Sion Jenkins: A father betrayed?
Acquitted of the murder of his foster daughter Billie-Jo, Sion Jenkins says he has been let down by the police, the scientists, and the former wife who took his daughters away
Sunday 24 August 2008
Is he a killer? Everyone wonders that when they first meet Sion Jenkins, and he knows it. He sees them watching his eyes, his face, his movements. Listening to his voice, for a sign he is capable of sudden, violent rage. "People need me to have a temper," he says. "I was convicted of murder."
His 13-year-old foster daughter Billie-Jo died after being beaten with a metal tent spike on the patio of their home in Hastings, East Sussex, in February 1997. Her skull had been smashed. Jenkins served six years in prison for the crime, but was then released on appeal. There were two attempts at a retrial, but both times the jury failed to reach a verdict. In February 2006, he was formally cleared of the crime. "I am," he says in a new book, "an innocent man".
Now he intends to reinforce that message by suing for compensation for the years in jail. This is news. Encouraged by the money recently given to Colin Stagg, wrongly jailed for a year for the murder of Rachel Nickell, he has applied to the Home Office. "I am waiting for a decision. I fit all the criteria." The most he can expect, according to legal advice, is half a million pounds – minus the board and lodging charged for being a guest of Her Majesty. "The amount is not the most important thing."
It's the principle. Official recognition of his innocence. Jenkins knows doubts persist in some minds. "I have had this for 11 years." Does it hurt? He stares, with his piercing grey eyes. He wasn't expecting that as a first question, and fails to answer for a moment. And another. Then another. This dark room, at his home in Southsea, is decorated in period style. Antique prints of birds crowd the walls. At last, he says, "No."
Why not? "I think I understand," he says, speaking slowly. With pauses. Between words. For emphasis. Like the teacher he once was, deputy headmaster of a boys' school, before the terrible thing happened. Or like a man who has endured his every word being judged, analysed and used to condemn him.
Is the precise language a way of keeping emotions in check? The prosecution portrayed him as a tightly wound control freak, who lost his temper with Billie-Jo and lashed out – before nervelessly taking two of his daughters to a DIY store. That was the case against him. It failed. But the law is one thing, and imaginations are another.
"People have mythologised me," he says. "They have created somebody they refer to as Sion Jenkins, but it isn't me." It's a werewolf, he says. "I read a witness statement by somebody who said to the police that at particular times my teeth grew, and appeared sharp." Sounds more like a vampire, I joke. Stupidly. "I'm being absolutely serious. This was a teacher who had met me." Why would someone say that to the police? "I don't know. I can't spend my time worrying that people think I hang upside down and fly out of my house at night."
Even his dressing habits have been held against him. Today, the 50-year-old is wearing brown boots, slacks that match his silver hair, a silky black fleece and a black T-shirt. Back then, after his conviction in 1998, detectives talked of button-down shirts and "not a bloody hair out of place" as if they had been vital clues.
The police have never apologised. He does not expect them to. But he does want them to investigate a new lead. If he didn't kill Billie-Jo, people say, who did? In his book, Jenkins identifies his main suspect: a tall, dark-haired man he saw in the hall of his home that Saturday afternoon.
It was after Billie-Jo was discovered by two of his daughters, Annie and Charlotte. There was blood around her head, and on the floor and wall. As Jenkins pulled her towards him to be cradled, his statement said, "There was a squelching sound." Then the ambulance crew came ... and he saw the man he took to be a plain-clothes police officer. "I felt secure with him, because he was reasonably well dressed and articulate." Jenkins now thinks he was the murderer. But there has been a lot of scepticism about this apparent memory. Why not mention it before?
Denise Lancaster, a neighbour he called for help, told a recent Channel 4 documentary she thought the man in the hall was "a fiction". The programme "incensed" Jenkins, who felt "betrayed" by its makers. Betrayal is a word that comes up often in our conversation. He feels betrayed by the police. He feels betrayed by the scientist who said microscopic specks of Billie's blood were on his fleece because he attacked her. The defence said they were breathed out as she lay dying in his arms. He feels betrayed by his wife at the time, Lois, who gave evidence against him, then took their four daughters off to live on the other side of the world.
Still, though, why has it taken him so long to come up with this new and apparently vital piece of evidence? "I did mention him in my original witness statement," he insists, waving that yellowing piece of paper. The police did not challenge the idea that the man was one of their own. For years Jenkins assumed that to be the case. Then in 2005, preparing for his third trial, he asked the Crown Prosecution Service for the statements of all officers at the house that day. There was one missing: the mystery man.
It would be easier to believe him, of course, if someone else had seen the man. "They did," he says. This is also news. After the book came out, a former neighbour wrote to say she remembered a local newspaper report about "a passing motorist" who saw an unidentified man leaving the house that afternoon.
Jenkins shows me her letter. But what's to say she isn't making it up, like the vampire man? "Absolutely," he says. "But this is verifiable. That is why I have asked the police for the statement by that motorist, or anybody else who saw a man." What do the police say? "They are making enquiries."
The previous main suspect – apart from Jenkins – was a mentally disturbed vagrant obsessed with plastic. Bizarrely, part of a bin liner was found deep in Billie-Jo's nostril. The man was detained under the Mental Health Act, not charged. Surprisingly, Jenkins is "ambivalent" about him. "I feel strongly that there should be an investigation, but I also know that people with mental health issues are an easy target. And I am still faced with the issue that I saw somebody in my hall." Has his publisher, former tabloid columnist John Blake, told him to talk this new angle up, to sell books? "Absolutely not. Give you my word."
Ah, yes. But detectives found a reason to doubt his word: when Jenkins applied to work in Hastings, his CV was full of lies. "I regret doing it," he says. "I'm sorry. I exaggerated the details." He did a bit more than that – like claiming to have gone to Gordonstoun and the University of Kent. Why? "I have asked myself that question 100 times," he says. "It started out as a game, but then I put it in. But you know, the point comes when I can't say sorry any more. My biggest regret is that it got tangled up with the murder of Billie."
Part of his process of recovery has been an MA in criminology and criminal justice, to be completed next month. He lives near Portsmouth University with his second wife, Tina, who wrote to him out of the blue while he was in prison. Her hesitant, embarrassed letter said she felt drawn to him. As a nurse, she did not believe the evidence about the blood. When they married in February 2005, the News of the World declared, "Murder rap Jenkins marries millionairess". He insists she was nothing of the kind – although his book says she had a house in Belgravia.
Their home is full of beautiful old pictures and furniture. The full-length crushed velvet curtains are presumably her taste. The HM Prison Wakefield mug must be his, like the books on systematic theology and the psalms. Jenkins was a Christian before prison, but says his faith has deepened. That may be a comfort to someone who has not attracted a great many followers to his cause. In the lobby is a dazzling golden icon of Santa Maria di Perpetuo Soccorso, Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Is Tina's money also a help? Is he, in other words, a kept man? "People want that perception," he says. "When I came out I did some interviews. I was paid for that. I used that money. With regard to Tina being a millionaire art dealer? Of course that is false. Tina was a cancer nurse."
She was married before, and has a teenage son. Jenkins has not seen his own four daughters for a long time. They live in Tasmania. The book appeals to them directly to get in touch. So have they? "No," he says. "But I think it's rather early days. I had the divorce from hell. I believe that Lois has poisoned the girls against me."
He wants to heal "a dreadful 11 years", he says. "It is so fraught with competing emotions and alliances. How on earth am I to unravel it when I don't even know where they live?" His inclination is to jump on a plane and try to find them, he says, but after acquittal he needed recovery time. "It was all too much for me. I let my emotions go. That was a great strain. I'm bruised inside. My daughters will be. They have lost their father, among other things. If I needed space as an adult, they will need space as children and as young women. They know where I am. I don't want to invade their space." He does, however, believe they will be reunited. "There is a hole in my heart. Part of me cannot rest. That isn't sentimentality. It's that gut feeling when you have had children and you love them and they are suddenly wrenched from you. I want that to happen. But I don't know how to go about it."
Heart-rending stuff, if he is as innocent as the courts say. Chilling, though, if he is not. What a nerve he would need to tell such stories. So is he a killer? Jenkins is eerily calm, but some people are. He does like to control his surroundings, but anyone might who had been deprived of freedom. I went in to the house suspecting he might be and I am coming out thinking – no, feeling, instinctively, that's all – that he is not. What's that worth? Not much at all, frankly. But a compensation order would declare he was wronged. "I believe the Government should compensate me for taking away my liberty for six years, which also meant I lost the childhood of my daughters," he says. "Family members have died while I was inside.
"I had a kicking while I have been inside. I have been very unhappy, and very sad, and have raged inside, because I have not been able to cope with what happened to me." Maybe he is not controlling his emotions. Maybe they have been burnt out of him. "I believe the Government should pay for that."
15 February 1997: Billie-Jo Jenkins murdered on the patio of her home in Hastings, East Sussex. She has been battered with a metal tent spike. Foster parents Sion and Lois Jenkins appear together at a press conference, appealing for help. Nine days later, Sion is arrested.
June 1998: The trial begins, in Lewes. A month later, Sion Jenkins is convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
december 1999: His first appeal fails. The following year he is refused leave to take the case to the House of Lords.
July 2004: A second appeal succeeds. Conviction quashed; Jenkins released from prison.
July 2005: First retrial ends when jury fails to agree a verdict. In October a second retrial begins.
February 2006: Jury is again unable to agree a verdict, ending second retrial. Sion Jenkins is formally acquitted of murder.
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