Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #134: Penny Bell and the Thirty-Year Silence
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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, all set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FOUR:
Today’s episode is about Penny Bell; a successful businesswoman brutally-stabbed to death in a public place. And although her last moments alive left an exhaustive trail of witnesses and clues, thirty-years on, her murder remains unsolved.
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations, to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
This is the location of the car park at the Gurnell Leisure Centre in Greenford where Penny Bell was murdered in her own car. It is marked with a teal cross near the words 'Greenford'. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, access them by clicking here.
This is the location of the car park at Gurnell Leisure Centre where Penny Bell was murdered. This is just a link to YouTube, so don't worry, it won't eat up your data.
Here is also the reconstruction of the attack and the moments leading up to it.
Top left to bottom right: two photos of the parking space at Gurnell Leisure Centre as it looks today, the third photo is of the entrance where the witness said they saw Penny mouthe the words "help me", top right is a wider photo of the car park. Along the bottom is Gurnell Leisure Centre main entrance, the corner of Shelley Road and Greenford Road where Penny's Jaguar clipped the curb (as witnessed by several drivers) as well as Greenford Roundabout and the A40.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within and beyond the West End.
Today’s episode is about Penny Bell; a successful businesswoman brutally-stabbed to death in a public place. And although her last moments alive left an exhaustive trail of witnesses and clues, thirty-years on, her murder remains unsolved.
Murder Mile is researched using authentic sources. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details. And as a dramatization of the real events, it may also feature loud and realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there.
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 134: Penny Bell and the Thirty-Year Silence.
Today I’m standing at Gurnell Grove in Greenford, W13; two miles north-east of the kidnap of the Chohan family, one and a half miles north of Alice Gross’ grave, one mile west of where Muriel Eady met Reg Christie, and two miles west of the child-rapist Bernie Cooper - coming soon to Murder Mile.
Situated north of Hanwell sits Gurnell Grove. Where-as once this comprised of a few small farmsteads full of fields for as far as the eye can see, as the city boomed; high-rises shot up, greenery was replaced with grey, one of the last parks became a golf course (where ten tossers in garish checks hog a space fit for a few thousand families) and all that was left is an ugly eyesore ensnared by the snarling A40.
To offset this inequality, beside the Ruislip Road sits Gurnell Leisure Centre. Opened in 1981 - but using a 1970’s design of concrete steps, tubular iron railings and large glass panels - The Gurnell is a council-run leisure centre providing a swimming pool, a gym and a sports track for the local community.
With many schools nearby, for four decades, The Gurnell was the probable epicentre of all outbreaks of verrucas, cold sores, athlete’s foot or ruptured ear-drums in Ealing (as kids let loose for six whole minutes are incapable of speaking in a pitch or a volume which doesn’t make your ears bleed).
Currently the Gurnell Leisure Centre is closed, awaiting a much-needed redevelopment, but thirty years ago, it looked identical. It was a popular and busy hub of activity for the locals, surrounded by school and homes, with handy bus-links on the road outside and a large concrete car park out front.
That day, Penny Bell’s powder-blue Jaguar XJS pulled into the car-park; it was broad daylight, the car park was busy and it was the perfect place to get fit... but an unlikely spot for a very public murder.
And yet, it was here, on Thursday 6th June 1991 at 10:30am, that a trail of clues led to the last moments of Penny Bell’s life. But after the culprit fled, what followed was thirty-years of silence. (Interstitial)
There was very little in Penny’s past which would suggest she was about to be murdered...
Ruth Penelope Bell, known as Penny was born on 28th February 1948 in Burnham-on-Sea, a sweet little seaside town in Somerset. Little is reported about her upbringing, but being adopted, life was difficult. Sent to boarding school from the ages of eight to sixteen, she was lonely, scared and sought stability.
But whereas, a troubled past may lead some people to a trouble future, for Penny, this missing piece of her life spurred her forward in a deep desire to achieve, to be liked and to be respected. Leaving home aged sixteen, the mid-1960’s were a difficult era for a young woman to succeed (even if she had the skills, drive and passion, as Penny had) but what aided her most was the warmth of her personality.
Those who knew Penny described her with the same words; charismatic, effervescent, bright, smart, funny and loving, a strong highly-organised woman who had time and love for everyone. Bursting with energy and compassion, Penny worked for the Samaritans in the charity’s concert division, giving hope to those who feel hopeless, and inspiration to those who felt their future was defined by their past.
In 1970, aged 22 - being possibly a little too young and a little too eager to find love - she married Jon Hayes in the Hampshire town of Gosport. Sadly, it was not to be and they divorced a few years later.
In 1980, her son Matthew was born, and being keen to give her boy the best start in life, although she was a full-time mum, she was also an entrepreneur. In 1981, with ambition in her head and a toddler in her arms, she and her business partner (Michael Flynn) built a very successful catering employment agency called Coverstaff Ltd, initially based out of Acton in West London, which is still there today.
And as her business boomed, her love-life blossomed. In April 1981, she married Alastair Bell, and not long afterwards their daughter Lauren was born. Blessed with a strong relationship which began as a solid friendship, as far as we know, the couple kept no secrets; he knew that she was adopted and divorced, and she knew that he was a bisexual who had lived with a man for the last eleven-years. This openness made their pasts so accepted that Alastair’s former partner was a guest at their wedding.
During the early years of their marriage, the couple lived in a semi-detached house at Whitmore Road in West Harrow, with Alastair working as an estate agent at A S Franklins in South Harrow. But as Penny’s business grew, it made sense for Alistair to become a stay-at-home dad aided by a nanny.
Penny was the main breadwinner, which was unusual in the 1980’s, but for the Bell family, it worked.
In 1990, they moved into a £100,000 house in Baker's Wood, an exclusive little hamlet near the village of Denham in Buckinghamshire, described as ‘The Home of the Stars’. And being a loop of large five-bedroomed homes inside a secure gated community - with private drives, swimming pools and expansive gardens which overlooked the countryside - it was a safe-haven for the semi-wealthy.
By 1991, 43-year-old Penny had left her troubled past behind having forged ahead with a bright future; she had been happily married for ten years, she had two lovely children aged nine and eleven, and her business was a big success. She was happy, loved and respected...
...and yet, someone would hate her so much, they would risk everything to murder her.
In the days leading up to her death, Penny’s life was busy and stressful. Her business had expanded to a new office in Kilburn, and over the last seven months their home in Bakers Wood was undergoing extensive renovations, with as many as six contract firms and twenty builders on site at any time.
As a successful businesswoman in the early 1990’s, Penny always had on her person two items; the latest model of Nokia flip-phone, small enough to pop in a pocket but only capable of making calls, and her Filofax, in which she meticulously detailed her every movement, thought, action or contact.
But by June 1991, gaps appeared in her diary, several actions were out-of-character and described as “the most stressed I have ever seen her”, Penny brushed off her family’s concerns as tiredness.
On Monday 3rd June, three days before her murder, Penny withdrew £8500 (£16,000 today) from the couple’s joint bank account. This was not usual, as she often withdrew large sums, and most purchases in the 90’s were paid by cash or cheque. But what was it for? On Tuesday 4th, two days before, both Vicky Bird (the nanny) and Lauren (her daughter) saw the £8500. It was still in Penny’s purse.
On the surface, everything seemed normal; there were no nuisance calls, no suspicious packages and no sinister visitors. Penny was stressed, but as a successful-businesswomen, this was far from strange.
On her last night alive, her husband, her children, the nanny and even the builders would state that she looked “lost”, “zoned-out” and “distant”, something was wrong but she wouldn’t say what.
Whatever the problem was, Penny Bell remained silent...
...and yet, her silence would last for the next thirty years.
Thursday 6th June 1991 was a typical morning, as the Bell family went about their usual rituals before another ordinary day, the weather was sunny and bright. As always, Penny was immaculately dressed with perfect make-up, matching earrings, a stylish dress and her short blonde-hair elegantly coiffured.
Her mood was described as "bright and chirpy”. Not once did she appear “rushed or anxious”. And being a caring professional, Penny always had time and energy for everyone... even on that morning.
At 8am, the builders arrived as arranged, and they remained on-site.
At 8:30am, as per usual, still working part-time, Alastair left for work and (as it was on-route) he would drop Matthew off at school. The same thing happened every day, except that day, Penny didn’t wave him goodbye, but with so many builders requiring her time, he put this little lapse down to distraction.
At 8:50am, an electrician asked for Penny’s opinion on the lights, she was polite but made it clear she had a meeting in an hour. At 09:10am, with a set of wooden blocks and a roll of floral wallpaper, Penny showed the builders the colour-scheme for her new kitchen. As before, she was decisive, but calm.
Whoever her meeting was with, and why, she kept it secret and she didn’t write it in her diary.
At 9:40am, Penny left her home in her powder-blue Jaguar XJS Series II; a stylish £34,000 two-door hard-top with cream leather seats, a walnut dash, smooth elegant lines and a powerful V12 engine. Compared to many other cars, it was a real head-turner, the kind you couldn’t help but notice. On the downside - being more of a statement than a family runabout - the boot was tiny, the backseat was useless, the headroom was low, the rear window was barely a slit, and a large console between the passenger and driver’s seats made it a little cramped, unless you were sitting down and facing forward.
Taking her regular route, the A40 would have got to her office just after 10am...
...but instead of driving 17 miles east to Kilburn, she drove 3.5 miles south-west to an isolated wooded layby on the Fulmer Common Road, at the edge of Black Park. One witness out walking her dog spotted Penny’s very recognisable car park-up next to a maroon Vauxhall Cavalier and pick-up a man. He was described as late forties, five foot eight inches tall, with brown hair, a dark suit and a white shirt. He silently got in and the two drove away, leaving his car behind. Two hours later, his car was gone.
Criminal profilers would later state that Penny Bell knew her murderer; but who was this man, what did they discuss, why wasn’t it in her diary, and why did they agree to meet in such a clandestine way?
At 9:55am, the Jaguar drove east along the A40 (Western Avenue) in the rough direction of Kilburn. In an era before traffic cameras, there was no footage to verify this, but Penny’s car was easily spotted by several drivers; with a blonde woman driving, a man beside her and nothing drew their suspicions.
At 10:25am, the Jaguar exited the A40 at the Greenford Roundabout and turned right onto Greenford Road; a busy city street, packed full of shops, flats, cafes and people... but now, something was wrong.
Drivers state that Penny’s Jaguar had slowed to a painful crawl, doing half the legal limit on this 30mph road. With its hazard lights blinking and its windscreen wipers swiping ten-to-the dozen, as it weaved erratically, a tailback of exasperated drivers honked as it clipped the kerb’s corner on Shelley Road.
Thinking she was just a bad driver in a fancy car, no-one called the police and no-one stopped to come to her aid during this chaotic seven-minute drive from the Greenford Roundabout to Gurnell Grove.
One witness reported “she looked like she was trying to park, but the passenger kept correcting her steering”. Given by different witnesses, each description of this man was unnervingly similar; late 40’s, five foot eight, brown curly hair, dark suit, white shirt and a heavy gold-link bracelet on his right wrist.
At 10:30am, having struggled to overtake the Jaguar as it weaved down the Ruislip Road East, drawing a lot of attention and leaving a long queue of frustrated drivers behind, one witness stated that as the Jaguar turned left into the Gurnell Leisure Centre, “the woman looked at me and mouthed ‘help me’”.
This witness didn’t come forward until six months later, after the appeals and the reconstruction. But if their statement was true? Again, they saw a lone woman in distress... but they didn’t call the Police, they didn’t stop to help, and - except for her killer - they were the last person to see Penny alive.
Moments later, surrounded by roughly forty cars, the Jaguar pulled into the quarter-full car park of the Gurnell Leisure Centre. Being parked nearest to the swimming pool, the driver’s side and front was hidden by a five-foot high hedge, the passenger’s side and rear was visible but obscured by the car’s small angled windows, and any noise was muffled by insulation, traffic and children.
It was busy, it was sunny, it was daylight and it was public.
This was a terrible place for a murder...
...and yet, within minutes, Penny Bell would be brutally slaughtered by someone who truly hated her.
A police investigation later stated there were as many as forty witnesses in or near the car-park at the time of the murder, but very few came forward, and those who did didn’t see or hear the attack.
At 10:30am, a woman pushing a pram said “I noticed the wipers on and the hazard lights flashing, I thought it was very odd as it wasn’t raining, but I didn’t look in the car to see. I just kept walking”.
At 10:45am, a second witness saw a smartly-dressed man, identical to Penny’s passenger strolling across the car-park at a casual pace. He wore dark trousers and a white shirt, but no jacket. If this was Penny’s killer, Police said he would have been heavily bloodstained. The witness also remarked that “his face seemed disfigured in some way”. Perhaps by a mole, a birthmark, or maybe it was blood?
At roughly the same time, a third witness saw a car (possibly a dark Sierra) driving aggressively down Ruislip Road East away from the Gurnell, he turned onto Cuckoo Avenue and vanished. One week on, Police had identified all but two of the cars spotted near the scene at the time of the attack; a badly-parked black Peugeot 205, and a large silver estate which was nearest to Penny’s blue Jaguar.
At 11am, two further witnesses saw a woman slumped over the steering wheel of her car and assumed that she was sleeping. At 12:15pm, passing by, they realised she hadn’t moved and called the Police.
Penny Bell had been dead for ninety minutes...
...and by that point, her killer was long-gone.
Detective Superintendent Brian Edwards headed-up the investigation; the car-park was swiftly sealed-off, witnesses were questioned and forensics teams meticulously swept the crime-scene.
The motive wasn’t robbery, as Penny’s Jaguar XJS hadn’t been stolen, her rings hadn’t been removed, the boot and glovebox hadn’t been searched; her purse, phone and Filofax remained in her handbag behind the passenger’s seat, and the £8500 was missing but hadn’t been seen for the last two days.
The motive wasn’t sexual, as Penny hadn’t been violated and all of her clothes remained untouched. This also wasn’t a random attack by a stranger, as Penny clearly had a level of trust with her attacker. He was someone she knew; maybe a business partner, a relative, a friend, or maybe a secret lover?
Covering every possible angle, the Police examined Penny’s diary, phone records and credit-card bills in an to attempt to uncover a secret life; maybe a business rival, a love affair, a debt or a criminal past? But they found nothing. If she was being blackmailed? No-one knows what for, who by, or why.
The last possible sighting of her passenger was at 10:45am, he was not witnessed in any other vehicle, but by 12pm, his Vauxhall Cavalier at Black Park had vanished. That’s an eleven-mile journey which is more than possible to cover in that timeframe by car or taxi, but it’s impossible by public transport.
Comprised by multiple witnesses, a photofit of his face was released to the press, five possible names were mentioned, and one man was arrested and questioned, but he was released without charge.
If Penny’s murder was pre-meditated, her killer’s planning was clumsy at best, almost as if it was one of several options he had considered. As why would he wear a crisp white-shirt if he was going to brutally stab her to death? Why didn’t he murder her somewhere remote like Black Park, rather than a public place like the Gurnell? Why did he cover the centre console and her lap with the unravelled roll of floral wallpaper, instead of bringing something to hide her body and his crime? And why did he leave his fingerprints on the steering-wheel, the window, the seat belt and the door handles?
The motive was clear, this wasn’t a robbery, this was rage.
Penny’s murder was bloody, violent and frenzied. It was crime-of-passion committed by a desperate man she intimately knew, who loved her to obsession, but hated her with a vengeance. As Lauren, her daughter would later state "I think it was someone who wanted her, but couldn't have her."
Of the facts, this is what we know...
The attack had occurred at roughly 10:30am, a few minutes after her Jaguar was seen weaving along Greenford Road and Ruislip Road East, and just moments after her car had parked up. The engine was off, the windows were closed, it was partially isolated, and the hazard lights were on. Their argument was a mystery, as not a single witness had heard a shout, a scream, a cry, or a honk of the horn.
With Penny in the driver’s seat, to her left, her killer pulled from his pocket possibly a workman’s style lock-knife with at least a three-to-four-inch blade, and repeatedly plunged the cold-steel into the left hand-side Penny’s chest, neck and face, in a frenzied and callous attack, on a defenceless woman.
Unarmed and unable to flee, Penny fought like hell, desperate to defend herself from his savage blows, as the blade tore into her raised hands and arms, which snapped every one of her long fingernails in a terrifying fight to stay alive. But still the knife stabbed harder, deeper and quicker, as along the length of the left-hand side of her body, almost every organ, muscle, vein and artery had been severed.
And yet, the killer’s fury at Penny was far from finished.
Being right-handed man in the left-handed seat of a cramped car with the central console blocking his blows - as Penny’s exhausted and bleeding body slumped over the steering-wheel – he wound down her window, exited the car, walked around the back, and – drenched in blood and clutching a dripping knife, in a public space, and in broad daylight - through the driver’s-side window, he repeatedly stabbed the silent and lifeless woman in the back and side, until his energy and his anger were spent.
Inside, her blood spattered across every surface, from the cream leather seats to the dark walnut dash, and pooled in the footwell below her. But from the outside, it looked like any other parked car.
In total, Penny Bell was stabbed more than fifty times...
...that’s one wound for every flash of her hazard lights.
(leave a space for fifty clicks/flashes, depending on sound used, possibly a minute in total; click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. (End)
Penny’s death didn’t just end her life, it destroyed her entire family.
Lauren would later state "from the moment my mother died... everything died”. That night, Alastair had to identify his wife’s body at West London Mortuary, and was so horrified, he vomited. The next day, he broke the news to his children that their mother had been murdered. And being left a broken man, years later, he confessed to Lauren “I can’t do love anymore” and asked her to leave the family.
Her funeral was held on Friday 27th September 1991, at St Mary’s Church in Denham. Beside her grave, among a procession of grieving mourners were the remnants of the Bell family; with Alastair an empty husk, and cradled in their father’s arms, dressed in their school uniforms, were Lauren and Matthew.
Unable to cope, Alastair sunk into a deep depression, he paid for a double-grave so that when he dies, he can be buried with his wife, and - as far as Lauren knows – Penny’s clothes still hang in his wardrobe.
And to add insult to injury, on Lauren’s 10th birthday, burglars broke into their home in Bakers Wood and stole Penny’s jewellery, leaving her children with few keepsakes or reminders of their mother.
Across the investigation, 4000 people were questioned and 8000 interviews were conducted in a case which cost £1.5 million. There were numerous appeals, a high-profile reconstruction on Crimewatch, and two rewards from the Police, as well as Alastair and Penny’s business partner. But with insufficient evidence to identify the culprit, the investigation stalled, and thirty years on, it remains a cold case.
The murderer is still out there, right now, among us; he has never been caught, he has never confessed and someone, somewhere, knows something. If you were there that day, maybe you saw something, which you didn’t think was important, but that little detail could bring peace to a family in turmoil...
... and end the thirty-year silence of Penny Bell.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
That was the last full episode of Murder Mile in this part of the season, as over the next three weeks, while I’m finishing my research, I have prepared something fun to keep you entertained. As always, if you enjoyed that episode, stay tuned after the break for some cake, a cuppa, some waffle, lots of extra details about this case and you’ll get to discover who the police arrested, and who the family believe is the prime suspect. But before that, here’s a little reminder about CrimeCon 2021. Oooh.
A big thank you to my new Patreon supporters, who are; George Wilkins and Chantelle Gautier, I thank you, and even Eva thanks you, which is a miracle as she’s usually too drunk to talk at this time of the morning. If you’d love to receive lots of exclusive goodies (such as badges, stickers, mugs, photos, videos and even extra podcasts, and support a small independent podcast which brings a little joy to your life, every week, without fail), you can sign-up to Patreon today for as little as $3.
Plus I’d like to say a thank you to Lynn Domsalla for your very kind donation via the Supporter link, I thank you, and Eva also says (drunk sound) which sounds like “kebab” or “vodka shots” but probably means thank you. And, as always, a big thank you to everyone who shares their love of Murder Mile on social media. Your continued audio appreciation of the podcast is very much appreciated.
Murder Mile was researched, written and performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards", one of The Telegraph's top five true-crime podcasts and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
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Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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