Amid the unassuming environs of Beddau in South Wales, Ann Sabine cut something of an unlikely dash. The 74-year-old pensioner claimed to be a former supermodel called Lee from Australia and a cabaret star once married to a millionaire.

With bleached blonde hair and dressed in youthful black, she swanned around the former mining village near Pontypridd, chain-smoking, calling everyone "darling" in her strong Antipodean accent and telling how she had fled her "bastard" husband after being 'battered'.

She was rehoused, she said, by a women's charity. 'I had to start all over again from nothing,' she told one visitor to her pristine, if cluttered, council flat.

The reality, as it emerged this week, could not have been further from the truth.

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Ann, a Welsh coalminer's daughter, was not Australian and never a supermodel. Her husband, John, was certainly not a millionaire. And if anyone was doing any battering, it seems likely now that it was Ann.

A couple of weeks after she died in hospital in October from cancer, her husband's skeleton was found in the garden behind the small two-storey council block where she lived. An autopsy revealed he had suffered a blunt-force trauma to the head.

The former accountant's body, detectives announced this week, had been wrapped in plastic and hidden for 18 years inside Ann's two-bedroom flat before being dumped near bins outside. Ann is now the main suspect in a murder inquiry.

But this extraordinary crime has so far raised far more questions than it has answered, particularly for those who thought they knew her.

Violet Scott, a 75-year-old neighbour, said this week: "She was great fun, very lively and friendly. I'm profoundly shocked at the turn of events. She reminded me of Dame Edna Everage. She was such a character. She was always waving her arms around when she talked and called everyone babe or darling."

Another friend, who asked not to be named, added: "I can't take it in. I always knew she was eccentric, but this is astonishing."

This friend's father was nursed by Ann in his dying days.

"He lived in the same block of flats and she put her own life on hold to nurse him," she says. "Nothing was too much trouble for her. I can't believe that she could have killed her husband and hidden his body all these years."

Certainly, the face the pensioner presented to the world is utterly at odds with sinister revelations since her death.

An investigation by the Mail this week has uncovered that behind this so-called "perfect murder" is a story of domestic strife and betrayal spanning more than half a century and two continents.

By the time she died, Ann Sabine was estranged from her entire family, including her grown-up children now living in New Zealand. She and John emigrated there in the 1960s before abandoning their two boys and three girls in a state-run nursery in Auckland and eventually returning to the United Kingdom without them.

When Korean War veteran John vanished in 1997, no one missed him and no one reported his disappearance.

"She almost never mentioned her husband," says a friend who spoke to the Mail. 'The only time I can remember, she just said he was a 'bastard'. That was it."

Nearly eight weeks after Ann Sabine's funeral at Glyntaff Crematorium, separating fact from fiction is a complicated affair.

John Sabine is believed to have been murdered by his wife Ann. Photo / Supplied
John Sabine is believed to have been murdered by his wife Ann. Photo / Supplied

But inquiries into Ann's past by the Mail this week have unearthed a tragic childhood, with one relative claiming she was left "damaged and disturbed" after being abandoned by her own mother, Margaret Evans, at the age of 5.

"It turned her into the devil woman and she grew up to be an evil woman," says Sian Bundy, who lives in Ton Pentre in the Rhondda Valley.

The cousins said Ann's mother had been born into a respectable working-class, chapel-going family, but turned to minor crime — she was accused of stealing, among other things, a National Coal Board chequebook — before deserting her children and running away (just as her daughter would later desert hers).

She was never seen by the family again and Ann and her 2-year-old sister, Susan, were shunted between relatives, a Catholic orphanage and a foster home.

"A black car arrived one morning to take them to a children's home about 10 miles away," Ms Bundy recalls. "The girls were screaming. It must have been frightening to be taken off by strangers. They were so young.

"I feel quite sorry for Ann. No one wanted her when she was a little girl. I'm sure that's why she turned out to be someone capable of murder."

When their father, Ronald, remarried, the girls returned to live at home briefly before a "rebellious, scheming" Ann was sent to live with her aunt Dorothy and uncle Leslie in London.

"There was a nasty streak in her. She was a devil child. She would tell lies, cause trouble. She did all sorts of nasty things."

According to Ann's cousin, the childless couple spoiled their 16-year-old niece, buying her outfits in the style of Hollywood child-star Deanna Durbin. She was also encouraged to follow in the footsteps of her aunt, an assistant matron at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, and train as a nurse.

For the first time in her life, Ann had an opportunity to make something of herself, but then, aged 17, she met 28-year-old John Sabine, a patient at the hospital, and embarked on a torrid affair with him. When she became pregnant, John Sabine's wife — the mother of his two toddler children — threw him out.

One of those two children, Christopher Sabine, now 59, said: "All I know is that Ann turned up pregnant and said to my mum, 'What are you going to do about this?'"

After his father had left home, Christopher and his older sister, Caroline, were told that he had died in the Korean War. In fact, John Sabine was now starting a new family with his lover.

John and Ann's first child, Susan, was born in January 1959, although they weren't free to marry until November 1960. Over the next five years, during which three more children were born — Steven, Martin and Jane — they moved from Kent to Hereford and then to Swansea before finally emigrating to New Zealand not long after the birth of their fourth child in 1965. Once they'd arrived down under, a fifth child, Lee-Ann, was born in 1967.

Given the number of children they had together, the Sabines' emigration might easily have been put down to their desire to give their young family a better life.

But this week, details emerged in New Zealand of how the pair abandoned their children when they were aged between 2 and 11, selling up their home and moving to Perth in Western Australia. According to reports in New Zealand, the pair went on the run after John Sabine was accused of fraud.

What is clear is that Ann, now styling herself Lee Martin, was trying to build a career as a nightclub singer.

A publicity shot from the time, a blown-up version of which was on display in Ann's flat when she died, shows an attractive young woman, with carefully coiffed hair and dangling earrings, exuding confidence, with no trace of the children she had left behind in her unsuccessful quest for fame and fortune.

The "child-dumping" couple briefly became a cause célèbre in the New Zealand media. An investigation was launched by New Zealand's Minister of Social Welfare, but no charges were ever brought.

In a bid to defend themselves, the couple gave an interview to the old Auckland Star newspaper under the headline "Runaway mum: I did it for love . . . Family dream went wrong", with Ann Sabine claiming they had gone to Australia to raise money to support their children but were so broke they could not afford the air fare back to see them again.

She said: "We felt cheap, dirty. But we adored our children and wanted to be with them so badly."

However, as was often the case with Ann Sabine, most of this was lies. The truth is that when her singing career failed to take off, the couple quietly moved in 1972 back to New Zealand, where they bred English springer spaniels and simply didn't bother to get in touch with their children.

When they eventually tried to do so in the mid-1980s, it ended in furious rows. The Sabines decided to return to the UK, leaving the children behind once and for all. Indeed, until their mother's name made headlines across the world this week, the Sabine children had heard nothing of their parents for 30 years.

Back in the UK, John and Ann set up home in an elegant Victorian townhouse overlooking the River Kennet in Reading. In August 1992 — five years before John Sabine was last seen alive — an attention-seeking Ann appeared in the Reading Post after being sacked from her job at a department store apparently for being over-friendly to customers.

Described as "a flame-haired mother of five", she had ignored a written warning from bosses at Jackson and Sons in Reading to stop calling customers "babe" and "darling".

She told the paper: "They obviously thought I was some sort of tart because of my nails and colourful hair. When they said they were going to sack me I thought, 'My talents are for hire but my pride ain't for sale, darling'."

Her former employer, Edward Jackson, described her as "eccentric".

Soon the Sabines were on the move again, this time returning to Wales and the former coalmining area where Ann had endured such an unhappy childhood.

Her cousin, Sian, claims that at one stage Ann contacted her family asking for money and threatening suicide if they didn't oblige. "I remember my grandfather saying, 'That's the best thing she could do for everyone'."

According to the electoral roll, the Sabines moved to their final home — a small two-bedroom council flat in Beddau — in 1997 although John was apparently killed shortly after. No one living in the Trem-Y-Cwm block of flats can remember ever seeing him, although it seems Ann cheerfully continued to claim his pension after murdering him.

Visitors insist they never smelt anything strange or saw anything out of the ordinary, although one recalls that Ann had access via a hatch in the hallway to roof space.

Other neighbours noticed how she became a very keen gardener in the shared outdoor area.

If she really did kill her husband, Ann Sabine never showed any sign of guilt or remorse. Over the past 18 years, she appeared to be living life to the full, tending the garden and even embarking on a relationship with retired fireman Derek Ellis, who briefly moved into her home. When he died in 2010, aged 59, from alcoholic liver disease, she placed a tribute to him in the local paper, saying: "Love and peace my darling."

But one of Ellis' daughters, 34-year-old Bethan, claimed this week that Ann was a cold-hearted "ice queen".

"We think she just used him. Then when she was tired of him, she just kicked him out. She told a lot of lies. They had a rocky relationship. I'm glad Dad's not around for this, so he doesn't have to go through her mess."

And what a mess it is. Ann Sabine has clearly left a devastating trail in her wake. Her son Steve Sabine, now 53 and living in Taranaki, places the blame for their appalling childhoods firmly with his mother.

"My father was a good man," he said, "a soft-hearted man, but she was a conniving bitch. I could never forgive him for what he did, but I still believe he was manipulated and he fell in love with an evil woman. That was his biggest crime."

In her own final years, Ann was as flamboyant as ever. She introduced herself by her old showbiz name, Lee, and had a reputation for telling tall stories. Those around her were never sure what was true and what was not when she rattled off tales of cabaret stardom.

Then, in January 2014, after having a make-over, she confidently posed for a photographer at her hairdresser's salon and inside her flat, pulling sultry faces and flaunting herself as if she was still a young woman.

'It gives me the heebie-jeebies now to think that there might have been a body in there,' says the photographer, who didn't want to be identified.

Craig Lobban, landlord of the Crown Inn pub in Beddau, claims that Ann was "just a bit mad".

"What's sort of funny is we all sort of knew what she'd done before the police did," he said. "She made an outburst in her hair salon before she died about not bothering to bury her husband. She told all the girls it was too expensive to pay for a funeral."

Last August, Ann, who had previously suffered from breast cancer, fell at home. A hospital scan revealed that she was riddled with cancer. As she lay dying in Royal Glamorgan Hospital in October, her mind was clearly overwhelmed with thoughts of the home she knew she would never see again.

Her belongings weren't worth much, but she cared enough about her Victorian-style knick-knacks to buy a will-writing kit from the Post Office and state that she wanted to leave "everything" to a friend.

If South Wales police are correct in their suspicions, there was something else in her flat that she also needed to dispose of, something far more sinister.

She left written instructions for her home to be cleared after her death and it appears that her wishes were carried out, possibly by someone who had no idea of the grisly contents inside the package they dumped by the bins.

Why she would have wanted to kill the man who stuck with her for better, and mostly for worse, for 40 years is another story entirely, a secret that Ann Sabine has apparently now taken to her grave.