As a garden was excavated in Birmingham earlier this month, thought to be where missing-presumed-murdered estate agent Suzy Lamplugh had been buried following her disappearance in July of 1986, the case of Penny Bell came to mind.
Unlike Suzy, Penny's family know where she rests. She has a headstone. She has a marker. Like Suzy, though, her killer has never been identified. They are two women whose names haunt British cold case files. Penny – or Ruth Penelope "Penny" Bell, to give her full name – is one synonymous with crime unsolved in the British Isles. Notorious for the ferocity of the murder, as well as the big, never-answered questions her death posed, as the years have passed, the silence where answers should be has become deafening.
"People refer to my mother's murder as a cold case," says Penny's daughter Lauren over the phone. "But if it's cold, it's freezing cold." Lauren was just nine at the time her mother was found stabbed 50 times, on the 6th of June, 1991, slumped behind the wheel of her powder blue Jaguar XJS in the car park of Gurnell Leisure Centre, in Perivale, suburban west London.
"There is a team working on it," Lauren continues. "They're called Murder Command. They're looking at putting the forensics back through. I get an email once every four or five months from them. When a new murder occurs, we slip down the pecking order because of the age of the case, which is understandable, if very frustrating."
Born in Burnham On Sea in Somerset, on the 28th of February, 1948, by 1981, Penny was married for a second time. Her husband was Alistair Bell, an estate agent. They'd been friends before they married. Penny was a partner in Coverstaff Ltd., a thriving Kilburn-based employment agency. With Matthew, 11, a son from Penny's first marriage, and Lauren, Penny and Alistair's child, the family lived in a £500,000 property in Buckinghamshire. At the time of the murder, The Sunday Times described the village as "The Home Of The Stars", reporting that the magician Paul Daniels and singer Cilla Black lived there.
"I have no memories of my mother whatsoever," says Lauren. "Finding out what had happened, at nine, I wasn't able to cope cognitively with a trauma of that size. It's heartbreaking. The process of grieving involves revisiting memories, and when I was growing up I'd feel sad, but I just had no memories to draw upon. I've got a photo. I know that's my mum. But I can't remember anything about her. Anything."
What is known about the day of Penny's murder is as follows. At 8.30AM, Alistair left for work as usual. The family were in the midst of house renovations, and builders were already at work. Penny left the house at 9.40AM, telling the builders she was running late for 9.50AM appointment. No record of any appointment was listed in her diary and it has never been established who Penny had arranged to meet. Three days prior, on the 3rd of June, Penny had withdrawn a sum of £8,500 from her and her husbands joint bank account. Again, it has never been established what this money was spent on.
It's believed that Penny was murdered around 10.30AM. She'd been seen motionless in the driver's seat of her car, parked in the leisure centre, at 11AM. Passersby had presumed she'd been sleeping. At 12.15AM, a member of the public alerted the police. They discovered Penny had been stabbed 50 times in the chest and arms, the latter presumably defensive wounds, with a three to four-inch blade. Forensics would later say the wounds indicated that Penny had initially been stabbed from the passenger's seat. Then from the driver's window.
At the time of the murder, the leisure centre car park would have been full, though Penny's car was parked in front of a high hedge that ran around the perimeter of the park, meaning the view from the front would have been obscured. The Jaguar was essentially soundproof. Nevertheless, the question as to how the killer – who would have been severely bloodstained by the attack – was able to leave the scene without being seen has perplexed anyone who has ever studied the case. Police quickly ruled out the motive of robbery due to Penny's handbag being left in the car with seemingly nothing removed. Police later reported that she hadn't been sexually assaulted.
By 1992, 4,000 people had been questioned. Some witnesses recalled that they'd seen a Jaguar XJS at around 10AM, travelling at a speed of around 10mph, with hazard lights flashing. A woman was struggling with a man in the passenger's seat. She'd tried to pull the car off the road, but the man – around 40, dark hair, bearded, wearing a dark blazer and bracelet on his right wrist – kept her on it. Yet the most sombre detail might be that six months after the murder, a witness came forward to tell police that he'd seen Penny driving into the car park with a passenger. She was mouthing the words, "Help me." He'd done nothing.
"From the moment my mother died," says Lauren, "everything died. I don't have a relationship with my father anymore. I do have a relationship with my brother, but his memory of my mother is as tarnished as mine. All of our family friends dispersed. People think that when something happens like what happened to my mum it brings a family together. That we're all doing candlelit vigils and there's so much love. It wasn't like that for us."
The tragedy of Penny Bell's murder didn't end on the 6th of June. Ten years later, when Lauren was 19, her father, Alistair, told his daughter he "couldn't do love anymore" and asked her to leave the family home. Her brother had left some years prior for boarding school.
"I feel more scarred about the breakdown of my relationship with my father than I do my mum," says Lauren. "My mum didn't have a choice of not being here. But when your only parent left, the person who is supposed to love you unconditionally, turns around and tells you they don't want you anymore… it wounded me beyond belief. And I wish it had been that kind. He was acidic in the way he did it. He told me he wished he'd never met my mother, because then he wouldn't be in this situation. I feel convinced my life is better off for it now, but it was devastating at the time."
Penny Bell's murder is notable not just for the brutality of her end of life, not just for the unanswered questions, but also for highlighting the destructive power of the press, and of prejudice. Shortly after Penny's murder, it was revealed that, before he and Penny were married, Alistair Bell had been in a relationship with a man for 11 years. This was no tawdry secret; Alistair's former partner had been present at Penny and his wedding. But when it was reported by the press ("Alistair is an ordinary guy," reported The Sunday Times, interviewing an electrician who'd been working in the Bell home. "He's not effeminate in any way") the investigating incident room, which had previously been receiving 250 calls a day, instantly dropped to none.
Lauren reports that her father is a recluse. He doesn't see or speak to anyone. He still lives in the family home, "not that you'd know, it's like a rainforest there now".
"I do believe that if my mum hadn't been murdered," says Lauren, "that my dad would have told us the truth about his past, when we'd been old enough to understand it. For all of his wrongs, I think he was right to tell the police about it. He wasn't telling secrets that none of our close friends didn’t know. But it did change the investigation forever. Instantly people went, 'Oooh, it's the gay lover then.' I’m sure some of the bitterness my dad is eaten up with is because of that."
Despite previously saying she believed that Penny knew her murderer – which the criminal profile would back up – Lauren won't say she has a theory about who killed her mother. "There's so many things that don't make sense," she says. "My mum wasn't a secretive person; her diary was always open, she and my father always knew what each other were doing. My dad always said that prior to the day she died, my mum was the most stressed he'd ever seen her. He said he tried to talk to her but she just brushed it off as being tired. There's just so many loose ends…"
One of the details of the case that has never been explained is why, when police came to examine the murder scene, there were wallpaper samples laid out in the back of the car.
No theory, then, though Lauren says she is convinced she knows who the killer is. "What I'm not sure of is why, although the way she was killed does make me think there was some passion there."
She continues: "I know other people who've lost parents at a pivotal age who've turned to drink and drugs, but thanks to a lot of therapy, I actually feel lucky that I think I've come out of this relatively unscathed. I made the decision to live. The one thing I know about my mother is that she loved life, so I try to live my life by that way of thinking." She pauses.
"I've had my own child now," she says, the sound of a toddler babbling distantly on the end of the phone. "I called her Penny."