A loved one vanishes. Those left behind wonder: did they run away? Will they come back? Or has something more sinister taken place? When Missing Turns to Murder looks at the heartrending cases where the worst scenario did unfold, and missing person investigations became murder enquiries.
One of the victims profiled in the series, Jayden Parkinson, was just 17 when she disappeared. What unfolded afterwards, the grim revelations about her fate, cast a light on the widespread epidemic of domestic violence, and how it can so often lurch from mental abuse and physical injury to murder.
According to the Office for National Statistics, two women are killed each week by a current or former partner in England and Wales. Jayden became one of them in December 2013, on the day she went to see her ex-partner Ben Blakeley in Didcot.
After she’d been missing for 11 days, the police search went into overdrive. Jayden had been known to vanish before, but never like this. As detective Chris Ward later recalled, ‘I looked back over the circumstances of her disappearance and the fact she had been no contact whatsoever with her family, which was unusual. On the other occasions, she had gone missing, within 24 to 48 hours she had made some form of contact, either on social media or she’d called her mother.’
A tip-off from a taxi driver was the break the police needed. He told them he’d been called to pick up a suspicious-seeming man carrying a heavy, muddy suitcase, at an isolated country road in the early hours of the morning. Checking phone records, police established this person was Ben Blakeley. Certain by now that Blakeley had buried Jayden in the area, the police conducted an aerial analysis of the entire region, looking for signs of disturbed soil.
One place that stuck out was a church cemetery, where there looked to have been recent disturbance around a grave. That grave belonged to Blakely’s uncle, and it looked to have been recently dug into. It was here that Jayden’s body was found, buried above the killer’s uncle.
Blakeley, who’d throttled Jayden to death in a fit of enraged jealousy, was sentenced to life in 2014, but this was of meagre comfort to Jayden’s loved ones, who spoke of serving their own life sentence. There was also the painful fact that Blakeley already had a long track record of abusing his partners.
Jayden’s mother later recounted how he had punched and spat on Jayden, threatened to expose nude photos of her online and even locked her away without food for days. The psychological barrage was every bit as intense as the physical violence, as in the case of another abuse victim, Natalie Hemming, who was murdered by her partner in 2016 after being subjected to what is known as coercive control. That is, a pattern of manipulation in which the abuser cuts away at the victim’s self esteem and independence, bullying them into obedience.
During Blakeley’s trial, the court also heard how he’d attacked previous girlfriends. He’d pushed one partner down the stairs when she was pregnant, and – in the words of the prosecutor – ‘only allowed her to wear makeup to disguise bruises on her face’.
How can this kind of recurring domestic abuse and coercive control be stopped?
Men like Blakeley present a maddening conundrum for the authorities. How can this kind of recurring domestic abuse and coercive control be stopped? Contrary to what many might think, harsh sentences might not have any real effect. According to a study conducted by the College of Policing, ‘criminal justice sanctions for intimate partner violence have no consistent effect on subsequent offending’. In fact, their study even showed that the harsher the sentence, the more likely the abuser was to re-offend. In the words of the report, ‘Prison sentences were associated with higher rates of recidivism 36 per cent of the time and had no effect in the remainder’.
It could, therefore, be argued that the emphasis should be on management and monitoring of offenders, throughout their lives. We already have Clare’s Law, technically known as the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme. This is similar to Sarah’s Law, the sex offender disclosure scheme, in that it allows people to ask police if they think a potential partner may pose a risk. The police can then disclose whether that person has a record for domestic abuse. Clare’s Law takes its name from Clare Wood, who was strangled by a boyfriend who had a known history of violence against women.
However, many believe this doesn’t go far enough to safeguard people. Last year, a cross-parliamentary report recommended the creation of a domestic abuser register. Like the sex offender register, this would require convicted abusers to notify the police of where they live, and of who they’re seeing. It would mean new partners of the abuser would be automatically told of the past convictions.
Would this unfairly stigmatize offenders and curbs their attempts to lead normal, law-abiding lives? After all, what if the offender’s past violence was down to alcoholism, mental illness or other personal issues which they’ve since managed to overcome?
The counter-argument to this is that potential victims should always take priority. The domestic violence charity Refuge, which opened the world’s first safe house for women back in 1971, also says that drink and drugs may be triggers for domestic violence, ‘but they are not the underlying cause’, and that ‘the vast majority of men who abuse women are not mentally ill’, and that ‘research shows that the proportion of abusers with mental health problems is no higher than in society as a whole.’
Ultimately, cases like Jayden Parkinson’s are a stark reminder of how dangerous domestic abusers are, and of how current approaches to tackling the epidemic may not be aggressive enough.