New book aims to shed light on murder mystery which rocked Derbyshire

Murder victim Wendy Sewell.
Murder victim Wendy Sewell.

Forty-five years after the unsolved murder of Wendy Sewell at Bakewell Cemetery, the creators of a new book and podcast are aiming to shed fresh light on the shocking cold case - and hope our readers can help put the pieces together.

Legal secretary Wendy was 32 when she was sexually assaulted and beaten with an axe handle in broad daylight on September 12, 1973.

Former Matlock Mercury editor, Don Hale.

Former Matlock Mercury editor, Don Hale.

The savage attack shook the whole town and led to one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history when 17-year-old Stephen Downing, a cemetery groundskeeper with learning disabilities, was imprisoned for 27 years.

Stephen’s conviction was eventually overturned in 2002, following a dogged investigation by Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury from 1985 to 2002.

Don, now 66 and living in North Wales, is preparing for the summer publication of Murder in the Graveyard: One Murder. Two Victims. 27 Years Lost, in which he recounts the eye-opening details of his campaign to free Stephen.

He said: “It’s quite a personal and dramatic story, and it has been an emotional rollercoaster revisiting it.

Stephen Downing.

Stephen Downing.

“I wrote another book in 2001, but there was a lot I couldn’t say at the time for legal reasons, and lots of new things which have come to light in the years since.”

Don’s work on the story won him some of the UK’s biggest journalism awards at the time.

His first book, Town Without Pity, became a bestseller and was later adapted into the BBC TV drama In Denial of Murder.

He said: “I was approached to write a new personal account of my part in it all, why I stuck with it for so long, the detective work, and recent developments.

The Derbyshire Times' coverage of the crime in September 1973.

The Derbyshire Times' coverage of the crime in September 1973.

“There’s a wealth of new information and interviews, and it’s very different to anything I’ve written before.”

It was Stephen’s parents who first asked for Don’s help in 1994, beginning an eight-year process of exposing police misconduct through previously buried evidence, new witness statements, and expert forensic work.

Along the way, both Stephen’s family and Don say they faced intimidation from people determined to keep the case closed. Don is still unsure who was behind repeated threats on his life.

To accompany the book, publisher HarperCollins is also embarking on its first ever podcast venture with Wireless Studios. A Murder in the Graveyard series will be released in June.

Producer Lucy Dichmont, who grew up in Alderwasley, said: “It’s a new reportage-led series, exploring real life crime through the stories around the stories.

“There are so many aspects to this case, and it has changed so many lives. The ripples are continuing to spread.”

She added: “I’m particularly interested in Wendy. I think it’s really important to remember that, at the centre of the whole story, there was this woman who was brutally murdered, and the impact that had on friends, family, and anyone who knew her.

“I would really like to be able to give listeners a rounded picture of who Wendy was.

“Then there is Stephen’s side of it, the human cost of the crusade to free him, and the legal consequences.

“This case changed the way that police are trained, and is still having an influence today.”

As part of the series, Lucy wants to collect the stories of Derbyshire residents on whom the case made a significant impression.

She said: “In such a small community like Bakewell, the effects of an event like this are long-lasting.

“I’m hoping to speak to anyone who knew Wendy or Stephen at the time, and people who remember what that period was like - either directly or through stories their parents and other people told, or those who deliberately didn’t talk about it all.”

She added: “It will have made an impression on so many lives.

“Even memories from the years after the murder, and around the investigation, will add to the reality of it.

“There was a time when Stephen came back to Bakewell on day release in the 1990s, and the town welcomed him with open arms – not at all like a murderer. It would be interesting to know what people remember of that.

“There are all these layers of memory which are important, and we want to put the voices of people in Bakewell at the heart of the story.”

Don added: “A town like Bakewell doesn’t see many murders, thankfully, so it becomes a bit like the Kennedy assassination.

“Everybody remembers where they were when it happened.”

Lucy and her team will be visiting Bakewell to record interviews on Thursday and Friday, March 28 and 29.

Anyone interested in contributing to the podcast can contact Lucy via thebakewellpodcast@gmail.com or call 07375 494 819.

Both Lucy and Don feel this could be the final opportunity to gather a complete account of events around the case, with many of those who remember it best now into their later years.

Don said: “It’s a fascinating story which will speak to new generations, but most of the key witnesses are already in their 70s or 80s, if they are still here at all.

“It will probably be the last chance to record the thoughts and feelings of that time.”

They also hold out some hope that renewed attention around the story might also help bring about new criminal justice proceedings.

In 2014, a cold case detective discovered a pathology report from 1973 which would have proved Stephen’s innocence within days of his arrest, and reported Derbyshire Constabulary to the Home Office.

Don says other evidence suggests that there may have been two people involved, and that there may be links to the 1970 murders of Barbara Mayo and Jacci Ansell-Lamb, in Chesterfield and Cheshire, and the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe.

He said: “It would be nice to think that at some stage there would be a full independent inquiry, though it would have to be done by an outside force as there are still too many concerns and old connections in Derbyshire.

“I think there is plenty of new evidence and clues in the book, lies which have been exposed and alibis demolished, but it would likely require new forensics to ever prove anyone’s guilt.”

He added: “There are so many anomalies in the case, and people who read the book or listen to the podcast could come away with dozens of different opinions.

“It will make people think, but I suspect this will remain one of Britain’s most fascinating unsolved mysteries.”

- Murder in the Graveyard is available for pre-order at https://goo.gl/4cVXH4.