Janet Holt has just finished describing how she killed a man, in his kitchen, at close range, with his own shotgun. It’s a less grisly account than yo
Janet Holt has just finished describing how she killed a man, in his kitchen, at close range, with his own shotgun. It’s a less grisly account than you might imagine. She lifted the gun, because it was there, and fumbled at first.
‘Even though I’d worked on a farm I’d not used a gun. I found them frightening, because they were so loud. I had no desire to use one. I’ve been asked since what did I intend to do? I don’t think I intended to do anything.
‘The gun was there, and I’d reached a point of terror where it just turned into complete numbness. It was an automatic reaction to pick it up and use it.’
Her recall of the technicalities is pretty vivid. ‘I remember pointing it and pulling the trigger once, and nothing happened.
‘I know guns have safety things on them, but I’ve no knowledge of how they work or where they are or anything, but I can remember pushing a little lever type thing that was on top of the gun where your thumb would go.
‘I remember pushing that forward and trying the trigger and, the second time, it fired.’ Her victim — farmer Fred Handford, a man she had known and worked with for 20 years and whom she now claims raped her — slumped to the ground, dead.
Afterwards, Janet says she went outside and, numb, stood in the yard ‘for maybe half an hour’, then calmly went and fetched a shovel, dug a grave, manoeuvred Fred into a wheelbarrow with the aid of a farming tool (‘I didn’t touch him; I couldn’t’), and tipped him in. She remembers pushing one of his arms down.
‘It would have taken me several hours,’ she says. ‘I mean I was stronger and fitter than I am now, but even now if I went to dig a hole that size it would take me three, four hours. Maybe. But that’s what I did, yeah.’
What about the blood, and the mess, back in the kitchen, I ask? It must have required one hell of a clean-up operation.
‘It didn’t,’ she insists. ‘There wasn’t mess, and there is a reason for that, which I did tell the police about. The cartridge in the gun wasn’t lead shot, because Fred used to replace this with split corn.
‘You’d need an expert to explain what happens if you blast someone with split corn rather than lead shot, but all I know is that I did shoot him and there was no explosion, or blood, or however people like to put it. He just collapsed on the floor. No gore, no cleaning up and that was that.’
What happened next? Well, nothing, according to Janet. Fred was reported missing, of course; the police investigated but it became one of those curious cases that never got solved. Locals scratched their heads and wondered if poor old Fred had fallen — or thrown himself — down one of the disused mineshafts that litter the area. Suicide was the main suspect, and Fred did have money worries.
It would be 30 years before Janet told anyone what she had done. She went on to live her life on the farm, strangely — she and Fred were business partners, and after he died she bought the farm from his daughter.
She blanked out the whole horrific episode. It only came back to her when she underwent a regressive therapy session with a psychologist, one that went on for five hours and ended up with an ambulance being called, such was her distress.
The reason she is talking to me as a free woman today, rather than from behind bars, however, is that no-one who has power to effect a prosecution believes Janet.
The police did investigate her lurid claims. She was quizzed for three days before officers began digging up land around Ball Beard Farm on the edge of New Mills in Derbyshire.
No body was ever found. Janet puts this down to work that was later done on the land to lay pipelines which may have disturbed the remains.
And, every avid sleuth knows, the absence of a body makes it very difficult to confirm that a murder has taken place. Janet was dismissed as either a fantasist, or a victim of dubious psychiatric practice.
But still the story niggled. Last week, it took another bizarre turn when ITV investigated again in a new documentary. Did it offer conclusive proof one way or the other?
No. It muddied the waters further, by having Janet interviewed by one of the top psychologists in Britain, Jamie Hacker Hughes, who is a former president of the British Psychological Society. His conclusion?
Although Janet’s memory of the ‘murder’ was vague; her recall of two rapes that she claims preceded it were ‘compelling’ leading him to conclude that something did, actually, happen.
Where does that leave us? Well, slap bang in the middle of one of the most baffling murder mysteries of all time, it seems. The easiest answer is that Janet Holt is making it up.
She is officially a convicted fraudster, after all. In September, 1997, she served a 21-month prison sentence after stealing thousands of pounds from the solicitor’s practice where she worked.
One police source told us this week: ‘Janet Holt may well believe the memories she’s uncovered are real. Other people may be taken in by her. But the only thing we’ve ever been able to prove is that she’s a fraudster, motivated only by greed.’
Janet says her previous criminal activity has coloured the police view. ‘I think they have convinced themselves that my memory is false. I think the police have found it easier to see me as a sensation seeker.’
What could possibly motivate a woman to walk into a police station and confess to a murder she didn’t do, though? In conversation Janet seems perfectly sane.
‘Did I want to be prosecuted? No! Did I want to have to go to court? No! The possibility that I might end up being charged and go to prison is horrendous, but once these memories came back to me, I knew it was out there, that there was always the chance of Fred’s body being found.
‘If next year, for instance, United Utilities (who laid pipelines over the farmland) go back to do some routine work on a pipe, and they find some remains, then it will all kick off again. That could happen next week, next year, in four years. It’s in the corner of the room all the time.’
The most curious thing about her demeanour, though, is that this is not a woman racked with guilt.
‘He was a horrible man,’ she insists. ‘I mean, I started going up to the farm when I was 14. This happened 12 years later. Nowadays, you would call that grooming, wouldn’t you?’
Certainly, there is evidence that Fred was a violent man. In the documentary, his daughter Lynette Chapman confirmed that he beat his wife, that she ‘once had to defend herself against her father with a knife’.
Did Fred deserve to die, though, I ask Janet? ‘I think I would answer that by saying “did I deserve to be raped?”’ she says. ‘I can’t feel regret for what I did, without thinking about what he did.’
At one point I say some people think she is unhinged. ‘Maybe I am!’ she says. ‘Well, I don’t think I am, but I would ask the question “why do you think I am?”. And I would go back to the events of 1976. As regards what has happened to me, what I know happened to me, I think I’ve come out of it fairly well, really.’
This extraordinary story began when the teenage Janet started stabling her pony at Fred’s farm, and helping out with chores. When she left school, she got an office job but continued to work up at the farm.
The two alleged rapes happened on the same day, May 14, 1976, when she was 26. She says Fred simply pushed her to the ground in a hay barn and she was so shocked and terrified she couldn’t fight him off.
It is a convincing account: she remembers focusing on a spider crawling on the wall. After the second rape, in the kitchen, Fred suggested they should get married. ‘I was horrified,’ she says. ‘That was not how I saw him.’
Although she did not tell anyone (‘I was too petrified’), she resolved to leave the farm and stabled her pony elsewhere. She still had to return to feed the animals, though, and it was then that she encountered Fred in that same kitchen.
It was the fear that she was going to be raped for third time, she says, that forced her into lifting that gun.
Surely the gun holds the key to what happened? Janet insists the gun was removed by police when Fred went missing, and later returned to his daughter.
‘People have tried to find out whether they examined it, what they found. I’d like to know myself. If they’d examined and didn’t find maize, but ordinary shot cartridges, then it would blow wide open what I am saying. But no-one has given me that evidence.’
One of the main police theories was that Janet was being motivated by money. Conveniently, her ‘memories’ only surfaced when she was writing an autobiography. It started out as a ‘type of James Herriot thing, a funny book about the animals and that’, she says. She engaged a local ghost writer, Helen Parker, to help her.
It was Helen who became intrigued about Fred’s disappearance and suggested the hypnosis. The police believed Janet was simply after a money-spinning ending to her book. ‘One officer asked me how many millions we would make from it. I just laughed.’
The figures involved certainly don’t suggest Janet was ever going to become rich on the back of this. ‘Over the first eight months we probably got £1,000, between us. I gave my £500 to a donkey sanctuary.’ In total, she says they made no more than £2,000.
The book, though, doesn’t help establish anything. Throughout names are changed, which makes it well-nigh impossible for details to be independently verified.
Take this five-hour session with a psychologist that ended up with an ambulance being called.
Regression therapy involves being hypnotised to ‘recover’ what therapists believe are subconscious memories of past lives. It’s controversial and many believe it can do more harm than good.
Janet’s was supposed to be a one-hour appointment. Would any professional really allow a woman in clear distress to continue for this long? Who is the psychologist anyway? Janet confirms the name in the book is false. ‘We’re not able to use her real name.’ Why not?
‘Helen decided that we can’t use someone’s name unless they’ve actually agreed to it. But the police at the time must have spoken to her. It would be interesting for me to know what was said.’ So far so bizarre. There is another theory — that Janet, who worked in a solicitor’s office, dealing with matters of probate — killed Fred to get her hands on his farm.
This is what Fred’s daughter Lynette believes. She thinks that Janet did kill her father, but for monetary reasons. ‘Who actually benefited the most from it all? And there’s only one person … I think that’s Miss Janet Holt,’ she told the documentary.
Janet had certainly invested money in the business — only a few hundred pounds though — and there was an agreement in place about shared business interests. They had a joint account.
It has been claimed that another letter had been lodged, giving Janet the farm in the event of Fred’s death, but because it was never signed, it was nul and void.
Not true, she insists. ‘He had talked of making a will but I know he hadn’t. I knew that if he died, the farm would not be mine. It would go to his daughter.
‘In 1976, I had a boyfriend. He had a farm, a big one, a nice farm. If I’d wanted a farm of my own, that was the perfect answer.’
In the event, Janet ran the farm for five years following Fred’s disappearance (‘at my own cost, I must point out. It was a nightmare. They froze our joint bank account because Fred was officially missing’), then it passed to Fred’s daughter who in turn (surreally) sold it back to Janet.
She sold up herself in 2010, although she is now living on another farm, in nearby Matlock.
So is she a feminist heroine, a fraud, or a fruitcake? Perhaps it is only Fred — or Fred’s body — that can answer that one. She insists it is out there.
‘I know I buried him, and I know where. And if it has been disturbed since then — as I think it must have been when they laid the pipelines — then the remains, bones, now, will still be there, somewhere, because they never removed that soil, they just dispersed it.’