a crime that gripped and appalled the entire nation. In a media interview, the senior investigating officer, Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton of the Metropolitan Police said of Bellfield, “When we started dealing with him he came across as very jokey, like he’s your best mate. But he’s a cunning individual, violent. He can switch from being nice to being nasty, instantly.” What would it be like to have an audience with the devil ─ the convicted killer Bellfield ─ now held securely behind the walls of Frankland Prison, County Durham? I asked David Collins ─ investigative journalist & northern editor of the Sunday Times ─ to fill in the significant gaps.
As a then 26-year-old trainee reporter for a national UK newspaper David explained, “I had a call from somebody who was on the periphery of the criminal underworld. He knew Bellfield and basically claimed that a convicted sex offender was up to his old tricks again and sleeping with somebody underage who was in a care home. This person was somebody that Bellfield had a real grudge against.” The allegation was investigated but nothing came of it, yet David maintained contact with Bellfield’s intermediary. “Through this person I started exchanging messages with Bellfield who was in Wakefield prison at the time, having already been convicted of the murders of Amélie Delagrange and Marsha McDonnell. At the time he was prime suspect for the murder of Milly Dowler. The police believed him to be responsible but had been unable to link him to the crime.” David was edging ever closer to an audience with Bellfield who had never been interviewed by a journalist before, nor had he made any comment about the disappearance of Milly. After six months of relationship building with associates of Bellfield, spending evenings across southwest London in “dark and dingy pool halls and pubs where his circles hang out,” and latterly with his family, David had a breakthrough ─ although he remained mindful that the killer may have been trying to set him up since he had made it clear that he hated the press. “There was a lot of negotiating ─ doing interviews with his friends who passed on messages, building up a rapport.”
This eventually led to an exchange of letters with Bellfield. David then met Bellfield’s brother ─ describing him as a really nice guy ─ providing a gateway to visit their mother. “I was the first journalist to meet them and be welcomed into their homes.” Such was the conviviality that David was regularly invited to Sunday dinner, where the discussion was often candid. “I really was part of family life. I was going out for Sunday dinner, and they were chatting freely and openly about Bellfield and what he was like as a child growing up.” David learned of Bellfield’s proud gypsy heritage, adding “There’s something that stuck out for me ─ a family motto, which was ‘God is good, but the devil ain’t so bad.’” Bellfield’s family acknowledged that Lee (as his family call him) was mischievous and had broken the law in the past but were resolute in their belief that he was innocent of the grievous offenses that had imprisoned him. “They didn’t accept that he was responsible for battering Amélie Delagrange and Marsha McDonnell over the head with a hammer, killing them randomly, or driving over Kate Sheedy, reversing back over her broken body so she had to crawl down the pavement to her home ─ because Bellfield had convinced them that he hadn’t. He’s quite charismatic but has a controlling personality.” David then spoke of the remarkable moment that led him to broker an interview with Bellfield. “We were sitting in the house one afternoon eating roast beef sandwiches and I was explaining the difficulties of getting into Wakefield prison to speak to Bellfield. The prison governor was never going to allow it.” “About three o’clock the phone rang and his mum answered it. As she chatted away, I could hear her talking about the previous day’s EastEnders episode (another British TV soap). When she hung up, I asked her who it was and she said it was Bellfield.” David was astonished that category A prisoners were able to make apparently unfettered calls to the outside world, albeit this landline had obviously been cleared by the prison authorities; Bellfield was as regular as clockwork with his calls home. He went on to explain: “Bellfield was basically living in a sort of mini apartment at Wakefield prison, sharing a little kitchen with other inmates.” Unsurprisingly, he associated with other high-risk prisoners. “His mum, shaking her head, said that she couldn’t believe that her son had become best mates with a guy who had murdered his wife with an axe.” Grasping his opportunity, David said to Bellfield’s mum, “So, why don’t we do this? You answer the phone at three o’clock when he calls. I’m going to be here; you talk to him for a bit then pass me the phone. Get Levi prepared for that, so he knows what’s going on, and I will talk to him.” A nervous David then interviewed Bellfield with his family and friends grouped around him listening to every word as he recorded the conversation on a handheld tape recorder.
On this first occasion, the conversation lasted around two hours and it could best be summarised as a total denial of any wrongdoings and allegations that the police had fitted him up. David added, “He was trying to use me as a kind of soapbox platform in order to claim his innocence.” The disappearance of Milly was touched upon at the end of the interview but not to any significant degree. Bellfield boasted that prison life was easy for him and that he had a close affinity with all the incarcerated terrorists. David continued, “He was living quite a nice life pre-Milly.” Although Bellfield was a convicted serial killer at this time, things would change significantly for him once he became a convicted child murderer. “As you know, there is one thing prisoners hate ─ a sex offender or child murderer. They are regarded as a trophy, an opportunity for a prisoner to do a final bit of good for society by attacking them. The assailants gain credit from other inmates and the prison officers turn a blind eye.” David continued, “Bellfield wasn’t the person I thought he would be. You have these preconceived ideas of serial killers – like three-dimensional evil characters ─ when in reality Bellfield was like a guy you could meet at the pub. He was just very chatty – like a bar room lawyer who thought he knew the law inside out.” David and Bellfield agreed to talk again the next day. With a potential scoop edging ever closer, David was horrified when he discovered that his tape recorder was faulty and nothing of the preliminary interview had been captured.
Checking his equipment thoroughly this time, David returned and sought to steer the conversation toward Milly. “I had a list of questions I wanted to ask him about Milly. There were about ten I had been briefed on by a friend of a friend who was on the Surrey Police investigation team.” Outlining the gaps in the evidence trail David utilized his encouraging connection with Bellfield to ask a series of specific questions which he had previously not made comment upon, simply blanking all police attempts to question him about Milly. “Bellfield was open for the first time ever about Milly and he started to tell me about where he was that day, what he was doing, his movements ─ all stuff that’s really useful to the police.” Bellfield admitted that on the day of Milly’s disappearance, he was doing some DIY in Shepperton. Crucially, he also confirmed that he was driving his then-girlfriend Emma Mills’ car – a red Daewoo. This was the same vehicle caught on CCTV, details of which had been released by the police, and was of significant interest in relation to the disappearance of Milly; however, the image was of such poor quality that the police could not identify the driver, even though they knew the vehicle was owned by Mills – intelligence that was not shared within the public domain. David continued, “There was a CCTV image of the car turning into Station Avenue, Walton on Thames, in the afternoon ─ the road where Milly went missing ─ thirty minutes after she was last seen. So, by telling me he was driving the car caught on the image that day he nailed the fact that he was there at the time Milly went missing. He was at the scene of the crime.” This incredible development formed the entire circumstantial case upon which the jury ultimately found Bellfield guilty of the murder of Milly. There was no DNA or forensic evidence, and the CCTV captures did not show him with her. Bellfield’s conviction was solely down to David’s remarkable journalistic tenacity. Yet the story didn’t conclude there, as David explained further, “The family made me sign something before I did the first interview. It was a document that basically said that I promised to work in the best interests of Bellfield. I had to take the decision to sign it straight away because I knew if I called the legal team the family would get suspicious. The front-page story ran with the headline ‘I was in the red Daewoo car’ and the family subsequently complained to the Independent Press Complaints Commission (IPCC).” The family claimed that David had engaged in subterfuge and as a result, the IPCC commenced a thorough investigation which connected with the legal test of justification within the realms of public interest; had he misled the family? The verdict fully exonerated him, although that outcome was by no means certain at the beginning of the inquiry. Today David is often asked to address students about this case and the ethics of investigative journalism.
As our captivating conversation came to an end, I had one more question to ask David – does this experience still play on your mind? After a lengthy pause, he replied: “I think about him from time to time, especially when he is in the news. His mum was very ill after we ran the interview and Bellfield blames me. He does hate me. I was twenty-six when I did this and it’s kind of always been with me – although it’s a weird thing to say, I’ve never topped it. Now I’m 40. It was nonetheless a career-defining moment for me as a journalist.” David then pondered on the imponderables: “Do we know the full extent of his crimes? He was linked to the Russell murders but I don’t believe he did them – the evidence doesn’t stack up; but he did do a lot more ─ more rapes of women that he has never been charged with because essentially the Crown Prosecution Service made the decision not to due to the fact that he will never be released from prison. He has an indeterminate life sentence ─ a full life tariff ─ one of the very few prisoners in the country who has ever been given that. Even Ian Huntley doesn’t have a full life tariff.” His final reflection offered some reassurance that his entanglement with the life of Bellfield could be managed, “It has always been important for me to move on from this, although I am inextricably linked to him. I wonder what he thinks of me now?” As a cop – especially in my early career – I had always been wary of journalists; a perceived yet unfounded fear that their only mission was to plaster a clumsy or inappropriate quote made by me across the front page. In truth this never happened, and as I matured the importance of a good working relationship with the media greatly eroded these initial suspicions. Sure, there are unscrupulous actors in all professions, yet David’s explicit account was one of patience, ingenuity, and dedication. Without these attributes, the killer of Milly Dowler would never have faced justice. I cannot ever imagine the horror inflicted upon Milly’s parents, relations, and friends in dealing with the magnitude of their loss, but I remain hopeful that David’s intervention allowed some form of closure. Is Bellfield evil? The devil incarnate? Does such a thing exist within the psyche of any human being? As a law graduate, I was introduced to many Latin terms and one in particular pertinent to this debate ─ Res ipsa loquitur – the thing speaks for itself. You decide.
© Ian Kirke 2023 / @ianjkirke