If a woman is found hanging from a balcony with her mouth gagged and her hands and feet bound, the first word to pop into your mind probably wouldn’t be “suicide”. Except that’s exactly what the official ruling was when Rebecca Zahau was discovered in that state, back in 2011.
The bizarre circumstances of her death, along with the fact she was the partner of a prominent CEO, made the case a sensation, and famed OJ Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark delves into it in her new series, asking: was it murder made up to look like a suicide?
There’s certainly plenty of examples of killers doing exactly that. “Make it look like a suicide” isn’t just the stuff of crime movies and fiction, as these three cases show
Stephen Port has many claims to notoriety. For one thing, he’s one of the first serial killers of the online hook-up age, preying on victims he picked up via gay dating app Grindr. The contrast between the fake persona he put up online, seemingly handsome, fit and playful, and the Stephen Port of the police mugshot, dead-eyed and terrifying, also cemented the horror of the case in the public’s eyes. Yet the truly flabbergasting thing about the case was how brazen he was, leaving the corpses of his victims close to his house for the public to discover.
The first victim led police to Port, but officers believed his story that the young man had accidentally overdosed while staying with him one night. Port’s next crimes were even more audacious. He killed one man and then another, leaving a fake suicide note with the latter’s body. The note claimed he had given the earlier victim a fatal overdose, and had resolved to kill himself out of guilt.
Port was on the radar of the police all along – he actually committed murders while on bail for lying about his involvement with his first known victim. Yet he came so very close to evading justice, thanks to his darkly ingenious plan of making it look like one of his victims had killed the other. He is now serving a whole-life sentence, and will die in jail.
The case of Stephen Allwine is a curious one. The story of a devoutly religious Minnesota marriage counsellor, a make-believe murder-for-hire scheme on the Dark Web, and a bungled killing, it sounds like a bleakly comic, Fargo-like crime caper. Except it was tragically real, and cost an innocent woman her life.
The woman was Allwine’s wife, Amy. In 2016, she was found, shot to death, in their home, an apparent suicide. But police suspicions were almost immediately aroused. The gun was lying by her left hand, when Amy was right-handed. There were also no tell-tale powder burns on her head, which indicated the gun had been fired at a distance.
Could it have been a professional hit? The idea only crossed their minds because, some months prior to the murder, FBI agents had been alerted to a website on the Dark Web which purported to be a marketplace for arranging assassinations. Investigators saw that a user calling themselves “dogdaygod” had used this site to hire someone to kill a certain Amy Allwine in Minnesota – apparently because she had slept with dogdaygod’s husband, and was also a business rival.
Police had actually contacted the Allwines to warn the couple about this inexplicable threat. But the Dark Web site was eventually revealed to have been a scam for ripping users off – there were no professional assassins involved. The killer, in fact, was Stephen Allwine himself. This God-fearing family man and marriage counsellor had actually been having affairs through the website Ashley Madison, and wanted out of his marriage to Amy. But, as he didn’t believe in divorce, he wanted her dead instead. He even sent her, his own wife, an anonymous letter telling her to “commit suicide” to “save your family”. When the Dark Web plan failed to materialise, he took matters into his own hands, and ineptly tried to make it look like suicide.
As the judge said when sentencing Allwine to life, “You are an incredible actor, a hypocrite, and a cold and calculating killer.”
When Suffolk man Victor Naunton called the police to report his wife had gone missing from their home in the early hours of the morning, having apparently left a suicide “note” on their computer, it looked at first like a clear-cut case of a troubled woman taking her own life. The note itself seemed to be at pains to absolve Victor of any blame. In it, his wife confessed to “flirting” with a work colleague, and to feeling guilty about ruining their marriage. She then signed off with a bizarre reference to a pop song: “Tina Turner got it right. You are simply the best. Love you now and always.”
As police inspected the property, Naunton went to an upstairs window and suddenly yelled he’d spotted his wife’s body lying in a concrete trough in his neighbour’s yard. This moment was part of Victor Naunton’s undoing, because it was later established he couldn’t possibly have seen her from that particular window.
On top of that, the note on the computer was shown to have been written just moments before he’d made the initial call to the police. It seemed that Naunton, who happened to work as a special constable, didn’t realise these timings would automatically be logged by the computer.
Far from being a suicide, it had in fact been a clumsy murder. Naunton, who’d been having an affair and was desperate to be rid of his marriage, had suffocated his wife and dumped her in the trough. He was jailed for life in the year 2000