'I always knew Russell Bishop had murdered my Karen'

‘I always knew Russell Bishop had murdered my Karen. But it took 32 years and the courage of another victim to prove it’: Mother of victim, 9, shares her agony of seeing her daughter’s killer go free – and tells how she won her fight for justice

When I heard on the radio that a little girl had been abducted and attacked in Brighton, I got the same, horrible feeling in my stomach I’d had on that long night searching for my daughter Karen.

By the following afternoon I had learned the terrible truth: that my wonderful, happy nine-year-old daughter and her best friend Nicola Fellows had been sexually assaulted and murdered while playing after school in woodland near our home.

The tabloids called the killings the ‘Babes in the Wood’ murders. I never liked that description – it made it sound like something sweet, out of a fairy tale.

And now, listening to the radio news, I felt certain that the man who had so brutally attacked and murdered them had targeted another little girl.

It was exactly three years since Karen’s funeral. I turned to my husband Lee and said, ‘Please not again. It’s him, I know it’s him. I warned them.’

Babes in the Wood killer Russell Bishop has died from brain cancer. The murderer, 55, passed away in hospital last night after being rushed there from the top security HMP Frankland, in County Durham

I had learned the terrible truth: that my wonderful, happy nine-year-old daughter (right) and her best friend Nicola Fellows (left) had been sexually assaulted and murdered while playing after school in woodland near our home 

The child he attacked on that cold February day in 1990 was even younger than my daughter. The shop she went to was closed. Being new to the estate, Rachael Watts became confused about the way home, but she knew her address so she asked someone for directions.

Tragically for her, that person was Russell Bishop.

Bishop is the evil man who, three years earlier, had killed Karen and Nicola. To my horror, he had got away with that terrible crime. Now, he was about to commit another – and it was to prove his undoing.

He was looking in the boot of his red Cortina when Rachael approached.

‘He had a moustache similar to my dad and he was working on his car, and my dad was a car mechanic, so it didn’t occur to me that he was a danger,’ the seven-year-old later recalled.

The monster grabbed her and bundled her into the boot, slamming it shut. When she screamed for help, Bishop shouted at her to shut up ‘or he’d kill me’.

It broke my heart when I heard she had offered to give him her £1 spending money if he let her go. When he kept driving, she groped around in the dark and found a hammer and began to bang it on the boot lid.

After 25 terrifying minutes, Bishop parked the car at a beauty spot on the Sussex Downs, dragged Rachael on to the back seat, stripped her naked and sexually assaulted her.

He then did what he had done to my daughter Karen and her friend Nicola: he put his hands round her throat and choked her until she lost consciousness.

I believe our girls were watching over Rachael during the attack, saying to her: ‘Please don’t die. You need to identify him for us, too. Please survive and live, for us.’

The next thing Rachael remembered was waking up, naked, in gorse bushes.

The terrified little girl forced her way through the undergrowth, ripping her arms and legs on the spikes of the gorse and brambles. She staggered the last few yards to a parked car. The couple inside were horrified by the sight of the naked, bleeding child.

READ MORE: Babes in the Wood killer Russell Bishop’s girlfriend loses appeal against perjury conviction after her lies at his 1987 double-murder trial freed him to strike again

They wrapped her in a jacket and called the police.

Rachael must have appeared dead when Bishop left her, but she was able to give quite a few details about her ordeal. She remembered seeing a can of WD40 ‘like Mummy has in her car’ and attacking the boot lid with a hammer.

And she described the man with the moustache.

My Karen’s bedroom was a red-and-white tribute to Liverpool Football Club. I supported Chelsea and Lee followed Tottenham, but Karen always had her own ideas. When the football results came out on a Saturday, there was a lot of good-natured rivalry in our house.

We were a happy little family: me, Lee, our son Darren and his younger sisters Karen and Lyndsey.

Karen was always drawing, singing and dancing. She and Nicola, who lived three doors away, would sometimes announce: ‘We’re putting on a show.’ They’d drag an old settee into the back garden to use as a stage.

At other times they made it into a camp for their dolls. I can see them now, skipping up the road together, making plans.

The day she disappeared, in October 1986, she was in a rush after school to get out and play with Nicky. She told me she wanted chicken pie for tea, then swapped her school shoes for trainers and dashed off.

I never saw her alive again.

When she had been missing for a few hours, the police tried to reassure me by saying that kids ‘lose track of time – she’ll be at a friend’s house’ but I knew Karen would never stay out without permission, nor miss her tea.

They started their search and advised me to stay inside, as it was dark, but I couldn’t sit still.

I was seven months pregnant but I searched all night, counting off the hours: at 3am they had been missing ten hours, then it was 11, then 12. I was distraught and walked to the point of exhaustion.

Next morning, the search took me to Wild Park, a local nature reserve, as a neighbour’s son Wayne said he had spotted the girls there the day before.

As I was walking, I saw Russell Bishop, a skinny ginger-haired 21-year-old with a dog on a lead.

‘I saw them yesterday, playing by the tree. I wish I’d brought them home,’ he said.

I struggled to take it in. What did he mean, he’d seen them? An instinct made me feel I didn’t want him involved in the search.

Bishop lived near us. He hung around with a girl called Marion who he had been seeing since she was 15, despite living with his partner Jenny, who had one child with him and had another one on the way.

Just a couple of weeks before the murders, he was in his car at the top of a hill and set off at full speed towards me, headlights on, horn blaring.

I ran to get on to the pavement and as he came alongside, he wound the window down and shouted: ‘That got you going, didn’t it!’

I remember thinking there was something wrong in Bishop’s head. When I saw him while walking the morning after Karen vanished, he said: ‘My dog’s been trained to seek and find. Have you got any of Karen’s clothes that he can use for her smell?’

We could see the police helicopter buzzing above us and he seemed worried by it, asking if it had infrared detection.

And now, listening to the radio news, I felt certain that the man who had so brutally attacked and murdered them had targeted another little girl

The Daily Mail’s original news report after Bishop’s 1987 acquittal detailed how there was uproar at the verdict

Later that afternoon I heard shouting. I saw Bishop once again and then the sight that has haunted my dreams ever since: blue police tape stretched across the access to the wooded area behind.

Bishop put his hands over his face but opened his fingers so that he could see me.

He was staring straight at me, rocking backwards and forwards on the balls of his feet, as if he was checking for my reaction.

I knew that something bad had happened. I also knew that whatever it was, Bishop was behind it.

I wasn’t the only one who found Bishop’s behaviour odd.

When John Moreton, a police officer, arrived at Wild Park he saw two young men – Kevin Rowland and Matthew Marchant – sitting on the bank, their faces white. He immediately knew they had found the bodies.

Bishop was nearby, shuffling his feet and whistling. ‘I was with the other two boys when they found the bodies,’ he said. ‘I felt both girls’ necks for a pulse.’ Moreton thought this was odd. Only medical people feel a neck for a pulse; most unqualified people feel the wrist.

He had no idea how significant it was then that Bishop claimed to have touched the girls’ bodies, but he was concerned enough to write a comment about Bishop’s behaviour in his notebook.

When police interviewed Bishop, he gave details of how the girls were lying, with Karen’s head on Nicola’s lap and other precise information, including the blood-speckled foam around Nicola’s mouth.

But Kevin and Matthew had stopped anyone getting near the bodies until the police arrived. Bishop later backtracked, saying his accurate description of them was ‘just a guess’.

Three weeks later, I heard Bishop had been arrested. Despite my anger, I was relieved.

Bishop was going to be held to account for what he’d done to our two beloved little girls.

MIchelle Hadaway: ‘When I heard on the radio that a little girl had been abducted and attacked in Brighton, I got the same, horrible feeling in my stomach I’d had on that long night searching for my daughter Karen’

Rachel Watts (pictured) had miraculously survived an attack by Russell Bishop, infamous as the so-called Babes In The Wood killer

How naive I was. I thought the police had arrested him because they knew he did it – they just needed to stand before a judge and jury with the evidence.

Instead, we faced a crash course in British justice.

In court, the case against him slipped away. A bloodstained blue sweatshirt had been found by a railway line.

His partner Jenny confirmed it was his and signed a statement to that effect, then claimed she had made a mistake.

The forensic witnesses were torn apart by Bishop’s clever barrister. There were huge flaws in the evidence police had assembled. Witnesses for the defence lied to protect him.

As the jury foreman said ‘Not guilty’, I looked across the courtroom at Bishop. He was grinning.

One of his brothers was being held back by prison guards as he tried to leap into the dock to hug him. I could hear, through the daze of my misery, the jubilant cries of his family. Dismay gave way to anger. We knew Bishop was the killer, but he had been acquitted.

I didn’t understand why the police couldn’t put a better case together and arrest him again.

I had never heard of double jeopardy, a rule dating all the way back to the Norman Conquest in 1066, meaning that, under English law, nobody could be tried twice for the same offence.

But as more and more advances in scientific evidence were being made, it was becoming clear that double jeopardy wasn’t a fit law for the modern world.

With Nicola’s parents, Sue and Barrie, we asked to see the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) but we were turned away.

How difficult would it have been to give two grieving families, who had been badly let down, a polite and sympathetic hearing?

It made us determined not to let the matter rest.

Barrie, Nicola’s father, got up a petition signed by more than 600 people and in February 1988, just over two months after the trial ended, we went with Andrew Bowden, Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown, to a meeting at the Home Office.

We asked for one of three things: a further police inquiry into the murders, a Home Office inquiry or a public inquiry.

The Home Secretary said the DPP was holding ‘a full inquiry into the handling of this case’, including a review of the forensic evidence which would take four to six weeks.

After 17 months, we had still heard nothing. One of our local councillors wrote to the Home Office. To our surprise, the reply said that ‘at no time did the DPP envisage publication of the review’.

The letter also said the DPP concluded ‘the case was properly and competently prepared and presented’. Really?

News of Bishop’s arrest for the attack on Rachael spread fast. Despite all the emotions it churned up, I had to get on with life, look after the children and try to bolster Lee, whose mood was very low.

I’d been prescribed tranquillisers after the court case but hated the spaced-out feeling they gave me and had stopped taking them very quickly.

It was exactly three years since Karen’s funeral. I turned to my husband Lee (pictured) and said, ‘Please not again. It’s him, I know it’s him. I warned them’ 

Michelle Johnson-Hadaway Holding photo of Karen Hadaway & Nicola Fellows

Lee, on the other hand, lived on them and was also drinking a lot. The day he went to identify Karen’s body he came home a broken man, never to be the same again.

Barrie, Nicola’s father, was also devastated. Attempting to deflect suspicion, ‘Team Bishop’ spread rumours that Barrie was a paedophile, who had colluded in the sexual abuse of his own daughter.

It was totally untrue but the nastier elements on the estate daubed his house with the words ‘child killer’. They even hung a noose on the gate.

But the man who really murdered our girls would soon face justice, albeit for a different crime.

Bishop stood trial for the kidnap, indecent assault and attempted murder of Rachael in November 1990. She had identified him at an identity parade – an astonishing feat of courage from such a young child.

This time, the forensic evidence was strong. The semen found on a pair of discarded tracksuit bottoms had a one in 80 million chance of belonging to anyone other than Bishop. It was one in 5.7 million that the saliva on the tracksuit was anyone but Rachael’s. And the DNA of the semen on her vest had odds of one in 19,000 of being anyone’s other than Bishop’s.

Fragments of paintwork on her clothes matched Bishop’s red Cortina and despite him having cleaned the car, fibres from her jumper were found in the boot.

The dents in the boot lid were there and her description of the contents was spot on.

It took the jury four hours and 22 minutes to come back with their verdict: ‘Guilty.’ Bishop was given a life sentence, with a recommendation that he should serve at least 14 years. Bishop, who had cancer, died after contracting Covid in January last year, aged 55.]

Of course, I was pleased to see him face justice – but I still needed justice for Karen and Nicola. A lot of people didn’t understand that. They told me, ‘He’s behind bars for a long time. He can’t do it to any other little girls. Put it behind you, move on.’ But he was still denying having killed our daughters and, as far as the law was concerned, he was innocent of that crime.

The high-profile murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence by a white gang in Eltham, South East London, in April 1993 resulted in the first serious shot in the battle to get the law changed.

READ MORE: Babes In The Wood killer Russell Bishop should ‘rot in hell for all eternity’ says mother of one of his nine-year-old victims after double murderer, 55, dies of brain cancer without ever explaining to families why he had done it 

The Macpherson Report, which gave the findings of the inquiry into his death, came out in 1999 and recommended that the double jeopardy law should be looked into and potentially scrapped. It kick-started a renewed campaign by us and by several other families who had seen murderers walk free after killing their loved ones.

After years of campaigning, the Bill to repeal double jeopardy finally became law in 2005.

The crucial clause was that there had to be ‘new and compelling’ evidence – tested in the Court of Appeal – before a new prosecution could go ahead. The law was also clear that you only got one bite of the cherry – you could not keep taking the case back to court.

If the defendant was acquitted a second time, he or she could never be tried for that crime again. We were overjoyed but, if we had hoped for a swift overturning of Bishop’s acquittal, we were in for a cruel disappointment.

The forensic exhibits from our first case were sent to the Forensic Science Service. Evidence linked the blue sweatshirt to Bishop’s home, but, agonisingly, it wasn’t enough.

To get a case back in court there was a one to seven scale for how much new evidence was available, and even with the new findings we were only at a four – not enough to stand a chance of success.

But 2013 was the turning point. Sussex Police decided that forensic science had moved on enough for them to renew their investigation into Karen and Nicola’s murders.

The forensic scientist who had worked on the Stephen Lawrence case, Roy Green, was brought in to look at all the exhibits again, re-examining everything using modern techniques.

This prompted the scientists to dig even deeper into what had been stored in 1986. What they found was the silver bullet: a forensic sample – known as a ‘taping’ – of the skin on Karen’s forearm, taken by the pathologist Dr Iain West (who had since died), which, modern forensic science could now show, was linked to Bishop’s DNA with only a billion-to-one chance of error.

It was amazing that Dr West had done this when there was no advanced DNA analysis available at the time, and even more amazing that it had been preserved so carefully. The finding was dynamite.

In court once again, we took our places in the nick of time. The jury had been out for just two hours and 44 minutes. I held a picture of Karen as the foreman said: ‘Guilty.’

My heart was going so fast I felt as if I was having a panic attack.

Then, suddenly, it was as if a huge weight was lifted. It was December 10, 2018, exactly 31 years to the day since Bishop’s first acquittal.

I knew that he would never walk free again. I could whisper to Karen: ‘We got him.’ Finally, she and Nicola could rest.

  • Adapted from My Girl by Michelle Hadaway, to be published by Penguin on August 31 at £8.99. Copyright © Michelle Hadaway 2023. To order a copy for £8.09 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £25. Promotional price valid until September 9 2023.

How journalist Martin Bashir lost Karen Hadaway’s clothes 

The Babes in the Woods case was brought to public attention last year when Karen’s mother accused journalist Martin Bashir of losing her daughter’s clothes.

Michelle Hadaway said the former BBC religion editor obtained the clothes for DNA testing for BBC Two’s Public Eye programme 30 years ago, but the investigation did not air and her calls to the broadcaster were ignored, she claimed.

Ms Hadaway previously said Mr Bashir approached her in 1991 and asked to have her daughter’s clothing DNA tested, saying that science had advanced in the five years since the murders, but never returned the clothes.

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