Two bodies found at Osbaston House
As human remains are found in the ruins of millionaire's country house, moreevidence emerges that debts were beginning to press down heavily on the man who made a 'Country Life' fantasy come true for his family. David Randall reports
Sunday 31 August 2008
The remains of two people, whose age and sex were not disclosed – or could not even be immediately determined – were found yesterday in the charred debris of what was, until Tuesday, the large Shropshire country home of the Foster family. Detectives are hoping to establish a cause of death tomorrow, with formal identification taking place in the following days.
In the absence of definitive forensic evidence of their identities, police were not commenting further, but unless a conspiracy of the most convoluted type has taken place, the remains will be those of two of this close-knit family. If a third body is discovered, West Mercia Police will then have to determine if the perpetrator lies dead in the property by his or her own hand, or whether an outside party was involved. Last night, police still insisted that the incident was being treated as arson, and was not a murder inquiry.
A complete search of Osbaston House, near Maesbrook, could take weeks, police have said. But until evidence is produced to the contrary, the heaviest suspicion will lie on 50-year-old millionaire Christopher Foster – a man whose main business collapsed owing nearly £2m – taking a gun to his wife Jillian, 49, and teenage daughter, Kirstie, before torching the entire property and then killing himself or absconding. And, last night, evidence was accumulating that the demise of his lavish lifestyle was more imminent than previously thought. The Shropshire Star newspaper reported that bailiffs set on seizing some of Mr Foster's assets arrived at the house on Tuesday, only to find it, and any likely assets, a smoking ruin.
Members of West Mercia force's Operation Feedback are now trying to build up a detailed profile of each member of the family, their associations, and recent movements.
It is known that Mr Foster spent some of Bank Holiday Monday clay pigeon shooting (he was also often seen at the West Midlands Shooting Ground). He was then photographed with his wife and daughter at a friend's barbecue party, before leaving – slightly the worse for wear, according to some reports – at about 8.30pm, and walking home. Nothing more is publicly known about the family's activities, except for Kirstie's prolonged session on the social networking site Bebo, which was ended abruptly by a cut in the house's power supply at 1am.
There is then a gap until, approaching 5am on Tuesday morning, a neighbour heard an explosion in the distance and rang emergency services at 4.50am. Firefighters, and then police, rushed to the property, and found that whoever set the fire had first done everything he, she or they could to hinder speedy access. A horsebox with its tyres deflated had been parked outside the estate's electronically controlled gates, and lifting gear had to be brought in to remove it. The fire brigade then drove to the burning house and outbuildings, only to find that the front door had been boarded up from the inside, and so, according to some reports, had ground-floor windows. They could also see that the house, stable-block and garage had been burning for some time. It also seemed likely that the fire consuming the large, L-shape house had been started at several different points.
So it already looked far more than an ordinary country-house fire even before police found spent shotgun cartridges littering the yard, and that every animal on the property – and there were many – had been slaughtered. When daylight came, it was obvious that large parts of the house were a burnt-out shell – and a dangerous one at that. Roofs, ceilings and whole floors and their charred contents had crashed to the ground, and, in places, into the basement. Aerial views show a garage burnt to its foundations, within which were the melted remains of four luxury cars and those of a tractor. In the stables were the charred corpses of three horses and three dogs, all of which had first been shot, and there were pools of blood in the courtyard at the rear of the main house. Even the guinea pigs, ducks, and the family's chickens had been shot.
And yet, just a few hours before, this had been the enviable country seat of the Foster family. Four years ago, with Mr Foster's business supplying the off-shore oil industry thriving, they moved from a £750,000 home at Allscott, near Telford, and paid £1.15m for Osbaston House, an 18th-century home with later additions, seven miles from the Welsh border. Lane Fox, who, along with Strutt & Parker, handled the sale, described it as "a first-class family set-up" with a 34ft drawing room, orangery, five bedrooms, under-floor heating, and a barn recently converted into a galleried room, extra bedrooms and a breakfast kitchen.
The Fosters spent lavishly on it, and by this year had extensively upgraded the interior, and added a lake, wood and wildflower meadow. Mr Foster drove a couple of Porsches and an Aston Martin, and Mrs Foster had a Range Rover with the personalised plate JILL40. There was also a paddock and show-jumping training area for the three horses – Breezy, Bramble and Scrumpy Jack – owned by Kirstie, the couple's 15-year-old daughter, who attended the £16,500-a-year Ellesmere College. Mr Foster had recently bought himself another horse, at £5,000, and was so keen on animals himself that his wife's birthday present to him was three rare-breed sheep.
But, in what is a cliché in many crimes involving the apparent rich, beneath the story-book lifestyle the foundations were rotting. The Fosters' impressive edifice was built on the proceeds of Christopher's business, Ulva Ltd, which sold insulation for pipes. A millionaire before he was 30, Mr Foster founded the firm at Rugeley, West Midlands, in 1998, and it was soon turning over millions, helped, in part by a £500,000 Canadian export deal secured with the assistance of British Trade International, a government agency. It continued doing well for some years, but then hit trouble, typified by a dispute with one of his suppliers, DRC Distribution. The eventual upshot was that the business was placed in administration last August, and was then the subject of a winding-up order in November. It is understood to owe one supplier £1m, and the taxman £800,000.
Christopher Foster, however, was not a man to go down meekly, or even honourably. At a hearing earlier this year it was learnt that he had transferred the assets of the failed Ulva Ltd to Ulva International Ltd. Lord Justice Rimer said that the attempted transfer was "an asset-stripping exercise directed as enabling him to carry on its business through another company with a similar name". He went on: "The administrators were attempting to negotiate with someone, Mr Foster, who they knew to be bereft of the basics of commercial morality. He was not to be trusted." (There are also question marks about some of the commercial company he may have kept. Two people with whom he reportedly was involved in a Cyprus land deal appeared earlier this month at Southwark Crown Court for a preliminary hearing into a £675,000 fraud perpetrated on the Royal Bank of Scotland.)
But Mr Foster was fighting the inevitable. In May, Butcher Woods, the receivers working on his collapsed firm, obtained an interim charge on Osbaston House as security against almost £2m of debt. This meant he could not sell the property, or raise a loan on it without clearance from the receivers or a high-street bank. And the arrival of the bailiffs on Tuesday, intent on seizing as-yet unspecified assets, reveals there were court recovery orders against him, or that he had defaulted on a loan or leasing payments.
Either way, it would have been apparent that the game – and the lifestyle and home he had created – was over. There has been speculation that he had "done a runner" after destroying his property. Leo Dennis, who was one of two men cleared of demanding £100,000 from Mr Foster in 2006 over a failed business deal, said: "I don't think he's dead. He's got places he can go to, places scattered around Europe. These are properties no one knows about. He can go and just disappear."
But last night, as darkness fell and white-suited officers ended the day's search for evidence in the wreckage, the balance of likelihood points the other way. Terence Baines, a former fellow-director of Ulva Ltd, said he thought Mr Foster may have "just flipped because the pressure of it was too much for him".
Is it possible that a proud man who was a known commercial corner-cutter, a gun enthusiast, and who was about to lose everything he most desired, decided that if he couldn't have it, then no one would? If that is so, then – and not for the first time – innocent lives have been sacrificed to a monumental, and deadly, act of petulance.
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