Sheila Caffell; a victim of mental health stigma, scapegoated for mass murder.

CONTENT WARNING: Murder, gun crime, suicide, death of children, mentions of drug abuse, mental illness (schizophrenia/psychosis).

On the 6th of August 1985, Sheila Caffell murdered both of her adoptive parents and her two six year old twin sons with a shotgun while in the midst of a psychotic episode, before taking her own life. Or at least, that was the lie told by her own brother, Jeremy Bamber; the true perpetrator of the murders.

For a month after her death, the media was rich with sordid articles painting Sheila as a mad woman who had finally snapped, a violent and incapable mother who had gone ‘berserk’ on her own family before turning the gun on herself. Her memory was tainted and besmirched, while her murderer reaped the public’s sympathy, even comforting her ex-husband and father of the two deceased little boys. It took Jeremy’s girlfriend admitting that she had known all along about what really happened that night at white house farm and informing the police of Jeremy’s guilt for Sheila’s name to be cleared.

A comparison between the newspaper articles accusing Sheila, and later accusing Jeremy

Unfortunately, a lot of damage had already been done. Jeremy had cremated the bodies of his religious sister and parents against their wishes – destroying any forensic evidence – and had sold off many of their belongings. He even attempted to further tarnish his sisters memory by selling nude photos of her from her modelling career to the press. Sheila was not present to defend herself against any of the humiliation inflicted on her after death, not could she expose the lies Jeremy was peddling about her involvement in the mass murder.

From the very start, the police had decided their perspective and refused to stray from it. They found the gun in Sheila’s hands as she lay deceased, while the home appeared locked, and Jeremy had reported a distress call from his father alleging that Sheila had ‘gone berserk with a gun’. He even appeared extremely emotional when confronted with the news that his family were all beyond saving.

Jeremy Bamber crying at his parents funeral, beside his then girlfriend

However, there was contradictory evidence to their ‘clear-cut’ murder suicide theory..

  • Sheila had been shot twice, something blatantly unheard of in an suicide.
  • The gun’s silencer was found neatly put away in a cupboard, marked with blood which had a 90% likelihood of belonging to Sheila herself. This was despite the fact that it would have been physically impossible for Sheila to shoot herself with the silencer still on, as this made the gun too long to do so.
  • Members of their family later found an unsecured window through which someone could have easily entered and left again while making it look locked; meaning it didn’t have to be an internal job at all.
  • Nevill Bamber – Sheila’s father – had been found beaten as well as shot. This was very unusual, as Sheila was an extremely petite woman further weakened by her anti-psychotic medication.
  • Nevill had also been shot twice in the face, once upstairs and once downstairs, at times which clashed with the alleged distress call to Jeremy; suggesting he would have had to very calmly and coherently spoken to his son after being shot once in the jaw already.
  • Sheilas ex husband and cousins insisted that she had never been a violent person, and would never dream of hurting her boys.
  • Jeremy began behaving very oddly soon after the crime, even smiling at the funeral, and choosing to put down his families surviving dog for no apparent reason. He also stood to gain financially from the deaths of his entire immediate family.

Any rational person, particularly a detective, would see this as more than enough evidence against Sheila being the murderer. But there is one other detail about her which soon corrupted the opinions of those investigating, as well as the views of the public. That is that Sheila was mentally ill.

In 1983, Sheila Caffell was diagnosed with schizophrenia by a psychologist, who described her as agitated, psychotic and paranoid. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital for treatment, and released not long before the murders, prescribed with anti-psychotics and monthly sedative injections. The website campaigning for Jeremy’s innocence to this day plays upon the stigma surrounding anti-psychotic medications to suggest that they may have contributed to such an outburst and ultimately caused the murder-suicide, although Sheila was never regarded as a danger to others or presently to herself.

I mention this specifically, because the notion that drugs such as anti psychotics and anti depressants somehow ’cause’ suicide as a side effect can be a barrier to taking them for many mentally ill people who would benefit from their use. It is more accurate to say that the drugs may not always be sufficiently effective to prevent a patient who was already suicidal from taking their own life; meaning that if even one patient in a clinical trial of a drug does commit suicide, it must be labelled as a ‘potential side effect’. But correlation does not entail causation. It’s a mindset not so different to the anti-vaccine belief that vaccines ’cause autism’, because a few out of the millions of vaccinated children happen to have autism. Ultimately, it is not believed that Sheila was going to take her own life either because of her medication or otherwise. This pokes a large hole in the murder-suicide theory alongside the fact that it would have been potentially physically impossible.

This specific stigma is underpinned by a vast array of stereotypes and inaccuracies about mental illness, which Jeremy utilized to scapegoat his ‘mad’ sister. He had even specifically mentioned this as a possibility to the girlfriend who’s testimony would ultimately put him in prison. Sheila loved her children and was attempting to recover for their benefit, but was instead accused by her own brother of killing them; a man who cruelly used the affiliations associated with her mental illness to try and get away with murdering his family out of hatred and greed.

Sheila pictured with her twin sons, Daniel and Nicholas Caffell

Before the accusations against her, many close to Sheila spoke of her as troubled but gentle, a beautiful person without a mean bone in her body, who wouldn’t hurt a fly. She had fallen into a life of drugs in an attempt to cope with her divorce and her mental health struggles – perhaps fueled by an enabling boyfriend, and a desire to feel something beyond the numbness of her sedatives – but this did not make her aggressive.

Still, many do believe that there is some undeniable link between violent crime and mental illness; which just isn’t true. Only around 10% of people with untreated schizophrenia behave violently. On the contrary, people suffering from severe mental illness are far more likely to fall victim to violence than they are to commit violent acts. It is believed that only 4% of violent crimes are committed by mentally ill people; leaving 96% committed by seemingly healthy people of sound mind. The source for these statistics can be found here.

This stigma is so damaging, that it is believed to contribute towards an unseen epidemic of un-diagnosed mental illness. Many fear being committed to a ward, losing social status, losing respect from friends or family and even losing their job if they are labelled as suffering from a mental illness, due to the false association between mentally illness and unconstrained violent outbursts. This is only true for a fraction of mentally ill people, and is treatable in the vast majority of cases using therapy and prescription medications. Yet, it’s an association that is difficult to shake, reinforced by centuries of prejudicial media portraying the ‘mad’ as dangerous, and locking them away rather than treating them. It’s why we must leave terms such as ‘insane asylums’ in the past, in part because they’re no longer fitting descriptions for the mental health wards and care-in-the-community approach primarily taken today, but also because they conjure up an image of mentally ill people as no different to criminals; undesirables who ought to be locked away for societies protection. The reality is far different, with loving and caring souls like Sheila as testament to that.

Ultimately, Sheila Caffell – known affectionately as ‘bambi’ – was more than just a victim of murder. In death, she was also a victim of mental health stigma, with some still insisting to this day upon her being the crazed murderer her killer attempted to depict her as. Her innocence has been proven time and time again with Jeremy losing several appeals; so it is some justice to know that he will spend the rest of his life in prison. But Sheila, her two innocent and fun-loving sons, and her much loved parents June and Nevill Bamber, still lost their lives and deserve to be remembered as human beings. I like to think that had she lived, Sheila may have improved her mental health, revived her modelling career and gone on to be an advocate for mental health awareness; but unfortunately she was robbed of the chance. The least we can do to respect the families memory is to ensure that such a narrowly avoided miscarriage of justice never takes place again.

Rest in Peace to Sheila Caffell, Daniel Caffell, Nicholas Caffell, June Bamber and Nevill Bamber

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