Mother Penny Bell was stabbed in her Jaguar

I dream about Mum’s killer being caught: Lauren was just nine when her mother Penny Bell was stabbed 50 times in her Jaguar. Thirty years on, she’s estranged from her father, had a breakdown and is still determined to catch the monster who ruined her life

  • Penny Bell, 43, was found dead in her Jaguar in a car park in West London in 1991 
  • Businesswoman had been stabbed more than 50 times in an unexplained attack
  • Lauren Bell, 39, who lives in Buckinghamshire, only has one photo of her mum
  • She is urging anyone who may have smallest new information to come forward 

Lauren Bell has a recurring dream in which she finally receives the phone call she has been waiting for almost her whole life. ‘A voice says:We’ve solved it, we’ve got the person who did it.” And I feel this huge sense of relief,’ she says.

But each time she wakes to a renewed feeling of loss. For the reality is that three decades to the month after Lauren’s mother, Penny, was brutally murdered in her car in broad daylight, the police are no closer to establishing who was responsible.

On a June morning in 1991, Penny Bell, a vivacious 43-year-old self-made businesswoman, was found dead in her distinctive Jaguar in the car park of a West London sports centre ten miles from the family home in a Buckinghamshire village. She’d been stabbed more than 50 times.

The ferocious and apparently unexplained nature of the attack meant that the case dominated headlines throughout that summer.

Lauren Bell, 39, who lives in Buckinghamshire, was just age nine at the time of her mother Penny’s death (pictured) 

Lauren was just nine at the time, her brother Matthew 11, and Penny’s death shattered the family.

Their father, Alistair, was initially interviewed by police but quickly cleared. Described as plunging into depression by Lauren following his wife’s death, their relationship deteriorated to the extent that, when she was 19, she left the family home. Her subsequent endeavours to reconcile have been unsuccessful and she has not seen him for 16 years.

‘Mum’s death took away so much,’ she says. ‘Everything that has happened since is connected to the day she was taken from us.’

It’s the reason Lauren is talking to the Mail to mark this milestone anniversary, urging anyone who may have the smallest new piece of information to come forward.

‘Thirty years is a long time,’ she says. ‘People change, circumstances change — it may be that someone is able to come forward with information that can make a real difference.

‘I know there are people who have been in the frame who haven’t been ruled out and who are still alive — just. But the reality is that the window for someone to face justice is diminishing with every year.’

On the surface, Lauren, now 39, has managed to build a successful and happy life. She runs her own events management company, and lives in Buckinghamshire with her partner Keith and their six-year-old daughter Penny, named in honour of her lost mother.

Warm and articulate, she is resolved to keep the case in the spotlight.

Lauren (pictured) has one photograph of her mum to remember her by — a result of what she calls the ‘severed relationship’ with her father

She suffered a breakdown at the age of 21 and admits it has taken years of therapy to get this far. ‘I’ve slowly had to rebuild myself,’ she says. ‘And I have had to accept that I may go to my grave not knowing the truth. But I find that very difficult.’

How could she not? Her mother’s brutal death has left such a trauma that it has obliterated any memories Lauren had of her.

‘A few years ago, the police gave me a VHS tape of the original police interview they did with me a few weeks after her death. Obviously, I know it’s me but this little girl spilling detail about her mum is so strange because, at some point, all those memories disappeared.’

Extensive therapy has taught her that it is the brain’s way of coping with the extraordinary level of trauma she experienced. ‘What is lovely though is that I have spoken to a lot of mum’s friends over the years, and they have all told me very similar things about her.

‘She was someone who filled the room, gregarious and full of warmth with a real love for people. I take huge comfort from hearing this.’

Poignantly, Lauren also only has one photograph of her mum to remember her by — a result of what she calls the ‘severed relationship’ with her father. A beautiful black and white portrait, it shows Lauren has inherited Penny’s expressive eyes and bone structure.

A self-made woman, Penny had blazed her own trail, building her recruitment company from scratch. It made her the breadwinner, with Alistair a stay-at-home dad. ‘People wouldn’t bat an eyelid now, but it was a real issue at the time,’ Lauren says.

Lauren believes the police were distracted by her mother being a breadwinner and her father Alistair having previously been in a relationship with another man. Pictured: Penny’s Jaguar

Lauren believes that this, along with the discovery that prior to marrying Penny, Alistair had been in an 11-year relationship with another man, proved a distraction to the police.

‘Today we would say my dad was — is — bisexual. It was never a secret in the family: Mum knew his previous partner. They were best friends who had fallen in love, and he had been monogamous,’ she says. ‘But I think the police got waylaid by the fact that their marriage wasn’t conventional and spun assorted theories.’

The absence of sexual assault suggested the attack wasn’t sexually motivated, but the business was flourishing. ‘It had grown very quickly, so one of the theories going round was that she was being blackmailed over something,’ says Lauren. ‘The police did feel everything pointed to the fact she was meeting someone she knew but the reasons behind it remained a mystery.’

Theories aside, the simple facts are these: at 9.40am on June 6, Penny left the family home in the affluent commuter belt village of Denham telling the builders who were renovating her kitchen that she had a meeting — although her diary had no note of it.

When she left home she had £8,500 in cash in her bag, which she had taken out a couple of days previously. It was never established what the money was for, although as building work was being done it was not uncommon to have large quantities of money in the house.

‘It was taken from the joint account, so it wasn’t hidden,’ says Lauren. ‘But whoever killed Mum took the money, as it disappeared and has never been accounted for.’

The last sighting of Penny was on a road close to a leisure centre in Greenford in West London. Pictured: Lauren at her mother’s funeral with her father and brother

The last sighting of Penny was on a road close to a leisure centre in Greenford in West London — an area the family has no connection to — around 10am. Two witnesses spotted Penny’s car crawling along with the hazard lights flashing and Penny wrestling with a man who was trying to grab the steering wheel. Another witness said she saw her mouth ‘help me’ from the driver’s window.

Neither witness stopped, and Penny’s mutilated body was found an hour later in the car park by two women who had been swimming at the leisure centre pool.

It must have been a horrific sight. Lauren read her mum’s autopsy report for the first time earlier this year, and it lays bare the brutality of the attack.

‘When you read 15 pages detailing every single wound and the sheer weight of injuries she received then it really does put you in that car,’ she says. ‘Mum’s breastbone was pierced repeatedly. The attacker also got out of the passenger seat, went over to the driver’s door and continued the attack on that side, from the back. The car was a bloodbath.

‘It gives you an idea of the emotion that was in that car. It wasn’t a hit job, this was someone who knew her. There was no way whoever did it could have left on foot. They would be covered in blood.’ Yet, despite an exhaustive investigation at the time involving 8,000 interviews and 2,500 written statements, no firm DNA link was established to any suspects.

‘It has always struck me as hugely odd there weren’t more specific sightings of the attack,’ says Lauren. ‘This happened in daylight. It was in the car park of a place where people took their kids swimming. The brutality of it was such that the car would have been rocking.’

Lauren, who began to feel unwelcome at home after turning 19, said the loss of her relationship with her father is as devastating as her mother (pictured)

Without a doubt, mistakes were made, too, including the loss of Penny’s fingernails, a key piece of evidence.

Behind the headlines were two children robbed of their mother. On the day her mum died, Lauren remembers waiting alongside her brother to be picked up from school before finally being collected by a neighbour.

‘On the car journey home, we were wondering where she could be and, from the moment we turned into the driveway, we could see her car wasn’t there,’ Lauren recalls. ‘Then the front door opened and a police officer came out.’ She and Matthew were sent to a neighbour’s home while the police talked to her father alone.

‘I remember drinking lemonade, then going home and Dad was on his knees, tears rolling down his face. He told us Mum’s car had been found and someone was unwell, but they didn’t know who.’

Her father identified Penny’s body the following day. ‘He sat us down and said it was Mum in the car, that she was dead.’

Lauren remembers little of the months that followed. ‘We were devastated, confused, it felt like the world had been turned upside down,’ she says. ‘Life went on in that the clocks kept ticking, night followed day. But what was going on behind those four walls was a gradual collapse.’ Without the lynchpin of the family, their bond proved increasingly fragile.

‘Looking back, I think my dad had mental health issues which my mum had compensated for a lot. And those got worse. So, there were short-lived periods where things were bearable and long periods where they weren’t. Matthew went to boarding school so, a lot of the time, it was just me.’

Then, shortly after Lauren turned 19, she no longer felt welcome at home. ‘He said something like he couldn’t “do love” any more,’ she says. ‘It’s a loss every bit as devastating as my mum. I held on as much as possible, trying to bridge the gap. But I think from the moment I left he made a concerted choice that he had to move on in his own way.’

Lauren (pictured) said she sometimes visualises standing on courtroom steps, smiling as she reads a statement of thanks that justice has been done

Two years later Lauren suffered a breakdown, becoming virtually agoraphobic. Extensive counselling helped her rebuild her life and she says she has now come to terms with her estrangement from her father, although she cannot forgive him.

‘I want to be the bigger person but, since becoming a parent myself, I cannot understand how anyone can treat a child like that,’ she says. ‘I thought when my brother and I had kids that might change things, but if anything, it has widened the gap.’

The arrival of Penny has been transformative. ‘She is such an amazingly big character who has changed the course of my life and enriched it,’ Lauren says. ‘I’m so glad we decided to call her Penny. It feels right’.

Nonetheless, the joy is naturally tempered with the poignancy of her mother’s loss, and fears for her own mortality. ‘A part of me is convinced I will go early too, like Mum. I am constantly thinking about what my legacy will be,’ she says.

She is thankful, however, for her close relationship with Matthew, now 41. ‘We pick each other up when we’re down and when we can we laugh at some of the absurdities of our life,’ she says. ‘I have never met anybody else who has a murdered parent. It can be very isolating, so it’s wonderful to have someone who understands.’

One of those emotions is ongoing frustration and sorrow that Penny’s killer has gone unpunished. ‘As time goes by you realise that, while the case is vitally important to you, it does not take precedence for the police,’ she says. ‘They lack resources, but I think, sometimes, there is a lack of compassion. Sometimes, it requires that one person to take a real interest.’

It’s one reason that hearing about the resolution of other ‘cold cases’ leaves her with mixed emotions. ‘I am always delighted for the families involved, but it is always tinged with sadness, a sense of “Why is this not happening for us?”,’ says Lauren.

Yet she refuses to give up hope that she and Matthew will, finally, get the answers they yearn for.

‘Sometimes, I visualise myself standing on courtroom steps, smiling as I read a statement of thanks that justice has been done,’ Lauren says. ‘That’s why I would urge anyone who knows anything, even the smallest thing, to come forward. We just want the truth.’

Anyone with any information can call Crimestoppers on 020 8785 8267.

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