Yes, Mum killed Dad. But she’s NOT a murderer
Sally Challen was jailed for 18 years for bludgeoning her husband at their £1m house. But read her son’s devastating testimony about the years of vile abuse she suffered — and you’ll see why a change in the law could soon free her
EVERY month David and James Challen go to visit their mother. It’s an easy train ride to Surrey from London.
Dutiful and loving sons, they bring whatever she needs: a new blouse, perhaps, and some trousers she’d like, and spend two hours chatting over coffee and biscuits.
Sally will fill them in on her job in the boutique and the progress of some of her plants in the garden. But want she likes most is hearing about her boys’ lives. Their jobs, their relationships, their gossip and the restaurants they’ve visited. She loves hearing about the food they’ve eaten. The discovery of a new Italian bistro and an exciting pasta dish, described mouthful by delicious mouthful.
‘Mum loves pasta, she hasn’t eaten anything decent for years,’ says David, 31. ‘She adores hearing about our meals out.’
For Sally is in prison — Send, a closed category women’s jail, near Woking. She’s been incarcerated since June 2011 when she was sentenced to 22 years (reduced on appeal to 18) for the murder of David and James’s father, Richard, 61.
In August 2010, she took a hammer and struck her husband 20 times on the head as he sat eating his breakfast in the couple’s £1 million house in Claygate, Surrey.
Afterwards, she wrapped his body in a curtain, left a note saying ‘I love you, Sally’, and the next day drove to notorious suicide spot Beachy Head. It took a chaplain two hours to talk her out of jumping.
But the brothers do not condemn their mother for what she did. Quite the opposite. They say they witnessed her being psychologically abused by their father for years in a manner that would today be known as coercive control.
But when Sally took a hammer and killed her husband of 31 years, the only man she’d ever loved, the law did not recognise that domestic abuse often leaves no black eyes or broken bones.
The jury saw a deranged, vengeful and obsessive wife and she was vilified by the media as a cold-blooded killer, something David and James, 35, still find incredibly difficult to forgive and forget.
While David campaigns against domestic violence and addresses feminist conferences around the UK, his brother finds it too difficult to speak to the Press.
‘While we do not justify our father’s killing, we are seeking to stop the lie that our mother is a murderer. She is not, the verdict was the wrong one. She deserves justice. People need to understand that she killed my father not because she is a bad person, but because he drove her to the edge,’ says David.
After the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship, Sally has been given leave to appeal against her conviction and is waiting for a court date.
In the meantime, her sons keep visiting, and hoping. ‘Mum always looks out of place in a prison. For us, it will never be normal seeing her in there,’ says David.
Her case is terrible and shocking in detail. To the outside world Sally, now 63, and Richard Challen appeared the perfect middle- class couple. Richard, who owned a car dealership, provided well for the family while Sally, an attractive, elegant blonde, worked as an office manager for the Police Federation.
David became aware, from a young age, however, that things were not quite right in his parents’ marriage. That possibly not everyone’s Dad spoke to their Mum the way his did.
‘I could sense that there was something “morally wrong” with my father. He was always putting my mother down, and talking to her like she was nothing,’ remembers David.
‘It was horrific for us to witness. If someone commented that she looked like she lost weight, he would say: “You haven’t seen her without her clothes on.” As a young child I would hear him call Mum “thunder thighs”, and I could see it upset her. It made me feel disgusted by his behaviour.
‘She was constantly criticised for everything, from her cooking to the way she raised us. If we didn’t show good manners at the dinner table he’d say to my mother: “Why don’t you teach these children how to hold a knife and fork properly?”’
The atmosphere in the house changed whenever he walked in with his criticisms of their mother.
‘I remember one time he threw all the food in the bin before a dinner party because he didn’t fancy being sociable that night, and forced Mum to cancel,’ recalls David.
And there were darker, nastier things going on in the marriage which Sally has detailed since, and which extended family and friends have confirmed they suspected for years.
Sally wasn’t allowed friends and was expected to devote herself to her husband. She wasn’t allowed to speak to other people when they went out socially. She wasn’t allowed to see anyone on her own. Once, when Richard ‘caught’ Sally giving a mutual friend a goodbye hug, he took her upstairs and raped her.
ONE Christmas, Richard bought a red Ferrari and paid for a photo shoot with two topless models while he perched on the bonnet.
‘He decided to put the photograph in a frame on the mantelpiece in the living room, and sent the picture out to friends and family members as Christmas cards,’ says David. ‘I can only imagine how humiliating this was for Mum.’
She, in turn, became fixated with Richard’s ‘ other women’ and constantly hacked into his phone to read his messages.
‘When I was about 17 I recall Mum being totally convinced he was doing something behind her back,’ says, David, ‘and I remember that she had loads of phone records to prove she wasn’t losing it. Yet he still denied everything, and accused her of going crazy.’
According to David and others who knew the family, Sally had been with Richard since she was 15 and was unable to compare her relationship with any other. This was her ‘normal’ and she adored her husband.
Much of her subservient, oldfashioned attitude to her marriage came from her upbringing. Sally’s parents were born in India, and lived a typical expat lifestyle with servants. Sally was born in Walton-on-Thames in 1954, after her parents returned to england.
When Sally was five her father died of a heart attack and her mother did not consider it appropriate for her daughter to pursue a career. Sally was expected to learn secretarial skills, marry and devote herself to her husband.
JUST before her 16th birthday Sally met the handsome, charming Richard Challen while out with friends and was ‘immediately besotted’. Richard, who was 22, lavished attention on the sweet and gentle teenager.
‘Mum was the main cog in the family,’ says David. ‘ Her personal wants and wishes were always secondary. She was devoted to both him and her children, and just wanted everyone to be happy.’
The ultimate humiliation, for Sally, came in november 2009 when she discovered her husband had been visiting prostitutes. She’d followed him to a massage parlour which was subsequently exposed as a brothel. She summoned the courage to leave her husband, bought a house nearby and she and David, who was still at home, moved out.
She even started divorce proceedings, but six months later decided she couldn’t go through with it. She was utterly miserable. She didn’t know how to be happy, because Richard wasn’t there to tell her.
‘Dad manipulated the situation by emailing her saying our cat had died. It will have all been a ploy to get attention and sympathy,’ says David.
It worked. Sally, without telling her family, emailed Richard asking if he would agree to take her back.
Richard’s reply, which David has read, beggars belief. It reads: ‘I will consider your return only on these terms. You will continue and complete the divorce only with a £200,000 settlement [far less than the amount she was legally entitled to].
‘That when we go out together it means together. This constant talking to strangers is rude and inconsiderate. We will agree to items in the home together. You will give up smoking and give up your constant interruptions when I am speaking.’
Sally agreed to the terms. The day David’s family fell apart, his mother had driven him to his job at a local restaurant, as usual. ‘Getting out of the car my mother leaned over the passenger side as I was about to close the door, looked me in the eyes, and asked: “You know I love you David, don’t you?” Confused, I paused and looked at her for a moment and said: “Of course I do.” ’
The next thing he knew, the restaurant boss was calling him into a room, and his mother’s cousin and a police officer were walking in. His father, they said, was dead and his mother was at Beachy Head.
David now knows that, the previous day, Sally had gone to the marital home to visit his father. He’d decided he wanted bacon and egg for his
breakfast, and sent her out in the rain to buy some.
On her return, she grew suspicious that he’d invented the errand to get her out of the house so he could call one of his girlfriends. A check of phone records confirmed her suspicions.
Although Sally maintains she does not recall her actions, this is when she picked up the hammer and struck him over the head. She then did the washing up, and drove back to her house.
On learning that his mother had committed the crime, David felt only love and compassion.
‘I knew my father was toying with her and enjoying the power he had, and I knew his own actions had led to this.
‘It’s not blind faith, you only need to understand how someone’s mind can be contorted, controlled, broken, put back together and broken down again so many times. Looking back, I can see it was inevitable that she would either shrink into a corner and kill herself or lash out in desperation.’
Sally was charged with murder, and the trial was a disaster for her. Her legal team relied on a defence of diminished responsibility, hoping she’d be found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Her husband’s behaviour and the state of their marriage were not deemed relevant. In her own evidence Sally stated that: ‘I tried to tell the police the truth in my interview and I felt numb and very, very tired because I had not slept. I had met him before my 16th birthday and he was about six years older, and I have not known another man. I looked up to him and he led and I followed, and I did not mind that when I was younger, but then I later found out I was not allowed to make decisions for myself or about friends.’
David describes the five-day trial at Guildford Crown Court as excruciating. ‘I was watching the trial and feeling desperate,’ he says. ‘There were no punches thrown at my father, it was more like: “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” ’
After the jury found her guilty of murder, there were tears in the public gallery.
‘I was in deep shock inside and it took me about two days to start crying about it. I spoke to Mum on the phone the next day. She sounded like she’d been in a car accident.’
Shortly after her conviction, a relative of Sally contacted Justice for Women, a feminist law reform campaign group that I co-founded in 1990, which supports women who have killed their partners as a response to domestic violence. A new legal team was appointed, and finally, in March this year, the High Court granted Sally permission to appeal her murder conviction.
Her lawyer is Harriet Wistrich, who blocked the release of the ‘black- cab rapist’ John Worboys this year. She is also co-founder of Justice for Women, which helped secure the release of Sara Thornton, Emma Humphreys and other women who killed their violent husbands.
But Sally Challen’s case is the first of its kind. She was not subject to sustained, persistent physical violence, although she has disclosed to her legal team that she was raped by Richard. There are no broken bones or hospital visits to present as evidence. Just anecdotes.
Richard’s family live in Australia, but they write to Sally regularly. ‘They’re all very supportive of her,’ says David. Does he miss his father? No, but he hasn’t edited him out of his life. ‘My mum killed my father, but they will both always be my parents. What I learnt from both was different. My mother taught me love and patience, my father taught me power and control.’
Although life has been difficult for David since his mother went to prison, his home life is happy. He came out as gay to his mother some years ago, and she fully supports him, and his committed, loving relationship.
But thoughts of his mother are rarely far from David’s mind.
‘I didn’t expect to grow into the person I am today, being as vocal as I am. The mother I love was perpetually silenced, believing her abuse was normal. I choose to be her voice, speaking out against the life of abuse she suffered.
‘Our mother didn’t jump from Beachy Head after she killed my father, because the chaplain asked her to think of me and James, and to stay and see our futures.
‘She now has the opportunity to realise that the abuse she suffered wasn’t a wasted life.
‘Because of our mother, speaking out, thousands of women could be given the real help they deserve in the future.’
Campaign: David Challen
Controlling: Richard Challen with his wife Sally. Inset, posing with a Ferrari