‘Why I’m naming my prime suspect’
- Credit: Archant
As the 25th anniversary of his daughter’s murder in Kenya approaches, John Ward is increasingly angry and frustrated that her killer has not yet been caught. Sheena Grant reports
It’s not the retirement anyone would envisage for themselves. Every day, John Ward, who will be 80 this year, climbs the narrow, steep staircase to his office in a loft room where his daughter, Julie, and her two brothers once played table tennis.
In a few days it will be exactly 25 years since Julie, 28, was murdered – her mutilated and charred remains found in the ashes of a fire in Kenya’s achingly beautiful Masai Mara game reserve. She had last been seen a week earlier, just days before she was due to fly home after a six-month holiday travelling overland from Suffolk and down through Africa to her final destination, Kenya.
Mr Ward, a wealthy hotelier, flew to Nairobi and mounted a search as soon as he heard she was missing, hoping to find her alive. It was not to be.
Instead, faced with a far-reaching cover-up in Kenya, he found himself cast in the role not of grieving father – but of chief investigator.
It is a role he has never been able to escape. Twenty-five years and two failed trials on he is still fighting for justice for Julie and to finally lay bare the extent of the cover-up that has blighted the investigation from the start, when a post-mortem report was altered to make it look as if his daughter’s death was an accident, a narrative he says British officials advised him to accept before urging him to have her remains cremated in Kenya.
He, of course, refused. With incredible clarity of thought in unimaginably terrible circumstances, he took the pieces of charred bone, found alongside her red flip-flops and other possessions in the ashes of the fire, so he could set about proving what he knew to be true. That Julie had been murdered.
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The loft room in the house near Bury St Edmunds where his children once played table tennis is brighter and lighter now, thanks to the addition of two roof windows. Where the ping-pong table once stood there is now a desk, computer and shelves supporting file after file of evidence that Mr Ward has collected over the years.
He works up here for a few hours most days, he tells me, sometimes following up potential new leads but mostly writing a second book about the murder and the cover-up that followed (the first, called The animals are innocent, was published in 1991).
He doesn’t know when this one will be finished but it promises to be explosive, naming the Kenyan man with government links who he believes raped Julie and had her killed after he and his entourage stumbled on her taking pictures by the roadside.
It won’t be the first time he has publicly named his prime suspect.
Last year, Mr Ward wrote an article for a small-circulation Kenyan magazine, accusing the man and outlining the evidence against him.
What made him take such a course of action, I ask.
“Desperation,” he quips, flashing a smile that is never far away, despite the horrors of what he has endured. I get the impression, however, he is only half joking.
“Time goes by and I am getting older,” he says. “I am 80 this year. I won’t be around for ever.”
There is something so poignant, so palpably, unutterably sad about the hand John Ward and his wife, Jan, have been dealt.
That their daughter was murdered is horrific enough – but the fact that Mr Ward had to become investigator because no one else would adds another dimension to this story.
And that is something else his book will tackle head on.
Mr Ward is angry. Angry at what he believes are continuing efforts by the British government to conceal its part in the original Kenyan cover-up of Julie’s murder because it didn’t want to rock the boat with then president Daniel arap Moi.
Angry at what he sees as its determination to keep derailing any progress he makes towards getting at the truth.
What is at stake here, says Mr Ward, is actually far bigger than Julie’s murder. It is justice itself, because, he alleges, that in colluding to cover-up Julie’s murder the British state is guilty of attempting to pervert the course of justice.
“Justice is the bedrock of democracy and once people try to trample over that and do things to suit their own personal means something has got to be done about it,” he says. “These people should be called to account.”
I was a junior reporter on my first weekend reporting duty when the story of Julie’s murder broke. In the early years I interviewed Mr Ward several times. I vividly remember one meeting in his office at the Butterfly Hotel in Bury in the early 1990s when he told me why he couldn’t give up what he was doing.
“It is unacceptable to Jan and I that someone should murder our daughter and get away with it,” he said. It’s always been as simple as that.
What parent wouldn’t feel the same?
But John Ward was unlike most parents. He had money to pursue justice. He’s spent millions –some of which he clawed back from the Kenyans in suitcases stashed with cash when they admitted their part in the cover-up – and has visited the country more than 100 times. He’s considerably less well off as a result (he had to sell half his 40pc holding in the Butterfly Hotel to fund his expenses, which included flying out an eminent pathologist for the 1989 inquest in Kenya).
Two decades on from that interview at his hotel office, a more cynical John Ward admits he holds out little hope of even getting his prime suspect – who we cannot name here, for legal reasons – prosecuted, let alone convicted.
He talks of the possibility of a trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague but admits that’s probably a non-starter, as are any further trials in Kenya, unless something changes radically.
And that is the reason behind his decision to publicly name the man. He had hoped the Kenyan magazine article might “flush him out”, perhaps even prompt a libel action so that, one way or another, he could get his man in court. But it hasn’t happened.
“I even wrote to him at three of his addresses after the article came out,” he says. “I asked him to meet me. Two of the letters came back, marked as undelivered, and the third got no reply of any sort. He is keeping his head down.”
Would he like to be able to give up and finally grieve for his daughter as a parent should be able to?
Sometimes, he admits, when he answers the phone to someone offering information he wonders if he has the energy to pursue what is probably just a hoax or a lead that will end up going nowhere.
“But I don’t want it on my conscience that I left any stone unturned. If there really is nowhere left to go I will know there is nothing else I can do,” he says. “Things don’t look good at the moment but you never know. That next call could provide the crucial piece of evidence.”
But he accepts that it’s currently hard to envisage the killer being snared.
“It’s just one more murder in Kenya that’s gone unsolved,” he says. And there are lots of those – often involving poison or suspicious road
accidents. One man died in such an “accident” after apparently threatening to reveal what he knew about Julie’s death. Mr Ward always takes precautions when he visits, never revealing his plans to anyone and always eating from the hotel buffet rather than ordering an individually-prepared dish from the menu.
What he cannot accept, however, is the cover-up he claims has taken place on the British side.
The book will go into all this, he says, but it’s taking a while to write because there are so many dates he has to check in his paper files from
“With age, my memory for dates is not what it was,” he says.
I’m not so sure. He fires out facts about the case as though he is reading them from a book, so encyclopaedic is his knowledge. I wonder, did he have to develop the precise and focused mind of an investigator or was it always there? I suspect it was the latter.
When he gives me directions to his house before our meeting he tells me it’s four miles from Bury. I check the mileometer in my car to see if I’m getting near and discover it is four miles exactly. No more, no fewer.
He even provided a crucial piece of evidence to the defence about a phantom “road” that helped clear two park wardens originally tried for Julie’s murder in 1992 after a now-discredited Scotland Yard investigation.
“I didn’t want the wrong people convicted,” he says. “I knew they were innocent.”
And crucially, I ask, how did he have the presence of mind to take Julie’s remains from the ashes of a fire in the Kenyan bush when until
that moment he had been hoping to find her alive? Most people would have been paralysed with inaction at such a moment of visceral horror.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I realised early on that people were not telling me the truth.”
Park officials hadn’t even started a search for Julie before his arrival. Mr Ward got a helicopter to look for her and, after locating her
abandoned jeep in a gully, continued the search on foot.
“We shouted her name but there was no reply,” he remembers.
Her remains were located soon afterwards.
He writes of that terrible moment in The Animals are Innocent: “I looked down and found myself staring at the bottom half of Muff ’s
[Julie’s childhood nickname] left leg. I can’t remember what I said, or indeed if any sound came from my mouth. I think if the leg had
belonged to some stranger, I would have shrunk back, almost with revulsion. But here I felt no such feeling. I remember crouching down and
stroking her calf with the back of my middle finger and feeling tears start to well up in my eyes.”
Speaking to him now, it’s hard to get a sense of the rawness of the emotion conveyed in his writing.
“Her leg bone and jaw bone had been sliced through,” he says. “She had been decapitated with one blow.”
He recounts these facts with no obvious emotion, as he does everything, however disturbing, relating to the investigation.
But ask him anything more personal about Julie – what sort of person she was, the life she had and the life she might have had – and he
becomes less talkative. Maybe he just doesn’t think it’s relevant – but it could be something else. Perhaps he can remain more emotionally detached in his role as an investigator whereas as a father, he cannot.
“What would any father say about his daughter?” he says when I ask what Julie was like, before he returns the conversation to territory where he is more comfortable. Similarly when I ask how events of the last 25 years have changed him he merely replies: “Oh, I don’t know. I’m more cynical, that’s for sure.”
Only once, when I ask if he ever thinks about the life Julie might have had if she had lived, does he offer any real insight into how the
tragedy continues to affect his family.
“Of course I do,” he says. “She would have been in her 50s now, probably with children of her own.”
And he goes on to relate a story about a Kenyan police officer who told him, without thinking, about preparations for his own daughter’s
“We were talking about a father leading his daughter down the aisle when he suddenly realised what he was saying,” says Mr Ward. “It was all a bit too poignant.”