IN the sitting room of her charming home in a quiet village just outside York, Carol Ann Lee is showing me a pile of letters from the pen friend with whom she has been in correspondence for the best part of three years.
Written in black-inked block capitals, for the most part they contain friendly bulletins filling her in on his latest news. Yet jostling for space in the neatly addressed envelopes are crime scene photographs, court papers and grisly forensic reports, all apparently key to proving his innocence after three long decades behind bars.
The letters have been sent to Carol, a cheery mother-of-one, by convicted killer Jeremy Bamber, who penned them from his cell a few miles down the road at Full Sutton Prison.
Once dubbed “the most evil man in Britain”, he is facing the rest of his life in jail for five murders that both horrified and hooked the nation.
Thirty years ago, at the family farm in the idyllic Essex village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy, he slaughtered his parents, sister and her six-year-old twin sons in cold blood. Yet Bamber insists he is innocent. He claims his father rang him on the night of the killings to say his sister Sheila, a failed model and diagnosed schizophrenic, had “gone crazy” with a gun.
There is a campaign to clear his name and it is a measure of the public’s fascination with the case that his efforts to secure another appeal – his third – still generate headlines to this day.
A music obsessed 16-year-old in August 1985, Carol recalls being absorbed by a tragedy that had all the ingredients of a classic whodunnit.
“I vividly remember reading about the murders in the paper and seeing the funeral on the news, which was so dramatic with Jeremy collapsing in floods of tears,” she says. “The family, on the outside at least, seemed to have had such gilded lives and I remember thinking, how had it come to this?”
The bare facts of the White House Farm murders are long established.
Police initially believed Jeremy’s story about the desperate call from his father. Jeremy joined them outside the farmhouse and at one point they thought they saw someone move in an upstairs window, although this was later dismissed as a trick of the light.
When officers finally entered the farm around breakfast time they found the 24-year-old’s parents Nevill and June shot dead, along with his nephews Nicholas and Daniel. Sheila had two wounds to the throat and the shotgun lay on her body. The tabloid headlines the next day screamed “Suicide girl kills twins and parents”.
Yet as detectives dug deeper, things didn’t add up. Despite his tears at the funeral, officers claimed Jeremy had seemed remarkably calm outside the farmhouse. After the bodies were discovered, he had made himself a breakfast of bacon, toast and coffee before giving a statement.
There was also the small matter of the inheritance – a fortune worth £1.3m in today’s money, the farmhouse, family business and 300 acres of land that, with his parents and sister dead, all went to Jeremy.
In October 1986, Bamber was jailed for life on a majority verdict. The prosecution’s star witness was his jilted girlfriend Julie Mugford, who testified that he had told her of his plans to murder his family.
Carol has interviewed many key players in the case, including Sheila’s psychiatrist, her friends, the family’s secretary and senior detectives, who have not spoken publicly until now. Then, of course, there is the correspondence with Jeremy, who was persuaded to contribute on the promise that the book would present the facts and then allow the public to make up their own minds.
Did she find it difficult swapping letters with a man who could have been responsible for such an atrocity?
“There was a point after seeing the photographs,” she nods. “The last shot to his mother, June, was straight between her eyes. It was awful to see that photograph because you can still see the shock on her face.
“But ultimately you have started something and you have to see it through. You are not doing the police’s job, which is so much harder.
“One detective said just writing about the case in an email was making his heart beat faster.” Her book, The Murders at White House Farm, does not simply provide a forensic examination of the killings but also offers a gripping insight into the tangled stories of the main protagonists.
Nevill and June Bamber had adopted Jeremy and Sheila after they were unable to have children of their own. Sheila’s mother was the 18-year-old daughter of Eric Jay, then senior chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Jeremy was the result of an affair, his birth parents later marrying and having two more children. They worked at Buckingham Palace and Carol discovered that, a year before the murders, Jeremy’s father had pinned the proclamation of Prince Harry’s birth on to the palace gates.
Jeremy told her that he had never felt any wish to trace his birth parents, as Sheila had done with her own mother. Yet his cousins insist he had indeed made such an attempt, only to be rebuffed. A second rejection, Carol concludes, that must have hurt him deeply.
It is one of many secrets that litter the Bambers’ complicated lives, which are just as compelling as the search for the truth behind their tragic ends.
“The books that have come out usually start with the murders and work their way back,” says Carol.
“I wanted readers to know who these people really were, to get a sense of what had happened to them before this. As soon as I went into their stories in more depth I realised that so much of what we have read is wrong.
“Sheila did have mental health issues, but I spoke to her friends and she was a much loved young woman. No one was frightened of her.”
Carol has reached her own conclusion as to where the blame for the killings lies, but declines to share it, insisting she must stay true to the neutrality she promised Jeremy.
And although the author has pieced together a scenario as to how he could have carried out the murders, she admits there are some elements that cannot be easily explained.
“I asked five of the police officers in which order the murders were committed and the path the killer took through the house,” she says. “Not one of them agreed. Then there is the question of how he managed to get in and out because the doors had been locked from the inside. I have been to the farm and it wouldn’t have been easy getting through a window.
“Of course,” she adds, “there is only one person who really knows the truth of what happened that night – and that’s Jeremy himself.”
The Murders at White House Farm is published by Pan Macmillan on July 30, priced £16.99.