Jeremy Bamber: ‘My personal opinion is very much that he’s guilty’ – author Carol Ann Lee
- Credit: Archant
ITV drama about horrific Essex murders starts tonight (9pm). It draws partly on Carol Ann Lee’s book
Carol Ann Lee exchanged regular letters with multiple-killer Jeremy Bamber as she conducted the detailed research required for her true-crime book. In print, she walked a straight line - setting out to be scrupulously fair and careful not to colour readers' opinions with her own verdict. Now, though, she's happy to give an unequivocal answer to the obvious question: did he shoot dead his parents, sister and his two young nephews?
"My personal opinion is very much that he's guilty."
Totally convinced? "Yes, I am. He's been in prison for 30 years and the evidence he was convicted on has not been overturned. He's been appealing ever since he's been in prison and nothing has come out that has been able to overturn that conviction.
"And for me the overriding piece of evidence, if you like, was looking at the original crime scene photographs. Without going into detail, it was obvious from one of the photographs in particular, that has never been published and should never be published, that those murders were committed by somebody who was extremely adept with a gun - who knew what they were doing.
"Sheila" - his sister, and initially suspected of killing the others, before committing suicide - "didn't. She was also on medication for her illness, which made her very un-coordinated.
"I met her best friend, actually. I remember going to see her at her house. I sat on the sofa, and she said to me 'The last time I saw Sheila was a few days before the murders. She was sat exactly where you are now and she was so knocked out by her medication I had to help her get up from the sofa.
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"There's also a witness statement from a shop owner in Witham, where he talks about how slowly she was moving, and the fact that when the family went out of the shop, he said goodbye, she turned and smiled, and her make-up was all smeared over her teeth.
"There's no question of her being skilful with a gun that particular night."
Carol also has no doubts that Sheila adored her six-year-old twin boys. "Yes, she had mental health issues, but that certainly didn't impinge on her love for them." The author also insists there are no independent accounts of Sheila ever hurting her children.
Night of horror
It was in August, 1985, that five members of the same family were found dead at a farmhouse in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, near Maldon.
The initial theory was that 28-year-old divorcee Sheila had shot twin sons Nicholas and Daniel in their beds; then her father Nevill and mother June, both in their early 60s.
Finally, Sheila - who suffered from schizophrenia - was believed to have killed herself.
Those of us around at the time remember all the stories (true or not) that came out about the woman nicknamed "Bambi" and the way the Bamber family was dubbed the local "Archers" - after the long-running BBC Radio 4 series.
Less than two months later, Sheila's brother, 24-year-old Jeremy, was charged with the killings.
In the autumn of 1986, a jury at Chelmsford Crown Court found him guilty by a majority verdict. He was told he'd be behind bars for at least 25 years, but in 1988 this was raised to "life".
Since then, he's consistently proclaimed his innocence.
Done with compassion
Carol was involved from the start with the project to make a six-episode drama series. "White House Farm" begins at 9pm tonight (Wednesday, January 8) on ITV and draws on her book. Released originally in 2015, it's been updated and published as a tie-in edition.
Carol was sent the whole series before Christmas. "I'm very pleased with it. I think they've done a tremendous job with some very difficult and sensitive material. They've done it with huge skill and compassion, I would say."
Does she have qualms about the tragedy being put under the spotlight anew, when family and friends might well prefer it not to be?
The father of the twin boys has been part of the process too, she says. "If he's fine with it - which he is; he's been involved with it and he's pleased how it's been made and feels that it's been sensitively done - then that's good enough for me."
Summer of Live Aid
Was Carol aware of the murders when they happened? "I remember it really clearly, because it was 1985. For me, that was the summer of Live Aid. I was 16 at the time. It was when I'd started going out more and socialising more, and I remember really clearly the footage of Jeremy Bamber breaking down at the funeral. So that stuck in my mind."
By 2012 Carol had several true-crime books to her credit. A lot of information was emerging about the Bamber case - he was trying to appeal again, and there had been an ITV special. "I thought 'I remember that. I'm going to have a look into it'."
She wrote to Bamber and received a reply in early summer. After that, she'd send questions and the prisoner "would reply promptly in his trademark capitals. His letters varied in length from a couple of pages to fifteen or more sides of A4 paper".
By the spring of 2014, working on a potential appeal, he was saying that he didn't expect to be in jail much longer. Bamber wrote his last letter to the author late that year.
Today, he remains a prisoner.
Carol interviewed a lot of people for the book, and was given access to thousands of documents and photographs.
"For me, it was really a story that hinged on the relationship dynamics between the family members. That's what interested me more than the police investigation and what came after."
She's pleased that, after 30-odd years, a wider range of people are finally having their voices "heard" - through the TV drama.
"I wanted people to get to know the personalities involved - and I think that informs the case itself when it comes to the actual murders. It tells you much more about who it might have been; who it could have been."
Meanwhile, the "compelling and convincing" murderer, Jeremy, still dreams of overturning his conviction.
"I know people say 'He's still proclaiming his innocence. Why would he be doing that?' (if he were guilty). Why wouldn't he? He's not going to want to come out on parole as a child-killer. That's why he's not admitted his guilt. He wants to come out as the innocent victim that people who support him believe him to be."
The Murders at White House Farm is published at £8.99 as a Pan Macmillan paperback. It's also available in ebook and audio formats.