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When Joanna Dennehy threatened to kill Rose West in jail

Rose West's prison photo
Image: Rose West | World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

There are only two women in the UK who are serving whole-life sentences, and they once came close to what authorities believed would be a lethal confrontation. In one corner was Rose West, the savage matriarch who committed a string of murders alongside her husband, Fred West. In the other was Joanna Dennehy, the spree killer almost half Rose’s age who was described by the sentencing judge as a ‘psychopathic personality’ and by one criminologist as ‘without doubt the most evil person I have ever met.’

The place where they were set to cross paths, perhaps with lethal consequences, was HMP Bronzefield in Middlesex. The year was 2014 when Rose West was of course firmly entrenched as the most widely reviled woman in Britain, with her only rival in infamy, Myra Hindley, having died well over a decade before. Joanna Dennehy, on the other hand, had only recently come to the country’s notice for her inexplicable, 10-day rampage of violence where she’d stabbed three acquaintances to death, and attempted to kill two dog walkers completely at random.

The women had significant things in common. One was their clearly deeply ingrained sadism. Rose West had taken pleasure in beating and torturing the victims she and Fred West trapped in their home, while Dennehy was clinically diagnosed as a sadomasochist and had a long-running penchant for violent pornography.

They both also demonstrated an aloof, arrogant disregard for the consequences of what they’d done. After committing one of her murders, Dennehy called up a friend and sang the Britney Spears lyrics ‘Oops, I did it again’. She’d also smirked, laughed and muttered impatiently during her court appearances. Rose West, meanwhile, would taunt her anguished victims and later acted with annoyed belligerence when interviewed by police.

Yet there were also marked differences between the two women. Rose had had a troubled and squalid childhood; her mother had received electroshock therapy for depression while Rose was in her womb, while her father had been a domineering and violent tyrant who’d sexually abused Rose as a young girl. Dennehy, by contrast, had a comfortable and unremarkable upbringing, taking music lessons and playing hockey and netball for her school. She’d also been particularly close to her sister who grew up to serve her country in the army and forge a productive post-military career. Dennehy’s family members would later express their shock at how unexpectedly she went off the rails as a teenager, getting hooked on drink and drugs, and terrifying those who knew her with her violent mood swings.

The nature of their crimes was also very different. Rose West’s MO was that of a classic serial killer: she committed sporadic murders over a protracted period, often for sexual kicks. Dennehy’s crimes, on the other hand, took place in a condensed timeframe. It was a kind of reckless, homicidal joy ride, and didn’t have the usual ‘cooling off’ period between crimes that serial killers exhibit. It also lacked the extreme sexual motivation that propelled Fred and Rose West. Dennehy killed simply for the sake of killing because it was – in her words – ‘more-ish’.

Dennehy’s swaggering, almost gangster-like persona came to the fore when she was moved to HMP Bronzefield in 2014. Criminologist Christopher Berry-Dee, who met both women, reported that ‘Joanna Dennehy tried from the get-go to assert herself as top dog. Between five and 20 minutes after first arriving at Bronzefield in 2014, she said she was going to kill Rose West.’

Dennehy would likely have been regarded as a credible threat, not simply because she’d already killed several times, but because – as a whole life prisoner – she had very little to lose from claiming a new victim. Indeed, as Berry-Dee suggested, murdering the only other woman with a whole life tariff may have seemed to Dennehy as a way to bolster her own position in the prison hierarchy. The importance of status among long-term prisoners is a well-known phenomenon, with Rose West herself reportedly falling out with ex-lover Myra Hindley because – in the words of another prisoner who knew them both, ‘there was talk that because Rose was more famous than Myra it had put her nose out of joint’.

It’s also very possible that Dennehy particularly detested Rose West for the nature of the latter’s crimes. Dennehy had reportedly told Mark Lloyd, an acquaintance who’d been riding with her in a car during part of her rampage, that she did not want to target women, and especially not women with children. This stands in stark contrast with Rose West, who killed only women and children. Such offenders are generally regarded as beyond the pale within the prison ecosystem, so Dennehy’s naturally violent tendencies may have been exacerbated further by the knowledge that one of Britain’s most infamous child killers was within her reach.

Dennehy’s plot, if it was indeed a plot and not simply false bravado, never came to fruition. Prison officers took the threat so seriously that Rose West was promptly moved into solitary confinement for her own protection, before being to another prison. The two most infamous women in the country continue to eke out their lives in separate locations, destined never to walk free.