'Lady in lake' murderer found dead in cell

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For more than 20 years it seemed as if Carol Park had disappeared from the face of the earth. In truth, the heavily bound body of the quietly-spoken special needs teacher lay undiscovered not far from her home, 70ft down in the depths of Coniston Water in the Lake District.

Tpday her former husband, a retired schoolteacher who in 2005 was found guilty of the so-called “Lady in the Lake” murder, committed suicide in his prison cell at HMP Garth in Lancashire. It was the 66-year-old’s birthday – five years almost to the day of his conviction – and he was unable to be revived by prison officers who discovered him with a plastic bag over his head.

His death brings to a close one of the longest-running and most baffling murder cases in recent criminal history.

For the couple’s three children and the friends and supporters of Mr Park who have vigorously protested his innocence since his arrest in 1997 – three decades after his wife went missing – it means an end for their campaign to secure his release.

The couple’s son, Jeremy Park, said yesterday that the family were “all completely devastated and still believe his innocence 100 per cent”. They were still working to overturn the conviction and his 15-year sentence despite the Court of Appeal turning down an application for a retrial two years ago.

Senior judges rejected new defence evidence which purported to undermine prosecution claims that rocks used to weigh down Mrs Park’s body came from the family home.

Rob Rode of Clarion Solicitors, who represented him during the appeal, said his client had been left “gutted” by the court’s decision. “I personally have grave concerns as to the safety of the conviction. I believe the fresh evidence merited a retrial,” he said. “He was deeply distressed but fought on to clear his name with the support of his family who are convinced of his innocence. It was a horrendous situation for them.”

The Parks’ marriage was turbulent although the problem seemed to be sex, not violence. Two years after their wedding, Carol’s sister was murdered by her boyfriend; the Parks adopted her daughter. They had two children of their own but it was far from a secure home life. The attractive young teacher was known to have relationships with other men and left the family home at Leece in Barrow-in-Furness at least twice during the short marriage. During one separation Mr Park was granted custody of the children, forcing her to return.

It was this tendency to take off which meant he did not report his wife’s final disappearance for weeks after he claimed she had failed to join them on a family outing to Blackpool in the long hot summer of 1976. The couple divorced in 1978, Mr Park citing desertion. He remarried twice and won admirers for the way he brought up his children. Little was said – in public at least – of his wife’s disappearance.

In 1997 amateur divers uncovered her battered body dressed in a blue baby doll nightie. Suspicion immediately centred on Mr Park who was on holiday in France at the time with his third wife. He is claimed to have said simply “Oh dear” when told the news of her discovery. On his return he was arrested and spent 14 days on remand in Preston jail where the prosecution claimed he confessed to two fellow inmates, one with severe learning difficulties, the other a heavy drug user.

Yet the case did not come to trial for another seven years when a new witness emerged, a holidaymaker, who recalled seeing someone who looked like Mr Park pushing a body into the lake. The prosecution claimed the keen sailor had the necessary skill to tie the knots binding the body and had the means of disposing of his unfaithful wife in the water after bludgeoning her to death at their home with an ice axe.