The Mail on Sunday
29th May 2011
By Emily Hill
It was a harrowing and distressing trial. Robert Brown, an apparently charming and dashing British Airways pilot, was accused of murdering his beautiful, estranged wife Joanna by bludgeoning her to death with a claw hammer at her home in October last year and then burying her in a box.
Aside from the sickening brutality of the killing, one of the most disturbing aspects of the case was the fact that the Browns’ two young children had heard the attack and then witnessed their father carrying their 46-year-old mother’s body to his car.
During the course of the trial, Brown, 47, was portrayed by his legal team as an essentially good man driven over the edge by a wealthy and manipulative woman during a bitter divorce battle.
The jury appeared to accept this version of events when Brown was last week cleared of murder but found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The verdict drew gasps of disbelief from the public gallery and howls of anguish from Joanna’s family and friends. Brown merely grinned and nodded to the jury.
Andy Wilson was repulsed but not entirely surprised. As Joanna’s boyfriend, he was all too familiar with the two sides of Robert Brown: the accomplished pilot that his colleagues knew; and the vicious, controlling man consumed by jealousy that his wife and her family saw.
‘In court, Rob presented himself as being under enormous stress, bullied by this horrible, rich ex-wife. The truth is exactly the opposite,’ says Andy.
‘About a thousand people turned out to Jo’s two memorial services, which just shows how much she was loved. No one liked Rob, apart from the people he worked with. There are probably ten people on the planet capable of thinking he was not guilty of murder and unfortunately they all happened to be on the jury.’
Speaking for the first time about his love for vivacious Joanna, the 51-year-old father of two breaks down in tears as he describes losing the woman with whom he had hoped to spend the rest of his life.
The devoted pair, who liked to take bicycle rides in the Berkshire countryside around Windsor and talk long into the night about their hopes and dreams, had been together for three years. They had kept their relationship low-key, as Joanna did not want to aggravate her husband or cause more upheaval for her children – despite the fact that her daughter once said: ‘Mummy, I think Andy should be your boyfriend.’
A successful businessman, Andy has seen the IT training firm he set up in 2009 suffer as he tries to cope with his grief. And while dealing with his loss, he has also had to endure the trial, watching the man who killed the woman he loved convince the jury that he was innocent of murder.
‘Rob is the sort of person who wanted to win at all costs, even if that involved killing someone because they were potentially going to “win” in a divorce settlement,’ says Andy. ‘During his trial he had this ability to turn on the waterworks at the appropriate times.’
The judge, however, effectively rejected the jury’s verdict of manslaughter by handing down a sentence of 26 years. Mr Justice Cooke made clear that Brown ‘retained full culpability’ for the killing.
‘If I had known the judge was going to bring common sense to bear I would have been there for the sentencing but I couldn’t sit in court and hear Rob get a sentence for manslaughter,’ says Andy. ‘He could have been out within six years – and at my age, walking the streets, when Jo is dead.’
Andy says the chain of events that led to her tragic death began even before her wedding day. She had met the handsome BA captain and keen runner when she was a passenger on one of his flights in November 1998. Less than six months later, they were married. Aged 34 and with one failed
marriage already behind her, Jo was desperate to have children, and so perhaps turned a blind eye to Brown’s numerous shortcomings – his surliness and arrogance.
by the time they went on their honeymoon in South Africa in February 1999, however, Jo became convinced she had made a mistake.
Brown ignored her friends and was rude to her family. Her father, Chris Simpson, a property developer who died in 2001, had his suspicions about Brown from the outset and encouraged the pair to draw up a pre-nuptial agreement.
It was to protect Jo’s main asset, Tun Cottage, a house in Ascot which she and her father had renovated. Despite the modest-sounding name, it is today worth £1.3 million.
‘Jo thought the pre-nup was something that Rob entered into voluntarily,’ Andy says. ‘He’d taken legal advice. As far as she was concerned it was something in the past. But it came out in court that it had been eating away at him throughout the whole marriage.’ Brown claimed in court that he had been forced to sign the agreement.
The Browns went on to have two children who, for legal reasons, cannot be named: a boy, born in 1999, now aged 11, and a girl who is nine years old. Jo threw herself into motherhood and thrived on it. Her cottage, Andy says, was like a creche – always full of her children and their friends, and their happy chatter.
Jo tried to make the best of things, for her children’s sake, but the marriage was deteriorating.
Brown was an uncommunicative bully who always wanted his own way. He began to develop an unhealthy interest in her finances – and became convinced she had hidden wealth. Then, in 2004, Andy came into Jo’s life. Recently separated, he had been invited by a mutual friend to Jo’s 40th birthday party. Afterwards, Jo set him up on a date with one of her friends.
‘Towards the end of 2006, Jo and I saw each other quite a few times at different social events and became close friends. It was clear that Jo was in a very unhappy marriage. But her priority was always her children and she didn’t want to break up the family.’
Brown suspected – incorrectly – that Jo was having an affair. One evening in July 2007, after Jo and the children had been at an impromptu gathering where Andy had also been present, Brown went berserk and threatened to kill her.
‘This was the catalyst for her to take action. Rob had grabbed her by the throat and held a knife to her. The next day, when she had got him calmed down, he said to her, “I suppose you’re going to ruin me now – you’re going to tell the police and I’ll lose my job.”
‘But that wasn’t her intention at all. She did want him to move out but she also wanted to do everything in the best interests of the children and wouldn’t breathe a word of it. So after that he completely denied it ever happened.’
When Brown refused to leave, Jo hired a bodyguard to stay in the house with them for her protection. She was terrified that her husband would physically threaten her again. Divorce proceedings, and a restraining order, followed. It was only then that Andy and Jo began their relationship. But Brown appeared determined to make things difficult.
‘Jo used to be on the phone in tears because she had put in a perfectly reasonable request to Rob and she would get a really abusive response back,’ says Andy. ‘He was just obstructive on everything.
‘Jo hired a bodyguard to stay in the house with them for her protection’
‘In the papers, Jo has been presented as a millionairess. This isn’t correct. Tun Cottage was valued a couple of weeks ago at £1.35 million. It is not a £3 million mansion. She had bought it when it was a derelict pub and it has a £200,000 mortgage on it.
‘She did get income from a trust set up by her father but there was a market crash, and its investments weren’t performing well. Before, it had provided her with enough to cover the £30,000 school fees. The most important thing for Jo was her children, and keeping them at their school was non-negotiable.
‘Jo needed to find some money. At first she worked freelance in marketing. Then, on advice from her mother Diana, in 2009 she opened Tun Cottage as an upmarket bed and breakfast. Jo worked her socks off. Her life consisted of looking after the children, which she loved, and being run ragged with the B&B – shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, steam-pressing the sheets.
‘Her utility room was always full of piles of sheets and towels. She would get up at six and go to bed about midnight, exhausted.
‘On top of all this, she would have to deal with Rob and his nastiness. By now, he was living with his new partner in the nearby village of Winkfield but he broke into Jo’s house and stole legal documents and photos from her computer.
‘A neighbour saw a man – believed to be Rob – running through thegarden at night, skirting round the house to avoid the CCTV. Jo would cry herself to sleep at nights because of the stress of it.
‘As all the legal fees mounted, she would say, ”This is the children’s inheritance going down the drain.” ’
By the autumn of 2010, after three years of legal wrangling, a landmark legal ruling gave Jo hope that the end was finally in sight. The Browns’ divorce was due for its final hearing in November. The outcome would depend on whether Jo’s pre-nup was deemed valid in court.
As luck would have it, an important test case was being heard in London. On October 20, German heiress Katrin Radmacher had the pre-nuptial agreement enforced in her divorce from Nicolas Granatino.
The judge presiding over the Browns’ divorce, Sir Nicholas Mostyn, had been the QC acting for Granatino. ‘Jo’s case had been due to be heard earlier that year but Judge Mostyn said he wasn’t prepared to rule because the Radmacher/Granatino case was ongoing. I’m told Mostyn said to Rob’s legal team, “If I lose, you lose,” ’ says Andy.
‘When the Radmacher ruling came through, we were all incredibly relieved. We had a clear guideline that Jo’s pre-nup would be upheld. But even then, Jo was still saying,
“I won’t stick to the pre-nup, I’ll offer him more.” Later we kicked ourselves because we all said to each other, “Rob’s going to go nuts.” And he did.’
Less than a fortnight later, on October 31, Robert Brown went to Tun Cottage to drop off the children after a half-term holiday. As they played, he battered their mother to death in the hallway of their home, striking her over the head at least 14 times. Brown had hidden the hammer in his son’s homework bag.
The children, who had heard ‘banging’, watched from the playroom window as their father carried their mother’s body out of the house and dumped it into the boot of his Volvo.
‘We all said to each other, ”Rob’s going to go nuts.” And he did.’
Brown made the children get in the vehicle and dropped them off at his home, where they were comforted by his pregnant girlfriend, British Airways stewardess Stephanie Bellemere.
He then left, burying Jo’s body in a remote part of Windsor Great Park, returning at 5am the following day. Weeks previously, he had lined and buried a large plastic box, in which he stashed latex gloves, overalls and a mallet.
However, his hopes of evading detection were thwarted by his highly distressed daughter, who told her paternal grandmother, Maureen Brown, over the phone that ‘something bad’ had happened. On November 1, with no one able to contact Jo, Brown’s brother Kenneth reported his sister-in-law missing. Later that morning, police forced their way into Tun Cottage and found spots of blood. They arrested Brown.
When he saw a video of his daughter telling the police what she had seen him do, Brown knew that the game was up. But he claimed he was suffering from ‘adjustment disorder’ due to the stress of the divorce and could not remember the attack. The jury believed him, but Mr Justice Cooke observed that the disorder ‘appears to have disappeared moments after killing your wife’.
Andy says: ‘If you look at it in the cold light of day, what the jury said is – if you’re going through a divorce and you don’t think you’re getting the outcome you want, what you do is: dig a hole, put a box in it, line it with polythene, take a hammer, go round to that person’s house, beat them to death, put them in the back of a car, drop your children off on the way and bury the body.
‘If you happen to get caught – and in this case he only got caught because his daughter saw something – you tell the police that you have a convenient traumatic amnesia. Then you get off with manslaughter. To me that’s a psychopath’s charter.’
Andy now faces the difficult task of trying to put his life back together.
‘You try to get the images out of your head, of the person you loved, cuddled, kissed, being bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer. You can’t help thinking how terrified she would have been. And I know all she would have been thinking was, “Oh my God – the children.” ’
Jo’s children now live in the Isle of Man with Jo’s mother, Diana Parkes. Andy is free to visit whenever he wishes.
‘I was unbelievably lucky to have met Jo and spent the time with her that I did. It’s not often that you get to meet someone you want to spend the rest of your life with – especially when you get to my age. You have to try to focus on the good things that you’ve still got in your life, your children, your friends, your health.
‘But life is going to be very hard without Jo’s beautiful, smiling face.’
* Additional reporting by Pamela Owen. Andy Wilson has not been paid for this interview but has asked for a donation to be made to The Prostate Cancer Charity.