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The Case of John Allen

Bob Woffinden

By Bob Woffinden on 31/12/13

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From Inside Time January 2014

The Criminal Cases Review Commission has lately begun turning down the case of John Allen. For those of us who have followed his case, and indeed had the privilege of meeting John, this is extremely worrying.

The problems with the CCRC's analysis start at Paragraph 2. (There are no objections to Paragraph 1.) The CCRC write: "
On any view, Mr Allen presents as a manipulative and dishonest individual capable of going to considerable lengths to achieve his own ends." On any view? Nonsense: that is not my view, nor his legal team's view, nor the view of those who have stood by him.
If the CCRC had approached the matter of his character disinterestedly, they might instead have written that, for all the scrapes that John got himself into and there have been a few those "considerable lengths" preclude violence. He has always been regarded by those who knew him as entirely innocuous. They might have added that the idea that, at the age of 41, he should choose to murder his wife and two children merely to move on to a fresh relationship is as far-fetched as any in recent criminal justice.
John took up a job as the restaurant manager at the Marine Hotel, Salcombe, in early 1975. The hotel offered him a furnished flat, a sort of tied cottage, and he moved in. It was a firstfloor maisonette. His second wife, Pat, and their two children, Jonathan and Victoria, joined him in, probably, April.
A few weeks later, he began an affair with Eunice Yabsley, a newly-bereaved woman who owned a rival restaurant. Pat moved out and, after some initial indecision, took the children with her, saying she couldn't live without them.
Over the following months, townspeople perceived that this incomer had moved seamlessly from one relationship to the next; and that Eunice herself, like a modern-day Gertrude, had consummated a new liaison while they were all still mourning her late husband Charles, a popular figure locally. (In fact, her own view was that, after twenty years of abuse, Charles' death was a release for her.)
'If it had not all happened with such indecent speed', Eunice wrote. 'If my being widowed and meeting a new love could have been spread over [a longer time]… Pat's leaving and our affair would have been of no more than passing interest. As it was, coming so soon after the death of their beloved Charles, the people of Salcombe were shocked.'
This was fertile ground for malevolent rumours and soon the police began to take an interest. One of the rumours which Eunice reported was that her husband had been poisoned and his body was being exhumed.
Police investigated Pat's disappearance assiduously for more than twelve months during 1975-6. A file was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions and subsequently, in 1977, a decision was reached that the matter should be taken no further.
John and Eunice stayed together in Salcombe for six years before moving to west London. Then, after twelve years together, John left her for a new woman and, in 1992, Eunice published an autobiographical book. In the light of this, Devon and Cornwall police reviewed the case. They again decided, in 1993, to take no further action.
The case was then re-examined in 1998 after two officers tried to reopen it. The conclusion was that there was no information to justify re-opening the case, and the officers who had tried to do so were subjected to disciplinary measures. The following year, the case was again reviewed in accordance with ACPO guidelines. The outcome of this review was that the Deputy Chief Constable ordered that no further action should be taken.
Finally, in 2001, dissident officers succeeded in getting the CPS to authorise a new investigation. This meant the CPS took a decision contrary to the one taken by the DPP in 1977 and in the absence of any credible fresh evidence.
The case then was taken to trial with a foundation constructed partly of media prejudice and partly of the testimony of a handful of witnesses whose "memories" of events a quarter-of-a-century earlier now differed significantly from their contemporary recollections.
Their new statements were both individually and collectively bewildering. One woman "remembered" having her hair done by Pat; but Pat, though a hairdresser, had not worked in Salcombe. A number of people now recalled seeing scratches on John, but whether these were to his face or his arm, there was no harmony, only discord; and, although there had certainly been rumours of scratches back in 1975, these had not been substantiated.
If the "evidence" that emerged in 2001 had existed in 1975-6, then there would have been grounds for a prosecution at that time. Given the rumours, the extensive publicity in the national press and, for example, on BBC's Nationwide, then, had there been proper evidence, it would have been uncovered.
The defence could have called a variety of experts to attest to the unreliability of memory in general and these new "memories" in particular; but there should have been no need, because the judge should have ruled the evidence inadmissible. Moreover, the defence would have been able to rebut it all instantly if the records of the 1975-6 investigation had been available but, what a surprise, these had been "lost".
I recall, when I was making a television programme, going to Devon & Cornwall police HQ to ask for their assistance with a case from thirty years earlier. The documents were all there, in good order. Isn't it odd how some case papers sometimes go missing?
Throughout her book, Eunice makes several references to those who attest to John's lack of capacity for violence. Despite his betrayal of her, Monica, his first wife, said that he 'wouldn't hurt a fly'.
Eunice had her own first-hand experience of an abusive relationship, describing her first marriage as a 'persecution' by her husband. By the time she wrote her book, she had lost all sympathy for John, having been jilted herself. Despite all this, she records meeting his new girlfriend: 'He really won't hurt you', Eunice reassured her. 'You're very sure of that, aren't you?' 'Yes.'
The charity Missing People reports that they try to assist in the cases of "the estimated 250,000 people who go missing in the UK each year". Last year they were effective in putting 1,076 people back in touch with their families. One would not wish to diminish the enormous value of their work, but you can all do the maths. There is, of course, a corollary: if it's this easy not being traced in 2013, imagine how straightforward it was in 1975.
At the time of her leaving, Pat had only just arrived in Salcombe, so she had no friends there. She had no close family, but had previously had contacts in the United States. There is a spectrum of possibilities of what happened to her and the children. The notion that John murdered them falls at the most implausible end of this spectrum.
The Crown case at trial was effectively incoherent, but the prosecution seem to have argued that John murdered Pat on Bank Holiday Monday, in late May 1975. Then, the next day, he invited Eunice round to the first-floor flat and she helped to settle Victoria, who was suffering from ear-ache. The body must still have been there. John did not own a car.
His elderly mother and her friend arrived on the Wednesday, and so that day he borrowed Eunice's car to help with travel arrangements. Again, Pat's body must still have been in the flat. Then, he murdered the children on Wednesday evening and must have disposed of all three bodies on his own overnight, without anyone seeing anything. This was the Crown case.
It should be remembered that much of Salcombe's income derived from fishing.
'It's only a little place, but it's like a big city', wrote Eunice. 'It never sleeps. As the pubs and restaurants close, fishermen are getting up to get to the fishing grounds. There's always someone about.'
It is repugnant to civilised standards of justice that this case ever reached trial. What it demonstrates is how safeguards in the UK's criminal justice system have been eroded. In the 1980s, the Thatcher administration set up the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) specifically to prevent unmeritorious and what were thought of as "police hunch" cases reaching trial. It is demoralising to reflect that the original, supposedly inadequate, barriers functioned effectively and prevented this prosecution; whereas the new ones ultimately proved powerless.
The CCRC explain that the jury had to be sure, in the first place, "that Pat and the children were dead". This is obviously correct. However, the jury could not have been sure of that (let alone of anything else).
Plainly, this case is one in which successive parts of the criminal justice process have malfunctioned. If the CCRC feels impotent to remedy it, then one can perhaps sympathise; after all, the Court of Appeal is unlikely to want to draw attention to the string of administrative errors that enabled it to be prosecuted.
However, in that case, it seems to me imperative that the CCRC report publicly that they are unable to fulfil the duties that parliament and the public expect of them.