Sandie Bowen murder mystery: The funeral I always hoped to attend

Sandie Bowen murder investigation photographs

April 2017: Gwent Crematorium, Cwmbran, south Wales.

I'm at a funeral; one I always hoped I'd attend sooner rather than later.

That might sound perverse but what's even more perverse is that I wasn't sure this day would ever come; because how can you hold a funeral if you haven't got a body?

The service on a chilly spring morning marks the final chapter of one of the most compelling murder mysteries in Wales.

It's a private end to a very public tragedy which left a family in limbo, wondering if they would ever be able to lay their loved one to rest.

The seeds of today, the kernel of hope of a breakthrough into what happened, came with a fluke discovery just a few weeks earlier.

It was February 2nd 2017 - my birthday, but otherwise a normal day in the BBC Wales newsroom.

A colleague turned to me: "Have you seen this Jen? Police say they've found a body in Wentwood Reservoir. Do you think it might be Sandie Bowen?"

Image copyright Jeremy Bolwell
Image caption Wentwood Reservoir: Sandie Bowen's body was found tied to a ceramic sink

It took a moment for the information - a few brief paragraphs from our internal news feed - to register properly, and for me to realise the possible implications.

Within 24 hours, police confirmed that the human remains recovered from the reservoir were female.

It would be several more weeks before we knew for sure, before relatives would finally get the call they'd been waiting so long for.

Nearly 20 years on, the Wye Valley countryside had at last surrendered one of its most enduring mysteries: the whereabouts of the body of murdered Sandie Bowen.

I'd been crime correspondent for The Western Mail, Wales' daily newspaper, for only a couple of months when, in early August 1997, Gwent Police announced that they were growing increasingly concerned for a woman who had gone missing from her home in Monmouthshire.

Image caption Jenny's coverage of Sandie Bowen's murder in the late 1990s

The search for Sandie Bowen turned out to be one of the most extensive - and expensive - investigations ever carried out by Gwent Police.

Journalists followed the story closely, jostling for the best "lines" to update every twist and turn as the weeks and then months ticked by.

What began as a missing person inquiry, following 54-year-old Sandie's sudden and unexpected disappearance, had quickly turned into a murder investigation.

The last reported sighting of Sandie came from her husband, Michael Bowen.

Image caption Sandie had met Mike through her job in Folkestone where he was working as a train driver on the Channel Tunnel

He told police he had dropped her off outside Newport train station on the afternoon of 6 August 1997. She was heading to Folkestone in Kent to visit her daughter, Anita Spencer, he told officers.

It was 33-year-old Anita who reported her mother missing shortly after receiving a telephone call from her stepfather that evening asking if Sandie had arrived safely in Folkestone.

Anita had last spoken to her mother the previous day and there was no talk of her coming to visit.

After checking train ticket sales and railway station CCTV, detectives quickly formed the view that the answer to Sandie's disappearance lay much closer to home.

The countryside where police have always believed her body had been hidden is, in many ways, an integral part of this story.

Image copyright Jonathan Billinger
Image caption The search for Sandie's body was focused around Wentwood Forest

Wentwood Forest stands on the hillside a few miles from the bucolic village of Llandogo, between Tintern and Monmouth, where Sandie lived.

More than 1,000 hectares of the oldest ancient woodland in Wales, the forest straddles the border between Monmouthshire and Newport counties in the south east corner of Wales and reaches 309 metres at its highest point.

The Bowens' house, replete with climbing roses round the front door, looked out over fields running down towards the River Wye.

I knew the area well, having lived as a child in the hamlet of Brockweir, just a mile or two over the river.

The Sloop Inn, Llandogo's only pub, was a popular venue for local bands when I was in my late teens.

The landlord of the Sloop, George Morgan, was friendly with the Bowens.

Image copyright Jaggery

He went fishing for salmon with Michael Bowen; Sandie worked for him at the Sloop and also his guest house, Valley House, as a catering assistant and cleaner.

This connection would become central to the case, after claims emerged that Sandie and George had been having an affair when she went missing.

Scores of police officers and volunteers from mountain rescue teams as far afield as north Wales, Dartmoor and the Peak District were drafted in.

The police helicopter and aircraft fitted with thermal imaging equipment swept across the forest at night, and at day break police divers resumed searches of the nearby Wentwood Reservoir.

But no body was found.

In mid-August Anita, Sandie's daughter, issued an emotional appeal.

Image copyright Wales News Service
Image caption Anita breaks down during a police press conference appealing for information about the whereabouts of her mother

She told journalists she would chat to her mother two or three times a week and said her disappearance was "totally out of character".

Her stepfather Michael Bowen was invited to take part in the press conference but declined.

Bowen had been married twice before meeting Sandie, and had four children of his own.

The couple began a relationship in 1991 when he was working as a train driver on the Channel Tunnel and staying at Folkestone lodgings where Sandie worked as a cook.

For Sandie, who was divorced from her first husband, it was a second chance at love.

After Bowen separated from his second wife, she decided to move to south Wales to be with him.

Image copyright Anita Giles
Image caption Sandie and Michael Bowen on their wedding day. She believed he offered her a second chance for happiness
Image caption Roses round the door: The couple's cottage in the village of Llandogo, Monmouthshire

Anita, an only child with young children of her own, clashed with her mother over what she felt was an impulsive decision - although she could see how happy she was.

Sandie married Michael Bowen in 1993 but within a couple of years cracks were appearing; both were said to be having affairs.

Bowen told police that, as far as he was concerned, they had been living separate lives for the past two years.

He believed Sandie was going to Kent "to think about things" after he told her he wanted a divorce.

But before the month was out, he'd been arrested, charged with her murder and remanded in custody.

Up until this point, Anita hadn't suspected her stepfather.

"I didn't really know him, I'd only met him a couple of times," she says. "He was very charming when I met him and he was charming with mum.

"He swept her off her feet, showered her with gifts and took her out to nice places."

And so the hunt for Sandie's remains continued.

As autumn wore on, and then winter arrived, hopes were beginning to fade.

Spring 1998 brought short-lived hope of a breakthrough, when renewed searches uncovered a woman's body in a shallow woodland grave.

Image copyright Wales News Service
Image copyright Wales News Service

It turned out to be a Newport youth worker, killed by her partner who then committed suicide.

Following his trial 46-year-old Bowen was convicted of murdering Sandie and jailed for life at Newport Crown Court in May 1998.

The jury was told that although no body had been found, there was a "compelling and overwhelming" jigsaw of circumstantial evidence pointing to Bowen's guilt.

The trial heard evidence of his anger over her affair, despite his own infidelity and that a speck of Sandie's blood was found by forensic investigators in their bedroom.

And a key element of the case - her false teeth, which her daughter insisted she would never have left home without, were found discarded in a waste bin at her home.

Other personal belongings recovered from the house included her handbag, arthritis medication, spectacles, jewellery and the remains of her purse and credit cards, burnt in a fireplace.

The prosecution case asserted that Bowen, a forestry worker with intimate knowledge of the area, had murdered his wife in a fit of temper at their home, then driven off into the forest in the dead of night and concealed her body there so effectively it had never been found.

Giving evidence, the woman Bowen was having an affair with spoke of hearing his distinctive Land Rover passing her house at 02:00 on the morning of 6 August.

Image caption Jenny's newspaper report of Bowen's former lover giving evidence

Within days of Sandie's disappearance, she had moved into their home, Bowen reportedly telling her that Sandie was "never coming back."

After a five-week trial, including more than 76 witnesses, the jury took just six hours to unanimously convict him.

Setting a minimum term of 18 years' imprisonment, judge Mr Justice Eady told Bowen he had "embarked on a remarkably callous and cold exercise in disposing of her remains".

He added: "Sandie Bowen's daughter and family do not know, and may never know, where her body lies."

I remember Anita, a mother of three boys, sitting behind me and my colleagues in the press bench during the closing stages of the case. She sobbed, shaking with emotion, as Bowen was led from the dock to begin his sentence.

"A guilty verdict does not end it," she told reporters on the court steps.

Image caption Sandie's daughter was tortured by not knowing where her mother's remains were

"Without a body it goes on for me and the children. I would just ask Mike, now he has been convicted, why not just say where she is?

"The past few months have been hell. I can't have a funeral without a body; I can't bury her."

Bowen appealed against his conviction, but this was turned down a year later in May 1999.

Evidence emerged during the appeal hearing of Bowen's violence towards his first two wives, as well as an entry from Sandie's diary, indicating he'd once tried to strangle her.

Again, Anita issued a plea for him to reveal her mother's whereabouts. Again, nothing.

Fishing boat

I hadn't spoken to Anita since Bowen's failed appeal, but the story stayed with me and would still crop up as a topic of conversation with other journalists.

In 2002, Bowen finally admitted responsibility for Sandie's death, telling police she had fallen into the water during an argument on his fishing boat.

But still he didn't reveal where the body could be found, and Anita's torment went on.

Bowen, by now into his 60s, was paroled from prison in February 2015, on life licence with conditions.

It was a catalyst for me making contact once again with Anita, who was still living in Folkestone.

She spoke of her anger at Bowen's release, and revealed he had requested mediation with her whilst in jail. She declined as he still wouldn't disclose her mother's whereabouts.

"I told them I only wanted to know why and where," she said. "Unless he could tell me that I didn't want to meet him."

Anita's experience led her to get involved with the campaign for Helen's Law - which aims to deny killers parole if they will not reveal where victims' remains are - set up in memory of murdered Helen McCourt, from Merseyside. The 22 year old's killer has never said where her body is.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Almost 30 years ago, Helen McCourt was murdered at the age of 22. Her killer has never revealed where her body is.

Speaking to Anita shortly before Christmas in 2015, she told me she was about to become a grandmother - twice in the space of a few weeks - and was missing having her mum by her side for such a momentous life event.

Having lost my own mum by this time, I felt a renewed empathy for her - not being able to hold a funeral, grieve properly, observe all the usual conventions and processes that somehow propel you through the first weeks and months of losing a loved one.

She recalled, too, the impact on her own three boys: "One day they had a nana and the next day they didn't. How do you explain that to very young children?"

The cruelty of Anita's situation was reinforced by the irony that her mother's killer was by now a free man again.

So when news of the body in the reservoir came through earlier this year, my overriding emotion was hope that this would be the breakthrough Anita had craved.

There was also surprise, with the realisation that younger colleagues weren't familiar with the case. Some hadn't even heard of Sandie Bowen, despite the story popping up in the headlines every so often over the years.

I text Anita saying I was thinking of her. "I have everything crossed," she replied.

Dental records

I sensed that police would be wary of raising Anita's hopes if they weren't fairly confident that this might be her mother.

On 9 March, police confirmed that the remains were those of Sandie Bowen, following analysis of dental records and DNA.

An inquest at Newport Coroner's Court heard that the body was exposed after the reservoir was drained for the first time in nearly a century.

It had been attached to a ceramic kitchen sink.

The inquest - its unlawful killing verdict by now a formality - nonetheless represented another step towards some kind of closure, peace of mind, for Sandie's family.

And so I find myself at Sandie Bowen's funeral. I feel honoured to be here, the only journalist invited by the family to attend.

It's a small, simple affair: the final chapter of a story spanning two decades.

The people who loved her are reclaiming her from the lurid headlines and murder victim label at last.

It feels odd being here, for this woman I never knew, never met, yet know so much about, the intimate facts of her life laid bare on the page by me and so many others over the years.

Anita travelled from Folkestone through the night for the service, with her partner Paul and three grown-up sons Sam, Ryan and Wesley.

She hugs me and I feel a wave of emotion.

Sandie is remembered as "an adored Mum, Nan and friend to many" a caring, friendly person who would help anyone.

Image copyright Anita Giles
Image caption Sandie with Anita as a baby

There's a single hymn, 'All Things Bright and Beautiful,' and Elvis Presley's 'The Wonder of You' plays us out.

Sam, aged 10 when his grandmother vanished, now a strapping 30-year-old with a child of his own, props a photograph of him with Sandie on her coffin, a treasured memento he found only recently.

"I wanted a simple service, memories of happier times and not this miserable 20 years we've been put through," Anita tells me.

"It's hard to explain. Life has gone on, the children have grown up, and I'm in a better place now than I was, but I've always been living in the past, not having an end point.

"Now I can put it behind me. I've finally laid her to rest, which is what I've been waiting to do. I needed that closure."

I ask how she feels about Mike Bowen today. Her response, unprintably vitriolic, confirms her earlier pledge: there will be no forgiveness.

Anita plans to take her mum's ashes home and "hang onto them for a bit, keep her close to me for a while".

She may then scatter them someplace she and her mum spent time when she was a child.

Friendship comes in many forms. Ours began in a courtroom, me with a notebook and pen in hand, Anita wracked with grief sitting behind me.

It's unconventional but feels like a friendship nonetheless. I hope we stay in touch.

Related Topics

More on this story