Constance Marten: The runaway heiress, her rapist partner and the aristocratic family rift

Her upbringing had all the trappings of high society, so how did Constance Marten come to be on the run for weeks on end with a sex offender 13 years her senior? Tom Ough reports

Monday 27 February 2023 06:34 GMT
Police are hunting for Constance Marten and Mark Gordon
Police are hunting for Constance Marten and Mark Gordon (Supplied/Florida Department of Law Enforcement)

They abandoned their burning car on the hard shoulder of the M61 and fled – an aristocrat, a sex offender, and their baby, born just one or two days before. From the inferno near Bolton, thought to have destroyed all their belongings, they travelled first to Liverpool, then to Harwich in Essex, to Colchester and on to East Ham station in east London, over the course of two days.

They went on the run for more than a month, and on Tuesday 28 February police confirmed the couple had been arrested on suspicion of gross negligence manslaughter – as the search for their baby continues.

CCTV images of the family from one of their last sightings on 7 January had placed them in the Whitechapel area of east London walking toward Brick Lane after 10pm. CCTV image show 48-year-old Mark Gordon, the rapist partner of Constance Marten, 35, leaving an Argos after purchasing a tent, which police believe the family slept in with their newborn baby. Their faces remain covered with face masks and hoods as they can be seen walking through east London streets, Gordon in front and Marten behind pushing a buggy covered in blankets.

They are then believed to have taken a taxi to Newhaven, in East Sussex, where they were dropped off outside the port at 4.56am. They were later seen sheltering under an overpass at around 6am, before walking along Cantercrow Hill and into the fields beyond.

Police have found evidence the baby was born on the back seat of the car discovered on the hard shoulder days earlier.

So just how did Marten, whose father was a page to Elizabeth II, go from gracing the pages of society bible Tatler to being on the run with a man who, after burgling and raping a woman as a teenager, spent 20 years imprisoned in Florida before being deported to Britain?

Constance Marten and Mark Gordon with their baby near Adler Road (Metropolitan Police)

Marten’s father, Napier, points to an estrangement that began when his daughter met Gordon, tearing her away from family and friends to embark on an itinerant life. Making a heartfelt plea to Constance through The Independent, Napier – his voice wavering with emotion – told his daughter: “Darling Constance, even though we remain estranged at the moment, I stand by, as I have always done and as the family has always done, to do whatever is necessary for your safe return to us.

“The past eight years have been beyond painful for all the family as well as your friends, as they must have been for you. And to see you so vulnerable again is testing in the extreme. Please Constance, find the courage to present yourself to the police as soon as possible.”

Marten was born in 1987 to Napier and Virginie De Selliers. Napier’s mother, Mary Anna Marten – Constance’s grandmother – was a goddaughter to the Queen Mother and a playmate of Princess Margaret.

The family had a home befitting their aristocratic pedigree. Constance and her younger brothers – Maximilian, now 34, and Tobias, 31 – were brought up at Crichel House, which sits at the heart of a 5,000 acres of Dorset parkland. One of the most magnificent Georgian mansions in England, the home was the setting of the 1996 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, starring Ewan McGregor and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Watch: Father’s emotional plea to missing daughter

She attended St Mary’s Shaftesbury, an independent Roman Catholic girls’ school whose alumnae include the novelist Sophie Kinsella; Laura Lopes, an art curator who is daughter of the Queen Consort and Andrew Parker Bowles; and Martha Fiennes, a film director, writer and producer whose brother is the actor Ralph Fiennes. By the time it closed in 2020, due to financial issues brought on by the pandemic, the school charged boarders more than £30,000 a year.

When she was nine, Constance’s father had what was described as an “awakening”. He later told how a voice in his head had told him to discard the £115m family fortune, shave his head and fly to Australia. Napier followed its bidding and, having duly shaved his head, had an out-of-body experience while standing on a cliff-top with a group of Aboriginal Australians. “Everything in my life materially was a completely empty shell,” he said. He lived in a lorry and trained in head massage. Although he returned to the UK, later working as a tree surgeon, Napier passed Crichel to Max. In 2013, Max sold the house and 400 acres of surrounding land to Richard Chilton, an American hedge fund billionaire, for a reported £34m; it was initially offered for £98m. The King had been thought to be interested in buying the house as an estate for the then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Crichel House sits in 5,000 acres of Dorset parkland (Toby/Geograph)

Constance’s years growing up at Crichel, she would later recall, were full of “naked picnics, siestas amid [hay bales], and tractor scoops”. Toots, as she is known to friends and family, studied Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Leeds, starting in 2008. As a student, she was featured as Tatler’s “Babe of the Month”, describing cider as “one of my five-a-day” and outlining a plan to have a tortoise tattooed on her foot. She attended glittering parties, often at estates like the one she grew up in, and holidayed at upmarket ski resorts such as Verbier.

She also ventured off the beaten It-girl path. During the year abroad that was mandated by her university course, she was in Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo, during the 2011 Arab Spring. Marten graduated with a 2.1 in 2012.

Just beautiful, full of life, full of kindness… and she was very, very talented

She then became a researcher at the London office of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-owned, English-language news channel. This job, according to Marten’s LinkedIn profile, lasted eleven months. Afterwards, Marten worked briefly as a project manager at Rich Mix theatre, in east London, and as a freelance photographer. Marten showed talent; her LinkedIn page records her winning three photography awards, including one for a picture she took at Tahrir Square during the revolution. In 2014, she became professionally qualified as a journalist, and spent a day interning at the Daily Mail.

Apparently supported by a trust fund, Marten then enrolled in an acting course at East 15 drama school in Essex. A classmate told The Sunday Times that Marten was “just beautiful, full of life, full of kindness… and she was very, very talented”.

Marten dropped out of her drama course in 2016 (Supplied)

But Marten dropped out of the course in 2016, they said. She had changed, and was in an erratic relationship with a man the coursemate had never met.

Who was the man? It seems to have been Mark Gordon. Thirteen years her senior, Gordon was born in Birmingham, moving with his mother and half-siblings to Florida when he was young. In 1990, when he was 15, Gordon was found guilty of kidnap and sexual battery, and he spent 20 years in jail. He was recorded as deported in 2010.

US court records describe how Gordon is said to have broken in through the woman's bathroom window, before finding a pair of her stockings which he used as a makeshift mask to cover his face.

Once he had encountered his victim, the documents state: “The suspect ordered the victim back into the bedroom and while still armed, demanded that the victim undress.”

He is then said to sexually assaulted and raped the victim.

The pair have travelled more than 200 miles across England (The Independent)

The file reportedly described Gordon's actions once he had entered the house: “The suspect placed a nylon stocking over his face to conceal his identity since he lived next door and was known by her.

“The suspect was armed with a kitchen knife as well as a pair of hedge clippers and after the victim came out of her bedroom to investigate the dogs barking, came across the suspect lurking just outside her bedroom door.

“The victim was held for a period of approximately four-and-a-half hours against her will by the armed intruder.

“After miranda [being given the right to remain silent], the suspect admitted to the crime and gave a sworn, taped statement outlining the sequence of events as they occurred.

“It should be noted that during the commission of the crime, the victim's two small children were sleeping in their bedroom.”

It is unclear how he and Marten met, but it is reported that they moved into a small, terraced house in Ilford, East London. The couple were “mysterious”, a neighbour told The Sunday Times. Marten was apparently estranged from her family by this point, and she does not appear in the Vogue photoshoot that marked the 2021 wedding of her brother, Max, to the jewellery designer Ruth Aymer.

Marten’s publicly accessible social media output dried up from 2016. Holiday pictures were replaced with silence, and occasional plaintive well-wishes from friends and relations wondering where “Toots” had gone.

Mark Gordon spent 20 years in a US jail (Metropolitan Police)

Gordon and Marten were reportedly evicted from their home in Ilford. Where they went next is unclear, though by August 2020 they were living on the Coldharbour Estate in Greenwich. Neighbours told the Evening Standard that shouting was sometimes heard from the flat and that Marten and Gordon would spend long periods of time elsewhere. The tenancy agreement was in Marten’s name, but the couple were not paying rent. They were evicted in August last year, and are reported to have left smoke damage and a partially collapsed ceiling, with the damage amounting to thousands of pounds’ worth of repairs.

Where they then went remains unclear. Gordon’s mother Sylvia, who lives in Florida, told the Daily Mail she believed the pair had secretly married “some time ago”.

More than 200 officers would be drawn into the search for the couple, who were moving furtively, hiding from cameras, paying in cash and believed to be booking hotels under pseudonyms. It is thought their trip to Harwich Port was in the hope of taking a ferry to the continent. Detective Superintendent Lewis Basford, who is leading the investigation, said: “There is nothing to suggest that any of them have come to any sort of intentional harm – we just need to ensure they are OK, especially the baby, and do not require any medical assistance for any underlying issues.”

The car fire on the M61 near Bolton (Met Police)

De Selliers, now a psychotherapist and divorced from Napier, issued an appeal earlier this month, telling her daughter: “You are not alone in this situation. We will support you in whatever way we can.” Napier, now a film and music producer, said the family had known about Gordon’s past for some time, causing them great concern. In his appeal in January, he told Constance: “I beseech you to find a way to turn yourself and your wee one in to the police as soon as possible, so you and he or she can be protected. Only then can a process of healing and recovery begin, however long it may take, however difficult it may be.”

The couple were found by Sussex Police officers on Monday night on the outskirts of Brighton, after a member of the public reported seeing them shortly before 9.30pm. They were originally arrested on suspicion of child neglect, but were rearrested on suspicion of gross negligence manslaughter on Tuesday afternoon as fears mounted for the survival of their missing child in freezing temperatures.

Senior investigating officer, DSI Basford, told reporters on Tuesday evening: “We feel the risk is getting so great that we have to consider the possibility that the baby has come to harm.”

Anyone who has information should call the incident room on 020 7175 0785.

Alternatively, information can be reported 100 per cent anonymously to the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. They never ask for personal details and they do not trace your device.

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