Man ‘admitted’ Bakewell Tart murder

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THE man cleared of the so-called Bakewell Tart murder after serving 27 years in jail has apparently said that he did commit the crime.

Stephen Downing made the admission of guilt to his father, Ray, six weeks ago as they drove to a restaurant.

However, since the incident, Downing has retracted his statement, claiming he made it up after being "manipulated" by his girlfriend, Christine Smith, a self-styled mystic.

It is the second time in several weeks that Downing is reported to have admitted to the killing.

Last week, it was revealed that Smith secretly recorded a conversation in which Downing appears to admit to killing Wendy Sewell, whose body he found in a graveyard in 1973.

Describing the latest admission in a Sunday newspaper, his father claimed: "Christine suddenly said to him, ‘Go on, tell your dad, go on ...’

"Steve just looked out of the window with a strange look in his eyes and said, ‘I did it’.

"I looked at him and just said ‘What?’. He said, ‘I killed Wendy, dad’."

However, Downing later retracted the admission, stating: "I was just telling my dad what Christine was saying because I wanted it to come from me, not her.

"I was simply agreeing with Christine that I killed Wendy to shut her up and keep her happy."

Sewell was bludgeoned to death during her lunch hour on 12 September 1973 in a graveyard above the Derbyshire town of Bakewell, minutes after colleagues heard her making secrets arrangements with someone who was not her husband.

Although witnesses came forward in the days after the attack to identify at least three other men seen in the area - including one covered with blood - it was Stephen Downing, a nave, educationally backward 17-year-old, who was arrested after finding the body.

Downing was taken to a police station and interrogated for nine hours without access to a solicitor. Police took bets on whether he would confess. He was eventually persuaded to sign a statement he could not read.

In his confession, Downing said he came up behind Sewell and hit her twice over the head, ripped her clothes off and sexually assaulted her.

Later forensic evidence proved that the woman had been hit over the head at least eight times with a pickaxe handle by a right-handed man - Downing is left-handed - and that she had not been sexually assaulted and had probably taken her clothes off herself.

There was a clear, bloody palm print on the pickaxe handle, which was not Downing’s, and the gloves he was wearing had no blood on them. Sewell’s promiscuity was also withheld from the jury when the case came to court.

Despite immediately retracting his confession, Downing was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at Nottingham Crown Court six months later.

During his 27 years in prison, he continued to insist on his innocence, choosing to remain in jail even though he would have been released in 1991, as parole could not be granted without an admission of guilt from Downing.

"It got to the stage where prison officers were begging Stephen to just say he had committed the crime," said Don Hale, the former editor of the Matlock Mercury, whose eight-year investigation into Downing’s case led to his release on bail last year.

"All the prison officers knew Stephen was innocent and they could not bear to see him continue to suffer," he added.

"But Stephen was determined to stick by his principles whatever the personal suffering involved, in order to clear his name."

Thanks to Hale’s investigation, Downing’s sentence was quashed in January after the Court of Appeal found his guilt had been decided on the basis of an "unreliable confession and unreliable forensic evidence".

The police who interviewed Downing in 1973 had not cautioned him before gaining his confession to bludgeoning and sexually assaulting Sewell as she walked in the graveyard during her lunch hour.

Mr Hale claims that the "real" murderers are a cabal of influential figures in the Bakewell area who had been having secret relationships with Sewell.

Mr Hale, who has written a book about his theories, alleged that she had been promiscuous and dubbed her "The Bakewell Tart".

The police are re-investigating the case, although detectives say that there are no new suspects for the killing.

Downing had always admitted stumbling on the seriously injured Sewell in the graveyard, but has adamantly denied the killing throughout the long fight by his parents for his freedom.

Downing, Hale and their legions of family, friends and supporters hope the new inquiry will finally clear his name by finding the real killers.