Focus: Living with a serial killer

Harold Shipman is dead but his wife and children will be stigmatised for life. Tim Luckhurst on how the families of mass murderers can become their victims too
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The Independent Online

The families of long-term prisoners often go to great lengths to deny what has happened to the person who used to live with them. Some say Daddy is away working on an oil rig or abroad with the Army, for example. But that option is not open to the relatives of mass murderers whose trial, sentence and incarceration have been the subject of relentless media attention. Linda Nixon, the mother of the Soham killer Ian Huntley, chose to swim with the tide of public opprobrium, telling The Sun, "I truly wish we had capital punishment. I believe Ian should not live after what he's done."

John Sutcliffe, the father of the Yorkshire Ripper, went to the opposite extreme, claiming Peter "was the perfect son, devoted to his mother". John Sutcliffe did not deny his son's guilt, but insisted: "He certainly had some kind of madness in his mind, though I never saw any sign of it." Sutcliffe may have had "some kind of schizophrenia", ventured his father, while insisting there was "no way" he could "call him evil", he was "a lovable lad, a right grand lad".

Primrose Shipman, the widow of Harold Shipman who murdered at least 215 people, took denial a stage further. Despite sitting through every day of her late husband's trial at Preston Crown Court, often accompanied by their children, she steadfastly refused to acknowledge any evidence of wrongdoing.

Mrs Shipman has rejected every interview request, and did so again last week when approached by The Independent on Sunday. Other reporters saw the couple's only daughter Sarah, 36, arrive at her home in Manchester in a vehicle with blacked-out windows and run indoors with a jacket pulled over her head. All the curtains in the house were drawn. The manager of a rail travel company, Sarah is believed to have gone in to work as usual after being told of her father's suicide. Her three brothers travelled to the cottage in Yorkshire where Primrose Shipman lives. There the oldest, Christopher, 32, expressed anger at the presence of photographers. A former colleague at an engineering firm where he worked said nobody there had realised Christopher was the son of the biggest serial killer in British legal history until they saw him on the television news, outside the court building with his mother. Christopher Shipman now lives in Newcastle, where his brother David, 24, has been at university. Sam, 21, studied horticulture in Preston. After his father was given 15 life sentences in 2000, Sam told a girlfriend it would take three or four years for the family to be left alone - but that was before Shipman's suicide.

Primrose Shipman testified to the inquiry held at Manchester Town Hall in 2001 but could remember little about accompanying her husband to see two patients who died. "She has nothing to hide," stressed her lawyer. Mrs Shipman told Dame Janet Smith, who was chairing the inquiry, that she still believed her husband was innocent.

Such a protest might be seen as delusional thinking, but it is not incomprehensible. Every police hunt for a killer is accompanied by broadcast messages that "someone must know someone who has been behaving strangely". Families are beseeched to consider whether a son, lover or husband has returned home dishevelled or bloodstained. The subliminal message is that families are the frontline of public protection. If they cannot spot that something is wrong, how can the police be expected to find their suspect?

Public reaction after a killer is convicted is often based on the same assumption. David Smith, the husband of Myra Hindley's sister Maureen, discovered how readily some seek to visit the sins of the notorious on their innocent relatives. Mr Smith gave the police vital information after the killing of Edward Evans without which they might have taken much longer to catch Hindley and her lover Ian Brady. But David Smith was ostracised by his neighbours and faced incessant hostility.

Brady's mother seemed to recognise instinctively the danger of being related to her son. She could not conceal her own existence, but she always refused to identify his father, insisting that he was a Glaswegian journalist who had died before Brady was born.

Psychology offers a partial explanation for the venom directed at the parents and siblings of serial killers. Many convicted multiple murderers claim that they suffered psychological abuse as children. They say they were the "black sheep" of the family, bullied by their brothers and sisters and rejected by their parents.

Denis Nilsen once claimed that his killings could be attributed to his mother's decision to show him his grandfather's dead body when he was only six. As this "abuse excuse" has become more common, families have come to recognise that instincts for vengeance may not be directed solely at the guilty. Some relatives flee the areas in which they are known. Others go to extraordinary lengths to apologise for crimes they did not, of course, commit.

Thus, in April 2002, the family of the German killer Robert Steinhaeuser, who murdered 16 pupils at the school in Erfurt from which he had been expelled, wrote an open letter to a local newspaper apologising for his actions.

"The sorrow, helplessness and despair of our family are immeasurable," wrote Steinhaeuser's brother, father and grandfather. "We are infinitely sorry that our son and brother carried out such a horrific act. Until this brutal act of madness, we were a totally normal family. We keep asking ourselves, where did Robert's hate and despair come from and why did we not know anything about if before?"

The answer is that they could not have known. Neither popular nor academic obsession with serial killers has come up with a consistent explanation for their behaviour, still less a reliable way of predicting it. Dr Tony Kearon, of the University of Keele, explains that "very little serious work" has been done into the lives of the families of serial killers. Part of the reason is that very few of them wish to talk. When the author Gerald Posner wrote his book Hitler's Children, about the sons and daughters of Nazi war criminals, he found that, even 50 years after the war, many were not prepared to be linked with their notorious fathers. Most had been infants when the outrages were committed, but they still believed that they might be held responsible for deeds they could not have known about.

British courts recognise a similar danger. Last year, when the child murderer Mary Bell was granted life-long anonymity, one of the main reasons for the ruling was to protect the safety and wellbeing of her 19-year-old daughter.

For others the torture is internal. In 1999, the serial killer Fred West's oldest surviving daughter, Anne Marie Davies, attempted suicide by throwing herself off a bridge in Gloucester. Shortly before that she had said, recalling the horrors of her family life: "People say I'm lucky to have survived, but I wish I'd died. I can still taste the fear. Still feel the pain. It's like going back to being a child again. I have always had to be strong but I'm not. I'm really scared."

There is one further, unpalatable, manifestation of popular obsession with those who are linked with the depraved. The parents of Jeffrey Dahmer, the American killer and cannibal, were pestered by deluded "fans" who wanted to know everything about his home life. Fearing the pursuit of grim souvenirs, the Dahmers gathered up their son's personal effects and destroyed them all.