‘New victims of Levi Bellfield have been emailing me’
In the wake of a TV drama about killer Levi Bellfield, the man who caught him tells Eleanor Steafel that it’s far from case closed
Last Sunday night, following the first episode of Manhunt
– the three-part ITV drama about the pursuit of the notorious serial killer Levi Bellfield – emails began dropping into Colin Sutton’s inbox. They were from women who had carried with them a dark, painful secret for more than 15 years. Women who had survived brutal assaults by a man who, they would later learn, had raped countless others and murdered three young women in cold blood. Women who had kept quiet about their ordeals, only to suffer guilt from knowing that others were attacked subsequently.
Some of them wanted help and advice, others wanted to expel the memory of what had been done to them. For Mr Sutton, the former detective chief inspector who caught Bellfield in 2007, this was par for the course. The killer might have been behind bars for 11 years now, serving an unbreachable life sentence, but the stories of the women he attacked never seem to cease.
“The people who are coming forward now, they’ve been carrying around what happened to them. And it’s not just the personal trauma of physically what happened to them,” he says. Many of those who have contacted him talk of blaming themselves for the women who became his victims after them.
After all these years, it breaks Mr Sutton’s heart to get messages from women who believe they were assaulted by Bellfield, but whose stories have never been heard. “There was one lady last year who had reported to Surrey Police in 2001 that Bellfield had followed her into her flat and raped her. She reported it to police and was just so mortified by the response – marked police cars, and in front of her neighbours – she thought, ‘I can’t take this’, and withdrew her statement.
“In those days, if you said to police ‘I don’t want you to do this any more’, they’d say: ‘OK, that’s enough.’ So she’s carried that around for 15 or more years. I was able to put her back in touch with Surrey Police. She appreciated that there wasn’t going to be a prosecution, that was not how it was going to end, but what it did was give her access to the crisis people and other counselling and advice. I think it was kind of a cathartic experience just being able to talk to somebody.”
One of the “half a dozen” women who have contacted Mr Sutton in recent days said that just writing it down and pressing “send” had been enough for her to finally let go of what happened. “[She wrote] me reams about what happened to her in great detail,” he tells me. “At the end of it, she said: ‘I’m in tears now, my partner is comforting me, but I’m so happy that I’ve been able to tell someone at last. It’s all the therapy I need. I can move on now.’”
We meet in a café near the BBC’s central London offices, where Mr Sutton is doing a radio interview later. It has been a whirlwind week for him and he seems both exhausted and elated – it’s never easy, he says, going over it all again. But the thought that the TV series has had enough of an impact that more women now feel able to come forward with their stories, is something to be celebrated.
A towering figure with a kind face and calm, friendly manner, it’s hard to believe he is responsible for bringing down two of the most notorious criminals in history. Mr Sutton also put an end to the 17-year reign of terror of the serial rapist known as “The Nightstalker”: Delroy Grant now resides in Belmarsh Prison, while Bellfield is in HMP Frankland, County Durham, home to some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK. Both are likely to die behind bars. And yet, for the people they attacked, and the policemen and women who brought them to justice, the pursuit of truth and vindication never ceases.
“The terrain has changed,” says Mr Sutton, “the culture and times have changed. Historic sex abuse allegations are being much more seriously investigated. I think the will and the ability to do something about it is there now, and it’s different to how it was 10 or 11 years ago.”
In 2007, when Bellfield was charged with the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amélie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy (he was later convicted of the murder of Milly Dowler), Mr Sutton had a further 20 allegations of rape and sexual assault that the CPS could have added to the list of charges against him. But when it was clear he would be convicted with a life sentence, it was decided not to prosecute further.
“I could see both sides,” he says. “You’re going to have to find something pretty big, such as a murder or child abuse, that would convince the CPS to say it’s in the public interest to spend public money on prosecuting this man who is in prison forever anyway.”
At the time, the women who had survived attacks by Bellfield understood the decision not to prosecute their assaults. Mr Sutton’s team instilled in them a culture of “your justice is my justice”.
“It meant that when he was found guilty, we had half a dozen of these non-charged victims in court to see him go down. The people who are coming forward now never had that support. They’ve been carrying what happened to them.”
It’s why Mr Sutton is adamant that any woman who hasn’t yet benefited from police support should get it now. But another, arguably more pressing, argument for more women to come forward has emerged in the past few days. It has been alleged that Bellfield was part of a child-grooming gang, six of whom are not serving life sentences and who, according to a former child exploitation manager who dealt with the case, “pose a serious threat to children”.
A new report links Bellfield with the men, saying they operated in a similar pattern to the Rotherham child abuse gang. The word “gang”, Mr Sutton says, is crucial: “That means there are people connected to it who aren’t yet in prison for life, who are potentially still committing offences, potentially still abusing children or women, or both.”
Could Bellfield feasibly still be in touch with these men, if indeed he was part of the child grooming ring? “Oh God, yeah,” he says. “Contact from prison is easy.”
Bellfield will, some have alleged, be revelling in the attention that
Manhunt has generated. “Maybe,” says Mr Sutton. “But if we hadn’t have done [the show], he’d have found a way to [get back in the news] himself. He always has done. He’s not often not in the news, that man.”
I ask Mr Sutton he ever wishes he could turn his back on all this. Most of the time he lives a quiet life in Suffolk with his wife. But he never minds being pulled back into the Bellfield case. “If the phone rings and someone says ‘Can you help us’, I’ll do it,” he says. “It’s not my job any more, but it’s the right thing to do.”
‘If the phone rings and someone says can you help, I’ll do it’
Steadfast: former Det Chief Insp Colin Sutton, above, was responsible for bringing Levi Bellfield, the killer of Milly Dowler, left, and two other women to justice
Threat: Levi Bellfield, right, was found guilty of murdering Amélie Delagrange, above left, and Marsha McDonnell, above right, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008