To Die For
It was that kind of impulsive and all-consuming generosity which could be suffocating. The family all remember the day Rita Riddlesworth went to lay a wreath at Kensington Palace after Princess Diana died. As they were driving home she spotted a bag-lady lum-bering along the pavement pushing her trolley. Ordering the car to stop, she jumped out and thrust £5 into the woman's hand. The bag-lady was unimpressed, started screaming and refused to take the money. Rita just laughed and wished her well. Rita, with her soft heart, was like that.
Her childlike whimsy and eager-to--please disposition had always been evident since she was a little girl. She grew up the daughter of a long-serving Broadmoor hospital warder. With her sister she would play in the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire, near the hospital. There the grimly forbidding Victorian façade of one of the UK's most fearsome institutions - home to Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and some of the nation's most dangerous killers - dominated family life.
At first, Rita led an unremarkable existence working in a local chemist's. Her generous nature, coupled with her nape length hair framing deep-set blue eyes, fair complexion and impish grin, drew many suitors. She met Martin, who had his own business making brackets for CCTV cameras, and eventually married him in 1974.
Both husband and wife got heavily involved with Broadmoor's League of Friends. Together they would pick up relatives and friends of patients in a minibus from the local station and drive them up to the hospital. And both would visit those patients who were lonely and had no one to visit them.
Yet one prisoner from the Essex House section seemed to get more attention from Rita than others. Few visited him, certainly not relatives. He too was spontaneous and compassionate, much like Rita. Paul Beecham filled the drab days in the hospital painting in oils and replicating landscapes and old masters from photographs. He was also a convicted killer.
Paul and Rita met with increasing regularity. One of Paul's friends, who often visited, said Paul introduced her to him as just a friend. But the reality was plain to see. "She was beautiful and it was obvious they were in love;' he recalls. "They would hold hands, kiss and stroll together. "
Prison romances are nothing new. More than 1,200 women write to American death row inmates every year, and the weddings of famous inmates like gangster Reg Kray and killer Charles Bronson often hit the headlines. But Rita didn't have a morbid fascination with dangerous men; it was true love, say friends. As lovers they shared secrets, but theirs were eventually to dominate and destroy not only their romance but their lives too.
More than once the hospital authorities tried to stop their trysts, saying it was "unhealthy". Not only was Rita already married with two young sons, Scott and Lewis, but Beecham was a dangerous man. To all outward appearances, he was like any other slightly immature 26-year-old, but, as he confided to a friend who visited once, I am probably one of the worst cases in here.
During the Sixties he led a ruddy--cheeked country life in the genteel setting of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. He was well known and liked, and a regular sight as he tore past the town's tearooms and antique shops in his open-topped cream Triumph Spitfire with his young wife, Yvonne, a local licensee's daughter. A strong swimmer and "fanatically keen" marksman, he owned a private arsenal. His passion was game shooting with his riotous gang of local friends, who loved to play practical jokes on each other, and who all got married at roughly the same time.
He was an only child, and his mother Margaret doted on him. The family were wealthy and Paul was pampered throughout. His father Walter, or “Big Jim" as he was fondly known in the town, was a giant of a man - stentorian, hard working and successful. He had built up a thriving business making cruise boats, mainly for affluent Midlands-based businessmen, which he ran from his boatyard on the banks of the River Avon. His son was his deputy.
The morning of February 17, 1969, brought the family idyll to a violent end. Some say it was the pres-sure of shouldering the responsibilities of a £500,000 business. Others alluded to the dark rumours that Paul was regularly journeying to Bristol to buy drugs. Certainly he had been smoking cannabis before the bloodshed started in the family bungalow next to the yard.
The carnage began when Paul pumped four bullets from a .22 semi-automatic rifle into his father, killing him outright. His mother, screaming, barricaded her-self in the bedroom before he broke in and blasted her with nine rounds. Then with deadly intent he reloaded the gun and shot his grandmother, Ruth, who had witnessed the execution of his parents. He waited and then fired three bullets into his 76-year-old grandfather, Frank Bourton, as he entered the house after hearing the screams.
For days Paul went to elaborate lengths to cover up the killings. His wife noticed nothing unusual in his behaviour and he calmly went to work every day. At first he said his father had been taken o Tewkesbury hospital and later that he vas recovering at home. He spurned concerned well-wishers saying his mother had flu and it would be impossible for them to see visitors. Two weeks later family friends were more insistent and Paul said his father was in hospital having an operation. When that was found to be a lie he broke down in tears, sobbing that his father had died in hospital.
It was a full three weeks after the massacre that a window cleaner spotted the bodies in the bungalow. A manhunt was launched and Paul was found crying under his bed at home in nearby Grayston Close.
The trial at Gloucester Assizes was a perfunctory affair. Paul Beecharn plead-ed guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Psychologists concurred that Beecham was seriously ill and had had a "brain-storm" on the day of the killings. He already had a history of depression and his condition had deteriorated over the eight months before the shootings. Mr Justice Lyell ordered that he be detained for "an indefinite period" in Broadmoor mental hospital.
And that should have been the end of the story. Paul Beecham, distraught with remorse, was incarcerated. The family bungalow was demolished and, to the general public, the case would only have lived on in yellowing news cuttings and muttered conversations, decades afterwards, in the cosy Tewkesbury pubs.
But in 1979 Paul Beecham was slowly re-integrating into society, released from Broadmoor but still under their supervision. The past was a painful memory; he had divorced his wife and severed links with his young daughter. Friends who visited him were told not to come any more. Then he vanished into obscurity, still under close psychiatric supervision, and got a job as a van driver in London. His experience on his father's boats meant he later got a job as a sign-writer. It was the early Eighties, business was booming and he settled in Slough. Only Rita and Broadmoor's psychiatrists knew where he was.
Meanwhile Rita's marriage was foundering, and Paul was obviously the cause. When she divorced her husband after eight years in 1982, he bought her a house in Bracknell, Berkshire, where she went to live with her sons, then aged seven and five. Paul came to live with them almost immediately. Three years later he was totally discharged from Broadmoor. "Apart from me, he was the nicest man she knew," remembers Scott, 24, a computer technician, as he sits with his girlfriend Louise. They live across town from the five-bedroom house in the Grange Road cul-de-sac where Scott grew up knowing Paul as his stepfather. It's a wealthy and leafy. enclave of the town. "He was great, the perfect stepfather," says Scott.
The couple set about building a new life. No one apart from Rita knew Paul's terrible secret. 'Paul and Broadmoor were never mentioned in the same sentence,” recalls Scott. "We only knew that he had a connection with her work at the League of Friends." Although Rita stopped her work as a prison visitor when Paul moved in, Christmas cards from the other patients she had visited would arrive every year.
Paul set up a sign-writing business from the couple's garage but used the spelling "Beauchamp" as a business name so as to minimise the risk of being linked with his past. He also worked for the Rotary Club, but as one member said, "He always took a back seat at social events. He never liked having his photograph taken, for instance."
Rita started work for Berkshire County Council's social services department. First she worked at a local old people's home. She was often seen labouring up the hill with her bicycle, the old people's shopping slung over the handlebars.
Paul and Rita were devoted to each other. "They never had to tell each other they loved one another, it was just so obvious," says Scott. "They never rowed and if they did disagree it was over silly day-to-day things.” One leap year Rita publicly declared her love on the garage door. She daubed: "Love You Lots Paul Will You Please Marry Me." Then she sat outside in a mock wedding dress made of lace curtains waiting for him to come home. They never did get married though.
Paul was the perfect foil to Rita’s impractical spontaneity. She loved to help him with his sign-writing if he was busy. Her eagerness would ruin his work, though, and he would patiently amend the damage until the early hours. They were happiest around the house or in the garden. Rita would sell plants for charity. They had a small circle of regular friends who would visit, yet they seldom went out to pubs or restaurants. Rather, weekends were spent at car-boot sales or fetes for charity, which they often organised. "They would be with each other for everything," says Scott. “If one wanted to do something the other would always go along."
Charity work became their main pre-occupation. Rita left the old people's home and worked as a day centre officer for the Bracknell Resources and Opportunities Centre (BROC) for adults with learning disabilities. The pace was relentless. In the evenings she was also a voluntary counsellor for Victim Support. Rita, no matter what the cost to her health, was dedicated to the point of fanaticism. Calls from victims of crime would wake her and Paul in the early hours. Then she would venture out into the roughest parts of the town, like Bracknell's Great Hollands Estate, to offer a sympathetic ear and shoulder to cry on. Paul would drive her and think nothing of waiting in the car for three hours while she listened attentively. Isabel Mattick, a former mayor of Bracknell, worked with Rita at Victim Support. "She was very highly regarded in the town. And there was cer-tainly nothing to suggest Rita and Paul were anything other than a happy couple," she says.
For 18 years Rita and Paul enjoyed a loving relationship which provided a caring home for Scott and Lewis. But it was around Christmas 1995 that the past came back to haunt them. The terrible secret she kept alone was affecting Rita's sanity. She developed a "fixation" that Paul was killing people, say police. When a French teenager was abducted on the M4, the body found dumped in a ditch, she called the police saying Paul may have had something to do with it. She was eventually hospitalised suffering from severe depression. Still she told no one about Paul's past.
Ian Stephens, a forensic psychologist, explains how they could live a perfectly normal life in the knowledge of Paul's terrible secret. "The secret probably bonded them and brought them closer together," he says. "It was a secret the outside world knew nothing about, but if it did it would threaten the relationship. The pressure probably became too much for her that she couldn't be normal like everybody else. "
Stephens describes Paul as having a pattern of "over-control" behaviour which contributed both to his earlier crimes and to Rita's worsening condition. It also explains their seemingly harmonious relationship. "People with over-control are very difficult to get a reaction out of. He was probably very rigid in his thinking and unable to pick up on her needs. She probably began to find him insensitive and the relationship claustrophobic. Over-control personalities work like a spring which is slowly depressed," he says. "Then they explode…”
Rita recovered but, on Paul's advice, resigned from her job with Victim Support. In July last year she also resigned from BROC. "We think work and her secret o Paul put all sorts of stresses and strain on her;' says Joan Griffiths, service manager of BROC.
Without work, Rita was shadow of her former self. She sat at home glued to the QVC shop ping channel. Then in September she was hospitalised again. Drugged and sedated, she confided in Scott about Paul's past. Scott was shocked. I thought either she has gone completely doolally or it was a big reason why she was in there. She spent her lifetime listening to other people’s problems but hadn't even told a doctor hers." He immediately went round to speak with his stepfather.
Paul confirmed that yes, it was true. And later that evening Scott went round to visit his stepfather again. I wanted to reassure him that I didn't think any the worse of him," says Scott. In fact, we felt closer to him. Paul said he woke up every day thinking about what he had done. He said if there was any way he could put it right he would - specially if it was going to make Mum well again. He said he would even go on television, on the front page of the Daily Mail and admit who he was. He even said he would leave and support Rita with money while living far away."
Rita was released soon after and at first everything seemed normal. 'Paul wasn't awkward with us and we weren't with him," says Scott. "But every time you saw him you couldn't help thinking what he had done. " Rita seemed fine, too, as she and Paul helped Scott and Louise with chores at their new home. It was the last time Scott saw her.
On October 21 last year, Rita had a friend over for lunch. She was the last person to see her alive. Paul later explained Rita's absence by telling friends over the ensuing weeks that she had gone to stay at friends, or was at the doctor's.
On November 12, Paul invited Scott and Louise round for supper. When they arrived they found Paul lying in an upstairs bedroom, killed by a single blast in the right side of the head. A sawn-off 12-bore shotgun lay beside him. The gun had been borrowed from a friend after Paul claimed he was going on a grouse shoot. Police later found metal filings in the garage where he had filed down the barrels to make it easier to put the gun to his temple. There was no suicide note and still no clue as to Rita's whereabouts. The local community went into overdrive. Twenty people roamed the south coast because Rita had once told Scott if she ever went missing she would be by the sea. The boys clung on to the hope they would find her as they scoured bed-and-breakfasts and beaches around Boscombe and Bournemouth.
"But,” says Detective Inspector John Bradley, who headed the murder inquiry, we knew the boys were clinging on to a limb for as long as possible. We knew she was dead from the start. " The police searched the house in Grange Road and found a noose in the attic and books such as Savage Grace's The Story of a Doomed Family - the real-life story of a man who killed his parents. It was as though he had been living in the past all that time,” says Scott.
Eventually the police found some bloodstained sheets in a barrel in the garden, and a neighbour reported hearing concrete slabs being moved in the garden at 11pm sometime between October 26 and 29. On November 19 a police sniffer dog was brought in and two unevenly laid paving stones lifted up. Enough earth was uncovered to reveal a pair of feet. -An expert who had uncovered Bosnian war graves took three days in torrential rain to uncover the plastic-wrapped body of 51-year-old Rita Riddlesworth. She had been killed with a single hammer blow to the back of the head while lying in bed.
"One of the hardest things about it," says Scott, "was that her death was not straightforward and we will never know what really happened, like if it had been a car accident. They just couldn't hold on to their secret any more. The features of this, the lies he told us, were the same as the ones he told when he killed his parents. We wonder if he was waiting for us to come round as he had his shotgun, and then had a moment of clarity and realised what he was doing and killed himself instead. We don’t know."
But was Rita Riddlesworth’s death avoidable? Was Paul's behaviour unusual in that he reformed only to mimic his original crimes decades later? "He certainly could have gone on the rest of his life without doing this," says Stephens. It is an extreme end but lots of relationships are like that, where everything is kept under wraps. With Paul Beecham his over-control personality meant he couldn't handle Rita’s depression. He didn't want her to change and he in turn became depressed and couldn't take the hassle of it."
The spring that took 30 years to wind up had exploded again. It is similar to Thomas Hamilton at Dunblane and Michael Ryan at Hungerford," says Stephens, and maybe even Dennis Nielsen, who spent his evenings cutting people up and stuffing them down drains and then went into the office in the morning as a nice guy. They lie in psychological denial until the pressure is too much."
Yet although Paul Beecham may be a multiple killer, among the people who knew him he is not regarded as a monster. The couple's deaths cast a pall of sorrow over the town. Bracknell's Holy Trinity church was packed with well-wishers on December 2 for the joint funeral service.
DI Bradley also attended the service. He is a man accustomed to murders, but the case still saddened him. "He buried her because he must have been hoping to get away with it at first," he says. “but their house was not a house of horrors, it was one of love. Since Paul Beecham left Broadmoor 18 years ago he was a loving, caring father. Yes he killed six people including himself. But can you call him a bad guy? Who are we to judge?"
Scott has few regrets, he says: “Paul once said we didn’t have to worry about mum any more. We think he was saying that he had done what he had done almost out of love. He could have felt he was doing her a favour.” He pauses. Obviously he wasn't.”
As the boys rebuild their lives without a mother, he recalls: "She was a martyr who always suffered in silence."