46-year-old Penny Bell lived a life that most would envy. She ran a catering business and her husband, Alastair, was a successful estate agent. The couple lived in a large detached home in the prestigious area of Bakers Wood, Denham, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom, with Penny’s son from her previous marriage, Matthew, 11, and their daughter, Laura, 9.
It was a balmy British summer day on the 6th of June, 1991, when Penny left her home. She said goodbye to the builders who were working on a kitchen extension and told them that she was running late for an appointment. She climbed into her powder blue Jaguar XJS and set off on her way. Less than three hours later, at around 12:15PM, the mutilated body of Penny was discovered ten miles away, slumped over in the driver’s seat of her car in the car park of a leisure centre in Greenford, Middlesex. An autopsy and forensic examination revealed that Penny’s killer had viciously stabbed her while they were sitting in the passenger seat. Afterwards, the killer walked around to the driver’s side of the car and proceeded to stab the already wounded Penny through the car’s window. The frenzied attack lasted several minutes and Penny fought for her life but the attempt was futile. Penny had been stabbed over 50 times in the chest and arms with a long knife.
The crime scene was sealed off while forensic scientists were called in to examine the car in an attempt to find any clues that could lead them to Penny’s killer. An incident room was set up and a team of detectives were assigned to the case. They established that Penny had driven her car to the car park of the leisure centre in the West London suburb of Greenford, where she parked facing a high hedge of the park perimeter at around 10:30AM, obstructing the view into the car’s windscreen. Two women who arrived to swim at the leisure centre saw Penny sitting upright in the driver’s seat. They noticed that her hazard lights were on and that the wipers were scraping noisily across the dry windscreen. They had assumed she was just asleep. However, when they left the leisure centre at around midday, they noticed blood spatter inside the car and realised that the woman inside was dead and raised the alarm.
Two more witnesses came forward to tell investigators that they had seen a woman who looked like Penny wrestling with a man in a car as it slowly drove through Greenfield. They also said it looked as though the woman was mouthing “help me” to passing drivers who seemingly ignored her. The man in the car was described as approximately 40-years-old with dark, cropped, swept-back hair, possibly sporting a beard and wearing a bracelet.1 Police issued a description of the man but they were unsuccessful in identifying him. Despite the fact that the frenzied murder took place in broad daylight and the killer would have been covered in blood, nobody saw anything suspicious in the car park that morning or thereafter.
When the builders told police about the appointment Penny said she had to attend, Alastair seemed perplexed. He said that there was no appointment in her business diary and that he thought she had been going straight to her office in Kilburn, North London. “I can only think she must have received a last minute telephone call,” he said. Builders would later tell police that despite what Penny said, none of them heard her receive a phone call, adding more to the confusion to the case. The leisure centre was nowhere near Penny’s normal daily route from her home to her office in Kilburn. Moreover, Penny never used the leisure centre and didn’t have a swimming costume or towel with her, leading investigators to consider that she had arranged to meet her killer there for reasons unknown. There was also speculation – based on the witness testimony – that Penny may have been hijacked. There was no clear motive for the murder. Penny had not been sexually assaulted and her handbag remained untouched in her car.
Who Penny had arranged to meet that morning – if anybody – was never established.
Early on in the investigation, police suspected that Alastair may have been the killer. Before marrying Penny, Alastair had been in a relationship with a man and some speculated that maybe a scorned ex-lover could have been involved. However, no evidence could be found to corroborate these theories and he was subsequently ruled out as a suspect. Moreover, Alastair worked alongside detectives for 14 hours straight each day following the slaying in a desperate attempt to find his wife’s killer; he was distraught. There was also some speculation that Penny may have been having an affair. Alastair dismissed this theory. “If Penny had been having a secret liaison with someone there would have been no reason to mention her appointment to the builders,” he said.2 Another theory is that Penny was being blackmailed. This theory is based on the fact that three days before her murder, Penny withdrew £8,500 from her and Alastair’s joint bank account. Penny was known to be particularly meticulous with her money and kept a record of every withdrawal. However, there was no record of this money anywhere.
What Penny had spent the money on has also never been established.
In 1993, former royal air hostess, Jean Bradley, was murdered in a frenzied knife attack as she was getting into her BMW in Acton, West London. Newspapers across the country soon started to report similarities between the two murders. Both women were company executives in their early forties and died just three short miles from each other. Much like the murder of Penny, Jean hadn’t been sexually assaulted and her purse remained untouched in her car. A witness saw the killer running from the scene and gave chase, challenging the knifeman: “You attacked a woman, now attack a man.”3 The killer managed to escape through an underground car park. Blood samples and DNA were found at the scene that didn’t match Jean. However, investigators were unable to link the samples to anybody nor could they definitively link the two murders. The murder of Jean Bradley still remains unsolved today.
The following year, John Richmond, a builder with a shady past, contacted the newspaper, The Sun, and claimed that he and Penny had been having an affair which began shortly before she was murdered. He demanded £80,000 for his story and claimed that on the morning of Penny’s murder, they had met at a lay-by three miles from where she was murdered. Here, he claimed they kissed and cuddled before departing. In a secretly tape-recorded interview, Richmond made the claim that he was asked to recommend a hitman, not realising that the target was Penny. “I didn’t kill her but I know who did. This was a contract killing,” he was recorded saying.4 Richmond and his wife were friendly with Penny and her husband and their sons went to the same school. Alastair said the idea that Penny was having an affair with Richmond was preposterous. Richmond had actually been arrested back in 1992 after his fingerprints were found in Penny’s car. However, he was released without charge. Following these new claims, Richmond refused to co-operate with investigators who wanted to question him. “There are some questions that I would have been happy if Mr Richmond had answered. I would have been delighted to hear his explanation, but I stop short of saying that points to his involvement,” said Detective Superintendent Brian Edwards. Richmond would later be cleared of any involvement in Penny’s murder.
During the course of the investigation, over 8,000 people were interviewed and over 2,500 written statements were logged. At one point, there was a £20,000 reward offered for anybody who could provide any information that could lead to her killer. Police even looked at convicted murderer, Robert Napper, as a suspect, but he was ruled out. Police would later announced that as many as 30 people who many have been in the car park at the time of the murder had still not come forward to relay what they may have seen that fateful morning. Alastair himself even made an appeal for witnesses but to no avail.
Today, the murder of Penny Bell remains unsolved.
Anybody with information is asked to call Crimestoppers on 0800-555-111.
- The Guardian, 11 January, 2000 – “Unsolved: Woman Knifed in Jaguar”
- The People, 19 May, 1996 – “What Drove Penny to Make a Date with Death?”
- The Sunday Mirror, 30 March, 1993 – “Has Penny Bell Killer Struck Again?”
- The Sun, 9 September, 2005 – “Someone Out There Knows Who Killed My Mother”