PAUL BRACCHI looks back at the Babes in the Wood murders
After 32 years of pain for their families PAUL BRACCHI looks back at the Babes in the Wood murders that scarred the country and the shambolic prosecution that let their monstrous killer free to strike again
- Nicola Fellows and Karen Hadaway were found dead in a park in October 1986
- Russell Bishop was accused of their murders but walked free from 1987 trial
- After advances in DNA science, acquittals were overturned and retrial ordered
- Bishop was convicted of their murders today following a month-long trial
Before Soham and Ian Huntley, there were the Babes in the Wood murders and Russell Bishop.
The discovery of nine-year-old playmates Karen Hadaway and Nicola Fellows lying together in Wild Park, an area of woodland in Brighton, in 1986, not far from where they lived on the tough Moulsecoomb estate, had the same impact on a horrified nation as the disappearance in 2002 of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.
Even though Bishop’s notoriety has inevitably faded with the passage of time, he still ranks as one Britain’s most infamous predators.
Nicola Fellows (left) and Karen Hadaway (right) were found dead in woodland near Brighton in 1986. The case, known as the Babes in the Wood, went unsolved for more than 30 years
In Brighton, where his crimes have left an indelible mark on the psyche of the town, his guilt has never been in doubt since the moment he was arrested more than three decades ago.
Only a shambolic criminal prosecution allowed him to escape justice for sexually assaulting and strangling Nicola and Karen the first time.
Vital evidence had been lost or contaminated. The prosecution failed to prove that a sweatshirt found near the bodies belonged to Bishop. Explicit letters from Bishop to young girls were ruled inadmissible.
The jury at Lewes Crown Court in 1987 took only two hours to acquit him. Afterwards, 20-year-old Bishop enjoyed a champagne celebration with his family at the White Hart Hotel opposite the courthouse.
A glass of champagne…and a fresh attack on a girl
‘I can’t stop thinking about those poor girls and the fact that someone, somewhere, is walking the streets knowing they killed them,’ he said before he posed, smiling, glass of Moet & Chandon in hand, for a photograph to accompany his ‘exclusive’ interview in the News Of The World.
Everyone knew he was lying. Within three years we had further proof of Bishop’s depravity.
It was Sunday, February 4, 1990 – the third anniversary of the funerals of the Babes in the Wood – when the first news bulletins flashed around the country… ‘and in Brighton today police are hunting a man who sexually assaulted a seven-year-old girl…’
Michelle Hadaway, the mother of Karen Hadaway (left) and Sue Eismann the mother of Nicola Fellows, link arms today after finally seeing their daughters’ killer convicted, 32 years after the schoolgirls went out to play one evening and never came home
The man was Russell Bishop. He snatched his victim off the street as she rollerskated past his parked red Ford Cortina, bundled her into the boot, then drove to isolated Devil’s Dyke on the South Downs where the youngster was violated and throttled until she lost consciousness.
Bishop thought she was dead when he tossed her like a piece of rubbish into bushes. By some miracle, she survived and was discovered by a husband and wife out walking. The bloodied figure they saw stumbling towards them, they said, was like an ‘apparition’.
The little girl’s testimony from behind a screen, at the same court where Bishop had been cleared of the murders of Karen and Nicola, was harrowing and heart-rending – and condemned him to life behind bars.
‘This Evil Man’ the Evening Argus called him, a headline the respected local paper had been waiting to write for a long time.
The house where Bishop’s mother and father lived was firebombed. Death threats were issued to the family.
On ‘rough’ estates like Moulsecoomb, which had a reputation for looking after its own, kids no longer went out to play in quite the same way. This was Bishop’s legacy in Brighton and beyond Brighton.
Bishop may have been locked up but the parents of Nicola and Karen never gave up hope that, one day, he would also be held to account for what he did to their own daughters.
New and compelling forensic evidence
The chain of events which led to this historic moment began two years ago when a Black Maria arrived to collect Bishop from top security Frankland Prison, County Durham, where he was serving his life sentence for the Devil’s Dyke kidnap. He was not told why and initially thought he was being transferred to another jail. He was taken to Durham police station, however.
There to meet him were two detectives from Sussex. ‘Take me back to my cell,’ Bishop snapped when he saw them. Instead, he was arrested for the Babes in the Wood murders, under changes in double jeopardy laws (introduced in 2005) which allow those cleared of a crime to be tried again.
Russell Bishop, pictured (left) in prison in recent years and (right) after his initial arrest for the 1986 Babes in the Wood murders, was convicted today, 32 years after the girls were killed
‘He thought we would simply be regurgitating the old evidence,’ said Detective Superintendent Jeff Riley, who led the new inquiry. Bishop was wrong. The inquiry team had ‘new and compelling’ evidence. In particular, a previously unexamined taping (from Karen Hadaway’s forearm) provided a one-in-a-billion DNA match with Bishop.
Nine weeks ago, Bishop went on trial for the second time for the Babes in the Wood murders .
‘Guilty,’ the jury foreman announced to a packed Old Bailey courtroom yesterday, bringing to end one of the most notorious cases in modern British criminal history.
Bishop, now 52, might look very different, with his shaven head and haunted prison pallor, but one thing hasn’t changed. ‘There is still an arrogance about him,’ said Det Supt Riley.
Petty thief with a liking for young girls
Indeed, apart from the sexual deviancy he displayed from an early age, breathtaking arrogance combined with ‘animal cunning,’ are Bishop’s defining character traits.
Police were confronted with both during the Babes in the Wood murders (in Brighton, they were always known as the Wild Park murders).
Bishop lived with his common-law wife Jenny Johnson in a ground-floor flat in Hollingdean, Brighton. The petite blonde was carrying the second of his three children at the time.
Bishop called himself a roofer. He was actually a petty crook. His stock-in-trade was stealing cars which he resprayed and sold on.
He made no secret of his predilection for young girls. On one occasion, as a young girl performed a handstand in the park, a contemporary recalls Bishop turning to him with a lascivious grin and saying, ‘You wait until she is 13 or 14.’
The girls were found dead in this ‘den’ in undergrowth in Wild Park in Brighton (pictured in an undated handout photo from Sussex Police) after the going missing the previous night
He was already having a relationship with a 16-year-old girl – his ‘bit on the side’. Marion Stevenson lived just round the corner from Nicola and Karen. She and Bishop knew Nicola and Karen’s families. Bishop played football and cricket with Nicola’s dad Barrie Fellows.
Karen was ‘very sensible’ and Nicola, who liked to tap dance on a plank of wood in her garden to entertain younger children, the more outgoing. On October 9, 1986, the two friends went out to play after school like they often did. Sometime after 6.30pm, they were spotted entering Wild Park – a few hundred yards from their homes on the other side of the A27 dual carriageway. They were never seen alive again.
A heartless and cynical bid to divert suspicion
The following day, with the girls still missing, Bishop joined the search for them, just as Ian Huntley would join in the search for Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, in a cynical and deliberate attempt to divert attention away from himself.
He even asked Karen’s mum Michelle if he could have an item of Karen’s clothing for his terrier, Misty, to get a scent from.
She gave him a white coat Karen had worn to school. At 4.20pm that afternoon, the bodies of Nicola and Karen were found in Wild Park. Bishop was among the small group who discovered the girls in a clearing near steps known locally as Jacob’s Ladder
Bishop was interviewed as a witness to finding the bodies. But inconsistencies in his statement aroused suspicion.
Bishop gave a very detailed, and accurate, description – more detailed than he could have got from his vantage point some yards away. He also claimed to have touched one of the girls to feel for a pulse, which wasn’t true.
One police theory was that he said this to give a reason for fingerprints left at the scene.
He was arrested three weeks later and charged on December 3.
The arresting officer was Detective Constable John Morton. Bishop’s fist words to him were: ‘No, no, it’s not me, f**** off, leave it out.’ Det Con Morton spoke to journalist Eileen Fairweather about Bishop at the time. His account, which was never published, is a disturbing glimpse into the mindset of a monster.
Bishop may have had learning difficulties and attended a special school when he was a teenager but Mr Morton said: ‘The prosecution made a terrible mistake portraying him as warped but simple. Ninety nine per cent of the time Bishop could leave most policemen standing. He has animal cunning.’
He first encountered Bishop in Wild Park. ‘He was sitting on the bank, with his dog, whistling,’ he recalled. ‘And I was thinking, Christ, that’s a bloke who’s just found two bodies.’
While on remand for the murders at Brixton prison, Bishop wrote sexually explicit letters to the 13-year of daughter a former neighbour and to another 15-year-old.
They were intercepted by police. In one to the 15-year-old, he said he hoped she was pregnant.
The correspondence was ruled inadmissible, enabling Bishop to claim he was not sexually deviant.
It was not the only setback. Vital evidence had been lost, contaminated, or untested. One forensic expert was pinned against a wall by a frustrated detective after a disastrous spell in the witness box. The flaws, especially in the forensic evidence, were picked apart by the defence. Bishop was represented by Ralph Haeems, solicitor of choice for just about every South London criminal worthy of the name (including the Krays), and the ruthlessly efficient Sir Ivan Lawrence, QC.
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Bishop must have thought he was untouchable. He returned to Brighton, called for a new police inquiry and even went back to the murder scene, by now a shrine to Nicola and Karen, to protest his innocence. He was pictured crouching next to flowers left by relatives and neighbours.
An admission at last…and a sickening excuse
Police fears that it was only a matter of time before he struck again were confirmed on February 4, 1990.
This time it was the Whitehawk estate. But Bishop slipped up. The little girl he snatched survived and picked him at out at an identity parade, despite his desperate attempts to change his appearance by slicking down his hair.
Bishop was jailed but denied the sickening attack – until changing his story during the Babes in the Wood retrial.
He still denied being a paedophile but finally admitted abducting the little girl – in revenge for a hate campaign against him and his family after he was acquitted in 1987.
‘I was bloody angry,’ he said under cross-examination, ‘and thought ‘I might as well as do it’.’
In Brighton, it was always widely rumoured that Bishop, the youngest of five brothers, would never admit to having an unhealthy interest in children because he was so close to his mother Sylvia.
He was the baby she and her husband Roy planned to fill the gap left by another sibling who died.
‘I love him to death, he’s my baby,’ Mrs Bishop, now in her 70s, would tell everyone. Mrs Bishop, a dog trainer who has appeared on TV, was not at the Old Bailey, where the sickening letters he wrote to young girls were finally allowed to be put before a jury.
Bishop has blighted so many lives, including that of the Devil’s Dyke victim, now in her 30s.
Karen’s father Lee Hadaway died of heart attack in 1998. Nicola’s parents split up in the aftermath of the murders.
Nicola and Karen are buried side by in Brighton’s Bear Road cemetery. They would have been 41.
Additional reporting by Chris Greenwood
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