The peaceful Leicestershire village of Burton Overy, with its rows of horse chestnut trees, thatched houses and picture-postcard church, is not used to scandal or tragedy. But over the past few days, the internet has brought both.
It is here, behind the flower-decked windows of her small cottage, that 63-year-old Brenda Leyland is alleged to have used her Twitter account to direct a stream of online abuse at the family of Madeleine McCann, the toddler who in 2007 was snatched from her parents’ holiday apartment in Portugal.
What lay behind Ms Leyland’s anger at Kate and Gerry McCann, a couple she had never met, may never be known. On Saturday she was found dead in the room of a Leicester hotel, two days after being unmasked by Sky News as one of a number of Twitter users reported to police for posting abusive messages about the toddler’s family.
Leicestershire Police said they would be examining “the circumstances surrounding and prior to” Ms Leyland’s unexpected death, which they confirmed was not being treated as suspicious. A Facebook campaign is already under way demanding that Sky News sack its crime correspondent Martin Brunt, who first confronted Ms Leyland about her alleged online activities last Thursday.
Most residents of the village, which is home to only a few hundred people, were reluctant to speak about the affair today. “We’re having great difficulty coming to terms with what happened,” explained one. “I don’t know anything about Twitter or the way it works, but it seems like it’s become a tragedy for both sides – first for the McCann family, now for her family,” said another.
Alex Rankine, a 21-year-old student who has lived in Burton Overy with his parents for the past two years, said it was “a strong community” and that residents had been “pretty shocked” by the events of the past few days. He said he was “surprised” when he heard about the allegations against Ms Leyland, but added: “It shows you can’t make judgements based on where people live about what they’re going to be like.”
He also questioned why Sky News had chosen to unmask Ms Leyland when others had been accused of the same crime. “It seems to me that Sky have seen that she lives in this picturesque village and thought it would make a good story, because there’s a contrast there. If it wasn’t such a middle-class area, I don’t feel like they would’ve confronted someone on their doorstep,” he said.
“It put her in a bad situation. Obviously you can’t condone what she did, but I can see how she would’ve felt she’d been backed into a corner. I think it’s pretty irresponsible really. If it was just some teenage boy living in a council flat, they wouldn’t have bothered.”
The Madeleine McCann case
The Madeleine McCann case
1/25 Madeleine McCann
One of the last photos of Madeleine before her disappearance
2/25 Madeleine McCann
Madeleine McCann was three when she was abducted during a family holiday in 2007
3/25 Top worn by a man that detectives investigate with connection to disappearance of Madeleine McCann
A computer generated image of the distinctive burgundy long sleeve top worn by a man that detectives investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann are looking for
4/25 Apartment in Portugal from where Madeleine went missing
An aerial view of the Ocean Club apartments and pool where Madeleine McCann went missing
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
5/25 Kate McCann
Kate McCann speaks to the press outside the court house in Lisbon on 12 September 2013 following the first audience of the McCann couple's libel proceedings against former inspector Goncalo Amaral for a book written about the case of their missing daughter
6/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Kate McCann and Gerry McCann before the start of the 'Miles for Missing People' charity run in Regent's Park in London, 2011
7/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Kate and Gerry McCann make an appeal at a press conference in the holiday resort of Praia da Luz, Portugal 7 May 2007
8/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
The McCann's give an interview with a Spanish television channel at their home in Rothley
9/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Madeleine McCann was abducted in Portugal in May 2007
10/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Preliminary forensic analysis on samples recovered from the McCanns' hire car raised the possibility of a match with Madeleine's DNA profile, according to the leaked report
11/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Pope Benedict XVI blesses a photo of four-year-old abducted British girl Madeleine McCann, while meeting her parents Gerry and Kate McCann, after his weekly general audience at the Vatican, 2007
12/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Gerald McCann and Kate McCann speak to the press on 4 May 2007 at the Ocean club appartement hotel in Praia de Luz in Lagos after Madeline vanished while her parents were out to dinner
13/25 Portuguese police search for Madeleine
Dozens of Portuguese police aided by dogs search for missing three-year old British girl Madelaine McCann in front of the Ocean club appartment hotel in Praia de Luz in Lagos
14/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
Gerald McCann and Kate McCann walk holding their two other children outside the Ocean club apartment hotel in Praia de Luz in May 2007
15/25 Madeleine McCann
Madeleine McCann pictured at the age of three, left, and as she might have looked aged nine
16/25 Kate and Gerry McCann
The parents of missing Madeleine McCann have described as "pure speculation" reports in the Portuguese press suggesting that a chief suspect in the disappearance of their daughter was killed in a tractor accident four years ago.
17/25 Tribute for missing Madeleine in Rothley, Leicesteshire
Three year old Cally prepares to add a yellow ribbon to a floral tribute for missing Madeleine McCann in Rothley in Leicesteshire, 2007
18/25 Support for the missing Madeleine
Everton captain Lee Carsley (L) leads his team onto the field, followed Mikel Arteta (C) and Manuel Fernandes (R) wearing Tshirts bearing a message of support for the missing British toddler Madeleine McCann, prior to the English Premiership match between Chelsea and Everton, at Stamford Bridge in London, 2007
19/25 Madeleine McCann
A poster appealing for information about Madeleine McCann at a Spanish railway station
20/25 BBC's Crimewatch reconstruction of Madeleine McCann's disappearance
Former porn star Mark Sloan (L) was cast in the BBC's Crimewatch reconstruction of Madeleine McCann's disappearance
21/25 Clarence Mitchell holds two artist's impression of the new suspect
McCann family spokesman Clarence Mitchell holds two artist's impression of the new suspect on 20 January 2008 in London. The description has come from British woman Gail Cooper, who was staying with her family close to the McCann's apartment in Portugal
22/25 Image of a woman sought in the case
Clarence Mitchell, the press spokesman for the McCann family, releases a photofit image of a woman sought in the search for missing Madeleine McCann
23/25 Suspect in disappearance of Madeleine McCann
Police released two e-fits of suspect in disappearance of Madeleine McCann
24/25 Raymond Hewlett
Convicted paedophile Raymond Hewlett, who is being sought in connection with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann
25/25 A picture of a suspect
An artist's impression of a suspicious man seen by a witness apparently watching the McCann family's apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal, the day before Madeleine McCann went missing
Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson, a writer who has lived opposite Ms Leyland for the past 11 years, said she spoke to her occasionally in the local pub and that she came across as an “educated” woman. “One likes to think that people who are perhaps less educated indulge in such pastimes, so I was shocked, because it’s not nice to think of anyone you know doing such things,” she said.
But she added that Sky News had acted “prematurely” by approaching Ms Leyland, leading to her being “judged” and “aggressively hounded” by the press. “All I know is that she’s been labelled a ‘Twitter troll’ – and two days later she’s dead,” she said. “Although it’s right that people who behave irresponsibly should be called to account, there are ways we have in a civilised society of doing that. It’s a modern version of stoning.”
She also pointed out that the affair had fuelled more vindictiveness towards the McCanns to emerge online – the very thing that Ms Leyland had been accused of in the first place. “The whole thing is a tragedy from start to finish. It’s time to stop – someone has died,” she said.
“That has to be a lesson: that we cannot go shouting our mouths off and then go judging people and trying to call them to account. People have to take responsibility for their actions – not just Brenda, but the journalists, the other people who are tweeting with her, the people who are now scapegoating Martin Brunt. There’s a young man now without a mum, and that’s awful. It makes me so sad.”
Not everyone in the village laid the blame at the doors of the media. One man, who has lived in Burton Overy for 30 years but declined to be named, said he had heard that Ms Leyland “had some issues of her own”. “I didn’t really know her, but she seemed a strange sort of character when you passed her on the street,” he said. “I suspect she was a very lonely person.”
He added that he did not blame Sky News for confronting her with the trolling allegations. “I don’t see that there’s anything wrong in challenging somebody. Trolling is a disgraceful thing to do, whoever does it – it’s just a shock that it’s somebody from a place like this, such a quiet, nice place to live,” he said.
Sky News said in a statement: “We were saddened to hear of the death of Brenda Leyland. It would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further at this time.”