Babes in Wood: Killer's ex-partner delays justice with lie

By Tanya Gupta
BBC News

Published
image copyrightEddie Mitchell
image captionJennifer Johnson denied perverting the course of justice

The "Babes in the Wood" murders of nine-year-old schoolgirls Karen Hadaway and Nicola Fellows cast a shadow over a Brighton estate for decades, but the fight for justice didn't end with Russell Bishop's conviction in 2018. It is now known his ex-partner Jennifer Johnson lied to keep him out of jail.

1984-85 Relationship 'turns to abuse'

Johnson, now 55, met her first boyfriend, Bishop, on Citizens Band (CB) radio. It was the 1980s - an era before WhatsApp - and the illegal radio craze imported from the US had been embraced by rebels, truckers and lonely hearts alike.

By 1984, she was expecting their first son, and by 1986, she was pregnant with their second child, a daughter. They were parents of a growing family and Johnson went on to have three of her four children with Bishop.

But in her perjury trial, where she claimed she lied "under duress" to protect Bishop, Johnson said by 1986 the relationship had become abusive.

She told jurors slaps, black eyes and marks on her chest were a regular occurrence and also said Bishop used to pin her to the bed and rape her. That was also the year that Bishop went on to kill.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionKaren Hadaway (left) and Nicola Fellows (right) were killed in Wild Park, Brighton, in 1986

1986 Karen and Nicola found dead

On Thursday 9 October 1986, Karen and Nicola - two friends who lived a few doors apart on the Moulsecoomb estate - had been out playing, but by nightfall had not come home.

Police and neighbours combed the area while Karen's mother, Michelle Hadaway, told the BBC she spent that night searching the city's parks and every boat from Brighton marina to the Palace Pier. She said the only way the girls had gone was "if someone had picked them up".

Among those who stepped forward to help were CB radio users whose help police welcomed, as an extensive network of local people who knew the area well.

Officers linked the disappearances to attempted abductions in Newick, Lewes and Rottingdean - but when they were found, Karen and Nicola were close to home.

The girls were found dead in Wild Park lying close together in dense undergrowth, on Friday 10 October. They had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

On 4 December, unemployed labourer Russell Bishop was charged with both girls' murders.

The investigation became one of the largest in Sussex Police's history, with thousands questioned. It also became the longest-running inquiry the force has ever known.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionForensic experts searched Wild Park on 11 October 1986

1987 Bishop walks free

In the winter of 1987, funerals for the girls were held. Karen and Nicola were buried side by side on a hillside near their homes and the community turned out for the families, united in grief.

As the girls were laid to rest, a vicar at the parish church of St Andrew remembered their gifts of "laughter and love and smiles" - gifts, he said, that had been "snatched away".

But in December that year, Bishop walked away from his trial a free man.

The case had centred on a sweatshirt found near the scene that bore traces of the girls' clothes and undergrowth, but Bishop denied it was his. Johnson initially told police she recognised the top, but later went on to deny it in a witness statement and in evidence.

It was a lie she admitted in court this year, as she faced charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice.

After Bishop was cleared of the murders, his brother leapt into the dock to congratulate him. Outside Lewes Crown Court, Bishop's defence lawyer, Ralph Haeems, claimed his client had been through "absolute agony".

At the time, Det Supt Chris Page said the evidence from the laboratory had been sufficient to put Bishop on trial.

Police, who were left knowing Bishop could not be taken back to court, because of double jeopardy rules that prevented a person being tried twice, viewed it as no less than a miscarriage of justice.

Remembering how his colleagues reacted, Graham Bartlett, former Brighton police commander and chief superintendent, said: "We all knew Bishop had killed those two little girls. We knew we couldn't take Bishop back to court.

"The consequence of that acquittal for us and the city - the whole thing was like a cloud that wouldn't go away."

Double jeopardy laws were scrapped in 2005.

Mr Bartlett said when Sussex Police were able to reopen the case, it came as "a godsend".

image copyrightPA Media
image captionFloral tributes were laid for the girls in October 1986 and a police officer stood guard near the scene

1988 Parents' plea to police

Karen's and Nicola's parents did not give up their fight for justice and in 1988 the pressure increased on the force.

On 5 January, the girls' parents, Michelle and Lee Hadaway and Susan and Barrie Fellows, called on Sussex Police to reinvestigate the case.

Mr Fellows told the BBC: "We're going to formally complain about the way the case was handled. We're going to ask for it to be reinvestigated, or a public inquiry, or a Home Office inquiry.

"They can't shelve it and let it gather dust, I think it's wrong. There's a man out there murdered two little girls. I think that gives warrant to any pervert out there who wants to go and do the same thing."

image copyrightPA Media
image captionThe parents of the girls lobbied MPs in 1988 and called for the reopening of the police investigation

1990 Seven-year-old left for dead

Then again, early in 1990, the families warned the killer was still out there, after they were told further evidence had not been strong enough to take forward.

In BBC archive from 2 February, Mrs Hadaway said: "Maybe someday, someone will sit up and listen. Maybe someday, someone will realise that there's a murderer out there on the street. I just hope that they don't realise when it's too late and somebody else has got to go through what we're going through."

Sussex Police Ch Con Rodney Lind said police recognised the families' distress and confirmed any fresh evidence would be considered by the force and submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service.

But two days on from that interview, a seven-year-old girl was left for dead on Devil's Dyke.

Lewes Crown Court heard the girl had been abducted while roller skating and bundled into a car boot by a man who sexually assaulted her and tried to choke her to death. Bishop sobbed as he was convicted of her kidnap, indecent assault and attempted murder.

Sentencing Bishop to life, Mr Justice Nolan told him: "This case is made all the more appalling because you yourself are the father of young children."

After the trial, those who knew Bishop spoke to the BBC about how he and Johnson had seemed like any other couple - and how Bishop had "seemed all right" with his own children.

One relative, though, while claiming Bishop could not have carried out the paedophile killings, alleged any violence he displayed had followed "matrimonial arguments".

image copyrightSussex Police
image captionRussell Bishop faced a second trial in 2018 and was convicted

2016-18 Thirty years on

The case remained under review for decades as science and technology advanced.

In 2016, as the parents marked 30 years without their daughters, Nicola's uncle, Ian Heffron, said the families would "never give up in our hope for justice and closure".

He said: "We live for the day we can truly see them rest in peace."

That year, three decades after Bishop was first arrested, he was rearrested on the grounds of new evidence.

Bishop was finally convicted in 2018 following a DNA breakthrough that linked the sweatshirt to the girls and his home.

2021 Justice delayed by a lie

Johnson went on to face charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice, allegations that she had denied amid claims she had been threatened by Bishop and his family.

However, the prosecution questioned her motives and claimed she stood to benefit from Bishop selling his story as an innocent man to the News of the World for £15,000.

During her trial, Johnson hit out at being "treated like a criminal" and said she had not murdered anyone. She said she would "rather be dead" than listen to the evidence in court again.

But among those also living through the events of past decades was Michelle Hadaway, who attended the Lewes Crown Court trial. It was the fourth trial linked to Bishop's and Johnson's lies Mrs Hadaway had sat through.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionThe Babes in the Wood case cast a shadow over the city for decades

Journalist and author Paul Cheston, who has followed the case since 1986, said police continued reviewing the forensic material over the years.

"On the steps of the court in 1987, police said they were not looking for anyone else," he said. "They kept the case open but only in case new evidence came along. It wasn't active in any other way. They didn't have a squad looking at it constantly.

"When police said they were not looking for anyone else, Bishop had just been acquitted - but they were saying they knew who did it.

"They knew the case was a stain on Sussex Police's reputation.

"They knew they couldn't prosecute him again but they kept all the forensic material and they did keep resubmitting it."

Mr Cheston said Johnson was not the sole cause of Bishop's 1987 acquittal but "became a substantial part" in it.

Following Johnson's conviction, he said: "She has to level her conscience. Not only did she delay justice for 35 years, she helped a double killer be back on the street, and of course in 1990, he attacked another little girl."

image copyrightPA Media
image captionMichelle Hadaway, Karen's mother, attended the trial at Lewes Crown Court

Mr Bartlett said: "She lied about the sweatshirt. She did know it was Bishop's. She lied about how police behaved and took her statement. She lied in her retraction statement and has admitted that.

"I don't think it's in dispute that she suffered terribly at the hands of Bishop and was physically abused and sexually abused by him, but it doesn't excuse her perjuring herself.

"Had she been truthful and had he not been acquitted, the families would have received justice. The little girl in 1990 would never have been kidnapped, abused, strangled almost to death and abandoned on a hilltop. The consequences of her lies were horrendous."

Mr Bartlett said Johnson had claimed police fitted Bishop up and officers had behaved terribly, but that had been accepted as lies.

He said individual officers and Sussex Police had lived with those slurs for years - which he found "unforgiveable".

Describing how Johnson seemed "a broken woman" in court, he said: "Her whole life has been decided by this missed opportunity to face up to the truth. She went part of the way there by saying she lied, but her recollection of events I'm sure [was] better than that.

"She was prepared to deny perjury. The honourable thing would be to plead guilty."

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