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The Senseless Murder of Norma Bell

Phillip Glenister
Image: What the Killer Did Next

Hosted by Life on Mars star Philip Glenister and featuring insights from investigators and psychologists, What the Killer Did Next is a fascinating series which shows us real-life crimes through the culprits’ eyes, tracking their movements after they kill.

As you’d expect, it makes for dark viewing. But of all the cases featured, the 2016 murder of Norma Bell is arguably the most upsetting, because of the sheer, pathetic pointlessness of it all. Here was a crime committed not out of jealousy, unrequited lust or greed for some vast heap of money. It was a flare-up of violence for the pettiest of reasons, robbing a community of a much-loved local hero.

Norma Bell, Supermum

Norma Bell was a 79-year-old resident of Hartlepool and was far more than just another pensioner living a quiet life alone. In the words of one newspaper article published after her dreadful murder, she was known as the town’s 'supermum' thanks to a lifetime devoted to caring for children. Over a number of decades, Norma and her late husband John Bell had fostered more than 50 infants in Hartlepool.

But that wasn’t all she did. Norma and her husband also took on six foster kids on a long-term basis, basically treating them as their own, right alongside their own children. It’s no wonder her family said she had 'a heart as big as a lion'. In a statement following her passing, they described her as 'our crutch to lean on, our shoulder to cry on'.

Having helped to bring up 12 grandchildren, Norma had been dearly hoping to see who would bring her the first great-grandchild. But the events of one day in 2017 would change everything, leaving countless people in Hartlepool bereaved.

Gareth Dack, desperate criminal

One of the sad twists in the story of Norma Bell is that her killer was someone who knew her, who’d grown up close to her, and who was one of the many people who’d come to her for help. His name: Gareth Dack, a man in his early 30s who was actually a childhood friend of one of the boys Norma had so lovingly fostered.

It’s easy to demonise killers – especially those who prey on the elderly and helpless. Indeed, Gareth Dack was described as a 'depraved murderer' in one newspaper after his conviction. But the facts of his life highlight the ugly and uncomfortable nuances of the case. Rather than some sadistic serial killer in the making, Dack appears to have been a petty, drug-abusing criminal driven to kill by the escalating crisis of his own life.

Dack had worked as an asbestos lagger – a well-paid job – but he’d been forced to take time off due to ill health. According to the testimony of his girlfriend, this means the father of four had to get by on just £30 a week in sickness pay. He began to take out payday loans and borrow from friends and family in order to put food on the table.

His dire circumstances, likely made worse by his addiction to crack cocaine, led him to the door of Norma Bell, whom he allegedly asked for a £20 loan just a week before her murder. When later asked in court why he’d called on Norma for the cash, he replied simply: 'Because I knew her, and I didn't think anything by it.'

A fateful day in 2016

In early April 2016, some days after Norma had lent Gareth some money, her son Graham Bell came to call on her at home. He was concerned about Dack’s appearance in Norma’s life, and gave her some instructions for her own safety: 'If anyone knocks, have all your doors locked, go to the front room, look out of the bay window and if you don’t recognise them shoo them away'.

Later that same day, Norma’s foster son John Ahmed popped over with some food from the local chippie. He stayed a short while before leaving and was the last person to see her alive – other than her murderer.

At some point that evening, Gareth Dack came to her house. He was in a foul mood after a recent argument with his partner, who’d confronted him about his drug use. Storming out, Dack headed for Norma’s in a state of apparent fury. What followed was a brutal act, inflicted for the smallest of rewards: a television and some cash, which Dack stole after throttling Norma Bell.

Her reputation was not lost on Dack. He would later describe her as a 'wonderful woman', saying: 'You always saw her in the street, she would make a point to come over to talk to me. She was wonderful with kids as well.'The callous words of a cynical killer trying to save his own skin? Or was Dack genuinely remorseful about what he’d done? In a way, the case is too tragic to be diminished by simply calling Dack 'evil'. While she was a pillar of the community who was fit and healthy in her 70s, going dancing each week and running errands for her family, Dack was mired in debt, hooked on drugs, estranged from his family and on a downward spiral to moral oblivion. Their very different worlds overlapped with awful consequences.

So this is really a story of waste. The waste of Norma’s life, and the wasted nature of Dack’s wretched existence.