Bob Woffinden Reviews the Case : May 03
Just over six years ago, on a bright Saturday afternoon in February, 13-year-old Billie-Jo Jenkins was bludgeoned to death. The doctor called to the scene said that in 26 years’ experience as a police surgeon, it was the most brutal murder he had ever attended.
The body was discovered on the patio by the open French windows at the back of the house in Hastings, Sussex, where Billie-Jo lived with Siôn and Lois Jenkins and their four daughters. She had been cheerfully earning pocket money, painting the patio doors, when the attacker struck.
The depth of the tragedy could hardly be exaggerated. Billie-Jo had been born and brought up in unhappy circumstances in the east end of London, and spent some years in care. When Siôn and Lois answered a newspaper advert for foster parents, Billie-Jo was placed with the Jenkins family. She was already a schoolfriend of Annie, the eldest daughter.
In 1992, Jenkins got a job as deputy headteacher at William Parker boys’ school in Hastings. As the family made plans to move, Billie-Jo begged to go with them. It was a wonderful new beginning for her. The Jenkins family moved to a spacious house overlooking Alexandra Park. Billie-Jo was part of a large family in a stable home; she had her own room and her own telephone line, so that she could maintain contact privately with her natural family.
Certainly, Billie-Jo was a handful. She could be boisterous and, sometimes, almost uncontrollable; but Siôn and Lois, who was a social worker, thought she had coped with the change “very well”. Only days before the murder they obtained a residence order for her — which is a sort of halfway stage between fostering and adopting. Everything seemed to be working out.
Now, the bright future was no more. Billie-Jo lay in a pool of blood, an 18-inch bloodstained metal tent peg by her head.
If an intruder had entered the front garden from the road and walked up the side-passage to the back of the house, then he would have come across the tent spikes, which had been left lying on top of the coal bunker. “It would have been easy for the killer to have picked the tent peg up”, confirmed the police.
Hastings, once a genteel seaside resort, had changed over the years. It now had a shifting population. There had been a number of violent crimes in the area, and there was growing public concern about drug-dealing and vandalism. Many of the once-reputable houses now provided rundown bed-and-breakfast accommodation for psychiatric patients released under care in the community.
The day after the murder, the police told the press that a man with a scar or birthmark had been seen acting suspiciously in the vicinity of the Jenkins’ home that Saturday afternoon. They also added that, “Whoever was responsible for the vicious and evil attack must have been stained by blood and probably by white paint on their clothing too”.
After a few days, however, police abandoned their interest in the man with the scar or birthmark. Their attention instead focused on Siôn Jenkins himself. Amidst great publicity, he was arrested and charged with the murder.
Siôn Jenkins started off with ambitions to become a sculptor. He had a studio in Wapping, east London and, to pay the rent, did two days a week supply teaching at Stepney Green boys’ school. In the spring of 1981, he met Lois, a student nurse, at the bar of the Royal London hospital in Whitechapel. He was then 23 and she was 19. When they married and started a family — Annie, their eldest child, was born in June 1984 — Lois gave up nursing and subsequently became a social worker. Siôn had to take more regular work and began taking teaching more seriously as a career. He worked at schools in east London and in 1992 obtained the post of deputy head at William Parker school in Hastings.
By 1997, the headteacher was due to retire in the summer and, at the time of Billie-Jo’s murder, Siôn had just been appointed to take over from him in September, at the start of the new school year.
Saturday 15 February, which marked the end of half-term week, began as a typically active and chaotic one for the Jenkins family. While Lottie, the second eldest child, went to the cinema, Lois took her other three daughters shopping to Safeway’s. Later that morning, she telephoned Siôn to say she couldn’t pay for the groceries as she’d forgotten to take her cheque-book. Siôn drove there to meet her, but then realised he’d taken the wrong cheque-book, so he had to go back home again to get the right one.
So all that took much longer than they’d anticipated. Having returned from the cinema, Lottie went to her clarinet class. Meanwhile, Lois took the two youngest children for a walk on the beach. At home, Annie and Billie-Jo earned extra pocket money by doing household chores. While Billie-Jo was painting the patio doors, Annie cleaned out a storeroom. In doing so, she put three metal tent pegs, which had previously been used to hold down a garden swing, on top of the coal bunker.
Then, Siôn took Annie with him to pick up Lottie. When they got back, he decided they needed white spirit for the painting, so, taking Lottie and Annie, he drove off to Do-It-All. When they got there, Siôn realised that, exactly like Lois earlier in the day, he’d forgotten to take any money. It was another fruitless journey. So they drove home again. That was when they discovered Billie-Jo on the patio.
The prosecution, however, had a different view of events. They believed that, on returning with Annie and Lottie from the clarinet class, Siôn had seen Billie-Jo painting the patio doors. After a day of increasing frustration, he instantly lost his temper. Perhaps this was because her painting was too slapdash; perhaps it was because she was playing the radio too loudly. As a result, he had picked up a weapon and beaten her to death. He had then calmly walked out of the house and taken Annie and Lottie to Do-It-All to create a false alibi for himself.
The primary evidence against Jenkins, however, were 158 microscopic bloodspots found on his clothing. Adrian Wain, the forensic scientist who had detected these spots, said that as Jenkins had swung the weapon again and again, he had created a mist of droplets, which had caused the spattering on his clothing.
Jenkins was arrested on 24 February, and released on police bail after two days of questioning. However, he had to leave the area altogether — in case he influenced potential witnesses, he was told — and went to his parents’ home in Aberystwyth.
On 13 March, he was re-arrested, taken to Hastings magistrates’ court and charged with murder. The police also publicised details of a second charge, that of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception. This was on the basis that Jenkins had given untrue details on his c.v. when applying for the post at William Parker. He said he’d attended Gordonstoun — when in fact he’d been to Glasgow Academy — and that he’d got a degree from the University of Kent — whereas he’d actually got a teaching qualification from Nonnington College of Education near Canterbury, which only later became absorbed into Kent University. (On Christmas Eve 2002, over five years later, Jenkins received a letter from the Department of Education asking him to explain inaccuracies in his C.V. Nice to know they’re on the ball.)
In a subsequent BBC documentary about the case, a character playing one of the investigating police officers said, “The only thing he’s got is a general certificate of education from Nonnington“. Another officer responded, “Why didn’t the school think to check him out?”
In fact, it was the police themselves who apparently hadn’t checked things out. In 1992, Jenkins had been awarded a postgraduate degree, an MSc in education management at the University of East London — so he was certainly qualified, even if he’d embellished his c.v. Moreover, he’d been promoted at William Parker — from deputy head to head — because of what he’d achieved in his five years at the school. “Undoubtedly, he was a very good deputy head”, recalled Roger Mitchell, who was then headmaster. “We worked very closely together on the preparations for the Ofsted inspection, his contribution was significant, and we got a good report.”
There were few, however, who remained loyal to Jenkins. He realised that, while he was absent in Wales, back home in Hastings the mood became unfriendly. “The statements that were given about me pre-arrest were all favourable to me”, he later told me, “yet after my arrest suddenly everyone started giving hostile statements. People were almost queueing up to provide the police with what they wanted!”
“I’m amazed that witnesses feel so beholden to the police that they bend over backwards to support their hypothesis. Clearly, people desperately want to be seen and commended as good citizens.”
Jenkins stood trial at Lewes crown court in June 1998. The prosecution said that there were several indications that he hadn’t been genuinely interested in Billie-Jo’s well-being. He made two 999 calls, eight minutes apart, but merely said that Billie-Jo had “fallen”. He hadn’t attended properly to his dying daughter and had appeared calm and detached. In fact, at one point, the ambulance crew noticed that he had gone outside to put the hood up on his white MG Roadster.
It was clear, claimed the prosecution, that the motive for the trip to Do-It-All was bogus: the journey there was not direct (they had gone round the park twice), Jenkins had taken no money with him, and in any case he didn’t need white spirit as there was already half-a-bottle in a cupboard.
The defence tried to explain the details to which the prosecution attached, they claimed, undue importance. Certainly, Jenkins may not have acted appropriately in the moments after the discovery of Billie-Jo — but, confronted by such appalling circumstances, which of us could guarantee to have the presence of mind to act correctly?
“When I found Billlie, I couldn’t ‘accept’ what I found and now know I went into shock”, Jenkins explained to me later. ldquo;My initial reaction was one of panic as I knew that I didn’t know what to do. I had never attended any first-aid courses, I had never been involved in any major accident. My inexperience made me panic more as well as increasing my distress.”
In any case, Jenkins did not have only Billie-Jo to consider. Annie and Lottie were, naturally, hysterical, even though he had quickly ushered them into another room. “I had Billie-Jo dying on one side of the house, I had the children on the other, crying and screaming”, he said to the Crown QC under cross-examination. “I was running between them. You don’t have any understanding of what it was actually like in that house when I returned.”
He admitted that, after the arrival of the emergency services, he had gone outside and sat in his car, before wondering what he was doing there. Professor Michael Trimble gave evidence that, for someone in a state of shock, behaving in this way was entirely understandable.
The prosecution argued that Jenkins had “lost his rag” after the various frustrations of family life that day. Jenkins, however, insisted that it had been, until the return to the house, a perfect Saturday. He was enjoying the first opportunity that year to ride around with the hood down on his MG convertible. Yes, the journey to buy white spirit was unnecessary; he hadn’t known there was a half-bottle left at the back of a cupboard — don’t thousands of families make that same mistake? He didn’t take money with him — hadn’t Lois done exactly the same thing on a more important family shopping trip earlier in the day?
The “lost his rag” argument did not seem to make sense in other ways. Whereas an intruder, coming into the house from outside, would have come across the tent peg straightaway, Jenkins would have needed to go out of his way to pick it up; many other potential weapons, including a hammer, lay more conveniently to hand.
Nor was there any evidence that Jenkins had previously behaved in such a way. The police went carefully through his long record as a schoolteacher. Never, whatever the provocation, had he lost his temper with a child. (The suggestion — vehemently denied by Jenkins — that he had kicked Billie-Jo while on holiday in France was ruled inadmissible evidence by the judge, and so was never tested in court.)
The prosecution was unable to advance any motive why Jenkins might have behaved in such an extraordinary and uncharacteristic way. So there was no motive and nor was there a “window of opportunity”. Between picking up Lottie from the clarinet class, and the first call to the emergency services, there was simply not time for Jenkins to have lost his temper so violently that he murdered her and then completely regained his composure.
Yet the evidence of the blood spots on the clothing remained critical. Wain and other prosecution experts argued that the distribution of bloodspots on his clothing could only be explained if he were the murderer. Much of the trial was concerned with complex scientific evidence. Jenkins had noticed a “bubble of blood” from Billie-Jo’s nostril. The defence suggested that she was still breathing, albeit imperceptibly, when Jenkins first went to her, and she had breathed out a mist of blood on to his clothes.
However, David Southall, professor of paediatrics at Keele University, gave prosecution evidence that Billie-Jo would not have been able to breathe out with sufficient force to cause the spray of blood.
In the end, after a four-week trial, the jury found Jenkins guilty. Mr Justice Gage said that he had been convicted “on compelling evidence” and was “a very considerable danger to the community”. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Despite the judge’s harsh words, a critical common-sense question at the heart of the case remained unanswered. How could anyone have bludgeoned the girl that ferociously, and yet come away with only invisible bloodspots on their clothing? There was blood all around the area of the murder — over the patio, the walls, the dining-room and the trellis outside — yet very little on the man convicted of the killing. Further, in such a crime, forensic scientists would expect to find not just blood on the assailant but also bits of flesh and, in this case, brain tissue.
Within days of the conviction, I wrote an article in the Daily Mail, explaining why I believed that Jenkins was completely innocent. Ever since, there have been widespread doubts about the safety of the conviction.
However, Lois Jenkins, who hasn’t even seen Siôn since the day of his arrest in 1997, became increasingly hostile to him. Soon after the conviction, she divorced him and, in 1999, started a relationship with a 26-year-old martial arts expert, by whom she now has a son. At the appeal in December 1999, Lois conspicuously sat with the police, on the opposite side of the court to the Jenkins family.
The appeal, once again, was primarily concerned with complex scientific arguments about air-flow and whether the dying Billie-Jo would have been able to exhale a mist of blood droplets. It was even halted halfway through to allow the scientists time to perform further tests. The defence brought forward new evidence of experiments showing that a mere three drops of blood could be fragmented into 2,000 droplets. In the end, however, the appeal was rejected, the judges concluding that the “exhalation theory does not fit the facts of this case”. Jenkins, still strongly protesting his innocence, was taken back to Wakefield prison. Subsequently, Lois went with the children and her new partner to live abroad.
Jenkins’ solicitor, Neil O’May, prepared a submission to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the independent body that decides whether cases should be given the chance of a second appeal. However, just as the Commission was due to announce its decision, to the dismay of the Jenkins family, Lois wrote a lengthy piece for the Sunday Times, in which she complained, amongst other things, about what she termed “the justice industry, grinding its self-righteous wheel”. The article seemed deliberately designed to scupper Jenkins’ chances of getting another appeal. Jenkins, as he told me from prison, felt most betrayed by his former wife.
“Despite having known extremes of emotional turmoil, there always seems to be fresh anguish to overcome”, he pointed out. “To my incredulity, I opened the Sunday Times only to be faced with a picture of Billie. Lois had decided to sell her story as a means of undermining me with the CCRC. On that particular Sunday I did feel acute sadness that, again, she had sought to destroy me.”
“Even now, I have no idea what motivated her or why she has permitted such misguided thinking to rule her life.”
Nevertheless, the CCRC has indeed decided to send the case back to appeal.
“For the trial, every attempt was made to establish that Siôn was a violent man, but there was never any evidence of that”, pointed out Canon Stuart Bell, the rector of Aberystwyth. During the 15 months Jenkins spent on remand, Bell came to know him well. He attended the trial and became one of Jenkins’s most stalwart supporters. “Subsequently, all his wing reports in prison have come up with exactly the same response”, he continued, “that there has been no behaviour consistent with the crime for which he has been convicted.”
As Jenkins looked forward to this new opportunity to prove his innocence, he reflected on what has been his greatest loss — being able to see his children grow up.
“My children have now been abroad for nearly a year. Despite the anguish I felt when they left, I have been comforted by their letters. However, it has been difficult watching them grow up through their letters, particularly as my mental image of them often returns to the time we were last together in Hastings. My eldest is now an adult woman and my other three daughters are maturing teenagers. Over the past five years my daughters’ childhoods have evaporated before my eyes. This has been an aspect of my imprisonment that I’ve found impossibly difficult to bear— it’s something I think about every day.”
“But whatever years are stolen from me, I believe that God will bless the years that I have left with them.”
“My journey and my fight for justice have been fraught with difficulties”, he concluded, “but the love and concern of my family, friends and supporters has enabled me to overcome those moments of despair and isolation. Their support has kept my hope alive and given me the confidence to believe that one day the truth will come out.”