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How ‘master manipulator’ who killed Helen Bailey was finally caught 12 years after murdering wife


Oliver Stewart was only 15 when he returned from school to find ambulances outside his family home.

Along with his brother Jamie, who was only 18, they faced the worst horror imaginable that shattered their home life forever.

Their beloved mother Diane was lying dead, foaming at her mouth, with their father Ian claiming she had suffered an epileptic fit.

Forced to relive the ordeal in Huntington Crown Court twelve years later, Oliver wiped tears from his eyes as he told of giving his mum “one last kiss.”

At the time, the brothers, numb by grief, watched on as the authorities accepted their father’s version of events.

But after Stewart’s brutal murder of children’s author Helen Bailey in 2016 led to a review into their mum’s death, the siblings finally have a form of justice after he was convicted of murdering Diane.

Detective Superintendent Jerome Kent, who led both investigations, said the impact on the two sons was unimaginable, and accused their father of being a “master manipulator.”

“He’s a very wicked man, not only for his actions against both of those women, but the hurt and upset and disruption that he’s caused to his very nearest and dearest,” the senior investigating officer told i.

A traumatised family

At the time of Mrs Stewart’s death, the couple’s son Jamie, then 18, had been taking his driving test, while his younger brother Oliver, 15, had been at school. When they returned, ambulances were outside their family home.

During the trial for her murder, Oliver wiped tears from his eyes as he told of how he had identified his mother’s body. “She had foam coming out her mouth,” he said, adding that he gave her “one last kiss”.

He also described the relationship between his parents as “loving, caring, kind, family-orientated”.

After the tragedy of their mother’s untimely passing, which an inquest concluded was a “sudden unexplained death through epilepsy”, the boys moved with their father to the Hertfordshire home he shared with Ms Bailey, 51, whom he met on a web forum for widowed people in 2011.

Experts who examined Diane Stewart’s brain as part of the police investigation discounted epilepsy as the cause of her death (family handout/PA Wire)

“The boys were very close to Helen Bailey, they all lived together so knew her very well,” said Mr Kent. “They’ve been through the trauma and devastation of [her] being a missing person and then subsequently that arrest and trial.

“We’re almost repeating that process through this trial with the murder of their mother. It beggars belief the impact that all of this will have on two young men.”

After the verdict, tributes to Mrs Stewart from her family were released by police. “Our Mum was amazing. All the people we have spoken to and things we have heard since her death have only enhanced this feeling,” her sons said.

“We were privileged to have a wonderful caring upbringing and we were supported through all the activities and hobbies that undertook. It’s been really upsetting the last six years to have to recall the events of the toughest time of our life.”

Her sister, Wendy Bellamy-Lee, and brother, Christopher Lem, described her as a “very special, caring and capable person”.

“She will always be greatly loved and hugely missed by her family and all who knew her,” they said in a statement.

“We have many happy memories of growing up together through the years and later having close bonds sharing our family lives together. Tragically she died far too soon, she will always be in our hearts.”

Vital evidence

A key piece of evidence relied on by the prosecution was an analysis of preserved parts of Mrs Stewart’s brain by three experts, which had been donated for scientific research following her cremation.

During the trial, the jury heard that consultant neuropathologist Prof Safa Al-Sarraj had identified changes in the brain consistent with early ischaemia, which he defined as “damage to the calls due to lack of oxygen and blood supply”.

The extent of the ischaemia indicated that she had probably been unconscious for at least an hour before her death. Such an event was “wholly inconsistent” with Stewart’s claim she had been hanging washing out in the garden shortly before she collapsed and died, said prosecutor Stuart Trimmer QC.

Mrs Stewart was diagnosed with epilepsy in 1992 but had not had a fit of any sort in 18 years at the time of her passing.

Consultant neurologist Christopher Derry said he estimated the risk of Mrs Stewart, whose epilepsy had been mild and “well controlled” with medication, having a fatal epileptic seizure at about one in 100,000.

Instead, the crown argued that Mrs Stewart had been killed by asphyxiation by smothering, or as suggested by pathologist Nathaniel Carey, a form of neck hold.

Not only was it a stroke of fortune that her brain was still available for examination, but a donated organ forming part of the crux of a case against a defendant is something Mr Kent had not seen in 32 years of service.

“That was a vital piece of evidence and quite rightly has been the subject of much scrutiny and reexamination in court,” he added.

Similarities between Helen Bailey and Diane Stewart’s deaths

But similarities between the cases of Helen Bailey and Diane Stewart were also driving forces behind their case.

“There are a number of similarities between the investigations and how both women died. That’s the crux of our case at court over the last few weeks,” said Mr Kent.

Both women were in an intimate relationship with the former software engineer, both died when he was home alone with them during the mid-morning and in both incidents he claimed to have nipped out – in Ms Bailey’s case to visit a GP and do other chores, and in Mrs Stewart’s to do a food shop at Tesco.

“The narrative of what happened – both came from him,” said Mr Kent. “With Helen he contacted police and said she had taken herself down to Broadstairs [in Kent] and was a missing person and with Diane he rings the ambulance and says she’s died of a fit.

“Subsequently after the event, there was a change in behaviour, a change in his lifestyle and there were financial rewards in both of those deaths.”

Following his wife’s death, Stewart received more than £96,000 from her bank accounts, including £28,500.21 from a life insurance policy. He purchased a red two-seater MG car, which when questioned by defence lawyer Amjad Malik QC, he said was “what Diane and I had up until Jamie was born” and claimed had brought memories of “time spent with Diane”.

He also received her share of their house, which he went onto sell for £530,000. Stewart then put the money towards the purchase of a house with Ms Bailey.

The prosecution also noted that he had embarked on a new relationship within six months of her death, while a university friend of Mrs Stewart’s recalled in a witness statement how he had seem “totally unbothered” at her funeral.

Court artist sketch of Ian Stewart giving evidence watched by his two sons (left) at Huntingdon Crown Court (Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire)

Ms Bailey, whose works included the Electra Brown books and who had assets of more than £4m, had made Stewart the main beneficiary of her will and had taken out a life insurance policy to cover an inheritance tax bill if she died ahead of their marriage.

After killing her on 11 April 2016, Stewart – who had not worked since the mid-1990s due to ill health – changed a standing order from her account to their joint account, upping the amount from £600 to £4,000.

He also attempted to push through the sale of one of her houses with her solicitor. During the months she was thought to be missing, he also renewed season tickets for Arsenal using her account and travelled to Spain for a holiday the couple had been scheduled to go on.

A missed opportunity?

Whether the ease with which Stewart was able to cover his tracks after callously killing his wife boosted his confidence in his later plot to kill his fiancée was something “we’ll probably never know”, said Mr Kent.

But the fact he wasn’t caught the first time round has dredged up bad memories and new questions for those who knew teen fiction writer Ms Bailey.

Her friend and neighbour, Margaret Holson, first met the couple when they moved to Royston, Hertfordshire several years earlier, but became close friends with Ms Bailey in the six months leading up to her death.

“She was just lovely. She was chatty and nice and kind. He was quite quiet – I didn’t think they were particularly suited. But she absolutely loved him so I guess he was her type,” said Ms Holson.

She was among those to visit Stewart when the author disappeared. “He was quite casual, but I’d been away for a few days so as far as I was concerned he’d begun to get over the shock so I didn’t think too much of it really,” said Ms Holson.

“You could only do what you would do for anybody and their partner so I invited him round but he said no, he ‘wasn’t in the mood to do that’ and I just thought ‘well, that’s natural isn’t it’.”

Intrusive thoughts about her friend’s untimely and abhorrent death still resurface, not least because she can view the garage from her own window, but the latest trial has “brought it all back”, she said.

“It all comes to the fore again and you think, ‘if only they had got him the first time round then she’d still be here’.”

She added: “As soon as [Ms Bailey’s neighbours and friends] found out what he’d done to Helen, we all just immediately thought ‘he’s obviously killed his first wife as well’.

“I’m a bit angry that they didn’t do more delving into [Ms Stewart’s murder]. For a young, fit woman to suddenly die like that, I think it should have been looked into a lot more and then we wouldn’t be going through this now and Helen wouldn’t have died.”

But she contends that the anger is partially fueled by hindsight. “It goes through your head all the time that if I knew then what I know now, I could’ve warned her,” added Ms Holson. “But we didn’t know and she didn’t know and she lived with him. The signs just weren’t there.”

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The verdict

Stewart has been handed a whole life order for murdering his wife six years before the killing of Ms Bailey.

Sentencing him, judge Mr Justice Bryan said there had been numerous aggravating factors, including that Mrs Stewart was murdered in her own home “where she was entitled to feel safe, loved and protected by you”.

Another aggravating factor, he told him, was that “your murder of Diane exposed her young sons, Jamie and Oliver, to the sight of their mother’s dead body lying on the patio and the trauma of doing so”.

“You knew very well that your sons would return, and would return to such a sight. How any father can act as you did defies comprehension.”

He added that while life orders were reserved for cases of exceptionally high seriousness, Stewart met the threshold.

“On two separate occasions separated by a period of six years you callously murdered a person with whom you were in a seemingly loving relationship, and did so in a striking similar and chilling way,” Mr justice Bryan said.

“I am in no doubt whatsoever that the just punishment in your case, having regard to the exceptional seriousness of your offending, and the associated aggravating features of your offending that I have identified couple with the total lack of any significant mitigating features, is that you be kept in prison for the remainder of your life.”

What impact his being brought to justice will have on Mrs Stewart’s loved ones, however, is yet to be known.

“In most of my murder investigations, a family want justice for the individual that has been murdered and there will be a sense of that but there will be huge grief and sadness over who has committed that offence. There will be no winners at the end of this trial,” said Mr Kent.

“If your love one is killed in the street by somebody they don’t know or have a great deal of links with, then of course you’re angry. But it’s different when it’s your father or your mother that has been accused or is the victim. You’ve got that torn loyalty. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.”

Of the couple’s sons, he added: “This is their father that’s sat there and the victim is their mother and without doubt these two boys love both of them I think.”

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