It was 1993, and Englishwoman Sam Gillingham was facing the heartbreaking prospect of being an orphan at the age of 24. She had escaped a turbulent home life in a seaside resort on the south coast of the U.K. eight years before, after her mother had vanished in strange circumstances. But now she was informed that her father had also gone missing. Dad had apparently fallen from a boat out at sea and was now feared drowned. However, when police investigated further, a terrible truth began to emerge, and Sam now faced a possibility even more appalling than merely being orphaned.
The story began in 1984, when Sam was about 15. The schoolgirl was living with her 40-year-old mother, Veronica Packman – known as Carole – and 41-year-old father Russell in Bournemouth, Dorset, in England. Both mom and dad enjoyed lucrative work in the aviation sector, and the Packhams appeared on the surface to enjoy a comfortable life.
Nevertheless, despite the well-paid jobs, nice house, luxurious car and foreign holidays, home life was far from perfect. Sam remembers the family somehow being short of money, but evidently dad had a solution to the problem. Russell invited a co-worker, Patricia Causley, to move in with them as a lodger. At the age of 26, Patricia was some 14 years younger than Carole, the woman of the house. But soon that title would be changing hands…
Indeed, for six months or so, the now four residents of the family home in Bournemouth made the most of their unusual domestic arrangements. “Things were weirdly normal,” Sam recalled to the BBC in May 2018. “Patricia was almost like a nanny for me.” In fact, the teenager even shared a room with the new addition to the Packham household. But after a while, Sam began to notice that things were pretty far from normal.
Soon, the daughter realized that her “nanny” was disappearing from their shared bedroom late at night. As Sam would later learn, Carole was already aware at this time that her husband and the lodger were embroiled in an affair. In fact, Patricia and Russell began treating their relationship as an open secret, cruelly forcing Carole to watch as her two-decade marriage collapsed before her eyes.
And there was more dysfunction to come. As the atmosphere at home grew understandably more tense, the oblivious Sam began arguing with Carole. So, with the mother-daughter relationship in a bad place, perhaps Sam was not entirely surprised in June 1985 when she returned home from a trip to London with her dad to find that her mom had disappeared. Apparently, Carole had left a note and her wedding band behind on the kitchen counter.
According to Sam, Carole’s note said that the wronged wife had endured enough and had taken the decision to leave for good. But, when the now 16-year-old ran upstairs to check her parents’ bedroom, she found all of her mom’s belongings still intact. In fact, Carole had left all of her clothing, as well as her Rolex timepiece and her precious jewelry, in the family home.
Strangely, the only thing out of place was an evening dress which had been one of Carole’s favorites. Apparently, the garment had been ripped – and the damage looked deliberate. Seemingly unfazed at his wife’s departure, Russell told his daughter that Carole would most likely return. However, it turned out that Sam would never see her mother ever again.
After Carole had been missing for a couple of weeks, the concerned teenager decided to report her mom’s disappearance to the police. And that Christmas, Sam received some comforting news. Apparently, the errant mother had shown up at a police station in Bournemouth in late 1985, telling officers that she was alive and well – but stressing that she did not want any contact with her family.
It must have been painful, but nonetheless Sam accepted that her mother had moved on. And, soon after the police contact, the daughter would do the same when Russell asked her to find somewhere new to live. Promptly, Sam left the family home and grew increasingly estranged from her father. Now independent, the motherless young woman met the man who would become her husband, fell pregnant and had a child of her own. For the next few years, Sam largely forgot about the past and focused on raising her young son, Neil.
However, in 1993, Sam’s past returned to haunt her. One day in October, she received a distressing message from police that her father had been lost at sea and they believed him to be dead. Apparently, Russell – who had changed his surname to Causley to be like Patricia – had been yachting with his partner near Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, when he had fallen overboard.
According to official reports, a distress call was made from the Causley’s boat, and the authorities launched a search-and-rescue operation in the English Channel. But despite boats and helicopters being deployed to scan the area around Guernsey, no sign of Russell – or a body – was ever found. And even though Sam’s relationship with her father had not been great, nevertheless the apparent orphan still grieved over the disappearance of her second parent.
However, without a body, police soon began to suspect that something was amiss. Apparently, their enquiries had uncovered an unverified individual – going by the name of Mr. Russell – who had arranged to depart Guernsey on the same day that Sam’s father had disappeared. Furthermore, conflicting accounts about the tragic event given by Patricia in police interviews did not quite add up.
Subsequently, suspicious police contacted Russell’s life insurance providers and discovered that Patricia had lodged a claim for the equivalent of about a million dollars just days after her partner’s disappearance. And when Dorset investigators began tracking the bereaved woman, they were in for an almighty surprise. As Paul Donnell, a detective who worked on the case, told the BBC in May 2018. The former policeman recalled, “She goes to a pub in Brighton and Causley’s sitting in the corner…”
Initially, Russell was arrested for insurance fraud. However, when police officers began to delve deeper into the case, Donnell and his team grew concerned about elements of the offender’s past. Namely, the fact that his daughter had reported his wife missing back in 1985, and scarcely anything had been heard from Carole since. Hoping to finally lay the matter to rest, Donnell introduced the matter to his line of questioning.
And apparently, Russell proved evasive when quizzed about his missing wife. As Donnell remembered, “Right from the off, he was a very strange character.” At one point, Russell told him that Carole had left with a strange man in a red sports car. Then, the suspect claimed that his estranged wife was in either Canada or Switzerland. However, Russell was unable to give a straight and satisfactory answer to Donnell about what had happened all those years ago.
By 1995, Russell was behind bars with a conviction for fraud, serving a two-year sentence after his disappearing act in Guernsey went awry. However, Dorset police officers remained suspicious about Carole’s disappearance and continued their investigations. Soon, they discovered that her alleged visit to the Bournemouth police station a decade before could not be substantiated. Moreover, they established that the last known sighting of Carole was at a solicitors, where she had apparently – and perhaps fatefully – requested information about getting a divorce.
Indeed, the solicitor in question claimed that he had never laid eyes on Carole again after that initial interview. In fact, none of the professionals to whom she paid regular visits, including her doctor, had seen the missing woman since 1985. And worryingly, even Carole’s friends and neighbors had lost contact with her. Furthermore, investigators found out that Patricia had been using Carole’s work permit in Canada, and that Russell had falsified documents in order to sell the married couple’s shared home in Bournemouth.
By now, the Dorset detectives strongly suspected that Russell had in fact killed his wife. And when they discovered some of her possessions in his storage unit, they decided that enough was enough. Even though Carole’s body had never been located, in 1996 Russell was found guilty of murder – one of the first convictions for killing without a corpse being presented to the court to ever to take place in the U.K.
Although this murder conviction was overturned at appeal in 2003, Russell was deemed guilty again at a re-trial the following year, after the defendant’s sister had admitted to hearing him confess. Today, the 75-year-old is serving a life sentence – although his case is currently under review by the Parole Board for England and Wales. Meanwhile, there is still no end in sight for Sam. The 48-year-old is still in the dark about her mother’s final resting place, and she and son Neil are losing hope that Carole’s body will ever be recovered. As Neil told the BBC, “You’ve got to ask yourself – who is it who’s actually serving the sentence?”