Helen Bailey: A life shaped by death

By Jodie Halford
BBC News

John Sinfield and Helen BaileyImage source, SBNA
Image caption,
Helen Bailey's husband John Sinfield died while the pair were on holiday in Barbados in 2011

Helen Bailey's life changed completely following the death of her husband in 2011. Overcome by loneliness, she sought solace through the internet, writing a successful blog and communicating with others dealing with grief. It was here that she met the man she thought would become her life partner - but he would instead prove to be her killer.

Six years ago, Ms Bailey was enjoying success as a children's author, having written more than 20 books, including the popular Electra Brown series.

A lover of cooking, Arsenal FC and her Dachshund Boris, the Northumberland-born writer lived with her husband John Sinfield in Highgate, north London. The pair had been together for 22 years, and married for 15.

In February 2011, during a holiday to Barbados, her world was turned upside down when Mr Sinfield got caught in a rip current in the sea and drowned.

Ms Bailey was, in her own words, "a wife at breakfast, but a widow by lunch".

The aftermath saw her start a blog, Planet Grief. The posts shine with wit, humour, honesty and authenticity as she recounts moments from her life as a widow.

She describes releasing memorial balloons on Hampstead Heath; buying a single Scotch egg in the deli she used to frequent with her husband; coping with Christmas and the loss of the festive traditions she used to enjoy as a couple.

And she describes meeting Ian Stewart.

Image caption,
Ms Bailey wrote more than 20 books, including the Electra Brown series for teenagers

"I'm on a Facebook bereavement page, piddling around," she wrote in one post. "A photo comes up. I am surprised to see it because I know the man in the photo.

"I keep wondering where we met, wracking my grieving brain.

"As it turned out, we had never met, but the man was Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower, a man who from the moment we first met, I felt as if I had known for my entire life."

Ms Bailey went on to date GGHW, as she referred to him in her blog, and they later bought a house in Royston, Hertfordshire, moving in together along with his two sons.

They were planning to marry and were arranging a wedding at nearby Brocket Hall.

But in April last year, she was reported missing; a disappearance friends and family said was completely out of character.

Image source, SBNA
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Ms Bailey and Stewart moved in together at a house in Royston, Hertfordshire
Image source, SBNA
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Ms Bailey's Dachshund, Boris, was her constant companion

Stewart made the initial call to police - he claimed to have found a note from Ms Bailey saying she needed "space" and had gone to her holiday home in Broadstairs, Kent.

He later issued a heartfelt message which said: "You not only mended my heart five years ago but made it bigger, stronger and kinder.

"Now it feels like my heart doesn't even exist. Our plans are nowhere near complete and without you there is no point."

Stewart sent text messages to her phone asking him to let her know she was OK, pleading with her to call.

Friends and fellow dog walkers organised searches to try to find her, with many also sending messages to her phone and social media accounts.

But all along, her body - and that of her beloved pet Boris - were hidden metres away from where police were searching.

When she was found in a cesspit three months later, tests revealed she had been systematically drugged over a period of time before finally being suffocated.

Image source, SBNA
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Stewart and Ms Bailey were described by a neighbour as "complete opposites"
Image source, Contributed
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Ian Stewart's wife Diane died in 2010

Stewart, described by many as "quiet" and "reserved", had been widowed in 2010 when his wife, Diane, died. She had an epileptic fit in the garden of their home in Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire.

The 56-year-old had worked as a software engineer before being forced to give up work due to poor health. Early in 2016 he had been told there was a high chance he had bowel cancer, but was later given the all-clear.

He suffered from insomnia and was prescribed a drug called zopiclone - the same drug pathologists found in Ms Bailey's system.

Mavis Drake, the couple's nearest neighbour in Royston, said Stewart was a man "without much personality".

"He didn't make any impression on me," she said. "He wouldn't venture information, so you'd have to try to prise it out of him.

"I would never in a million years have matched them up as a couple. To me they were complete opposites in character."

Image source, SBNA
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The search for Ms Bailey lasted three months

During the murder trial, St Albans Crown Court heard evidence about Stewart's behaviour and actions in the weeks after the killing.

On 11 April, the day he suffocated Ms Bailey, he went to watch his son Jamie play bowls before having a Chinese takeaway in the evening.

Detectives investigating the author's disappearance told the jury he seemed "quite blasé and non-committal", appearing, at one point, to "turn his head to the side and look at us and grin".

As the prime beneficiary of Ms Bailey's will, he stood to inherit the bulk of her fortune - thought to be more than £3.3m at the time of her death.

While the search for her was under way, he renewed their Arsenal season tickets from the couple's joint account and went on holiday to Mallorca, the jury heard.

"In hindsight, I think he was beginning to believe everything was going to carry on as normal and she'd never be found," said neighbour Mrs Drake.

Image caption,
An aerial view of the couple's home in Royston and the garage, beneath which Ms Bailey's body was found
Image source, SBNA
Image caption,
Ms Bailey's body was found in a cesspit underneath a Victorian well

It was a comment from Mrs Drake herself that led to his downfall, after she mentioned to officers about the cesspit hidden below her neighbours' garage.

Three months after he reported her missing, Stewart was charged with murder. He was convicted after a seven-week trial at St Albans Crown Court.

"To say it sent shockwaves through the widowed community is an understatement," said Laraine Mason, who, like Stewart, had met Ms Bailey online following the death of her spouse.

"For this tragedy to have happened to a lady who had found happiness again, after being widowed in the most tragic of circumstances is in itself horrific.

"Words cannot possibly express the horror and repulsion we feel by the fact that these acts have been perpetrated by one of our own against one of our own."

Image source, Hertfordshire Police
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Stewart was arrested on suspicion of murder on 11 July last year

Comments left by friends on the final Planet Grief blog post after Ms Bailey's death show just how loved and respected she was within the bereaved community online.

They speak of the comfort her words had brought over the years, her honesty and humour, how much she would be missed.

The blog had been hugely successful, gaining followers from around the world. In 2015, the posts had formed the basis for a book: "When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis."

At Ms Bailey's memorial service, Ms Mason spoke of the "exceptional talent" of her friend, the "searingly honest, yet at the same time witty account of life after the death of a loved one".

Bereavement coach Shelley Whitehead, who met Ms Bailey a few months after Mr Sinfield died, called her "a brave, gutsy, connected woman" who was "so funny".

"Helen created tribes - she had a following on widow and widower's websites," she said. "It helped her, and it helped others who had experienced loss.

"She was making sense of the world and her loss through her writing."

Image source, Planet Grief
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Ms Bailey's Planet Grief blog gained followers from around the world
Image source, Shelley Whitehead
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Shelley Whitehead, left, said she was "blessed" to call Ms Bailey her friend

For some of those closest to Ms Bailey, it is her writing which stirs up memories of the woman she was, and the impact she had on their lives.

"Helen lives on in her books - I keep copies of her book on grief in my office. I give them to newly bereaved partners," Ms Whitehead said.

"I feel blessed to have coached a woman like Helen. I feel blessed to call her my friend."

In the wake of the trial, with its revelations about the extent of Stewart's deception and his actions, the dedications at the end of Ms Bailey's book are difficult to read.

"And finally, this book is dedicated to my Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower, Ian Stewart: BB, I love you," it says.

"You are my happy ending."