It started with an out-of-the-blue email from a woman with a horrifying story to tell – and a big favour to ask. But before that, we need to go back three decades…
In June 1985, Sam Gillingham, then a teenager, got home from a day out with her father to find a note on the kitchen table. It was short and bleak, and accompanied by her mother’s wedding ring. It read: “I’ve had enough and I’m leaving. And I’m not coming back.”
Veronica Packman – known as Carole – was never seen again.
To this day, no one knows for sure what happened to her.
Her disappearance was first treated as just that – she’d left, voluntarily, from the family home to start afresh.
But a decade later, dad Russell Causley
– he’d changed his surname to that of his new partner – got in trouble with the police. He was convicted of an insurance fraud and sent to prison.
And the nature of his crime? He’d attempted to fake his own death.
This aroused suspicions in the minds of the police. Could a man who pretends he is dead be taken at face value when his wife has disappeared from the face of the earth?
Despite the fact that Carole’s body has never been found, Causley was charged with her murder. In 1996, he was found guilty.
Then in 2003, his conviction was quashed, only for him to be found guilty a second time, at a retrial a year later.
Today, Causley is in jail, serving a life sentence. In public, he has always claimed to be innocent. His wife ran off “with a man in a red Porsche”, he said. She was, he claimed, working in Germany, France, Switzerland, Malta.
Today, the convicted murderer still refuses to tell his daughter the whereabouts of her mother’s body. Which is why Sam, now 47, turned to renowned investigator Mark Williams-Thomas.
If his name rings a bell, it’s because he’s the investigative reporter – a former police detective – who unmasked Jimmy Savile as a paedophile in 2012.
Williams-Thomas says, “Sam told me: ‘My mum vanished 30 years ago, my dad’s in jail for her murder – and I’m still looking for answers. I need help.’ ” Williams-Thomas is approached a lot – “from people who are sane and not sane” – but this one stood out. He promised to look into her mother’s case.
The result is an extraordinary four-part dramatised documentary series that follows the TV genre lead set by the acclaimed Netflix series Making of a Murderer and Sky Atlantic’s The Jinx. Strangely, you might think, it has been co-produced by Simon Cowell’s production company Syco, and Cowell has been actively involved in the making of the programmes.
The story was strange from the very beginning, even before Williams-Thomas started digging.
On the surface, the couple at the centre of this mystery were living an ordinary middle-class life. They lived in a large house on the outskirts of Bournemouth on England’s south coast, and had well-paid jobs in the aerospace industry.
But behind closed doors, the set-up was highly unconventional. Causley was a serial philanderer. One day, he decided to move his new mistress, a young colleague named Patricia, into the family home – while his wife Carole remained under the same roof.
It appears, though we can’t know for sure, that Carole may have been happy with this unorthodox arrangement, initially at least. More confusingly, Sam admits in the programme that she grew closer to her father’s mistress, and increasingly distant from her mother, who soon moved into the spare bedroom.
Eventually, it seems, Carole lost patience. Just before she disappeared, she went to see a divorce lawyer. That is the last time that she was seen alive.
So what happened? Sam won’t rest until she knows that fate of her mother. She says in the programme that Williams-Thomas’s investigation “is my best, last shot”.
And what are the conclusions of the inquiries of Williams-Thomas? Understandably, he does not want to give the game away before the rest of us have watched the whole series.
Williams-Thomas’s investigation takes him to Canada and the Channel Islands, and he also speaks to witnesses in the United States, Germany, France and Italy.
He also manages to obtain tapes of Causley’s original police interviews – tapes that were not even played to the trial juries. It’s chilling to hear the accused man’s voice claiming to investigating officers: “She’s the best friend I ever had. We did not have an acrimonious departure. Definitely not.”
RT has seen only the first instalment, but it’s clear early on that the case is going to take some very strange turns. At the end of episode one, we discover that shortly after Carole went missing, a woman walked into Bournemouth police station and identified herself to officers as Carole Packman. The woman said she was safe and well. And that was that.
“In 1985, all it took for the case to be closed was for one person to walk into a police station and to say she was Carole,” says Williams-Thomas. “No checks made, no questions asked.”
Could it have been the real Carole? And if it wasn’t, who was it? And who had sent her?
More intriguingly, Williams-Thomas reveals that the woman was accompanied by a teenage girl of about the same age that Sam would have been at the time.
In the programme, Williams-Thomas carefully asks Sam if she was the teenager at the police station that day.
“Absolutely not. I never, ever saw my mother again after the time she disappeared. That was not me.”
It gets odder. A year after her disappearance, a woman in Canada began work in the aerospace industry – Carole Packman’s chosen line of work – using the name “Carole Packman”.
Again – was this the real Carole? Or was someone else involved in cooking up a fake identity?
Williams-Thomas won’t reveal his conclusions now. But he says, tantalisingly, “I’ve investigated many cases. But I have never dealt with one so complex and twisted.”