Malcolm Webster: The Fire Starter

By Susan Edmunds

As convicted wife-killer Malcolm Webster prepares to appeal the verdict that has sent him to jail for 30 years, the New Zealand woman whose survival instinct brought him to justice is trying to rebuild her life with the son they had together. But, Susan Edmunds reports, the three women who Webster tried to dupe and kill may be just the tip of the iceberg

The Shore Porters Society was destroyed in a suspicious blaze. Malcolm Webster (inset).
Photos / Evening Express / Supplied
The Shore Porters Society was destroyed in a suspicious blaze. Malcolm Webster (inset). Photos / Evening Express / Supplied

Teenager Edward Drumm was asleep at his home on Auckland's North Shore when his mother, Felicity, answered the phone in the next room. In the early hours of her 51st birthday, she was told Edward's father had been found guilty of murder, attempted murder, arson and fraud charges.

She cried tears of relief - it was a call she'd been waiting to receive for 12 painful years, and through the longest trial in Scottish history.

But on the other side of the world from his son and estranged wife, Malcolm Webster was as emotionless as ever. Through months of evidence, he'd sat, expressionless, as women who loved him poured out their heart-wrenching evidence of betrayal.

The only time anyone saw his facade crack? When he was asked to hand over his iPhone, as he was led to the cells for the first time as prisoner number 111737.

Webster, 52, poisoned, started fires, killed one woman and tried to murder two more in a hideously organised criminal career that spanned decades.

Journalist Charles Lavery, who followed the trial and has just published a book about Webster, called The Black Widower, says it is likely there are more victims around the world, not yet identified.

Webster killed his first wife, Claire Morris, by drugging her, staging a car crash and setting the car alight with her inside. He'd tried the same with Felicity, drugging her at least from their wedding day, right through her pregnancy with Edward. It was his intention to burn her to death in a drug-induced coma in a forest north of Auckland.
It was only her father's suspicions that saved her.

When Webster was finally captured by police, 12 years after fleeing New Zealand, he was engaged to be married to another woman - who later found her lifejacket on her yacht had been butchered.

Webster was driven by money, pure and simple, Lavery says.

He had decided he deserved better than his station in life, and money was the only way to get to his rightful position. "Money is his god. With that came power and control."

Lavery says Webster's case is particularly chilling because how he got he money didn't matter to him. "The women didn't matter."

His targets were independently wealthy - apart from Claire, on whom he took out multiple life insurance policies that paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds. Felicity had a mortgage-free house and was saving her tax-free earnings when she met him in the United Arab Emirates. His third would-be murder victim, Simone Banarjee, had a valuable trust fund.

If he'd been successful in killing Felicity, he stood to gain almost $750,000 in life insurance payouts. He also claimed tens of thousands of pounds in insurance payouts on fires he started.

He wiped out Felicity's savings to such an extent that she can't even afford to divorce him. Forensic lawyers trying to track down any compensation came up with nothing.
Lavery says: "He's either buried it in a hole or he's spent it all on the finer things in life."

Something women in particular find difficult to understand about the case is how so many intelligent, attractive women fell for Webster. Middle-aged, overweight, balding - at the trial he was hardly a pin-up. By comparison, Felicity is a pretty, slim blonde woman with striking pale blue eyes.

But Lavery says Webster hasn't always looked like an overweight everyman. "At the time he married Felicity and Claire he was good-looking, slim with a clipped English accent." He was good company, Lavery says, charming and fun - an English gentleman who swept women off their feet.

He knew how to pick his targets, too. Apart from 30-year-old Claire, Webster's targets were women in their mid-to-late 30s and early-40s, who saw him as their last chance for children.

Lavery says Webster's secret was in playing the long game. Things that might have set off alarm bells, such as taking control of bank accounts and having statements sent to a post office box, were drawn out over such a long period that they went unnoticed.

And Felicity's parents say it's not just the women who were taken in. Webster walked into their lives, too, destroying the whole family's innocence. "It's been unreal," said her elderly mother, Margaret. "It's like something that was happening to someone else and we were just watching from the side-lines."

The logistics of Webster's offending beggar belief. He often had multiple women on the go - once taking a girlfriend to Paris while Banarjee thought he was in London having chemotherapy for his faked leukemia. Says Lavery: "It's quite a phenomenal mind that can organise that."

Webster is set to appeal his sentence and conviction at a hearing in a couple of months, claiming the jury wasn't given a full picture when shown a reconstruction of the Morris crash. But Lavery says Webster hasn't a hope.

Back in Takapuna, Drumm is just focusing on getting on with her life.

With Webster in jail, the custody battle for Edward has at least come to an end. For years she was in the unenviable position of battling to retain custody of him while trying to get his father locked up for trying to murder her.

Funded by his father, Webster waged a long legal battle in the New Zealand courts. As it raged, all Drumm could say was that her estranged husband was the subject of a police probe.

Drumm said: "The family put me through years of court proceedings and never faced up to the reality of what he'd done."

Edward has copped some teasing at school for being the son of a murderer, but he's not heard from his father in a long time.

Drumm just wants this chapter of her life closed. "He picked the wrong family . . . he made a mistake taking on the Drumms."

Felicity Drumm was in all senses of the phrase a self-made woman. Sitting at the dinner table in a friend's Riyadh home, she was taken by the big Englishman next to her, with his clipped tones.

She liked him, he made her laugh. For once she had reason to thank her friends for inviting someone for her. Some of their previous choices had been the subject of frank exchanges after the cheese and biscuits.

Nurse Felicity had spent a large part of her life working hard to make her future more secure. It was why she was in Riyadh. That, a broken heart and a mortgage that needed paying.

She had not found the time to look for a partner, so her friends had been doing the job for her. Working 10-hour shifts at the local King Fahd Hospital did not leave a lot of time for socialising, but at least, by 1996, Felicity had managed to pay off that $100,000 mortgage back home in Auckland and was building up a nice nest egg in her bank account, tax-free, of course.

This solid work ethic had been instilled in her by her father Brian, a Takapuna high school principal. She had been brought up in a loving, happy family home where she learned that hard work brought its own rewards.

Now here she was, reaping those rewards, enjoying a dinner party, listening to Malcolm Webster, a handsome 30-something, regale her with tales of travelling the world.
Felicity was happy. Life was finally going her way.

Felicity said she was instantly attracted to Webster, although in the beginning he pushed their relationship harder than she did. The Kiwi cancer nurse found him funny, witty and entertaining. "He spoke like a BBC announcer and I found him a bit twee because he referred to his parents as 'mummy' and 'daddy'.

Webster's middle-class jovial computer-geek image seemed to earn the trust, then the affection of women around him. He wasn't a sexual predator, he was an English gentleman.

Within a few months of meeting Webster, Felicity had opened her heart to him on her reasons for being in Riyadh. She told him she was now mortgage-free iand had money in the bank, thanks to the pay rates and the long work hours.

By January 1997, just eight months after meeting her at that dinner party, Webster had proposed to Felicity. The eight months preceding the proposal had been bliss, with chocolates, flowers and the love of a kind, caring man. Felicity agreed without hesitation.

They returned to New Zealand and married in St Andrew's Catholic church in Milford on Auckland's North Shore, on 26 April 1997. The family threw a huge party. Webster impressed his new in-laws, Brian and Margaret, with his open, affable character. Felicity's sister Jane was especially impressed after Malcolm called to ask her advice on whether Felicity would like diamond and sapphire earrings as her 'something blue' on their wedding day. "Who wouldn't?" was Jane's reply.

The happy couple honeymooned at Cooks Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula but something strange happened on the first night.

Felicity, who had packed fish and lamb chops to take to the remote beach idyll for the first two nights' meals, made dinner for them, then, after drinking a cup of tea, she slept for a solid 36 hours. When she finally came to, she was shocked. Nothing like that had ever happened before; she was a fit, healthy woman.

"I challenged him when I couldn't believe he had left me sleeping for 36 hours," Felicity recalled. "But he said I'd woken up and gone back to bed but obviously couldn't remember. He even said he had fed me. He was my closest friend; I would have no reason to be suspicious of him at all."

Felicity had felt so unwell after the coma-like sleep that she sought medical help. The sleeping and symptoms of fatigue continued long after they returned from their honeymoon.

Felicity was worried enough about the fatigue to get checked out. Dr Jonathan Simcock, a neurologist with 45 years' experience, examined Felicity after she complained of blackouts, headaches, double vision and fatigue.

She also told the doctor there was an acrid, bitter taste to everything she ate.
Dr Simcock, 73, initially diagnosed a vertebral migraine. He had wanted to reassure Felicity that she did not have epilepsy or a brain tumour.

Around this time, the couple decided to relocate to Scotland, where Webster had found employment in Aberdeen. However, two days before the couple left New Zealand, Felicity received some disturbing news from her GP, Dr Julie Hancock, after a blood test.

The results showed a problem with Felicity's liver. Her symptoms displayed the same characteristics as those for victims of date-rape drugs. While, of course, this was worrying, the hassles and logistics of moving abroad forced her concerns to the bottom of her list of priorities.

The couple flew to Scotland in May 1997, and moved into Easter Letter Cottage at Lyne of Skene, Aberdeenshire, for Webster to begin his new job. A few months after they arrived in the northeast of Scotland, Felicity broke the news to Webster that she was pregnant with their first child. She naturally expected tears of joy. Instead, Webster reacted in fury.

He charted all the reasons they should not have a child, how much babies cost to raise being top of the list. Felicity says he did eventually calm down and even began to look forward to the birth.

Throughout this time, she was sleeping for long periods, slurring her words and losing her balance. She became so concerned that there might be a risk to the health of her unborn son that she went to the doctor when she was 16 weeks pregnant. No conclusion could be reached and it was put down to the stress of the move and the pregnancy.

In September 1997, Felicity had her first glimpse of Webster's fascination with fire, when she arrived home to find their rural home partly gutted by fire. Webster was already there, and he said he had come home in the nick of time. He told her not to worry as they were insured. Her handbag, containing her New Zealand driving licence and other identification documents, was never seen again.

Several months later, Felicity spotted her driver's licence propped up on her husband's desk in his study but, assuming he had simply forgotten to mention that he had managed to recover some items after all, she thought little more about it.

With the birth of their son Edward in May 1998, the couple decided to move back to New Zealand so that Felicity could be closer to her family. In preparation for the move, they put all their belongings in storage at the huge Shore Porters Society facility in Aberdeen, a long-established and respected Scottish moving firm. On November 12, 1998, the massive storage facility was set alight.

The fire raged for days and more than 80 fire fighters attended the scene. The final cost of the blaze and the destroyed goods within its compound exceeded £5 million ($9.7m).

A detailed investigation into the cause of the fire concluded that workmen repairing a section of the roof had somehow left a hot gas blowtorch on the roof which had ignited.

It transpired that Webster had been there moments before the blaze took hold, to retrieve some vital paperwork from his storage space.

He had been sitting with Felicity and visiting friends, watching an episode of London's Burning, the drama series about fire fighters, when he announced that he was heading out to buy some recordable CDs from a computer shop next door to the Shore Porters facility.

He told Felicity he would pop into Shore Porters while he was there to pick up some paperwork for his brother Ian. He drove to the storage facility and returned home some time later. Webster, Felicity and their friends then watched events unfold on TV as news broke of the massive blaze.

TV crews broadcast live on the night.

Felicity recalled: "When the warehouse burned down we lost everything. All I had was a single suitcase. It was a horrendous time."

But Malcolm had calmly told her, "It's all insured. It's only things."

Owners of the Shore Porters Society have always denied their workers caused the fire. No one has been convicted of starting the 1998 fire and it was not treated as suspicious.
One week after the blaze, Webster filed an insurance claim to the firm for £87,847 ($171,000). CGU Insurance disputed the amount and Webster was even quoted in the local newspaper complaining about the delay in paying out his claim. They eventually settled the claim and paid Webster £68,000. Shortly afterwards, the couple left for New Zealand.

When they finally returned to Auckland in late 1998, they stayed with Felicity's parents, Brian and Margaret, while they finalised the purchase of a new home they had set their hearts on in Takapuna.

By this time, Webster and Felicity had pooled their resources. He was to sell his cottage in Aberdeenshire and contribute the proceeds to the new house. She had also allowed her new husband access to her bank account and would put up the other half of the cost of the house. She sold her own mortgage-free home to give them a chance of a bigger new home.

Webster told her he was having real problems having his share for the new house transferred from Scotland. This dragged on into early 1999, until it was getting perilously close to Felicity losing the huge deposit she had put down on the house.

Then, in February 1999, disaster struck. There had been an arson attack at the six-bedroom villa on the North Shore, where Felicity longed to bring up their son. She had already staked $60,000 on it by way of a deposit. Someone had pushed papers through the letterbox and set light to them.

A few days later, with just one week left to sign the papers on the new home, and with no sign of her husband's money arriving from Scotland, they were roused from their slumber at her parents' home by yet another fire. Webster, who had been in the bathroom a short time earlier, was awoken by Felicity after she heard a loud crack. He told her to go back to sleep.

She insisted he check out the noise. Eventually, he got up and, on seeing the blaze, raised the alarm. An armchair was on fire in an upstairs living room. Felicity grabbed baby Edward from his cot and fled outside the family home, while her dad Brian ran up and down stairs with buckets of water and Webster filled a kettle from the toilet to help extinguish the flames.

As they were tackling the blaze, Webster told a stunned Brian Drumm, "We'll laugh about this later."

Felicity was shocked by this series of events and she realised they could easily have died. But at this time she was also sleeping for long periods and still struggling with her health.

February 12, 1999, was the final deadline for signing the paperwork on the new house. Felicity and Webster got into her Honda Accord to drive to the bank and her lawyer's office in Auckland. After everything they had been through, and with all the setbacks, it was a huge relief.

In the absence of Malcolm's money appearing from Scotland, Felicity's dad had put up some of his life savings and persuaded a lawyer friend to help with the rest. Malcolm assured them it would be only a matter of weeks before their investment would be repaid, when the "archaic" Scottish banking system finally got around to wiring Malcolm's share.

As they drove over the Auckland Harbour Bridge to the bank on that fateful day, Webster began to complain that the car steering was "wonky" and that he was having trouble controlling the car. As they reached the Northwestern motorway, Webster shouted at Felicity that the car was out of control.

She said: "We were travelling at high speed and he was weaving across lanes. The car went across to the right across two lanes of traffic, then back across another two lanes of traffic.

"We were travelling at high speed towards a motorway lamp which was going to hit my side of the car. I was screaming at Malcolm to watch out for the lamp. I grabbed the steering wheel and turned it towards Malcolm. There wasn't anything wrong with the steering, the car responded."

The car ended up in a ditch, but there was only minor damage and neither Felicity nor Webster was injured. Webster got out immediately and shouted at Felicity to stay inside the Honda. She had other ideas.

"He jumped out and was screaming at me to stay in the car and that it was too dangerous to get out. Malcolm opened the boot, but there was no way I was staying in a ditch."

When Felicity insisted on carrying on to the bank and to the lawyer's office to sort out the finance for the house they planned to buy, Webster clutched his chest and claimed he was having a heart attack.

A police officer who arrived on the scene called an ambulance for Webster. "He clutched his chest again, went all clammy, said he was in pain and got all tearful," Felicity said. "He said, 'I love you, Felicity,' and said he had left me well provided for if anything happened."

He begged her to go with him to hospital and, even though she knew they were risking losing their dream home and an awful lot of money, she realised she had to go. "I would have struggled if he had died and I was off at the bank," she explained.

Traffic policeman Anthony Wood, 45, was one of the first officers to arrive at the scene. Webster told him that he had been travelling at 90km/h when the vehicle veered to the left uncontrollably, went down a bank and hit a tree.

Wood noticed that there was only very slight damage to the Honda Accord, which Webster had been driving, and wrote him a ticket for careless driving.

Felicity was beginning to unravel, and could not believe the run of bad luck that had followed them since their happy courtship in Saudi Arabia.

Six days later, on February 18, their fortunes seemed to change. Malcolm announced that the money he had been waiting on had finally arrived and they could now press ahead with their plans to buy the villa. He told Felicity to get their son dressed as he was taking them all for a picnic to celebrate and had found a lovely spot a short drive away.
Felicity set about putting together a family picnic. As she drove to the designated picnic spot, with Webster giving directions beside her, they argued playfully over the best way to get there. Webster handed her a water bottle "to keep your fluids up".

That's the last thing Felicity can remember, until the incessant ringing of a mobile telephone roused her from yet another deep slumber.

"It was three in the afternoon. I was slumped in the passenger seat of our car, struggling to open my eyes and didn't have a clue how I had got there. I could hear the mobile phone ringing, that's what woke me up. As I struggled to push myself up in the car I realised I was in a remote forest, almost dark because the pine trees stretched up to the sky all around. Everything was blurry but I could see Malcolm pushing our son in his buggy about 300 yards (274m) away down a rough track.

"I answered the mobile and it was my dad, sounding very anxious. 'Felicity, you have to come home right now. It doesn't matter what Malcolm says, you just have to stop whatever you're doing and get home. It's serious.'

"I knew something was very wrong so I clambered out the car and shouted to Malcolm to come back. He had a complete meltdown. 'What the hell are you doing awake?' he shouted. 'You need to get back to sleep. I was just going for walk.'

"He didn't want to go back home but I said I thought something really bad had happened to someone in the family and we should drive back immediately. On the way back to my sister's house, Malcolm was really sweating and was very agitated.

"As we pulled into the driveway, he said, 'Your dad's going to tell you a lot of nonsense about me and your money'." The moment we stopped, Malcolm walked off. "My parents arrived. My father sat me down and said, 'Felicity, all your money is gone.' At that moment, I knew my husband had been trying to kill me and that he had killed his first wife."

The telephone call Brian Drumm made that day undoubtedly saved his daughter's life. As he roused her from her slumber, he had no idea he was ruining a well-constructed murder plot.

When Felicity got home to her father's house, she was horrified to find the boot of the car filled with petrol, wood and newspapers. She believes the man she loved was pushing their son away to safety before returning to the car to set it alight. This realisation buckled her knees. She also realised that she had been drugged that day, and probably from the first day of their honeymoon, if not before.

"He was administering drugs to me from the start, even when I was pregnant. At 16 weeks, I had tests because I thought there could be something wrong with my baby."

Baby Edward had always suffered badly from eczema. It cleared up a matter of weeks after his father walked out of his life. Hair samples sent for testing also confirmed the prolonged presence of drugs in her system. The news was another hammer blow.
Felicity Drumm is a strong, clever woman, from a strong, clever family and Webster would discover this to his cost.

Felicity says she owes her dad her life. Suspicious about his daughter's blackouts and poor health, Brian began looking into her new husband, especially after he was faced with risking his life savings on the promise of money from Webster. Felicity, her world reduced to cold hard facts relayed by her father, could barely breathe.

Webster had even begun to plan his escape. "I opened Malcolm's laptop and saw emails to estate agents back in Devon and Cornwall saying he was moving back with his infant son and was interested in several properties," she said. There were return tickets from Auckland to the UK for him and young Edward. One person was missing. The wife he had planned to kill.

Felicity and her dad searched their home and discovered a briefcase containing nine insurance documents, bearing Felicity's signature, documents that she had never signed. Her mind immediately flashed back to the driving licence propped up on Malcolm's desk, the one seemingly lost in the flames at their Aberdeen home. Had he been practising forging her signature?

The life insurance policies valued her life at $1.9 million. Here was his deception laid bare. Her dad hugged her as they attempted to piece it all together. He knew one thing above all else, his daughter had been a very lucky girl. "I was absolutely gutted," Felicity revealed. "I couldn't imagine how anyone could do this to somebody else who had done nothing but love and care for them. And I had a child with this man."

"The full horror hit me. My husband was trying to kill me. That moment in the forest was meant to be my last."

Almost every penny she had, over $390,000, was now resting in Webster's Clydesdale Bank account in Aberdeen, Scotland. Felicity realised she had nothing left. Her bank account now showed a balance of just $12.

By this time, Webster had booked into a motel room in Auckland. Felicity arranged to meet him the next day to confront him. She met him in the carpark of the motel as her uncle sat nearby. She told Webster she knew what he had planned for her.

Chillingly, he replied, "I gave you a son and a good life - you'd have died happy." These were the last words she got from a man to whom she had given her life to, whose son she had borne. Those made of lesser stuff might have crumbled. Felicity Drumm headed straight to her local police station.

Her husband Malcolm headed for the airport.

- Herald on Sunday

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