Why the mysterious murder of a mother has remained unsolved for 30 years
PUBLISHED: 08:07 09 March 2019 | UPDATED: 14:24 09 March 2019
The last time Jeanette Kempton was seen alive, she was staggering down a London street holding a funeral wreath. Her body was found 16 days later in a north Suffolk ditch. Why has this case gone unsolved for 30 years?
Few people remember the death of Jeanette Kempton.
The discovery of the decomposed body of the mother from Brixton in a field off the A12 near Wangford has long been forgotten - and only briefly made the news at the time.
But 30 years later cold case detectives would like to review the DNA evidence.
A podcast from this newspaper, called Unfinished, has been exploring the case and heard from one former police officer who has linked it to serial killer Steve Wright.
This is what we know:
•The day she went missing
Thursday, February 2, 1989, started much like every other day for Jeanette.
The 31-year old woke up and chatted with her two teenage sons before seeing them off to school.
At the time she was sharing a home in Brixton’s Myatt’s Fields council estate with her sons and ex-husband Paul.
She had also begun a relationship with a married man, 20 years her senior named Barry Coleman.
On that Thursday, the last day she was seen alive, Paul had the day off work.
He and Jeanette ran various errands and went shopping on the Brixton Road and at 12.30pm they arrived at their local, the Loughborough Hotel.
Over the next few hours the pub began to fill up and the pair were joined by Barry. He had collected his redundancy pay packet and loaned some money to Jeanette.
Paul then left the pub while Jeanette stayed and drank with Barry.
At around 6pm Jeanette and Barry visited a florist nearby to collect a wreath of red and white flowers for a friend’s funeral the next day which Jeanette was meant to go to.
They returned to the Loughborough for another drink but Jeanette was keen to move on to a new pub, while Barry wanted to call it a night.
At 7.15pm they left.
A witness would later tell police she had spotted Jeanette visibly drunk and getting into Barry’s car.
But Barry said this was not true. He recalled that Jeanette had been drinking a lot during the afternoon and into the evening. So much so that she could hardly stand.
He had offered her a lift home but she had declined.
Barry said the last he saw Jeanette she was walking down the road to another pub, carrying the wreath in her hand.
She never made it to the pub.
•16 days later…
Saturday February 18th 1989 was a good day for rabbit hunting.
Kevin Block and Jordan Spendlove spent the afternoon shooting around the Earl of Stradbroke’s estate in Wangford, north Suffolk.
On their way home Kevin saw that he thought was a shop mannequin lying in a ditch. He nudged it with his gun. It was the decomposing body of Jeanette Kempton.
“Her top was open and there was a scratch across her chest. Her calves had been eaten away and the meat off her fingers and face too. But her eyeballs were still there,” he recalled 30 years later.
More than 50 miles, away in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk’s most senior d etective received a call.
Detective Chief Superintendent John Saunders put his plans for the afternoon on hold and drove across to Wangford.
“The scene had been preserved and cordoned off,” he remembered. “But what could be obtained from the scene was still fairly rudimentary.”
The police’s first challenge was to identify who the woman in the ditch was. It had been eaten by wild animals and she didn’t match any missing women in Suffolk so they expanded their search.
By February 23rd they knew it was Jeanette Kempton.
Over the next weeks Suffolk detectives went down to Brixton and established a computer link between to the Metropolitan police so they could share their findings.
They put together a picture of her drinking session on February 2nd in the Loughborough Hotel.
They also discovered much or her clothing and possessions were missing, including her coat, shoes, purse, jewellery and the funeral wreath.
Mr Saunders said the recovery of these possessions would be the “greatest possible lead”, but they have never been found.
He said he got little information from the Brixton end of this enquiries where trust in the police was low.
The Loughborough was on a quiet road and locals say muggings were common, but nobody saw Jeanette disappear.
Mr Saunders said he believed it was unlikely she was simply grabbed off the street.
The alternative theory is that she went off with someone she knew or, in her drunken state bumped into a stranger and went off with them.
Her body also offered a key bit of evidence.
The pathologist found a severe blow on her head which they believed she suffered 48 hours before she was strangled to death, suggesting violence soon after she met her killer. Police have never found the weapon used.
The state of her body also suggested she had been in the ditch for some time, meaning she was killed and dumped within a few days of disappearing.
To solve the case they needed to find out what happened to Jeanette on February 3 and 4.
The sightings of two vehicles close to where Jeanette was found offered police early hope.
A dark-coloured hire van with a London phone number on it was seen on February 5 between 2pm and 4pm turning on to a country bridlepath called Middlebarn Lane in Wangford.
The van had a high roof, no windows on the side and two smoked glass windows in rear, in short it was the perfect place to transport a body.
The next morning on February 6 a white saloon car was spotted by an estate worker called Leslie Fairs.
He saw two people he had never seen in the car including a woman answering Mrs Kempton’s description sitting in the passenger seat.
“It was her,” he told the Eastern Daily Press at the time. “There are no two ways about it.”
Then at around 11.30am, two hours after Mr Fairs saw the car another resident heard screaming at a place called Church Farm 400 yards from where Jeanette was discovered. The screaming was drowned out by music.
Mr Saunders said police pursued both leads as far as they could but got nowhere.
The response to an appeal on Crimewatch in May 1989 was poor.
The killer had a head start of almost two weeks on the police.
No-one reported Jeanette missing for a week and she was only found 16 days after her disappearance.
When she did not show at her friend’s funeral on February 3, the day after disappearing, nobody raised the alarm.
Barry, who lived in Surrey with his wife, said he did not realise she was missing until February 7 when he called around her home to collect the money he lent her in the Loughborough.
Her ex-husband Paul, meanwhile, waited a week to report her missing.
He later said: “It was not unusual for her to stay out all night so I was not immediately worried.
“I went into the Loughborough nearly every night to see if she was there or to find out something. But the first I knew about her body being found was when the police came round to tell me.”
Her son Michael said at his mum’s inquest “We didn’t have any idea where she was but thought she was with Mr Coleman.”
•An arrest at last
Mr Saunders had 40 officers working on the case. They ended up taking 400 statements and making 3,500 enquiries, but for all those efforts just one arrest was made - and it was of a completely innocent man.
In Wangford and the surrounding towns a man called Anthony Gilbey was falsely linked with the murder because of a bizarre arrest involving a public toilet and a corset.
On March 9, 1989 Mr Gilbey visited the toilets in Beccles.
What Mr Gilbey didn’t know when he entered the cubicle was that he was being watched.
Two police officers were monitoring the facility from the rafters above.
And as Gilbey stayed in the cubicle longer they grew more and more suspicious.
Finally they hammered on the cubicle door, accused him of gross indecency and conduct likely to cause a breach of peace, and arrested him.
Now what the police officers didn’t know, and what no one seemed to ask, was why Gibley had taken so long?
The answer is tragic rather than indecent.
Mr Gilbey had undergone two operations for cancer of the bladder which meant he spent longer in the lavatory than the average man.
However this wasn’t the only thing which aroused suspicion from police.
He also suffered from thrombosis in his legs and wore surgical stockings to improve the circulation.
As a practical solution to keep them from falling down he wore a corset with shoulder straps.
He was taken for questioning, during which police asked him to drop his trousers and reveal the corset and stockings beneath.
Police took him to a cell and interviewed him. He was asked to sign a statement admitting to a variety of indecent acts the officers claimed to have observed. He refused. He was then arrested on suspicion of murdering Jeanette.
“Everything else had been awful, but credible,” Mr Gilbey recalled in an interview with the Independent in 1992. “At that point it moved from reality into fantasy. To be locked up, not able to see out - it’s a relief to see other human beings, no matter how disagreeable, even in an interview room.
“You don’t want to be put back in that black hole. And they play on it. I always used to think that people who’d confessed and withdrawn their confessions were suspect. Don’t you? Well, I’ve had a leper’s squint into that kind of thing. You do want to tell them what they want to hear.”
The murder charge was dropped the next day but the indecency charges stuck.
When the case appeared before Ipswich Crown Court in 1990 it instantly fell apart and in 1992 the High Court ordered Suffolk Police to pay £85,000 in damages to Mr Gilbey, plus an unreserved apology.
At the height of the investigation there were five suspects. Police have never named them, but her husband Paul and boyfriend Barry were both interviewed by police before being ruled out.
Jeanette also had several lovers from which the suspect pool could also be drawn from.
Barry said he wouldn’t move in with Jeanette because other men who did didn’t last long.
Her neighbour, meanwhile, said men used to call at the door and sometimes police had to be called.
Mr Saunders said they took leads to suspects as far as they could but there was not enough evidence to arrest and charge anybody.
The current manager of Suffolk’s cold case team, meanwhile, Andy Guy, says he would like to carry out a forensic review into the evidence next year to see if advances could lead to a breakthrough.
Last years someone also came forward to Suffolk police with new information about Jeanette, but it was vague, secondhand and led to nothing, police said.
But is the answer closer to home?
Former police officer Chris Clark, who investigates cold cases, has linked Jeanette’s disappearance to Suffolk serial killer Steve Wright.
He points out that the killer would have to know Suffolk to dump Jeanette’s body in such a remote spot, while also be linked to south London.
Wright ticks both those boxes. He was working in a pub in south London at the time of Jeanette’s disappearance called the White Horse at Chislehurst about ten miles from Brixton.
He also used to live in Suffolk and knew the A12 area.
Wright also killed his victims - five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006 - in similar circumstances to Jeanette. He preyed on vulnerable women, then strangled them and dumped their bodies in rivers or fields. He killed them while they were incapacitated by heavy doses of drugs.
Mr Clark also points out there is a second death in very similar circumstances to Jeanette’s ten years later in a village Wright was living in in Suffolk and which he has also been linked to.
Teenager Vicky Hall disappeared in the early hours of September 19 1999 in her home village of Trimley St Mary while walking home after a night out.
Again the 17-year old’s was dumped in a ditch in field, this time near Stowmarket.
Wright lived in Trimley St Mary and he came up in the police database but was not pursued.
A retired detective, who worked on the Vicky Hall case, Chris Cushnahan said in 2009 that Wright was linked to the case through a car.
He said: “One of the early lines was trying to trace a vehicle that followed a young woman the night before Victoria went missing.”
A partial registration was given to police. All the vehicles in the area which contained the partial registration were located through the police national computer. Wright’s was one of them, but he was never questioned.
Mr Cushnahan said: “There was no reason to see him. At the time there were thousands of lines of inquiry. There was no evidence to suggest we should have followed it up.”
In a statement Suffolk police said: “Since his conviction, there have understandably been a number of reports speculating as to Steve Wright’s potential involvement in other unsolved homicide and missing person cases, particularly those which have occurred within Suffolk and Norfolk.
“The Norfolk and Suffolk Joint Major Investigation Team have carried out extensive enquiries into Steve Wright’s activities prior to the offences for which he has was imprisoned. He has been a consideration in several unsolved case reviews across both counties and we remain open to any credible new information provided in this regard.”
The Jeanette Kempton case eventually petered out when police had exhausted all leads.
Mr Guy said: “There were no witnesses and no forensic clues to take you anywhere.
“But there could be someone out there who knows something and that could turn things around very quickly.”
•Anyone with information can contact Andy Guy at Suffolk Police by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
•You can listen to the three episodes of our podcast on this case by searching for Unfinished on iTunes or in your usual podcast provider.