Britain has its share of prolific murder mystery writers, Agatha Christie being among the most famous. The White House Farm Murders reads like an Agatha Christie whodunnit and has all the makings of a bestseller; a wealthy inheritance, a mentally ill adopted daughter, a pathological stepson, a girlfriend turned state’s witness, and a pathological killer motivated by greed and hatred. This case however is anything but fiction. It proves that adage “truth is stranger than fiction,” with ease.
The White House Farm murders took place near the English village of Tolleshunt, D’Arcy, Essex, on 7 August 1985, when Nevill Bamber, a farmer and magistrate, his wife June, their adoptive daughter Sheila Caffell and her six-year-old twin sons were shot and killed inside the Bambers’ farmhouse. The police at first believed that Sheila, diagnosed with schizophrenia had fired the shots then turned the gun on herself. But weeks after the murders, the ex-girlfriend of Nevill and June’s adoptive son Jeremy Bamber, the only surviving member of the immediate family told police that Bamber had implicated himself.
Like Amityville the Tolleshunt D’Arcy was small, cozy and friendly. As so many people say after the fact it was not “the sort of place where murders happen.“ Ralph Nevill Bamber (known as Nevill), was 61 when he died. He and his wife June (née Speakman), also 61 married in 1949 and moved into the Georgian White House Farm on Pages Lane, Tolleshunt D’Arcy, set among 300 acres of tenant farmland that belonged to June’s father. Unable to have biological children they adopted Sheila and Jeremy (no relation to each other) as babies. Sheila was 8 weeks old and Jeremy was 6 weeks old. Jeremy was the son of a vicar’s daughter who, after an affair with a married army sergeant gave up her “illegitimate” son. Jeremy didn’t experience a stable childhood. It was as though Nevill and June couldn’t decide what to do with him. They sent him to Maldon Court, a private prep school, then a boarding school in Norfolk, and finally sixth-form college in Colchester.
June was conservative and intensely religious. She tried to force her children and grandchildren to adopt her way of life. She had a poor relationship with Sheila, who felt June disapproved of her and her relationship with Jeremy was so troubled that he stopped speaking to her for years.
Sheila’s relationship with June wasn’t much better. Sheila chafed under June’s religious righteousness and it was no surprise to anyone except perhaps June when in June 1974 she caught Sheila having sex with a farmhand in a field. She reportedly started referring to Sheila by then 17 years old as the “devil’s child,” which Sheila’s psychiatrist identified as the trigger for Sheila’s paranoid delusions about being taken over by the devil. That should help their turbulent relationship to improve. When Sheila discovered she was pregnant from the farmhand relationship the Bambers arranged an abortion. So much for intensely religious parents.
Sheila displayed confusion in her choice of a future career: she enrolled in a secretarial course, trained as a hairdresser and found work as a model with the Lucie Clayton agency. Shortly after the abortion she met her future husband Colin Caffell and fell pregnant again twice, each time having a miscarriage.No doubt her mother would have told Sheila that her miscarriages were punishment for her promiscuity. Sheila and Colin decided to marry in May 1977 when Sheila was 20, to the Bambers’ relief and their twin boys were born on 22 June 1979. Tragically the birth led to a deterioration in Sheila’s mental health. She became increasingly erratic, throwing pots and pans at her husband and once pushing her hands through a window, cutting herself. This poor woman sounds like one of Sybil’s alters. The couple separated just four months after the birth and divorced in May 1982. Sheila’s ex-husband remained concerned about the effect June was having on his sons; she made them kneel and pray with her which upset him.
Sheila became friendly with a group of young women who nicknamed her “Bambi.” Bambi Bamber. You gotta love it. They felt she was vulnerable and desperately insecure often complaining about her poor relationship with her adoptive mother. There was a lot of partying and drugs, particularly cocaine and older men who were interested in the pretty Bamber girl for all the wrong reasons. Her brief modelling career ended after the birth of the boys and she lived either on welfare or took low-paying jobs including as a waitress at School Dinners, where a traditional British menu was served by young women in stockings and suspenders. Oi! There were also cleaning jobs and there was one episode of nude photography, a photo shoot (pun) that would later return to posthumously haunt her.
Sheila’s mental health continued to decline with episodes of banging her head against walls and becoming agitated to the point where one of her boyfriends feared for his safety. For reasons known only to herself Sheila traced her birth mother, then living in Canada and with the help of social services they met at Heathrow airport in 1982 for a brief reunion. However as with all Sheila’s relationships a lasting bond did not develop. Even her boys were briefly placed in foster care in 1982 and 1983 as she was unable to care for them. This was an arrangement which seemed to cause no problems.
Sheila was referred by her family doctor, in August 1983 to the psychiatrist who had earlier treated June, Dr Hugh Ferguson. He said she was in an agitated, paranoid and psychotic state and he admitted her to St Andrews Hospital in Northampton, where she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He wrote that she believed the devil had given her the power to project evil onto others and that she could make her sons have sex and cause violence with her. She called them the “devil’s children,” the phrase June used on Sheila and said she believed she was capable of murdering the boys or getting them to kill others. These statements were significant evidence used to support Jeremy Bamber’s defense during his murder trial. Sheila spoke about suicide though Ferguson did not regard her as a suicide risk. He treated her with Stelazine, an anti-psychotic drug and she was discharged on 10 September 1983.
In 1985 she became enthusiastic about religion to the surprise of her friends who had not even known she came from a religious family. She was re-admitted to St Andrew’s in March 1985, five months before the murders believing her boyfriend of the time to be the devil and herself to be in direct communication with God. She was discharged just under four weeks later and thereafter received monthly injections of haloperidal, an anti-psychotic drug with a sedative effect. The court heard her prescription was halved just before the murders and this might have made her more volatile than usual. She went to stay at White House Farm for a while to recuperate. It was obvious to her friends that her mental health was deteriorating further.
Just before the murders her ex-husband Colin complained he was doing 95 percent of the work with her boys and he wrote to her father asking him to persuade Sheila to let the twins live with him, something her psychiatrist later stated made her feel threatened. According to Jeremy Bamber the family discussed placing the boys in foster care over dinner on the night of the murders with little response from Sheila. Dr. Ferguson told the Court of Appeal in 2002 that this suggestion provoked a strong reaction from her, though had the fostering suggestion been confined to day-time help she might have welcomed it.
A police log timed at 3:26 am on 7 August was entered as evidence at the trial but it was not shown to the jury or seen by Jeremy Bamber’s lawyers until at least 2004. It detailed a telephone call made that fateful night to a local police station. According to the prosecution the log discussed a call known to have been made by Bamber. Bamber’s defense team showed that a separate call was made by Nevill. The log was headed “daughter gone berserk” and said: “Mr Bamber, White House Farm, Tolleshunt d’Arcy—daughter Sheila Bamber, aged 26 years, has got hold of one of my guns.” Bamber said: “You’ve got to help me. My father has just rung me and said, ‘Please come over. Your sister has gone crazy and has got the gun.’ Then the line went dead.” Bamber said he had tried to ring his father back, but there was no reply The log showed that a patrol car was sent to the scene at 3.35 am.
Despite Sheila’s erratic mental state her behaviour didn’t display the kind of violence necessary to commit the crime. In particular she wouldn’t have killed her father or children because her difficult relationship was confined to her mother. Her ex-husband said the same, that despite her tendency to throw things and sometimes hit him she never harmed the children. June Bamber’s sister Pamela Boutflour, testified that Sheila was not a violent person and said she had never known her to use a gun. June’s niece, Ann Eaton told the court that Sheila did not know how to use one. Bamber disputed this, stating he and Sheila went target shooting though he acknowledged in court that he had not seen her fire a gun as an adult.
As a young man Jeremy Bamber spent time in Australia and New Zealand, then returned to England to work on his father’s farm for £170 a week. He set up home rent-free in a cottage Nevill owned at 9 Head Street Goldhanger, three to three-and-a-half miles from his parents’ farmhouse. It was because of Bamber’s girlfriend, Julie Mugford’s statement to police a month after the murders that Bamber was arrested. She testified against him during his trial in October 1986.
They started dating in 1983 when she was a 19-year-old student at Goldsmith’s College in London. She was still studying there when the killings occurred. In March 2012 Bamber’s lawyers found a letter dated 26 September 1985 showing that the assistant director of public prosecutions involved in preparing the case against Bamber revealed that in exchange for her testimony Mugford would not be prosecuted for three crimes she committed including a burglary, a cheque fraud, and selling cannabis. Mugford admitted to a brief background of dishonesty. She was cautioned in 1985 for using a friend’s cheque book to obtain goods worth around £700 after it had been reported stolen. She said she and the friend had repaid the money to the bank. She also acknowledged helping Bamber in March or April 1985 to steal just under £1,000 from the office of the Osea Road caravan site his family owned. He staged a break-in to make it appear that strangers were responsible. The admission added to the picture of her own and Bamber’s lack of credibility.
Mugford was at first supportive of Bamber after the murders. Newspaper photographs of the funeral show him weeping and hanging onto her arm. On the day after the killings she told police she received a telephone call from him at about 3:30 am on 7 August during which he sounded worried and said, “there’s something wrong at home.” She said she had been tired and had not asked what it was. Her position toward Bamber changed on 3 September 1985 after they rowed about his involvement with another woman. She threw something at him, slapped him and he twisted her arm up her back. She went to the police four days later and changed her statement against him. In the second statement she said he talked disparagingly about his “old” father, his “mad” mother, his sister whom he said had nothing to live for and the twins who he said were disturbed.
Bamber denied this saying Mugford was motivated by jealous but other witnesses offered similar testimony. Mugford’s mother said Bamber told her he hated his adoptive mother and he described her as mad. A friend of Mugford’s testified that Bamber said around February 1985 his parents kept him short of money, his mother was a religious freak and “I fucking hate my parents.” A farm worker testified that Bamber seemed not to get on with Sheila and had once said, “I’m not going to share my money with my sister.”
Mugford said she dismissed his comments as fantasies but alleged Bamber wanted to sedate his parents and set fire to the farmhouse. He reportedly said Sheila would make a good scapegoat. Bamber discussed entering the house through the kitchen window because the catch was broken and leaving via a different window that latched when it was shut from the outside. Later that evening she asked Bamber whether he had done it. He said no but a friend of his had. the man was a plumber the family used in the past. Mugford stated Bamber told this friend how he could enter and leave the farmhouse undetected and one of his instructions had been for the friend to telephone him from the farm on one of the phones in the house that had a memory redial facility so that if the police checked it, it would give him an alibi. Everything had gone as planned except Nevill put up a fight and the friend shot him seven times. The friend told Sheila to lie down and shoot herself last. The friend then placed the bible on her chest so she appeared to have killed herself in a religious frenzy. Mugford stated the children were shot in their sleep. Mugford said Bamber claimed to have paid the friend £2,000.
- her deal with tihe prosecution
- her jealousy towards Bamber’s “other woman”
- her criminal history
Mugford claimed she spent the weekend before the murders with Bamber in his cottage in Goldhanger where he dyed his hair black and she saw his mother’s bicycle there. This was significant because the prosecution alleged he used the bicycle to cycle between his cottage and the farmhouse on the night of the murders. She told police Bamber telephoned her at 9:50 pm on 6 August to say he had been thinking about the crime all day, was pissed off and it was “tonight or never.”
Bamber told police Mugford was lying because he jilted her. He said he loved his parents and sister and denied they had kept him short of money. The only reason he broke into the caravan site with Mugford was to prove that security was poor. That’s about as stupid a statement as anyone has ever given. Bamber occasionally gained entry to the farmhouse through downstairs windows and used a knife to move the catches from the outside. He said he saw his parents’ wills and they had left the estate to be shared between him and Sheila. In his early witness statements Bamber said he telephoned the police immediately after receiving his father’s call then telephoned Mugford. During police interviews he said he called Mugford first and he was confused about the sequence of events.The judge told the jury they could convict Bamber on Mugford’s testimony alone.
The prosecution’s case was that Bamber killed his family to inherit their estate which included £436,000, the farmhouse where the murders took place, 300 acres of land and a caravan site in Maldon, Essex called Osea Road Camp Sites Ltd. Not a bad cache. Explaining why he called a local police station and not 999 Bamber told police he had not thought it would make a difference in terms of how fast they arrived. He said he spent time looking up the number and even though his father asked him to come quickly he first telephoned Julie Mugford in London then rode slowly to the farmhouse. He could have called one of the farm workers but had not considered it.
Bamber arrived at the farmhouse one or two minutes after the police who waited for a tactical firearms group to arrive which turned up at 5 am. The police questioned Bamber whom they said seemed calm. He told them about the phone call from his father and it sounded as though someone had cut him off. He said he did not get along with his sister and asked whether she might have gone berserk with the gun he replied, “I don’t really know. She is a nutter. She’s been having treatment.” The police asked why Nevill called Bamber and not the police and Bamber replied his father was the sort of person who might want to keep things within the family. Boy, I’ll say. Bamber told them Sheila was familiar with guns and they had gone target shooting together. He said he had been at the farmhouse himself the night before and loaded the rifle because he thought he heard rabbits outside. You know how dangerous rabbits can be. He left the gun on the kitchen table fully loaded with a box of ammunition nearby. After the bodies were discovered Dr. Craig was called to the house to certify the deaths which he testified could have occurred at any time during the night. He said Bamber appeared to be in a state of shock, broke down, cried and seemed to vomit. The doctor said Bamber told him at that point about the discussion the family had about having Sheila’s sons placed in foster care. For a man in a state of shock Bamber was able to provide plenty controversial and suspicious statements about Sheila.
When police entered the house they found five bodies with multiple gunshot wounds. Twenty-five shots had been fired mostly at close range. They found Nevill downstairs and the other four family members upstairs. Years later Bamber’s defense team cast doubt on the position the police say they found the bodies, using photographs obtained from the police and suggested the photographs indicated that Sheila died later than the rest of the family. Nevill was found downstairs in the kitchen, dressed in pajamas amid a scene that suggested there had been a struggle. Bamber’s lawyers suggested that some or all of the mayhem in the kitchen may have been caused by the armed police when they broke into the house. Nevill’s body was slumped forward over an overturned chair next to the fireplace, his head resting just above a coal scuttle. Chairs and stools were overturned, there was broken crockery, a broken sugar basin and blood on the floor. A ceiling lampshade was broken. A telephone was lying on one of the surfaces with its receiver off the hook and several .22 shells were beside it.
Nevill was shot eight times, six times to the head and face, fired when the rifle was a few inches from his skin. The remaining shots to his body occurred two feet away. Based on where the empty cartridges were found police concluded he had been shot four times upstairs, managed to get downstairs where a struggle took place during which he was hit several times with the rifle and shot again, this time fatally. There were two wounds to his right side and two to the top of his head resulting in unconsciousness. The left side of his lip was wounded, his jaw was fractured, and his teeth, neck, and larynx were damaged. There were gunshot wounds to his left shoulder and left elbow. He had black eyes, a broken nose, bruising to the cheeks, cuts on the head, bruising to the right forearm, and circular burn-type marks on his back, consistent with his having been hit with the rifle. There’s overkill and then there’s Nevill’s murder.
A print from Sheila’s right ring finger was found on the right side of the gun butt pointing downwards. Sheila had her finger on the trigger of her father’s automatic rifle which pointed up to a bullet-wound in her neck. A print from Bamber’s right forefinger was on the breech end of the barrel above the stock and pointing across the gun. One of the pillars of the prosecution’s case was that Sheila would not have been strong enough to inflict this beating on Nevill, who was 6 ft 4 in tall and by all accounts in good health.
The police found the other four bodies upstairs. June’s body was heavily bloodstained. She was lying on the floor in the master bedroom by the doorway wearing her nightdress and bare-footed. She had been shot seven times; one shot to her forehead between her eyes, and another to the right side of her head. There were shots to the right side of her lower neck, her right forearm, and two injuries on the right side of her chest and her right knee. The police believed she had been sitting up during part of the attack. Five of the shots occurred when the gun was a foot from her body. The shot between her eyes was from less than one foot.
The boys were found in their beds, shot through the head. They appeared to have been shot while in bed. Daniel had been shot five times, four times with the gun one foot from his head and once from over two feet away. Nicholas was shot three times, all contact or close-proximity shots.
Sheila was on the floor of the master bedroom with her mother. She was in her nightdress and bare-footed with two bullet wounds, one of which was to her throat. The lower of the injuries occurred from three inches away and the higher wound was a contact injury. The higher of the two would have killed her immediately. The lower injury would have killed her too but not necessarily straightaway. The court heard it would be possible for a person with such an injury to stand up and walk around, an echo of Peter Porco’s actions after he was axed in the head by his son, Christopher Porco. Can you imagine encountering such a victim? The Hollywood director of The Walking Dead couldn’t hold up to that one. The lack of blood on Sheila’s nightdress suggested she had not gotten up and walked around after she was shot. The lower of her injuries happened first because it caused bleeding inside the neck which would not have happened to the same extent if the higher, fatal wound occurred first.
Doing a Bamber
It was by common consent the Bamber murder case was a truly awful investigation. The trial judge, Mr Justice Drake, expressed concern about what he called a “less than thorough investigation,” and “doing a Bamber” became police slang for making a mess of a case. In 1989, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd tightened police procedures because of the failings of the Bamber investigation. The scenes-of-crime officer did not find the silencer in the cupboard. It was found by one of Bamber’s cousins days later and it took police three days to collect it. The same officer moved the rifle without wearing gloves and it was not examined for fingerprints for weeks. The bible found with Sheila was not examined at all. A hacksaw blade that might have been used to gain entry to the house lay in the garden for months. Officers did not take contemporaneous notes. Those who dealt with Bamber wrote down their statements weeks later. Superintendent Taff Jones, the senior investigating officer decided that Sheila, in her disturbed state of mind had indeed shot her parents and her sons before turning the gun on herself. Having quickly reached this conclusion he went off to play golf. He certainly earned his previous promotions to Superintendent. Bamber’s clothes were not examined until one month later, the bodies were cremated and all blood samples were destroyed 10 years later. A job well done boys.
Bamber’s behaviour after the funeral increased suspicion that he had been involved. The Times reported that immediately after the bodies were found he broke down, was offered tea and whisky by police and persuaded them to burn bedding and carpets inside the house. He wept openly at the funerals, supported by his girlfriend, Julie Mugford after which he flew to Amsterdam where he tried to buy a consignment of drugs and offered to sell soft-porn photographs of Sheila to tabloid newspapers. Very classy. He entertained friends with expensive champagne and lobster dinners. It was this behaviour that served to draw police attention to him. The Times wrote that Bamber cut an arrogant figure in the witness-box; at one point when prosecutors accused him of lying, he replied: “that is what you have got to establish.” Put a sock in it, Bamber.
The prosecution stated Bamber was motivated by hatred and greed. They argued he left the farm around 10 pm on 6 August and later returned by bicycle in the early hours of the morning, using a route that avoided the main roads. He entered the house through a downstairs bathroom window, took the rifle with the silencer attached and went upstairs. He shot June in her bed but she managed to get up and walk a few steps before collapsing and dying. He shot Nevill in the bedroom but Nevill was able to get downstairs where he and Bamber fought in the kitchen before Nevill was shot several times in the head. Sheila was shot in the main bedroom. The children were shot in their beds as they slept.
Bamber set about arranging the scene to make it appear Sheila was the killer. He discovered she could not have reached the trigger with the silencer attached so he removed it and placed it in the cupboard then placed a bible next to her body to introduce a religious theme. He removed the kitchen phone from its hook, left the house via a kitchen window and banged it from the outside so that the catch dropped back into position. He cycled home. Shortly after 3 am he telephoned Mugford then called the police at 3.26 a.m to say he received a frantic call from his father. To create a delay before the bodies were discovered he did not call 999, rode slowly to the farmhouse and told police his sister was familiar with guns so they would be reluctant to enter.
The silencer played a central role. It was deemed to be on the rifle when it was fired because of the blood found inside it. The prosecution said the blood was Sheila’s and it had come from her head when the silencer was pointed at her. Expert evidence was submitted that, given her injuries after the first shot Sheila could not have shot herself, placed the silencer in the downstairs cupboard, then run back upstairs to where her body was found. There was also expert testimony that there were no traces of gun oil on her nightdress despite 25 shots having been fired and the gun having been reloaded at least twice. Prosecutors argued that had Sheila killed her family then discovered she could not commit suicide with the silencer fitted it would have been found next to her. There was no reason for her to have returned it to the gun cupboard. Perhaps aside from being a “nutter’ Sheila was also a neat freak.
The jury found Bamber guilty on 28 October by a majority of 10 to two; had one more juror supported him he would not have been convicted. The judge told him he was “evil, almost beyond belief” and sentenced him to five life terms with a recommendation that he serve at least 25 years. Bamber first sought leave to appeal in November 1986 arguing that the judge misdirected the jury. The application was heard and refused by a single judge in April 1988 in 2002. This judge used a 522-point judgment dismissing the appeal and said there was no conduct on the part of the police or prosecution that adversely affected the jury’s verdict. In fact, the more he examined the details of the case the more he thought the jury was right.
A campaign gathered over the years to secure Bamber’s release and from March 2001 several websites were set up to discuss the evidence. Bamber used one of them in 2002 to offer a £1m reward for evidence that would overturn his conviction. His case was taken up by former MPs George Galloway, Andrew Hunter and Bob Woofinden, a journalist who specializes in miscarriages of justice. Woffinden argued between 2007 and 2011 that it was Sheila who shot her family then watched from an upstairs window as police gathered outside the house before shooting herself. He changed his mind in May 2011, writing he had come to believe Bamber was the killer. However, Bamber passed a lie detector test in 2007.
Because of his conviction the estate passed to Bamber’s cousins, some of whom were involved in finding the crucial evidence against him. After Bamber’s conviction one cousin on his mother’s side, Ann Eaton, moved into White House Farm and she and several others being Sarah Jane Eaton, Pamela Boutflour, and Robert Woodwiss Boutflour, acquired ownership of the caravan site. Bamber alleged that these financial considerations meant the extended family wanted to see him convicted and they may have set him up. The cousins responded that Bamber was a psychopath and his allegations against them were an attempt to harass and vilify them. One of them said the allegation that they set him up was “an absolute load of piffle.” Piffle. Is that something one has with tea and scones?