On a slow news day 25 years ago, when I was a 20-something reporter on the Daily Mirror, I received the sort of tip-off call that journalists dream of. The phone call changed my life.
The caller reminded me of a murder investigation in Gloucester. The police were looking for 16-year-old Heather West, missing since 1987. Her remains had just been found in the garden of her parents’ house, her father had been charged with the killing and in recent days more human remains had been discovered, making this more than a domestic murder, if not yet a national sensation.
I was told that the story was far bigger. Odd-job man Fred West had confessed to murdering not only his daughter but a very large number of women and girls, and 25 Cromwell Street was a veritable charnel house. There were five victims in the cellar, one under the extension and three in the garden, more elsewhere. The final total would be 12. I scribbled down this information, amazed by what I heard.
In that instant West became one of the worst serial killers in British criminal history. And there was another dimension that made this story highly unusual, if not unique – the police believed that his wife was involved, although she was denying it. Amazingly, Fred and Rose West had been murdering in the middle of an English city since the 1970s: abducting, raping and torturing young women and girls, whom they then killed, dismembered and buried in their house, all under the cover of family life.
We ran the story on the front of the Sunday Mirror that weekend, giving the case the name it would come to be known by: the House of Horrors. I then drove from London to Gloucester to find Cromwell Street thronged with press and public, so many people that the police had erected crowd barriers. From that day I worked on the case constantly, covering Fred West’s suicide while on remand in prison on New Year’s Day 1995, and Rose West’s trial that autumn, ending in her conviction on ten counts of murder.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the start of the police investigation (police began searching the house on 24 February 1994) I have worked on a new documentary with Trevor McDonald.
One of his interviewees is Jayne Hamer, who lodged at 25 Cromwell Street as a teenager in 1976–77. Unknown to her at the time, the Wests were killing girls her age, including lodgers, so she was in peril. Jayne’s time at number 25 was disturbing, as she describes: “I heard screaming in the middle of the night, ‘Stop it, Daddy. Stop it, Daddy. Please stop it, Daddy’. It sounded like one of the children.”
I sometimes think that being shown the cellar meant maybe I was going to be next...
These screams seemed to emanate from the cellar. On another occasion Fred West took Jayne down into the cellar. “I sometimes think that being shown the cellar meant maybe I was going to be next…” Luckily Jayne left soon afterwards. The following year a fellow lodger was murdered and buried in the cellar. “I got away at the right time,” she says now.
The human cost of the Wests’ crimes is immense and lasting. The sister of one girl says she has tried to forgive Mrs West, so she isn’t herself destroyed by rage; others remain understandably angry. Today, I find the story darker and more disturbing than ever; I realise that significant mysteries remain.
How much was Rose West involved, for example? That is a central question in our film. Many people may assume that Fred was in charge. Rose was only 15 when they met; Fred was 27 and had already killed. Yet we show that in fact Rose was often the dominant partner. It was Rose who violently beat the children, and it was Rose who seems to have taken the lead in sexual assaults. Was she the driving force in the murders? To this day she denies it all.
I’m sure that there are more victims, too – girls like 15-year-old Mary Bastholm, who went missing from a Gloucester bus stop in 1968. Fred West knew Mary, and her family believe he probably killed her. Wherever Fred buried Mary, her remains have still not been found. One day they might be, and I fear that there may be other victims with her.
Twenty-five years on, the West case remains one of the most disturbing and mysterious murder stories in the annals of British crime.
Howard Sounes is the author of Fred & Rose: the Full Story of Fred and Rose West and the Gloucester House of Horrors
Fred and Rose West: the Real Story with Trevor McDonald will air soon on ITV