Past crimes: The Bamber files

As new evidence emerges in the notorious Jeremy Bamber murder case, David Connett revisits the story he first covered a quarter of a century ago

The "devil incarnate" had good taste. His fondness for fine tailoring was obvious from the first moment I set eyes on him. Immaculately dressed, he was handsome and knew it. You could tell immediately that he was successful with women. Jeremy Bamber may have been one suit among many at Chelmsford Crown Court, but there was a real sense that he was revelling in being the centre of attention.

As a junior reporter working for a national Sunday newspaper, it wasn't my first trial but it was my first big showpiece. It had sensational evidence, top-flight lawyers, a glamour model victim – only the venue detracted: it was Chelmsford rather than one of the show courts at the Old Bailey.

My memories of the trial were taken off a dusty shelf following the news that, after nearly 25 years in jail, Bamber was launching a fresh attempt to have his case again referred to the Court of Appeal following the discovery of new evidence that could make his conviction unsafe.

At 25, Bamber was only a little older than I was, and it is possible that I confounded my own nervousness with what I imagined he might be experiencing. Instead of seeing signs of strain, I remember wondering how he managed to show an almost supernatural calmness at the centre of one of Britain's most celebrated murder trials.

Bamber, the court heard, was accused of murdering his two elderly adoptive parents, Nevill (known as Ralph) and June, his sister Sheila Caffell and her six-year-old twins, Nicholas and Daniel. To cover this up, prosecutor Anthony Arlidge QC, told the court, Bamber called Essex Police in the early hours of 7 August 1985 and explained how he had just been phoned by his father, who told him that his sister Sheila had gone berserk and got hold of one of several guns the family kept at White House Farm, near Tolleshunt D'Arcy, Essex. His sister, he said, was mentally ill.

When armed police got inside the house four hours later, they discovered the carnage. In the kitchen they found Ralph Bamber's body in a chair beneath the mantelpiece, with eight gunshot wounds. A pathologist later gave evidence he had first been shot and then badly beaten around the head before being "calculatedly" dispatched with four shots to the head.

Upstairs they found his wife June, shot seven times, initially in bed. She had been finished off with two shots to the head, one between the eyes, as she attempted to escape. Mr Arlidge underlined the tragedy with pregnant pauses as he outlined how the twins had been murdered as they slept in their beds, both shot in the head at close range. In the same room as June, police found Sheila Caffell, lying on the bed with a Bible and a .22 Anschütz semi-automatic rifle lying on her, the barrel pointing towards her head.

Bamber told police later his sister was mentally ill, a "nutter". A former model, known as Bambi, she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was staying at her parents' farm after receiving hospital treatment and splitting from her husband. Bambi, who had smoked cannabis after her medication had been reduced, argued with her parents when they suggested temporarily fostering her children as she put her life back together. He said he had left the gun out after shooting rabbits with it earlier in the day. Investigators seemed convinced Bambi was responsible, particularly as the farmhouse was found locked from the inside on arrival. An inquest into the deaths concluded there had been four murders and a suicide.

Not everyone was as convinced as the police. Relatives doubted Bambi's ability to murder. Despite Jeremy Bamber's claim that his sister was familiar with guns, other relatives insisted she had little or no knowledge of them. Mr Arlidge seemed to delight in demonstrating to the jury how her manicured nails would not have survived the fact she needed to reload the rifle at least three times. Forensic tests should have shown lead traces on her hands but did not. Neither was gun oil found on her nightdress, nor traces of blood on her bare feet, despite the fact she supposedly ran amok in the blood-spattered kitchen and bedrooms.

Mr Arlidge then unfolded what the prosecution believed had happened that night. Jeremy Bamber had cycled to White House Farm and entered via an insecure window. Once inside he had murdered his victims to become the sole beneficiary of a will worth up to £500,000 before incriminating his sister. As he presented the case, the urbane Mr Arlidge skilfully drew on a variety of evidence, including Bamber's own questionable behaviour after the deaths. With funeral arrangements under way he hosted expensive lobster and champagne meals with friends and was observed looking at his watch during the funeral before remarking: "Come on, let's get out of here. Time's up."

The prosecution case rested on three key points. First was Bamber's former girlfriend Julie Mugford. She met Bamber in 1983. A month after the murders she went to police with a friend and told them Bamber had organised the killings. He was arrested, but had to be released without charge soon afterwards, when detectives established that the local man she named as the assassin had a solid alibi. In court, she said that on the night of the killings Bamber telephoned her and said: "Tonight's the night."

He had, she said, expressed deep hatred for his family and fantasised many plots to kill them. She said he also claimed to have found a way of leaving the house through two windows which he could leave apparently locked from the inside. Her evidence was controversial, punctuated frequently by tearful outbursts and upset to the point that Bamber's defence counsel, Geoffrey Rivlin QC, suggested it was almost impossible to cross-examine her. He did establish that she went to the police after Bamber had upset her by ending the relationship. Personally, I couldn't understand how she could be relied upon as a witness, but others, particularly women, thought the contradictions in her evidence made her more compelling.

The second was the discovery of a gun silencer in the farmhouse. Bamber's cousin, David Boutflour, discovered it in a gun cupboard three days after the murders. The silencer was chipped with fragments of red paint that matched paint from the kitchen mantelpiece at the farmhouse where Mr Bamber senior had put up a struggle before his death.

Vitally, scientists also found traces of Sheila Caffell's blood inside it. If Sheila had committed suicide, how did it end up back in the cupboard? Mr Arlidge pointed out if the rifle had a silencer fitted, Bambi's arms were not big enough to reach the trigger, let alone pull it. Besides, Bambi was a mere "slip of a girl" quite unable to beat her 6ft 4in farmer father savagely after shooting him.

The final point concerned the phone call Bamber said his father made to him before being murdered. Bamber said his father had not rung off and he could hear background noises. Checks revealed the farmhouse phone remained off the hook, which would have made it technically impossible for Bamber to call the police from his own phone. If that was untrue, Mr Arlidge summed up, Bamber was lying and trying to cover up his own involvement.

Mr Rivlin told the jury Bamber had no motive. No evidence existed to show Bamber had calculated he would benefit from any will. No evidence had been produced to show hate was a motivation. Mr Rivlin said: "This is a case in which some commentators may feel that there has been little lacking in terms of human drama. But the one thing that is lacking is proof." Contrasting Bamber's evidence with Ms Mugford's, he asked: "Who are we dealing with in this case – a consummate actor or a consummate actress?"

The jury, by a 10-2 majority, concluded it was a consummate actor. The trial judge, Mr Justice Drake, concurred, remarking as he sentenced Bamber to five life terms: "For one so young, you have a warped, callous and evil mind, concealed behind an outwardly presentable appearance."

In all honesty I would not have convicted Bamber on the evidence I heard. Admittedly, I didn't attend every day of the trial, but the evidence I heard left me far from certain that Bamber's guilt had been established beyond reasonable doubt. And yet I believe Bamber was guilty. I remember thinking later that I now understood the benefit enjoyed by Scottish juries of being able to return a verdict of "not proven".

At the trial it was common ground that only Bamber or Bambi could have committed the murders. No credible evidence of a third party exists. Evidence emerged later during Bamber's first appeal that police may have seen a shadow at a window before entering, but this was dismissed as a trick of the light. Other evidence suggested that police spoke to someone inside but this was dismissed as a misunderstanding or a mis-transcription of information by somebody not at the crime scene.

To believe the verdict was a shocking miscarriage of justice you have to believe the police were astonishingly corrupt and/or inept and that other witnesses conspired collectively or individually to do down Bamber.

This argument has some purchase. This was not Essex Police's finest hour. They were dubbed the Clouseau Squad. It was by common consent a truly awful investigation. One Scotland Yard officer who helped to review it refused to tell me how bad, but simply pinched his nose and screwed his face up.

Police quickly assumed Caffell was responsible and did little to consider other possibilities. DCI "Taff" Jones, deputy head of CID, on being told it was a "domestic" went off to play golf. Their performance in recording or preserving evidence was woeful, culminating in a decision three days after the murder to clear out and burn bloodstained bedding and a carpet from the house in "sympathy" for Bamber.

The scene-of-crime officer admitted overlooking the silencer in the cupboard. Police took three days to collect it from Mr Boutflour. The same officer admitted moving the murder weapon without wearing gloves and acknowledged it wasn't examined for fingerprints until weeks afterwards – unlike the Bible found by Bambi's corpse, which wasn't examined at all. The errors were legion – a hacksaw blade which Bamber may have used to enter through a window lay undiscovered in the garden for months, contemporaneous notes by officers present non-existent. Officers who dealt with Bamber at the scene gave statements weeks later; his clothes weren't examined until a month later; permission was given to cremate the victims' bodies, making further post-mortems impossible; all surviving blood-based exhibits were destroyed by Essex Police 10 years later, undermining Bamber's attempt to prove that blood particles found inside the silencer contained June Bamber's DNA rather than Bambi's.

At his first appeal, the police were accused of "deceits", but the three Appeal Court judges rejected this, saying there was no police conduct that adversely affected the jury's verdict.

Bamber's most recent appeal rests on the discovery of a police log appearing to show his father called police himself to alert them to a disturbance involving Bambi prior to Bamber's own call. The second suggests that paint scratch marks caused by the silencer in the kitchen cannot be seen on police photographs. The new evidence will require closer investigation by the Criminal Cases Review Commission before it decides whether to refer Bamber's case back to the Appeal Court. If it does and Bamber's conviction is quashed, legal experts say it is highly likely that a retrial would be held.

At retrial, much of the evidence that convicted Bamber first time will be re-examined. Bamber's own character will also be under the microscope. At the trial I was struck by his self-assurance – cockiness, if I'm being uncharitable. It was a characteristic that struck his own defence team. Ed Lawson, QC, Mr Rivlin's junior at the trial, described how, on the eve of conviction, Bamber was "disconcertingly composed" and "talking somewhat unattractively about how much money he would make from selling his story to Fleet Street". Lawson will take no part; he died from a stroke earlier this year.

I'll readily admit that Bamber's self-confidence may stem from the knowledge that he is innocent. But nagging at me is Bamber's own barrister's question about whether we were dealing with a "consummate actor". At the time, I appreciated that it was an elegant rhetorical courtroom flourish, but I was also struck by the thought that his own barrister seemed uncertain. As the only journalist to interview him in prison concluded after meeting him: only Jeremy Bamber will ever know the truth.

Timeline: Murder at an Essex farmhouse

7 Aug 1985 Nevill and June Bamber, Sheila Caffell and her twin sons Daniel and Nicholas are discovered dead at White House Farm.

10 Aug Silencer found in the gun cupboard at the farmhouse.

15 Aug Jeremy Bamber appears grief-stricken at his family's funeral.

3 Sept Ex-girlfriend Julie Mugford tells a friend Bamber may have been involved in the murders. Makes a statement to police four days later.

8 Sept Bamber is arrested for murder but later released.

30 Sept Bamber is rearrested after tests show paint on the silencer matches that in the kitchen.

4 Oct 1986 Murder trial begins at Chelmsford Crown Court.

28 Oct Bamber is found guilty of five murders, given five life sentences.

20 Mar 1989 Bamber appeals, arguing the judge failed to sum his case up fairly. He loses.

Dec 1994 Minimum 25-year sentence extended to full life imprisonment.

12 Mar 2001 Case referred to the Court of Appeal after new evidence suggests blood on the silencer may have been June Bamber's.

12 Dec 2002 Bamber loses his appeal. All three judges say they firmly believe Bamber is guilty.

30 May 2004 Bamber taken to hospital after being slashed by a fellow inmate at Full Sutton prison.

20 Feb 2010 Evidence questions whether paint scratches occurred at the time of the murders.

12 Jul Gives first prison interview.

5 Aug New evidence revealed of police logging a call from his father before the murder.

Serrena Pang

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