On April 9, 1984, Margaret Backhouse's car wouldn't start. Her husband, hairstylist-turned-sheep farmer Graham, quickly offered up his vehicle instead. But as soon as she turned the ignition, a bomb rocked the English countryside. Scandal — and impressive feats of forensic science — soon followed.
Incredibly, though she'd been practically sitting on top of a killer mixture of shotgun pellets and nitroglycerine, Margaret survived the blast and crawled away from the Volvo; passers-by spotted her and saved her life. The bomb had been attached to the car's fuse box and heater:
“The heater had been on full so that, in fact, as soon as one turned on the ignition to the position before it started the engine, that would have sent the current through…and ‘bang’,” said James Black, QC, a prosecutor for the Crown. The same day the bomb went off, a letter arrived at the house: “Came tyce last week but the pigs were about see you soon,” it read.
The threat was aimed at Graham Backhouse, and it wasn't the first one he'd received. A week or so before the bombing, a worker at the couple's farm, Widden Hill, had found a severed sheep's head stuck on a fence post, with an ominous note attached: "You next." Backhouse had complained to the police about this and other harassment he'd been receiving from sinister unknown sources, but they hadn't gotten around to investigating them ... until the blast.
The police were unable to identify the carefully-disguised handwriting, but the eagle eyes of Mike Hall, the document examiner at the nearby Birmingham Forensic Laboratory, noticed the faint impression of a doodle on the page, inadvertently left behind by the threat-maker. It was a seemingly small clue, but he filed it away just in case.
The bomb was enough to convince police that Backhouse needed protection while his wife recovered from her terrible injuries in the hospital. He accepted it, but only briefly. And things got weirder from there:
On 18th April Backhouse requested that the 24-hour guard be removed following the fitting of a "panic button." This alarm system was connected to the local police station and, on 30th April, it was activated.
When the police attended, in the form of PC Richard Yeadon, it was to find the body of Colyn Bedale-Taylor. Bedale-Taylor, 63-years-old and a neighbour of Backhouse, had died from a shotgun blast to the chest. Clutched in his hand was a Stanley knife. A weeping Backhouse was found lying in the lounge drenched in blood from knife wounds to the face and chest.
His story was that Bedale-Taylor had arrived and told him that he had come to repair some furniture. When being told that there was no furniture to repair he had accused Backhouse of being responsible for the death of his son in a car crash in 1982.
He then told Backhouse that he, Bedale-Taylor, was responsible for planting the car bomb and attacked Backhouse with the Stanley knife. Backhouse had run back into the house and grabbed a gun. When Bedale-Taylor had refused to back off, he had shot him.
The story seemed rather full of holes, particularly when more information about Graham came to light. As it turns out, though he'd been a successful hairstylist, he was not great at farming; he'd inherited Widden Hill from his father in 1979, and had dutifully taken over. In the ensuing years he'd racked up quite a bit of debt.
He was also not great at being a husband to Margaret, since his womanizing ways were known throughout Horton, the Cotswold village where their farm was located. In fact, prior to blaming Bedale-Taylor for everything, he'd suggested to police that the threats could have come from an angry husband of one of his conquests.
In the end, he was undone by forensics. First, the wounds he'd claimed Bedale-Taylor had slashed into him were proven to be self-inflicted, thanks to a careful analysis of the blood splatter they left behind. Then, there was that odd doodle from the "You next" note ... which detectives found drawn inside a notebook stashed in a drawer at Backhouse's farmhouse. They also matched a fiber that was clinging to an envelope used to send the "Came tyce last week" letter to the man's own sweater lint.
The fact that he'd recently increased Margaret's life insurance policy only sealed the deal:
Investigators then pieced together the whole plot: Backhouse had increased his wife’s life insurance, created the false threats, set the car bomb, and then, to avoid detection, framed and killed Bedale-Taylor. In 1985, Backhouse was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
At his sentencing, the judge called him a "devious and wicked man." In 1994, he died of a heart attack while playing cricket in prison.
Photo by David Martyn Hunt