The day my wife was murdered: Husband of victim killed in random attack reveals how his perfect world was destroyed by a stranger's savagery
On Saturday July 25, 1992, we all got up to start the summer holidays. The morning dawned sunny and cool, but with a promise of hot weather to come. I woke up feeling anxious and faintly heroic.
First thing, my wife Lizzie had to be on a train to York, where she was giving a lecture to kick off the Open University summer school.
For a week, she was leaving me in sole charge of our daughters, Lucy, aged four, and Jessica, six. God knows how I was going to get through it, but at least I’d concocted a timetable that would keep us on the move.
Loving mother: Lizzie with her daughter Jessica
That evening, I’d be driving the girls to my mother’s house in Sudbury, Suffolk; then we’d spend a few days with my sister in Norfolk, followed by a weekend on the beach in Scarborough.
We raced to Oxford station. After snatching (a not very nice) breakfast at the buffet, we trooped on to the platform. Just before boarding the train, Lizzie said she’d call me from a pay-phone at 6pm (mobile phones were few and far between back in 1992). We said our farewells. Then, we waved and waved, as if our lives depended on it, until the train slowly disappeared round a bend. Our family. Lizzie, Jeremy, Jessica and Lucy.
I shepherded the girls off the platform, acutely aware of a sense of anticlimax. While Mummy was off to do her glamorous job in an exciting place, I was facing a day of domestic tasks followed by a long drive.
I packed. I drove 30 miles to the cattery, with our newly-acquired kitten, Milly Molly Mandy, screeching in the back – and by then it was past 6 o’clock.
Lizzie hadn’t phoned. Still, what with bathing and feeding the children (‘Tonight, I’m cooking pizza, girls!’), this failed to register until I was halfway to Suffolk, with Lucy and Jessica dozing in their pyjamas in the back of the car.
As I thundered along the motorway, I watched a plane take off from Stansted airport. When it banked, the whole fuselage glowed like burnished copper as it caught the rays of the setting sun. I wished we were on it, flying off to some beach; then I thought of Lizzie again and felt vaguely annoyed.
Holiday memories: Jeremy and Lizzie with Lucy (left) and Jessica
There she was, having a good time; and here was I, with two sleepy girls en route to see my mum for a boot camp of a holiday.
On arrival in Sudbury, I raced into the house with Lucy and Jessica in my arms. The sweet smell and intense warmth of my sleeping children brought a sudden rush of parental love.
Standing them up, I took off their dressing-gowns and slippers, as they rubbed their eyes and clutched their teddies.
Lizzie still hadn’t phoned. ‘She’s probably forgotten,’ I remarked to my mother before going to bed.
Lizzie still hadn’t phoned. ‘She’s probably forgotten,’ I remarked to my mother before going to bed.
I’m in the middle of an anxious dream when I wake to find my mother shaking me. It’s pitch-dark and she’s in her dressing-gown.
‘Darling, there’s someone banging on the front door and shouting that he is the police looking for a Mr Jeremy Howe.’
It’s 1am. I pad downstairs as fast as I can, my mother following me like a shadow. Standing at the door is a young constable. He looks about 12. I wonder if I’ve parked my car on a yellow line and he wants me to move it.
‘It’s about your wife,’ he says.
‘Is she OK’
‘I am afraid she’s been injured. Can I come in please’ He comes in. My mother stands anxiously behind me, wringing her hands.
Perfect match: Jeremy and Lizzie married three years after meeting at Oxford University
‘How badly injured’ I ask. Racing through my mind is a whole sequence of scenarios about nursing Lizzie back to health, which is abruptly halted by: ‘She’s dead, sir. You need to phone this number. It’s a direct line to the officer handling the case at York police station.’
S***. I can’t have heard him correctly. ‘Dead Lizzie dead That’s not possible.’
I wasn’t expecting that. I WAS NOT EXPECTING THAT. Suddenly, I’m wide awake. ‘She was attacked. You’d better phone this number, Mr Howe.’
I see Lizzie lying in a ditch, bleeding. How on earth could she have got into a fight
I dial the number and speak to a very matter-of-fact Yorkshireman, who tells me that my 34-year-old wife was found dead in her room on campus at about 6pm, with her throat slit.
She appears to have been the victim of a random attack by an Open University student, tanked up on vodka and drugs, whose life had come off the rails. Instead of killing himself, Robin Pask killed her. He was apprehended while trying to drive off the campus, and will be charged with her killing later today.
Lizzie, one of the most blameless people I’ve ever met, just happened to be the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. And now she is dead. Not dead – murdered
There’s no way of turning the clock back to the moment, about ten minutes ago, when my life was normal. I even find myself thinking: ‘So this is how it was meant to happen.’ As if what’s just occurred was inevitable.
The officer on the phone wants me to drive to York tomorrow to identify Lizzie’s body. I expect him to say that a policeman will drive me – but he makes it clear it’s up to me how I get there.
In the background, I can hear the noise of the police station – people chatting to each other in hushed, businesslike tones, radio traffic, the clack of typewriters, the sound of a distant normality. It’s like the soundtrack to a radio play. I put the phone down. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to react. What are you supposed to do at the moment when your life implodes
She appears to have been the victim of a
random attack by an Open University student, tanked up on vodka and
drugs, whose life had come off the rails.
I stand there and say to no one in particular – ‘Lizzie . . . has . . . been . . . murdered.’ The constable looks embarrassed.
Then I collapse onto the floor and sob. I can feel the hard stone floor beneath the rug, which is getting damp as I weep. I taste the carpet’s bitter wetness in my mouth. I hear my mother asking the constable if he’d like a cup of tea.
‘No thanks. I’d best be off.’
I feel a bit silly, so I stand up, wipe away the snot, blow my nose and apologise for my behaviour. We shake hands and he takes his leave.
I think of Lucy and Jessica, innocently asleep up in the attic. I don’t know what to do. After a cup of hot sweet tea, even though it is nearly 2am, I phone my sister. She’s outwardly calm and tells me to come to Norfolk once the girls are up.
I try ringing Lizzie’s parents, but the calls go straight to answerphone.
Afterwards, I can’t sleep, so I lie on top of my mother’s bed. She hugs me as we talk – about Lizzie, and how happy our lives have been, and how falling in love with her changed me as a person.
We were in the same year at Oxford, both studying English. One day, I walked into a room and Lizzie was standing there with her back to the door: long chestnut hair cascading down her back, legs encased in skin-tight jeans, one hand on her hip. Then she turned round and smiled, before scurrying off to a tutorial. It was the moment I fell in love. It was the spring of 1978, and we started going out together a couple of weeks later.
As the daughter of a Serb, she hated her surname — Milicevic — which made her stand out when all she ever wanted to do was to blend in. Our first proper conversation went something like this:
‘Hello, I am Lizzie Milicevic.’
‘Hi, I’m Jeremy Howe.’
‘That’s a nice name. Will you marry me’
‘So I can change my name.’ She grinned. And three years later, on our wedding day, we were both grinning with sheer happiness. Afterwards, she did a PhD, started teaching for the Open University and wrote a book – called The First English Actresses – which was published just before her death. Meanwhile, I’d become editor of drama on Radio 3. Life seemed pretty good.
Of course, we had our ups and downs, but I think we both knew in our hearts that we’d found the right person.
As a couple, we were greater than the sum of our parts – the two of us sharper, more dynamic, nicer, better, stronger, richer than just Lizzie or just Jeremy.
As I talk about Lizzie with my mother, my mind is in turmoil. Unable to sleep, I creep out of the house shortly after 4am and go for a walk across a water meadow on the other side of the street.
The world is grey and colourless. A drizzly mist hangs over the riverbanks; cattle graze silently, their snorting breaths breaking the silence – but that apart, nothing is stirring.
Missing their mother: Jeremy Howe with daughters Lucy, 8, and Jessica, 10, four years after Lizzie's murder
I’m wired, giddy with emotion. The loss of Lizzie is like a sharp pain in my stomach; my head is about to explode with the sheer enormity of trying to understand what’s happened. I want to take her in my arms and tell her I love her. I want to kill the man who’s done this to her, to us.
More than anything in the world, I want to talk through with Lizzie what I’m going to have to tell the children. I feel alone in a new and frightening world. For about half an hour, I walk fast, considering my options. Do I stay in Oxford, do I move in with my mother, or with Lizzie’s parents in Bath Do I relocate to London to be nearer to my job Do I ditch my job
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Uncertain future: Jeremy's whole world came crashing down after his wife was murdered
The grey, drizzly dawn has turned into a grey, drizzly day. At each traffic light, at each road junction, I surreptitiously wipe my glasses, hoping the girls can’t see what a state I’m in. At my sister’s, everything feels grey and muted. We talk quietly in corners, so the children can’t overhear. I make the unbearable phone calls to Lizzie’s parents; to her sister, Louise; to my brother, Jonathan; to the police to say I’m on my way.
Malcolm and I drive in silence. I’m on a different planet – a smashed-up, desolate, savage planet – to the one inhabited by everybody else. My heart is still racing, my head pounding, my jaw locked with tension.
Before reaching York, we stop at a Little Chef. I don’t need anything. I just want to delay our arrival, delay having to confront the truth. There’s still hope; once I’ve identified Lizzie’s body, there will be none. I feel sick again.
In York, we meet the assistant coroner – tall, in his 50s, wearing a tweed jacket. He leads us quickly down spotless white corridors, through doors, down steps, round corners, until we reach a large room divided in two by a diaphanous white curtain.
Behind the curtain, there is a gurney covered in a shroud.
My GOD, this is happening so fast. Five minutes ago, we were parking the car and now I’m in this unfamiliar room whose boomy silence will stay with me for ever. Am I ready to confront the unconfrontable I can’t believe this is happening.
The coroner pulls back the cover.
And there is Lizzie. Or the body of Lizzie. It’s the woman I kissed goodbye barely 24 hours ago, but lifeless, and not Lizzie at all.
She doesn’t even look like Lizzie sleeping, but like someone who resembles her. Apart from a livid red mark on her throat, she doesn’t even look injured.
As I stand and gaze at her body, I feel self-conscious. I dare not touch her – the assistant coroner had asked me not to. I think my heart is about to explode.
And then I start to weep. I weep and weep. I kiss her gently on the forehead, I tell her that I love her, that I promise to look after the children. I thank her for our lives together, for our love, our girls, our happiness.
This is like some ghastly film. I still can’t believe that this waxy cold figure is the violated body of the person I love with all my heart.
I say a prayer, a prayer I will continue to say every night for nearly 20 years. ‘Dear Lord, thank you for Lizzie. Please let her know that I love her and please let her know that I promise, promise, promise I will look after the children.’
Then, despite my tears and an unendurable wrenching physical pain, I pull myself together and say goodbye. I walk through the white curtain into an uncertain unknowable future, knowing only that I will never again see Lizzie, my heart’s best treasure.
In a daze, I follow the assistant coroner to the police station, where I need to give a formal statement. It’s a large, drab, 1970s building, buzzing with activity.
During our walk through the corridors, we pass a table tucked into a corner. On it is the dress that Lizzie was wearing when she left home yesterday and the briefcase she always used (with ‘JP Howe Form 5A’ written on the flap — it was a gift to me from my parents for getting through my O-levels).
I try to linger, but I’m hastily ushered into an airless cupboard of an office overflowing with files. After certifying that I’ve identified Lizzie’s body, I ask where they’ve put Lizzie’s killer.
‘Oh. He’s one of the cells down the corridor, I believe,’ says the coroner.
So I’m sitting within a few yards of the person who killed Lizzie. It feels surreal.
I want to kick the s*** out of him, to stab him, to kill him. I want to retrieve Lizzie’s things sitting outside on the table, to touch them and smell them. Unfortunately, they’re needed as evidence.
Meanwhile, the police want me to fill out a form about what I did yesterday — and it’s only when I get to the bit about taking Milly Molly Mandy to the cattery in the afternoon, that I realise that it must have been then that Lizzie was murdered.
Apparently, people along the corridor from her room on campus had heard screaming, but they assumed everything was all right when it stopped. She’d lain there dead for over two hours.
More times passes. Then I’m led upstairs and shown into a very large room, where two burly policemen in plain clothes are standing waiting for me. They take it in turns to question me – soft cop, hard cop.
I’m being treated as a suspect! The worst day in my life has just got a whole lot more nightmarish.
They ask me to talk through my statement. When they get to my trip to the cattery, they want a minute-by-minute breakdown of what I did, where I was, and who could verify this information. But I don’t have the number.
They look serious. ‘Any money problems at home, Mr Howe’
‘No – but why ask’
‘People get their nearest and dearest killed to claim on the insurance.’
Then they want to know if I quarrelled with my ‘late wife’. And how was our sex life
I must look puzzled, because one of them adds: ‘I mean, were either of you having an affair, Mr Howe’
And on and on they go, twisting me into ever tighter knots. I want to tell them to f***-off. What right do they have to do this The man who killed Lizzie is sleeping in a cell, whereas I’ve been up since 1am.
Finally, they ask for a key so they can search my home in Oxford. Bloody hell. They really are serious. The front-door key’s in my pocket, but I lie and say I haven’t got it. I can feel myself blushing.
They must know it’s a lie. There’s a long pause, then they say it doesn’t matter about the key, and it would be just a routine search.
I ask them about the suspect, Robin Pask.
‘Well… we haven’t questioned him yet,’ one of them replies, ‘but he’s in his 30s, some kind of lab technician from Bolton, Lancs, married, with two kids. Has a previous police caution for threatening violence towards women and a history of mental illness.’
As I stand up to leave, they ask if I want a press conference. I’m not sure – what would that accomplish
The two officers share a look. ‘We generally only suggest the victim’s relatives hold a press conference if we think they have something to hide. It flushes them out, if you see what I mean.’
‘And do you think I have something to hide’ I ask.
‘It seems pretty straightforward to us. Your late wife was the victim of a random knife attack by a complete stranger. So, no, we don’t. Not really.’
I can’t wait to get out, to get some air, to escape from this nightmare. But after Malcolm and I set off on our journey home, each mile seems longer than the last.
I desperately want to go home, but what is home now Home has always been us, Lizzie and me.
I turn on the radio. ‘Police have arrested a man in York suspected of killing a Dr Elizabeth Howe . . .’ says the announcer. The enormity of her death hits me afresh. Using one of those first-generation mobile phones the size of a brick, Malcolm calls Philippa. I have a brief chat with her.
‘The girls have just come back from a summer fete in the next village,’ she says, ‘where they’ve had a lovely time. At the moment, they’re watching a video of their cousin’s ballet class.’
Now that the news is out, I know I can no longer put off telling them. But how on earth will I do it
I need a script to read. I can imagine the stage directions and then the first line: ‘Darlings, I’ve got some very bad news.’
Then I turn the page and it’s completely blank.
Extracted from Mummydaddy by Jeremy Howe, to be published by Pan Macmillan on March 1, 2012, priced at 7.99. 2012 Jeremy Howe. To order a copy for 6.99 (incl p&p), call 0843 382 0000.