Alix Sharkey tells Rosie Kinchen about the horror of finding out that his sibling Stuart Campbell had murdered a 15-year-old Essex schoolgirl. Twenty years on, can he finally persaude Stuart to reveal what he did with her body?
In June 2001 Alix Sharkey's mother called him in tears. "She said, 'The police have been here asking about Stuart,' " he says. Sharkey, a freelance journalist who was living in Paris at the time, couldn't understand what the police wanted with his younger brother, Stuart Campbell. Nor could he understand why his mother was so upset.
She kept saying that the police wanted to talk about "that girl". It was only after he reassured her and put the phone down that he remembered seeing a story on the BBC News website a few days earlier. A schoolgirl had gone missing from East Tilbury, Essex. There had been a photograph; a young girl in school uniform with butter-blonde hair and a self-conscious smile. He hadn't thought much about it at the time, but now he logged back on and read the story properly. "And then, of course, the ground shifted underneath me," he says.
The missing girl was Danielle Jones, the 15-year-old niece of Stuart's wife, Debbie. Danielle had been a bridesmaid at Stuart and Debbie's wedding a few years earlier, along with Sharkey's own daughter — they had posed together in photographs dressed in pastel pink.
Sharkey, 64, who is riding out the pandemic in Barbados with his wife, has spent 20 years trying hard not to think about what happened next. He moved from Paris to Miami, then to New York and on to Los Angeles, where he taught English, telling only a handful of people the truth about his family. "I did that because no one wants to be thinking about my brother, the killer," he says. "You don't want that idea at the forefront of your mind."
He is confronting it now because time is running out. His brother, who was convicted for the murder and abduction of Danielle Jones in 2002, will be eligible for parole at the end of this year. He wants Campbell, 63, to do the right thing and tell Danielle's parents what he did with her body. Without any means of communicating with him — Campbell cut off contact with his brother shortly before the trial — Sharkey has written a book, an unflinching account of how, week after painful week, he came to realise that his brother was not the person he believed him to be. It is also a devastating look at the violent childhood that bound the brothers together and from which only one of them was able to escape.
Sharkey, who took his mother's maiden name, and Campbell, who kept his father's surname, grew up in Grays, Essex, the elder two of three children in a working-class family. There was violence everywhere; in the streets, at school, but the worst of it was at home. Their father, a charismatic Scot, was also a brutal alcoholic who "savagely and frequently" beat them all whenever he was back from his job as a chef with the merchant navy. Sharkey remembers hiding under his mother's skirt with his brother and sister while their father threatened to beat their mother around the head with a frying pan. On another occasion, at the age of nine, his father threw him against a wall and beat him so hard he couldn't breathe.
The boys incubated rage, long after their mother was finally able to dislodge their father from the family home, and long after he became a fixture in the bus stops and alleyways, entertaining the other alcoholics, the "king of the drunks", as Sharkey describes him. But their anger manifested itself in different ways. Sharkey got into grammar school, discovered drugs and the Rolling Stones. He went to art college and drifted into journalism. His brother failed the exam and was sent to a residential school for bright but maladjusted boys. He came back even angrier. "The first couple of times Stuart comes home for the holidays, we fight like brothers. But as we get older and bigger, we fight more like thugs," Sharkey writes. One time a fraternal spat escalated into a flurry of blows and Campbell plunged an 8in hunting knife into his brother's shin.
Campbell continued on this path into his twenties. He got his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant and fell into a pattern of low-level criminality, serving several prison sentences for offences such as handling stolen goods and theft — or so his family thought. But by the time of Danielle's disappearance they believed that was behind him. He had started a building business and was expecting a child with Debbie, his second wife.
"He bought a three-bedroom house, a car, and he had nice foreign holidays," Sharkey remembers. "It was outwardly respectable."
The anger that characterised Stuart's youth seemed to have disappeared overnight, replaced with a passion for bodybuilding and iron self-discipline. "To the best of my knowledge, after he got out of prison for the last time — I think it was 1984 — he never got into a fight with anyone, and he was a big guy."
It wasn't until police contacted Sharkey a week after Jones's disappearance that he realised his brother had been keeping secrets. The police wanted his help. Would he be willing to meet Stuart and talk to him, without letting him know that he was communicating with them? Sharkey agreed and on his way back to Essex Detective Sergeant Keith Davies told him the truth about his brother's criminal record.
In 1977 he had been jailed for four years for beating up a 16-year-old girl and stealing her purse. He sexually assaulted her before running away. He had also been given a 12-month suspended sentence in 1989 after holding a 14-year-old girl at his home and photographing her in a karate suit. Campbell had originally been charged with abducting the girl and taking indecent pictures of her, but those charges were dropped after he admitted taking a child without lawful authority.
"I was astounded, I really had no idea," Sharkey recalls. The meeting they had that day was the last time he saw his brother and it was enough to convince him of Campbell's guilt (see extract below).
Sharkey was beginning to learn the dark truth. Police had found photographs of teenage girls in Campbell's home. He had been posing as a photographer and inviting them over for photoshoots, claiming to be able to launch their modelling careers through his connections in London — including, chillingly, his brother, who worked for fashion magazines.
Back in Paris, Sharkey followed it all with mounting horror. He raced from the Galliano and Westwood shows he was covering for the UK papers to his flat, where he scrolled for more grim details coming from his home town. He drank too much and got into fights. There is one moment in his book where Sharkey is quaffing champagne at the pornographer Larry Flynt's 60th birthday party at the Hustler Club in Paris, watching young women stripping and girls in skimpy one-piece outfits serve drinks, while the stories of his brother's violence and abuse pour out at home. Anger and disgust consume him and he provokes a fight with a man standing beside him at the bar.
All the time he was wrestling with the idea that the same legacy of darkness was in both of them. "There is a direct line from the incredible violence and brutality and vicious predatory nature of my father to my brother, and of course it ran through me as well," he says. "I found a way of dealing with it and he didn't."
One reason for this was his love of language; possibly the only gift bestowed on him by his father, whose "brutally efficient hybrid of Glaswegian, Cockney and New York dock slang" sounded to his young ears like "muscular marine poetry". It opened the door to journalism and later Sharkey found his way towards Buddhism and meditation. Even so the demons are never far away. On some level he has always been proud of his "rough, tough" childhood, he says. But writing the book forced him to confront the abuse for the first time. The experience made him ill: "There were periods when I had a lot of nightmares, screaming ones, where I saw myself killing my dog and couldn't understand what I was doing. I guess it was my mind trying to understand how you can kill anyone."
Even without a body, the case against Campbell was strong: witnesses had seen Jones getting into a blue Transit van of the sort that Campbell drove; he had called her "sexy legs" in text message exchanges; and mobile phone triangulation showed that he hadn't been at a Wickes hardware store in Rayleigh at the time she was abducted, as he had said in his alibi. He also claimed to have received two text messages from Jones's phone after her disappearance, saying she was in trouble at home, but the messages were found to have been sent from the vicinity of Campbell's house. Detectives believed he must have typed the messages himself on her phone — one of which referred to him as "BEST UNCLE EVER" in upper case, which was unlike her.
A pair of white stockings with Danielle's DNA on them were found at Campbell's home. The prosecution argued that he had developed a fascination with his niece and killed her because she had grown tired of his advances and was trying to distance herself from him.
Sharkey doesn't have a theory of what happened so much as an assumption. "I can't understand calculating how to kill someone," he says. "I can only comprehend it as a moment of blinding rage. I may be wrong, maybe he was always going to do that, but from what I understand of him I would assume that something burst out of him that had been long repressed — and it had been long, because he was hiding who he was for decades."
It is notable that Campbell married Debbie in 1996, the year before the sex offenders register was established. "Before that there was a culture whereby you could, if you kept it quiet, get away with it and no one would know," Sharkey says.
His brother's story also raises questions about the rehabilitation of prisoners, given his previous crimes and sentences. "None of the punishments that were meted out to him, we can see with hindsight, did anything to help him correct his profound personality defects — in fact they festered under this veneer of respectability," he says.
He stumbled across another haunting detail while writing the book. He looked up Eccles Hall, the residential school his brother was sent to, and found a raft of news articles about the death by suicide of David Tuhoy, a former headmaster who had been convicted of 15 counts of indecent assault against young boys, including five pupils with special needs. Sharkey checked the dates; Tuhoy was headmaster at exactly the same time that his brother was at the school. There is no evidence that his brother was abused, nor has he claimed to have been. The allegations against Tuhoy were not known at the time of the murder trial. In his summing up, the judge said there was "not a shred of mitigation in this case". Sharkey says he is not here to make excuses. "I do empathise with him, but 20 years after he killed a 15-year-old girl, that is more than weighed out by profound scorn for him. Because look at the lives he destroyed."
The Jones family was ripped apart by Danielle's death. Debbie, Campbell's wife, changed her name and went into witness protection with their son and her parents. Her brother, Tony, and his wife, Linda, whose daughter Campbell killed, have been left to try to grieve their loss without a confession or a body to bury. Sharkey's mother, who gave him her blessing to write the book, has no contact with her grandson. She does communicate with Campbell — he sends her cards and small amounts of money from his job in HMP Wakefield, where he has been for two decades, with notes saying, "Treat yourself to something nice, Mum". But he has never admitted to his crime.
Sharkey does believe that his brother feels shame. He wrote to him several times in the early years, but he has never had a response. "I know why," he says. "A response means a conversation, a conversation means being confronted with his crime. I guess he can't handle that." Does he still love him? "I can't characterise my feeling for him at this point as love, it is not as warm or as noble as love, but actually it is deeper. It is instinctive, a primal sense: he is my brother," Sharkey says. That connection is even stronger because of the childhood they shared.
Even so he had blocked his brother out of his mind completely until 2019, when he was following the torturous progress of Helen's Law, named after Helen McCourt, whose killer, Ian Simms, was released from prison without ever admitting to her murder or telling police where to find her body. Then he thought about Campbell. "I was so angry with him, because I could see what he was trying to do," Sharkey says. "I realised with Ian Simms that with the way the law stands you can leave prison without confessing your crime, without expressing remorse for what you did — you can still get out of prison. Then I was furious. I was furious with myself for being complacent about the whole thing, and furious with him."
That anger has passed now and he just hopes something good, however small, can still come from this mess. "I believe he will read the book. His curiosity, his vanity, will be too great for him not to read it," Sharkey says. "I hope it will shift something in him, to make him understand that you cannot pretend to anyone, including yourself, that this is over, that you can start again. You can't do that. I won't let you. You have to tell these people what you did with that girl's body."
'The police are hoping I'll crack'
Alix Sharkey recalls his final meeting with his brother and how it left him convinced of his guilt.
As I approach Stuart and Debbie's house, I notice the curtains drawn, an oddly mournful look for late summer. Stuart emerges, swiftly locks the front door, and strides out to meet me. He must have been watching through a gap in the curtains. We shake hands and greet each other in the curt, masculine way we've grown accustomed to.
"Good to see you," I say.
"Yeah," he says. "How'd you get down here, take the train?"
"You didn't walk from the station? You should have called me to come and get you."
"No, got a cab, but had him drop me off at the corner. You know, more discreet."
"Oh, right," he says, eyeing me suspiciously.
Ten seconds in and I'm already lying. I've actually been escorted here by two plain clothes officers from Essex Police. I suspect he knows, and wonder if I've already failed in my mission to gauge my brother's guilt.
"Let's walk," he says. "Got to buy a pump filter from the hardware store around the corner." On our way I sneak sideways glances, trying to size him up, while we stumble through his generic questions — about my work, life in Paris — and my equally generic answers. I ask how he has been doing. The street is empty but he glances around before replying. "We'll talk about that later," he says. "I don't like to discuss anything in public."
This strikes me as paranoid, but then I'm not the one suspected of abducting and maybe killing a 15-year-old girl.
"What about Debbie? How is she?"
"She's staying with her parents while all this is going on. Too much stress with the baby on the way." He is unshaven and out of shape. He looks exhausted. "So I suppose the police have been to see you," he ventures. "What did they have to say then?"
"Well, they said they had followed several leads but none had amounted to anything so far. And that so far you are their main suspect."
"Their only suspect," he mouths, with a look of exasperation.
When we get back to the house I'm expecting to be invited in, but he suggests we go for a drive. We climb into his blue Transit. "Blue van," I mutter. Like everyone else who has been following the case, I know that one of the last witnesses to see Danielle alive, a fellow pupil at her school, had seen her climb into a blue van the morning she went missing. Stuart must understand why I mentioned it. He doesn't respond.
Once we get on the main road, I'm expecting him to open up. But he volunteers nothing about Danielle, the investigation, his arrest and brief incarceration, his feelings on the matter. I find this odd. I know that he was close to Danielle and often spent time at her home. Still, recalling my instructions to avoid judgment, I ask how he has been coping. "You know, with constantly being in the news, with being accused of this terrible crime."
He sighs and shrugs. "I just want to get back to my life. To make sure Debbie is all right."
He repeats a phrase he'd used when we spoke on the phone in June, after he'd been arrested on suspicion of Danielle's abduction, questioned and released on bail. "This should be our time. We should be together getting ready for the baby's birth."
But he says nothing about injustice or media persecution, expresses none of the outrage I'd expect from someone wrongly accused. Our conversation turns to a childhood friend who's now a photography student.
"So how is Andy?"
"Good," I say. "He's got a Nikon, really nice camera." He glances at me, tight-lipped.
Stuart is a keen amateur photographer but instead of engaging in the conversation, he turns his face to the window. Odd, because the police told me all about the cameras and photographic prints they found when they searched Stuart's house. The images on his computer. The white business cards he'd had printed, advertising himself as a photographer: CINDERELLA'S. Photography: Beauty, Glamour, Fashion, Portrait. Portfolios for new & established models. Beneath that, just STUART and his mobile phone number.
The silence between us hums like an electromagnetic field. He is trying to calculate how much I know. Then he begins to list our food options. His attempts to normalise this situation are verging on the surreal. Here is a man accused of abducting a teenage girl — his niece, a girl he has known for years and who may still be locked in a basement somewhere — and he's asking what kind of grub I like. I feel like saying, "What the f*** is wrong with you?" Instead I say, "I'm not really that hungry."
We head towards Lakeside, a cavernous shopping centre just up the road. I turn to him and ask what he thinks happened to Danielle.
"Oh mate," he says wearily, "I wish I knew. I've gone over it a million times. The place where she disappeared, it was a really busy street and it was rush hour, so you would have thought someone would have seen something. We've just got to wait for something to come up."
"How do you feel about it?"
"I could do with a few days away from it all."
"All this pressure. I'm the main suspect, so the police are just playing mind games, hoping I'll crack."
"How do you mean, playing mind games?"
"Well, they're just trying to wear me down, get me to crack ..."
"Yeah, but why would you crack? What's to wear down?"
"Eh?" He seems genuinely confused.
"If you haven't done anything," I say, "then you don't have to worry about mind games — cos you've got nothing to hide, right?" There's a glimmer of something like recognition in his eyes and then it's gone. Does he understand my argument? Again the silence swells. At Lakeside we get out in the middle of a vast car park. This is the safest spot, he says, because it's covered by CCTV. He points at the cameras and explains that some areas are blind spots. I ask myself how he worked this out and why. He lifts the hood and flips the engine kill switch. He seems terrified someone will steal his vehicle. Or maybe impound it.
We enter the mall and I tell him I need to piss. He walks me to the men's room, actually ushers me inside a cubicle, points to the bowl and says, "There you are." I glare at him and say, "Yeah, I know how this works." Once again he seems puzzled, as if I'm the one acting strangely. But it's all starting to make sense to me. Stuart has been doing this for so long that he doesn't even realise how odd it is. For two decades he has pointed Debbie in the direction he wanted her to look, preventing her from stumbling across awkward truths.
We sit and eat sandwiches, which he insists on paying for. As we continue strolling, I notice something and say, "Oh, look." Barely ten yards ahead, taped to a pillar, is an Essex Police poster with the word MISSING and the now-familiar colour photo of a pale teenage girl in school blazer, white shirt and striped tie. Stuart acts as if he hasn't heard me. "There," I say. By now we are almost in front of it, but he's still turning his head side to side, supposedly unable to see what I mean. "Danielle," I say, pointing.
"Oh yeah," he says, with another weary sigh. "They're all over the place." He mumbles something about a much better picture they could have used. I glare at him, astonished. I know he can see the sardonic edge in my gaze, defying him to tell me that he's innocent, that this is all some terrible mistake.
We walk back out to the car park and he says he'll drop me at Grays station. He can't wait to get rid of me, it seems. We barely speak during the ten-minute drive. We get out and shake hands. I embrace him and kiss his cheek. I want him to feel something — maybe that will allow him to open up, let the tears fall and tell the truth. He smells sweeter than I imagined, bringing back memories of the beautiful little boy I once knew, of his childhood laughter. And that, of course, makes me think about the beautiful little girl who is now missing, presumed dead.
"Take care," I say, "and stay in touch. Don't forget you can always talk to me."
He smiles, but there's a dark glint in his eye, as if some unspeakable secret has just passed between us. Almost daring me to recognise and accept it. "Don't worry," he says. "I'm not dead and buried yet."
Extracted from My Brother the Killer by Alix Sharkey, published by Mudlark on July 22.
Written by: Rosie Kinchen
© The Times of London