Brenda Leyland death: In picturesque Burton Overy, residents can't quite believe what's happened

Alleged Twitter troll was found dead two days after Sky News unmasked her

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The Independent Online

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.

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Brenda Leyland was approached by Sky News at her home in Leicestershire last week

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.”

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.”