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WHAT DROVE PENNY TO MAKE A DATE WITH DEATH?; Wealthy career woman Penny Bell left her luxury home to keep a mysterious appointment. It turned out to be a date with a frenzied knife maniac - and five years later, murder detectives are still no closer to finding her killer. MURRAY DAVIES reports...

Attractive Penny Bell climbed into her powder blue Jaguar XJS to set off for her office as she did every weekday morning at 9.40 am.

She waved goodbye to the builders working on a kitchen extension to her pounds 400,000 family home and drove off to keep a rendezvous - with a killer.

Just 80 minutes later she was found dead with more than 50 stab and slash wounds.

Penny, 43, had everything to live for. She ran a successful catering employment company and her husband Alistair was doing well in an estate agent's business. They lived in a large detached house in Denham, Bucks, with their two children, Matthew, then 11, and Laura, nine.

Penny left home telling builders she was running late for an appointment in ten minutes. The appointment - not in her business diary - has mystified her husband and detectives ever since. Alistair thought Penny intended to go directly to her office in Kilburn, North London.

"She didn't indicate anything other than it was going to be a normal working day and I'd see her in the evening," he said. "She mentioned that appointment only to the builders. I can only think she must have received a last-minute telephone call."

But the builders told police they did not hear the phone ring that morning.

Detectives have established that Penny drove her XJS into the car park of the Gurnell Grove swimming pool and leisure centre in the West London suburb of Greenford at around 10.30am. She parked the Jaguar, registration E313 MYP, facing a high hedge on the car park perimeter.

At 11am, two women arriving to swim saw her sitting upright in the driving seat. They assumed she was asleep. One hour later, they returned and realised she was dead.

Penny had been stabbed and slashed at least 50 times in the chest and arms with a blade 3-4 inches long and an inch wide. It was never found.

The keys were still in the ignition. Evidence indicates she was killed in her car in the busy car park. Penny may have been fighting for her life as dozens of people came and went from the leisure centre only yards away.

The frenzied attack would have taken between one and two minutes. The stab wounds showed that the assault had begun from the passenger seat. Then the murderer walked around the car, opened the driver's door and continued to stab Penny before returning to the passenger seat to finish off the attack.

Intriguingly, on the console between the driver and the passenger seat there was a sample of wallpaper and wood.

The blue-patterned Laura Ashley paper had been delivered to Penny, who was planning to redecorate her bedroom, at home that morning by a local builder.

Why, ask detectives, was it lying between Penny and her killer?

The attacker would have been drenched with his victim's blood. Detectives interviewed 800 motorists who used the car park yet no-one noticed him leave.

Penny had never used the swimming pool. She had neither a swimming costume nor a towel. Why was she there?

There was no obvious motive for the killing. She was not sexually assaulted and her handbag was found undisturbed in the car.

The swimming pool is nine miles from her home, well off her route to work. A direct journey would take about 20-25 minutes.

Alistair, 49, dismisses the idea that Penny went to meet a possible lover.

"If Penny had been having a secret liaison with someone there would have been no reason to mention her appointment to the builders," he said.

"She was a very open, fun person. Everyone liked her."

There was no evidence to suggest that Penny, described as a "charming, bubbly and outgoing woman", had any enemies. But detectives are convinced that Penny knew her killer. They do not believe that a busy woman just drove out of her way, through heavy morning traffic to a car park where she was attacked by a passing madman.

Just three days before her murder, Penny withdrew pounds 8,500 in cash from her bank. She was meticulous with money, keeping a record of every withdrawal - except this one. There is no trace of the money.

Was she being blackmailed? Did she go to meet her blackmailer?

A van driver told police he had seen a man wrestling with a blonde woman in a blue Jaguar driving slowly with its hazard lights flashing through Greenford shortly before the time of the killing.

As he overtook the XJS, he saw the woman try to pull the car on to the side of the road but her male passenger grabbed the wheel and forced her to continue driving. The car then turned towards the leisure centre.

The passenger was described as about 40 with dark hair and possibly a beard. He was wearing a bracelet on his right hand.

Six months later, another man also came forward who claimed he saw Penny plead for help as she drove in Greenford with a man beside her. The witness was in a car which overtook Penny who was deliberately driving slowly, creating a traffic jam.

He said she mouthed "Help me". Several cars overtook her, blasting their horns but no-one stopped to help.

It has also been claimed that Penny's husband had a gay lifestyle when he was single and lived with a man for some time. The man was later a guest at the couple's wedding in 1981. The trail went cold until, in a bizarre twist, family friend John Richmond offered to reveal the events leading up to the murder in return for pounds 80,000 from a newspaper.

Richmond, a builder, was arrested in connection with the attack after his fingerprints were found in the Jaguar but he was released.

He claimed Penny was the victim of a contract killer and he was the mystery person Penny set out to meet.

Richmond said they were having a secret relationship and met to discuss sleeping together.

Senior detectives do not know how much weight to attach to his story. He has not been helpful in police interviews.

Despite offering a pounds 20,000 reward, interviewing 8,500 people and taking 2,500 statements, detectives are no nearer solving the murder. Det Supt Brian Edwards, who led the hunt, explained the difficulties.

"We don't know who Penny's appointment was with. It may have been with the person who killed her or it may have been with someone totally innocent," he said.

"Penny only mentioned the appointment to the builders. Maybe it was a way of ending the conversation. We don't know if Penny met someone and took them to the car park or whether she met someone there.

"If she did meet someone - and it tallies with the sightings of her driving slowly along the Greenford Road - then where did he get in?

"If she had been driving under duress, why was the wallpaper sample spread out between her and her attacker after she parked? Did she arrange to meet someone to seek their opinion about the wallpaper? If so, that would be inconsistent with the sightings of her in distress.

"I have a gut feeling that her attacker was a man. It was a vicious attack in a confined space.

"It had to be a powerful person and he brought the murder weapon with him.

"We have no evidence that she was having an affair of any kind.

"It was so out of character for Penny not to keep a record of the pounds 8,500 withdrawal. She was meticulous. It leads one to think of blackmail but by whom and about what?

"Someone out there knows more than they have admitted. The case is still open. We don't give up."
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Davies, Murray
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:May 19, 1996
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