The Scottish Mail on Sunday
HAUNTED AND VILIFIED
34 years after her evidence jailed boyfriend Jeremy Bamber for the White House Farm murders – now a hit ITV drama – Julie Mugford is a married teacher living in Canada. But she’s STILL tormented by obsessives who insist the killer is innocent...
TO FRIENDS and colleagues in her home city of Winnipeg, she is Julie Smerchanski, a pillar of the community, wife, mother of two grown children, charity worker and school administrator. The 56-year-old enjoys a comfortable life with her computer salesman husband, Glen, living in a quiet cul-de-sac – described by one neighbour as middle-class heaven – in a suburb which is nice, if dull.
But in a previous life she was Julie Mugford – and things were anything but dull.
At the age of 21, she found herself at the centre of one of the most sensational murder cases in British criminal history – a role that haunts her to this day.
Julie Mugford was the woman who secured the conviction of Jeremy Bamber, who murdered five members of his family at White House Farm, near the village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex in August 1985.
It was a case remarkable for its callousness: the cool execution of Bamber’s adoptive parents, Nevill and June, both aged 61, his adopted sister Sheila, 28, and her six-year-old twin sons, Daniel and Nicholas. All were shot repeatedly at close range with a semi-automatic hunting rifle owned by the family. The boys died as they slept in their beds, the gun levelled at their heads from just inches away.
The killings contain all the elements of a crime novel: a tranquil rural setting rocked by sudden and appalling violence, the respectable family harbouring hidden tensions, a handsome and charismatic killer driven by resentment and greed, and the spurned infatuated lover who evolves into his nemesis.
All this wrapped up in a whodunnit.
The continuing fascination of the Bamber case resides in its essential mystery – there were no surviving witnesses except the killer.
The infatuated lover was Julie Mugford and her part in Bamber’s downfall is being replayed on television in the six-part ITV drama White House Farm, which concludes on Wednesday.
For Julie Smerchanski, it is a drama she could do without.
For 34 years, she has been targeted by defenders of Bamber who accuse her of playing a key role in what they believe is a terrible miscarriage of justice. They say she lied to police and to the jury at his trial out of a desire for revenge caused by his infidelity, and to save herself from being prosecuted for a series of petty crimes. And having condemned him to a life sentence, she proceeded to profit handsomely from the case with a tell-all tabloid newspaper deal that included a picture of her wearing a revealing dress.
‘Jeremy completely swept me off my feet,’ she told the News of the World. ‘He was a skilful lover. He taught me how to enjoy sex in a way I never had before. I did everything for him. As long as he was happy, I was happy. I gave everything to him, including myself. I knew I was under his spell. But he reckoned without my conscience.’
This breathless account earned her £25,000, a considerable sum in 1986. Bamber’s supporters say this is another reason to doubt her testimony: no conviction, no story.
But one does not have to be a ‘Bamber is innocent’ campaigner to ask why it took Julie a month to contact Essex Police – when she had information strongly suggesting
Bamber’s guilt. There is another photo of Julie from that time, a more dignified one. It was taken at the funerals of Nevill, June and Sheila a few weeks after their deaths. She stands with Bamber as his face contorts in synthetic grief, her own expression hard to decode.
Around the couple, in the grounds of St Nicholas’s Parish Church in
Tolleshunt D’Arcy, hundreds of people are gathered. Nevill and June were prominent members of the community, committed Christians and church wardens. Jeremy was putting on his best show.
‘Son’s Last Farewell’ read the subsequent front-page headline in the local newspaper, above a picture of Jeremy and Julie, a young couple seemingly united in grief. But even at that moment, Julie knew she was taking part in a charade.
Bamber, then 24, had told her things – about his frustration with his overbearing adoptive father, a former RAF pilot and magistrate, who regarded him as a disappointment. His mother was something of a religious zealot, who insisted on making her family pray.
Adopted at six weeks old, Bamber preferred the fast life, indulging in drink, drugs and women. He chafed at his unglamorous existence – his father had warned him that he would inherit the family’s considerable wealth only if he remained working at White House Farm. The wages were small – so small that he took to stealing from the family caravan park business. Julie accompanied him on one burglary at the caravan site.
Bamber and Julie met in 1983 while working part-time at a pizza parlour in Colchester. She was a student at Goldsmiths College in London, a working-class girl. He was a catch, a good-looking, charming, dangerous former public schoolboy in search of excitement. But with a roving eye.
Bamber did little to hide his infidelity, and neither did he hide his darkest, innermost thoughts. He described to Julie his frustration with his ‘old’ father and ‘mad’ mother. His adopted sister Sheila – she and Jeremy came from different parents – suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
Following Sheila’s divorce, her parents set her up in a flat in Maida Vale, West London, another source of frustration for Jeremy, who was forced to live in a backwater cottage three miles from the farm. Sheila was also a competitor for the family money.
He speculated with Julie how he might change his life by ridding himself of these troublesome relatives. Maybe he could sedate his parents and burn them to death in the house. Julie chose to ignore the talk as fantasy.
And then it happened. On the night of the murders, Bamber phoned her to say something disturbing was happening at White House Farm. The conversation was brief and inconclusive. But earlier in the evening Bamber had told her: ‘It’s tonight or never.’
Yet, despite these signals, Bamber nearly got away with murder. In an epic display of incompetence, Essex Police rapidly concluded that Sheila was the killer. It was decided that she had suffered a catastrophic mental meltdown and rampaged through the house with Nevill’s rifle. Despite her slight build, she had somehow overpowered her much bigger father before shooting him in the kitchen and killing her mother and sons upstairs. She had then placed a Bible by her side and shot herself. Twice. A tragedy – but a straightforward one. A murdersuicide.
Case closed. In fact, it was Bamber who was the killer. It is thought that in the early hours of August 7, he cycled along backroads from his cottage to the farmhouse before using an insecure window to gain entry.
He then shot his father repeatedly following a struggle before dis
I knew I was under his spell. But he reckoned without my conscience
patching the rest of the family in merciless fashion. Placing the rifle on Sheila’s body, he left the way he came, closing the window to hide the presence of an intruder.
Arriving home, he phoned Julie to say something was wrong at the farm before ringing the local police number – not 999 – saying that he had received a call from his father saying Sheila had gone mad with a gun.
Bamber might have carried off this grisly pantomime but for the girlfriend standing by his side at the funeral. Look again at that newspaper photograph, and the expression on Julie Mugford’s face hints at a haunted woman – assailed by the dawning realisation that the man she adored, the man she hoped to marry, the man weeping at her side, was a monster.
Yet she remained supportive of Jeremy for a month, doing nothing to incriminate him. Until a row occurred about him calling an old girlfriend. During the fracas, she smashed a mirror and he twisted her arm behind her back. It was a catalyst.
Julie, who had already made a statement to police following the deaths, changed her story dramatically. She told detectives that shortly after the killings Bamber had told her he had hired a hitman, a local man, to kill his family for £2,000.
Bamber was arrested on September 8, as was the alleged hitman, who was rapidly cleared because of his strong alibi. Bamber was now the prime suspect and was charged at the end of the month.
Julie’s testimony during Bamber’s trial for multiple murder the following year would be decisive.
‘For nearly four weeks I’d lived with the knowledge that he had committed the murders,’ she later told the News of the World. ‘I felt I was on the edge of a breakdown and that soon I would have to tell the police everything. That meant I would be responsible for sending the man I loved to prison, perhaps for life. Surely, death would be better than that.’
Bamber is serving a whole-life sentence, with no prospect of release. Now 59, he has spent more time behind bars than in the outside world.
But Julie Mugford is serving a life sentence of her own. Thirtyfive years after the killings, she finds herself vilified online by the ‘free Jeremy Bamber’ fraternity. The dark drama of the White House Farm murders periodically resurfaces with Bamber’s attempts to regain his freedom – and now it is back again with the ITV series.
The more vociferous supporters of Bamber’s innocence paint Julie as an unreliable and compromised witness who gave evidence after police dropped a potential prosecution against her for involvement in the caravan park burglary, cannabis smuggling and a fraud involving the use of a friend’s cheque book which had been reported stolen. In hock to the police, she proceeded to paint Bamber in the darkest possible light while giving evidence at his trial at Chelmsford Crown Court in 1986.
Today, Julie’s own nemesis is Trudi Benjamin, the woman leading the charge on Bamber’s behalf. A recently qualified law graduate, the 51-year-old is convinced of Bamber’s innocence and has been campaigning for his release since 2010. She is also a director of The JB Campaign Ltd, set up to finance Bamber’s legal battles. Fundraising has involved a Jeremy Bamber ‘Bake Off’ involving, grotesquely, recipes favoured by his mother and the sale of pens inscribed with his signature.
‘I know Jeremy did not and could not have killed his family,’ Mrs Benjamin states on the campaign website. ‘Jeremy loved his family very much.’
Julie Mugford, she argues, was ‘a bitter, jealous, jilted woman’ bent on saving her own skin and seeking revenge for her lover’s infidelity.
Relatives of Bamber who testified against him at the trial are also targets of online attack. Mrs Benjamin and her followers argue that these witnesses were governed in giving evidence against Bamber by the desire to inherit his estate.
For her part, Julie Mugford – now Smerchanski – refuses to engage in a media war of words. She has rarely spoken in public about the killings since the 1986 interview. In 2002, she attended court in London during Bamber’s appeal but was not called to give evidence.
However, in an interview in 2000, she admitted her concern that Bamber might at some stage be released. ‘I thought this was long in the past,’ she said. ‘As far as I am concerned nothing has changed. I sincerely believe he is guilty. Do I stand by my story? Yes, absolutely.’
A friend interviewed at that time said Julie still had nightmares about the murders and wondered if she could have averted them by going to the police sooner.
Julie met Canadian Glen Smerchanski in Australia in 1990. At first, she was reluctant to discuss her former life but became more open after he proposed marriage.
The couple settled in a two-storey red-brick home with an immaculate front garden in Glen’s home city of Winnipeg, where Julie first worked as a special needs teacher before becoming deputy head of a primary school. She is now a senior city education official. The couple have two grown-up children.
A neighbour said: ‘She’s rebuilt her life. She’s not the same person now as then. She and Glen are a lovely couple. What does something that happened all those years ago have to do with the person she is today?’
Glen told The Mail on Sunday: ‘How would you feel if you did the right thing and your life continued to be ruined by it?’
He has said previously: ‘Julie just wishes it would all go away and we could get on with our lives.’
But it never quite does. Thirty-five years after that terrible night, White House Farm continues to cast its shadow. Jeremy Bamber appears intent on never laying the ghosts of his victims to rest.
Why would he? Locked up for ever, pursuing the mirage of his innocence is the only thing he has left to live for.
I’d lived with the knowledge that he had committed the murders