Mystery of the Lady in the Lake – Sunday Herald

ON a warm July morning in 1976, Joan Young noticed something odd in the midst of her Cumbrian holiday vista. Sitting in her car on the shore of Coniston Water, her gaze was drawn to a small yacht floating some way offshore.A slim, long-haired man in a wetsuit was lifting what the Scots tourist would later describe as a “heavy bundle” on to the side of his boat. She watched, puzzled, as he toppled it into the water. Was it diving equipment? An old carpet? “I only hope it isn’t his wife,” she quipped to her future husband, reading his paper beside her. It was an uncannily prescient remark – yet it would be more than a generation before her memory would form the sole eyewitness account in one of the most high-profile and controversial murder convictions of the decade.

Today, Jeremy Park paces the same shoreline with restless scepticism, scrutinising the waters where his now-imprisoned father is supposed to have dumped his mother’s weighted body.

It’s exactly 30 years since Carol Ann Park disappeared from the family home near Barrow-in-Furness, leaving three bewildered young children and a stoical husband to ponder wedding rings abandoned on the bedside table. Only six at the time, Jeremy grew up believing his mother had left them – as she had done repeatedly before – for one of her various lovers. It was only in 1997 that amateur divers chanced upon a macabre, tightly bound package resting on a ledge in 70ft of water. “The Lady in the Lake”, as she was inevitably dubbed, had been trussed in a series of bags, her well-preserved corpse clad only in a short nightdress. A coroner found she had drowned in her own blood after heavy and repeated blows to the head.

The discovery was a double shock for Jeremy, by then an IT consultant working in Edinburgh. One parent was instantly transformed from deserting mother to murder victim; the other her possible killer. It was Jeremy who phoned his father, who was on holiday in France with his third wife, to break the news. “He said, ‘Oh dear’, and went very quiet,” recalls the 36-year-old, who has never doubted his father’s innocence. “He was obviously shocked – and he knew he was going to be the main suspect.”

For the family, it marked the beginning of a new nightmare.

Even as the couple packed up and began the journey home to Barrow, television reports were showing police forensic teams combing their home for evidence. On arrival, Park was arrested, charged and remanded for 14 days “for his own protection”. The media had already enjoyed more than a week of speculative feeding frenzy – a titillating murder mystery at the heart of a traditionally news-starved August. But despite police searches, the evidence after 21 years was sketchy, circumstantial and ultimately insufficient. In January 1998, prosecutors dropped their charges and Park walked free. It didn’t stop the speculation, however – after an estimated 300 press articles that followed the discovery of the body, came true crime documentaries and even a fictional BBC drama called The Lakes, in which a husband murders his wife and dumps her body from his boat.

Then, in 2004, the crown reinstated charges, armed with new witnesses and evidence: experts in knot-tying to analyse the body parcel; rocks trawled from the lake bed and allegedly similar to some used in Park’s self-built home; two ‘prison snitches’ prompted by a TV documentary to claim they had heard a jail-cell confession from Park while on remand; and Mrs Young, her long memory similarly jogged by publicity. It looked at first sight a formidable raft of evidence but, more importantly, believes Jeremy, the further six-year lapse had only heightened emotions in an already prejudiced trial. He is convinced his father was found guilty in the court of public opinion long before the judge sentenced him last year to 15 years in Manchester’s Strangeways prison.

Which is why he has brought me back to the scene of his mother’s grim concealment today – in the hope a more level-headed assessment will show the bloody waste of her murder is now being compounded by a gross miscarriage of justice. Backed by a campaign team composed of friends and family – the people who know Gordon best – he is about to demonstrate how each of the planks of his father’s conviction is dangerously flawed.

“Look at that steamer,” he says, pointing at the tourist gondola passing us a few hundred metres offshore. “Can you really see the details of people even at this distance?” Even directly ahead of us, the passenger profiles are indistinct against the reflected sky – and this shore-side spot identified by Joan Young and her husband is more than a mile north of the site where the body was discovered, today barely visible behind an island.

Coming forward for the first time in 28 years after hearing of the re-arrest of Park in 2004, Mrs Young insisted to police she must have used binoculars, so vivid was her memory of the bespectacled face she saw: a male with “brown or auburn” hair that was “wavy or curly”. It proved an unfortunate detail: in fact, says his son, Gordon Park’s hair has always been straight and very dark. Unsurprisingly, the prosecution chose to focus on Mrs Young’s more generic description of a tall, slim man in a wetsuit and spectacles. She placed the date of the sighting around the end of July 1976 – as it was the year her husband proposed to her. Mr Young, meanwhile, provoked smirks in court by failing to remember any such thing.

“I’m sure Mrs Young is perfectly sincere about what she’s seen,” says Jeremy. “I’m just not sure it had anything to do with us. I don’t think she’s malicious. But sometimes, particularly after so many years, we see what we think we’re supposed to see.”

Gordon Park did indeed own a “small yacht” at the time of his arrest in 1997. But, in 1976, his only vessel was a racing dinghy designed for two sailors, which had never been kept at Coniston. From May that summer, it was being used for a sailing course on a completely different lake: Windermere. “In other words,” says Jeremy, “my father would have needed to drive it to one of the two public launching points in Coniston, rig and launch it, sail it five miles down the lake on his own, dispose of the body, then do everything in reverse and get it back to Windermere – all without being seen or missed at the height of the tourist season. If I was going to dispose of a body, I would choose a quieter lake and do it at night.”

In reality, he argues, his father was far too occupied with the demands of three young children to be able to murder their mother and dispose of her body without a trace of noise, blood or emotion. It is true though, that he had a classic motive: infidelity. Carol Park, a petite, vivacious school teacher described by one witness as “what you’d call ‘a goer’”, had left her husband repeatedly, without warning, to form relationships with other men. But Park, a well-respected fellow teacher who was awarded custody when she left, had always taken his wife back. At no time in their troubled marriage, she told her doctor in 1975, had he ever used violence or threats against her.

On the day of her disappearance – Saturday, July 17, 1976 – the family had arranged an outing to Blackpool when Carol dropped out, complaining of a headache. Jeremy, six at the time, never questioned his father’s version of events, not least because it tallies with his own vivid memories: the purchase of batteries for a Grundig radio to play Abba on the drive to the coast; a ride on the Wild Mouse rollercoaster; a Doctor Who exhibition where his sister was startled by a Dalek. And later, a return to an empty house, with only the abandoned wedding rings by way of explanation on the bedside table.

“I remember my dad sitting on the side of the double bed and I asked him, ‘Where’s mum?’ And he said, ‘She’s gone again’. He seemed sad and I asked him if he ever cried. ‘I am crying now,’ he said.”

It was six weeks before Gordon Park formally reported his wife missing – a fact which didn’t help his defence. “He did make some enquiries among close friends,” points out Jeremy. “But he didn’t go round publicising that his wife had left him, no. That was just his approach. She’d done it before – she’d be back, to contact the kids. We didn’t really know it was unusual until she didn’t come back to school.”

A missing person’s report yielded no answers. Two years later, Park filed for divorce on grounds of desertion and, after a short-lived second marriage, wed his current wife Jenny Marshall in 1993. His children told the court of an affectionate if occasionally strict father who did his best.

“What we had was all kinds of love and fun and enjoyment, and occasionally we got a smack,” says Jeremy. “But if every parent who smacked their children during the Seventies was automatically capable of murder, we’d have to include half the population. He’s a warm, gentle man, really, a big softy. He was very cuddly when we were kids. Used to make us Horlicks when we were watching Doctor Who on a Saturday night.”

It’s a very different picture to the one painted by the prosecution: that of an emotionally repressed, controlling killer – an arrogant “cold fish”, as a triumphant police chief would later put it – who planned the disposal of his wife’s body with the same meticulousness he brought to his beloved DIY. Accordingly, it was a comparison of the knots on the “body parcel” with those in Park’s house, garage and boat which led to the reinstatement of the murder charge. Yet even here, the evidence was so inconclusive that the prosecution’s knot expert retracted his arguments as the case went to trial. The knot most used on the body – a granny knot – had not been used by Park anywhere on his property. In any case, in an area full of climbers and yachtsmen, knots proved nothing. More central to the resurrected case was a piece of Westmoreland green slate found on the lake bed in 2004, held to be “very similar” to slate on Park’s house. But as even the prosecution eventually acknowledged, the slate had been worked in the Coniston area for hundreds of years and could have come from anywhere.

Another rock, said to have been found on the lake bed with some clothing was supposedly similar to rocks in Park’s garden wall. Bizarrely, however, the police diver credited with finding it fainted when it was produced in court. On recovering, he offered no explanation, but denied noticing the rock during his dive and said if he had he would have left it where it was. Subsequently, a geological expert for the defence said there was no evidence the rock had been in the water at all.

More potentially damning – if notoriously unreliable – was the evidence of two “jailhouse snitches” who claimed Park had confessed separately to them during his two-week remand in Preston prison in 1997. Leaving aside the unlikely scenario of a man who has steadfastly protested his innocence to family, friends and lawyers suddenly opening up to complete strangers, their testimony suffered from an embarrassing divergence of content.

Glen Banks, a “highly suggestible” man with a severe learning difficulty with whom Park had briefly shared a cell, claimed: “He said he killed his missus while on a boat in Blackpool.” Meanwhile, Michael Wainwright, a 12-joints-a-day cannabis addict with a tendency for “hearing voices”, claimed Park had told him he had gone upstairs, found his wife in bed with another man and killed her in a fit of rage. Quite apart from the problem of what happened to the lover, Park is unlikely to have given this account for one simple reason: his house was a bungalow.

Given the circumstantial nature of so much of the evidence, how did the jury come so unanimously to their guilty verdict? Jeremy Park watched it happen. It was, he said, etched on their faces from the moment his father took the stand with the unapologetic air of a schoolteacher addressing his class. “The jury just didn’t like him,” he says. “Forget innocent till proven guilty, you’ve got to prove your innocence. It’s as simple as that.”

In an era of instant emoting and reality TV, his father’s quiet dignity proved about as attractive to an urban jury as the Queen’s stiff upper lip following the death of Diana. “Nowadays, people want to see you crying your eyes out,” he says bitterly. “They want drama. So someone with my dad’s quiet demeanour, not an emotional person, doesn’t fare well. They voted him off, Big Brother style.”

It’s not hard to see Gordon Park in the tall bespectacled figure of his son. Throughout our meeting at the lakeside, and later pointing out the bungalow where he grew up, he keeps things resolutely factual, admitting only to feeling “angry” about what has happened – though his voice trembles for an instant when he describes fleeing court after the shock of seeing photos of his mother’s remains.

“When you’ve had your life ripped apart, your private life splattered all over the press, you’re going to feel a little bit angry and defensive,” he explains. “My father had faith in the legal system – that the prosecution would have to prove beyond all doubt he was guilty and that the jury would be good enough to see the proof just wasn’t there. I think we’ve all been very naive. Forget dignified silence. You need to go out shouting, get straight on the telly. It’s made me very cynical.”

At 62, with 14 years of his sentence still to go, Gordon Park is putting a typically stoical face on things: staying fit at the Strangeways gym, practising tai chi, taking a maths degree, discussing religion with his Muslim cellmate – and, of course, endlessly combing his tangled case for some new lead that might help his wife and family, campaigning furiously for him outside.

Their main hope for an appeal seems to lie in three important and so far unexplained sightings which suggest Carol was alive and well on the day her family drove off to Blackpool in 1976. One neighbour saw her at the bottom of the driveway; another saw an unidentified man and a VW Beetle car in the drive for about 20 minutes. Neither was subsequently traced. And at 6pm that night, a woman who knew Carol saw her rushing past without a greeting at the Charnock Richard services on the M6. “Fancy being snobby this far away from Barrow,” said the witness to her husband – unaware it would be the last time she would see her alive.

So who did kill Carol Ann Park? Was she with her killer that night? Jeremy has little confidence he’ll ever know for sure – at a distance of 30 years, few potential witnesses could be confident of their memories, if indeed they’re still alive. “Probably she met somebody that she’d been having an affair with, decided to meet that morning while we were in Blackpool, either for the day or longer – then changed her mind, which she did quite a lot, and got into a fight. I doubt it was cold-blooded murder, probably the heat of the moment – but the man found himself with a body on his hands and had to dispose of it.”

Various names – including some ex-policemen – have suggested themselves to Jeremy from the string of his mother’s lovers. But there’s no real evidence against them, principally, he believes, because none was sought. “Everything is driven by how to get a successful prosecution,” he says. “The word ‘truth’ never appears on Crown Prosecution Service policies. After the first few days, when the police have committed themselves to a particular direction, a particular suspect, they don’t easily back down.”

Oddly, the police files from the crucial 1976 missing persons inquiry had gone missing by the time the case came to trial – denying both sides even the benefit of the most accurate and contemporary witness statements.

The family knew at least one man with the capacity for violence: in what the prosecution called a “rare and appalling coincidence”, Carol’s younger sister, Christine, had been murdered by a boyfriend at the age of 17 in 1969, leaving a daughter, Vanessa, whom the Parks adopted as their own. That boyfriend, John Rapson, was out of prison at the time of Carol’s murder, and conceded in a police interview he had been in Barrow in July 1976. While there is no suggestion he murdered Carol, he is one of several men known to her who would make far more plausible suspects than Park.

Ultimately, of course, only one man knows for sure if Gordon Park is innocent – and that’s Gordon Park himself. But standing at this lakeside, recalling teenage picnics, Jeremy cannot believe his father could have knowingly and happily sailed his children over the very place where their missing mother lay grotesquely bundled below.

“If I thought my dad had killed my mum, I would let him rot in that prison,” he says, grimly. “But that’s not the truth. We’re dealing here with a terrible miscarriage of justice. My mum is the obvious victim – she’s dead. But my dad has become another victim. He’s locked up every day for a crime he didn’t commit – and we can’t allow that to happen.”

23rd July 2006

Since this article first appeared, Gordon Park committed suicide on his 66th birthday after five years in prison. His son continues to fight to clear his name in the courts.

Posting your comment...

  • Follow Nick

    • RSS Feed
    • SoundCloud
    • Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Pinterest
    • LinkedIn
  • Latest Posts

  • Blog categories