Three guilty of murdering man they held as their ‘slave’

Vulnerable 'dogsbody' was tortured for his benefit money before being killed
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The Independent Online

Five people who adopted a vulnerable man and subjected him to years of torture before killing him and dumping his headless body into a lake were yesterday found guilty of causing his death.

The dismembered body of Michael Gilbert, 26, was found in the Blue Lagoon in Arlesey, Bedfordshire, last May. Luton Crown Court heard how he had been held as a domestic "slave" in a house in Luton where he was frequently tortured for his benefit money.

Yesterday James Watt, 27, the alleged ringleader of the attacks, was convicted of murder alongside his girlfriend Natasha Oldfield, 29, and his brother's girlfriend Nichola Roberts, 22. Robert Watt, 20, and his mother Jennifer Smith-Dennis, 58, were found guilty of familial homicide. The defendants will be sentenced on Monday. A third brother, Richard Watt, 25, had previously admitted familial homicide.

The court heard how James Watt met the "vulnerable" Mr Gilbert at a children's home at the age of 15. After being befriended by Watt, Mr Gilbert drifted apart from his family, choosing instead to spend his time at the Watts' home in Luton. It was there that Mr Gilbert was subjected to "beating after beating", Stuart Trimmer QC, prosecuting, told the court. The family turned him into their "dogsbody and their slave", subjecting him to a catalogue of abuse which included shooting him with an air rifle. Although he escaped several times, the family tracked him down and forced him to return.

Jurors heard that Mr Gilbert was robbed of his benefits money and forced to sleep handcuffed to a bed to prevent him escaping, experiencing sustained abuse which eventually led to his death in January last year. Some of the assaults were filmed on mobile phones, and on one occasion Mr Gilbert was made to goad a large pet lizard until it attacked him with its tail.

After the arrests, police found notes written by Mr Watt's girlfriend, Natasha Oldfield, detailing a "game show" she had invented in which people could pay money to assault the victim in varying ways. Entitled "Gilbert ends up dead", the diary extract read: "Charge £5 slap, £10 punch, £15 kick, £25 headbutt".

Detectives believe Mr Gilbert died between 21 and 22 January last year as a result of the abuse he had suffered. A bag containing his headless corpse was found by two dog walkers on 10 May last year, weighted down with a stone from the patio wall at the Watts' home.

Defending James Watt, Andrew Jefferies QC told Judge John Bevan that he could not explain why the 27-year-old had meted out such violence to Mr Gilbert. "I wish I could put something before you to explain it, but I simply cannot. The odd nature of their relationship was one that started through friendship," he said. He urged the judge to sentence for the murder on the basis that the intention was to cause serious harm rather than death.

Michael Borrelli QC, representing Robert Watt, said his client could be described as a vulnerable adult. "He was set an appalling example and his perception of what was right and wrong must surely have been distorted," he said. Yesterday the Luton safeguarding of vulnerable adults board announced a serious case review.

Speaking outside court, Mr Gilbert's mother Rosalie White, 49, said the family were pleased with the result but that nothing would bring her son back. Her 31-year-old son, Chrissy, added: "It's been a traumatic time for our family and nothing will bring Michael back, but let's hope this will save other people from violent behaviour."

Mrs White said the family had tried to help Michael, who had returned to them occasionally for brief periods but would always go back to the Watts.

The senior investigating officer Detective Chief Inspector Jon Humphries said the case was the "most serious and long-standing series of abusive incidents that have led to someone's death that I have seen in 26 years".

The guilty

James Watt

The 27-year-old supervised Michael Gilbert's imprisonment. Described by defence lawyers as a "control freak and a violent bully", an assertion backed up in court by his brother Richard.

Robert Watt

The 20-year-old was just eight when Mr Gilbert first lived at the house. He is alleged to have been suicidal at 13 after being bullied at home.

Richard Watt

The 25-year-old helped dismember Mr Gilbert's body, but later alerted police to the spot where the brothers had disposed of the corpse.

Jennifer Smith-Dennis

The mother of the boys, she was left to deal with their many problems, a task which was described in court as being "beyond her".