Episode 24 – Suzanne Capper – Tortured to Death
On the 15th December 1992, Barry Sutcliffe took his normal route to work along Compstall Road, in Romiley, England. After picking up two of his colleagues he headed into the lifting darkness. But there was nothing usual about the horrific discovery he would make on an otherwise peaceful morning. At 6.10am, his headlights silhouetted the hunched-over figure of a woman standing by the roadside. As Barry inched closer, he noticed the woman’s head was bare of any hair and her skin appeared blackened and charred.
Barry pulled over and the three men jumped out of the car, knowing instinctively the woman needed help. As they drew towards her the smell of burning human flesh became overwhelming. It was very clear that this was no woman, she appeared to be just a girl, no older than eighteen. It was also clear that she needed medical attention immediately.
The men guided her to a neighbouring property where emergency services were called. Despite her extensive burns she managed to give her name – identifying herself as Suzanne Capper. She repeatedly thanked the men and the residents of the home for helping her. As they awaited the ambulance the lights of the home illuminated the extent of her injuries. Suzanne’s head appeared to be shaved rather than singed from the fire. Her scalp was zig-zagged with partially healed cuts and her fingers and hands were blackened like ash. The clothes she was wearing were hardly intact having been destroyed by the fire. Her legs were bare and her skin was badly charred, leaving her legs exposed like raw meat. As they waited, Suzanne asked for a glass of water but she was unable to hold the glass due to her damaged fingers. Her face was devoid of most of its youthful features giving an eerie and passive appearance to an otherwise horrific scene.
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The ambulance arrived and Suzanne was raced to the local hospital. Doctors, nurses and surgeons frantically sought to stabilise the severe burns covering 80% of Suzanne’s body. A nurse asked her what had happened and Suzanne responded in a whisper. She gave six names and an address.
Jean Powell, Bernadette McNeilly, Glynn Powell, Anthony Dudson, Clifford Hayes, Jeffrey Leigh. 97 Langworthy Road, Moston.
These were to be Suzanne Capper’s last words.
Moments after the address left her lips she slipped into a coma. Despite every effort to save her, she never regained consciousness. Just one week before Christmas in December of 1992 and three days after being admitted, Suzanne passed away from her injuries. She was sixteen years old.
How did a seemingly innocent young girl come to be so badly broken and burnt? And what was the relevance of the six names she had given in her final conscious moments?
Suzanne grew up in Greater Manchester, England. The area is known as a bustling metropolitan county with a population of more than 2.8 million residents. But behind its thriving economy and its famous Manchester United soccer team, hides a shameful secret. More than 1 million residents of greater Manchester live below the poverty line. And worryingly so to do more than 200,000 children.
Behind the shiny exteriors of new apartment buildings are the dull facades of housing estates and council boroughs providing shelter to the city’s poorest. Housing estates have long had the unenviable reputation of being hubs for crime, drugs and violence. In these places, children are more likely to be from broken homes or to experience food scarcity than if they were raised in any other home.
This is the environment which formed the backdrop to Suzanne’s early life.
When Suzanne was born her father had already left her mother Elizabeth. Suzanne never knew her father. Her mother began a relationship with John and together they created a relatively stable home for Suzanne and her older sister Michelle. When Suzanne was 14, her stepfather John and Elizabeth separated after years of fighting and disagreements. Rather than live with their mother, Suzanne and Michelle moved in with their stepfather. But this was far from a stable situation and over the coming years, the girls would move regularly between Elizabeth’s home, John’s house and being under the care of social services. They rarely stayed more than a couple of months in one place.
Suzanne was known as a gentle and well-mannered girl; she was eager to please and appeared to be willing to do just about anything to gain the approval of others. After her parents separated she struggled to form lasting relationships due to the constant upheaval in her personal life. She struggled with abandonment issues, given her birth father had left before she was born and now her own mother didn’t seem to want her. She was desperate to be liked and at times felt lost even when going through a period of stability.
Two years after John and Elizabeth’s divorce, teachers began to report that Suzanne was missing school more often than not. Her attendance was described as erratic. With neither John nor Elizabeth demonstrating much interest in ensuring Suzanne attended school, her grades began to drop. And when she did attend teachers noted she didn’t seem to be engaged in her classes, even those where she had once excelled.
97 Langworthy Road:
It was around this time she began to spend more time at the home of Jean Powell. Jean was a 26-year-old mother of three children. Her home was located at 97 Langworthy Road which was not far from where Suzanne was currently staying with John. Suzanne had come to know Jean after a chance meeting with her younger brother Clifford. Suzanne had seen Clifford, who was the same age as her, sitting by the roadside seemingly upset. When she approached him he shared that he was having trouble with his girlfriend and Suzanne provided some comfort to him. After knowing each other for a short while the two started a relationship and Clifford invited Suzanne back to his house where he stayed with his older sister Jean, and her three children.
Before long Suzanne was looking after Jean’s children for her. She would babysit them when Jean went out and in return, Jean would let her sleep on the couch overnight. Jean seemed to genuinely enjoy having her around and Suzanne finally felt like she had a purpose, that she was wanted and needed.
But the home was far from safe and secure. In fact, 97 Langworthy Road had a reputation as a centre for drug dealing, the trading of stolen car parts and sex parties lasting long into the night. The house was like a bus station with random people coming and going at all hours of the day and night.
Whilst Suzanne didn’t partake in the drugs, alcohol or sex on offer, she became well known to the many visitors of the home. There was Bernadette McNeilly who was a friend of Jean’s and lived just a couple of houses down the road. Then there was Glynn who was Jean’s ex-husband. And Anthony Dudson who was Bernadette’s boyfriend but also regularly slept with Jean. Then Jeffrey Leigh who was Jean’s current boyfriend and of course Clifford who was Jean’s younger brother and on again off again boyfriend to Suzanne.
Of the six people who most frequented Jean’s house, Suzanne was the youngest at 16, followed by Clifford and Anthony who were both teenagers. The rest of the regular crew were adults with long histories of drug offences and robbery. Bernadette in particular visited Jean’s house so often that eventually she decided to move into Jean’s so she could split the bills and have more cash to spend on the drugs she so desperately relied upon. Now there were six kids for Suzanne to look after while the adults partied. When Bernadette moved in – the home became even more dysfunctional spurring fights with neighbours and on one occasion Bernadette set fire to their neighbour’s washing in retaliation for a minor grievance.
Michelle, Suzanne’s older sister also spent time at the Langworthy Road house and would later recall how everyone bullied Suzanne. They would dare her to undertake dangerous stunts for their entertainment and make her fetch them whatever they wanted. Not only was Suzanne looking after the six kids – Jean had organised a cleaning job for her to do as well. Rather than keeping what she earned, Jean would take all of Suzanne’s money and leave her with just 5 pounds a week. This was all whilst Suzanne was meant to be attending school.
But Suzanne didn’t seem to mind how she was treated or the jobs she was forced to do. She actually seemed to enjoy being there in the groups’ company. She was finally getting the attention she craved, even if it was negative attention. In her warped sense of friendship, she normalised the way she was treated.
Whilst the bullying was routine for Suzanne it soon shifted into much more physical attacks. In the Autumn of 1992, fueled by drugs and alcohol and wanting to see just how far they could push Suzanne; the group began to make ever more violent requests of her. When she didn’t comply and sometimes even when she did, they would pull her hair, extinguish cigarettes on her skin and punch her in her head and body.
After a particularly bad incident, Suzanne left Langworthy road and showed up unannounced at her mother’s house. Elizabeth opened the door to her beaten and bruised daughter. Suzanne asked her mother if she could stay the night, she was in pain and didn’t have anywhere else to go. She claimed Jean had tied her up and held her for four days. Cruelly, Elizabeth declined her request, telling Suzanne her new boyfriend wouldn’t like it if Suzanne stayed with them. She shut the door in Suzanne’s face.
Sadly, Suzanne believed she had no other options and so she returned to Langworthy road.
After this incident, the group finally had confirmation that Suzanne was theirs to do with as they wished. She had nowhere to go, she wasn’t going to nark on them and she would always come back for more. She was their plaything and there was no limit to what they could do to her.
The atmosphere of the home turned from dangerous to deviant.
The day after being turned away from her mother’s house, the bullying against Suzanne changed from verbal and physical attacks to psychological warfare.
The group would make baseless accusations against Suzanne. They would claim she had stolen from them or broken some of their property. Despite her denials and in fact, often fuelled by them, the group would viciously beat her.
By December Suzanne was living in hell. The group would regularly conspire against her, building each other up to take out their frustrations in ever more perverse ways.
One of the members of the group became infected with pubic lice. Given their proclivity for sex with each other it didn’t take long for them to all be infected with the lice. With Bernadette’s promptings that Suzanne was to blame for their infections, the group collectively accused Suzanne even though she wasn’t having sex with any of them. For her alleged wrongdoings, they beat Suzanne beyond recognition leaving her face battered and swollen.
Suzanne went back to her stepfather John’s house, broken and bruised. When Suzanne shared what had happened John tried to convince her to go to the police or at least stay away from the Langworthy Road house. “I tried to stop Suzanne from going there, but she had a very strong will,” I called that house the “house of evil”.
For the next few days, Suzanne stayed at John’s place and the group began to worry she might not come back. Worse still, her dad might even convince Suzanne to tell Police what they had done to her. In their sick and twisted minds, Suzanne was a threat to their cherished lifestyle of sex, drugs and parties.
Five days of torture:
So, on the 7th December 1992, the group thought up a new and more manipulative way to convince Suzanne to return to Langworthy Road.
Knowing Suzanne had a crush on a local guy who sometimes visited the house, the group tricked Suzanne into believing that he wanted to meet up with her. A couple of the adults offered to take her and that evening they picked her up from John’s.
Instead of heading to where they said her crush wanted to meet, the group took her back to the house on Langworthy Road. This is where the house which was already filled with vicious bullies truly became a house of horror.
While five of the group held Suzanne down – Glynn shaved her head, her eyebrows and her pubic hair. Pressing her onto her hands and knees, they forced her to clean up the hair they had shaved off her. When she was finished they held her down again.
Anthony put a plastic bag over her head and face so Suzanne couldn’t breathe or scream.
The group shouted and laughed at her as she struggled to breathe and tried to defend herself. Panic would overwhelm her body and when she went still for a moment they took turns punching her in the head and beating her with a large metal belt buckle until she reacted again. They used wooden spoons to attack every inch of her exposed skin. The plastic bag was only removed when Suzanne fell unconscious due to a lack of oxygen.
Eventually, Suzanne woke up and the group dragged her into a wooden closet where they padlocked the door shut. But Suzanne wasn’t ready to give up the fight. This beating felt different. It felt more like torture. And Suzanne knew it was a matter of life and death, she had to fight.
So she screamed, and she yelled and she didn’t let up.
Eventually, the group realised her screams and yells were scaring the six children who also inhabited that horrible home. They regrouped and decided to take her two houses down Langworthy road, to the house Bernadette used to live in and which now stood abandoned.
As if what had happened to her already was not cruel enough, in this house, Suzanne came face to face with true terror.
Suzanne was tied spreadeagled to a discarded upright bed frame while the men and women of the group physically assaulted her, landing blow after blow to her head and body. The beatings caused Suzanne’s arm to break in place.
Her skin and face were burned with countless cigarettes.
The amphetamines they used on themselves were injected into her body.
Her mouth was stuffed with socks so her screams were muffled.
Headphones were placed over her ears with the volume turned up to the maximum
Her teeth were pulled out using pliers and other tools. Anthony recalled watching on as Clifford, once Suzanne’s boyfriend said ‘Right, I’m going to rip your teeth out’. He started hitting her teeth with the pliers. He got the pliers on and started pulling it out. But it just snapped and chipped. Then he hit them a few more times. He put the pliers on again and really, really pulled. He pulled Suzanne’s head forward until there was a snap and he had the tooth in the pliers. He did the same again and he was laughing
She was sodomised as she stood shackled to the bed
Whilst all of the adults took part in the torture, Bernadette had consumed so many drugs she started to refer to herself as Chucky – like the creepy doll from Child’s play. Before beginning a session of torture she would taunt Suzanne with chants of “Chucky is coming to play”.
Suzanne had been sitting in her own urine and excrement for five days before she was eventually released from her binds so she could wash. But far from respite, she was forced into a cold bathtub filled with disinfectant liquid. Suzanne was made to scrub her skin with a wire brush until her skin began to separate from her flesh.
At one point a man by the name of David Hill stopped by the house and was asked to “housesit” while the others went for supplies. Jeffrey showed David where Suzanne was being kept. Whilst David could clearly see Suzanne had been tortured and was in extreme pain, he did nothing to help her. “She asked me if I could help, but I told her I couldn’t. I asked her who she was. She said her name was Suzanne. She asked me if I could untie her. I said I couldn’t do anything. He excused his lack of action by saying he felt scared of the group“I thought they would batter me. If I’d said [anything] they’d all have got me, wouldn’t they? I didn’t know what to do. I was too shocked to do anything.
By the end of five days of torture, Suzanne had two broken arms, her body was covered in cigarette burns and cuts, several teeth were missing and all of her skin was inflamed and red.
But the group weren’t done with their plaything yet.
All the while Suzanne was being tortured, her stepfather believed she was with her mother and her mother believed she was with her stepfather. No missing person’s report was filed, and no search parties were set up. No one came knocking at the Langworthy Road house. Suzanne was abandoned and left to fend for herself once more.
On the 14th December 1992, thinking it wouldn’t take long before her family reported her missing the group decided to get rid of her once and for all. Bernadette, Jean, Anthony and Glynn shoved her already broken and tortured body into the trunk of a white Fiat Panda and drove 15 miles to the outskirts of Stockport. Bernadette giggled as they made the journey.
When they arrived at a narrow lane out of sight of the main road, they stopped and dragged Suzanne from the trunk.
She was pushed down into the ditch where she landed on a thick patch of prickly brambles.
Bernadette withdrew a jerry can from the car and proceeded to douse Suzanne’s lifeless body with petrol. She pulled out her lighter and attempted to set the petrol alight. She failed a few times before Glynn and Anthony were able to get the fuel to ignite.
Bernadette sang “Burn Baby burn! Burn Baby burn!” while the flames licked up Suzanne’s motionless body.
The four left her there in that ditch – alone, abused and alight.
They stopped at a corner store to buy celebratory drinks on their way back to 97 Langworthy Road.
In a true testament to Suzanne’s determined nature, she wasn’t ready to give up yet. Whilst her captors thought she was dead she was very much alive. As the flames died down, she scrambled up the embankment and staggered down the narrow laneway for more than 400 metres before reaching Compstall road. It was here in her tortured and charred state that Barry Sutcliffe happened upon her on his way to work on the 15th of December 1992. While he gently guided her to the neighbouring house Suzanne told him “Over there, in the field. They burnt me, they put petrol on me…”
You know already that Suzanne didn’t survive much longer after being brought to the hospital that morning. But what we ought to remember is her true courage in naming her assailants. In doing so she ensured no such horror could ever be inflicted upon another vulnerable person at their hands.
Detective Inspector Peter Wall of Greater Manchester Police was tasked with investigating the events which led to Suzanne’s torture and murder. At 7.30 am on the 14th of December, just one hour after Suzanne had whispered their names, DI Wall ordered officers to arrest everyone they found inside 97 Langworthy Road.
Jean and Bernadette were the first to be taken. As officers read them their rights they laughed and joked with each other. Eventually, all of Suzanne’s six abusers were taken into custody.
Forensic investigators began to examine the filthy homes at 97 and 91 Langworthy Road in their search for evidence of Suzanne’s murder. Amongst stolen goods and drugs they found Suzanne’s hair in a rubbish bin and her blood smeared on the pliers which had been used to extract her teeth.
Each of the people Suzanne had named denied any involvement. It wasn’t until Anthony’s father convinced him to be honest and tell the Police everything he knew that Police were able to piece together those horrific last days of Suzanne’s life and the injuries to her teenage body could be linked to an abhorrent action against her.
Detective Wall stated at the time in response to Anthony’s statement; “As the story began to unfold, we just couldn’t believe it. I kept asking myself how one human being could do this to another.”
Even with Anthony’s confession the remaining five continued to deny and then blame any involvement on each other. On the 17th of December, the six were remanded into custody on charges of kidnapping and attempted murder. When Suzanne died the following day, their charges were amended to murder.
In early 1993 an inquest was opened to ascertain the circumstances of Suzanne’s murder.
The pathologist who examined her body stated:
“It was clear from the outset that Suzanne was unlikely to survive. She suffered superficial but widespread burns that led to several complications internally. There was a partial collapse in one of her lungs,”
The coroner noted: “It is clear that this young girl must have suffered a great deal of pain and had no chance of survival. But she did, fortunately, survive long enough to give information which led to the people mentioned being charged with her death.”
The coroner also directed a comment to Suzanne’s mother, Elizabeth. “I offer you, not just on my behalf, but on behalf of the whole nation, my very deepest sympathy and condolences at this tragic happening to your young daughter.”
The trial and sentencing:
It took almost a year before the six would face their charges. On the 16th of November 1993 the trial commenced and as expected, all six attempted to defend and minimise their role in the crime. Each of them pointed the finger at the others, stating they had acted only under duress from other members of the group.
Jean claimed she had sat in the car while Suzanne was burned alive. “I was numb. I was scared,” She claimed that locking Suzanne in a cupboard was “for her own safety” and she loved “her as a sister,” “I can’t stand violence. I don’t even smack my own children.”
Bernadette told the jury that she injected Suzanne with amphetamines to protect her from being injected with heroin by the others.
Anthony claimed Glynn had been the one who set Suzanne on fire.
Police officers testified that they “wept as the extent of Suzanne’s suffering was revealed,”
After twenty-two days of testimony, the jury began their deliberations. It took just under 10 hours for them to reach their verdicts. The judge in the trial told them “Each of you has been convicted on clear evidence of murder which was as appalling a murder as it is possible to imagine.”
Jean Powell, Bernadette McNeilly, Glynn Powell and Anthony Dudson were convicted of murder, false imprisonment, and conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm. Jean, Bernadette and Glynn were sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole only after serving 25 years. Anthony was detained for an indefinite period with the possibility of parole only after 18 years. Jeffrey Leigh was acquitted of murder and conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm. He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. Clifford Hayes was convicted of conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm and false imprisonment. He was acquitted of murder. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
After the reading of the verdicts and sentences two of the jurors wept and cries of “Yes! Yes!” could be heard from the public gallery. Detective Wall who had carried out the investigation commented “Psychological Reports say that these are absolutely sane individuals. It’s frightening that they are such ordinary people. There is nothing special about any of them.”
In 1994, Jeffrey successfully appealed his sentence and his jail term was reduced from 12 years to 9 years. He was released in 1998 on probation.
Clifford was released in 2001 on probation.
In 2002, Anthony’s minimum non-parole period was reduced from 18 years to 16 years.
In 2013 Bernadette appealed her sentence and her jail term was reduced by 12 months. She was paroled in 2015 after serving her newly reduced minimum term. She had been described as a model prisoner despite being found in possession of letters revealing she was having an affair with the prison governor during a routine security inspection in 1996.
Suzanne’s case made international headlines. Not only for the fact that her torture and murder had occurred in such horrific circumstances but also because the circumstances of her life held a mirror up to the injustices of the social environment in Greater Manchester at the time.
In an emotive commentary piece written in The Times, author Jon Ronson compared the view of Manchester from the outside to the realities of life within its boundaries.
“superficially, it is a city of growth but this cannot disguise the realities of the poor quality of “built-to-collapse” housing, the city council’s policy on homelessness, poverty, street violence and drug culture, all of which played a part in the environment in which Suzanne’s murder took place. Ronson emphasised it is a city of contrasts, where “expensive canal-side cafes are springing up faster than you can count them; the joke around town is that you can sip cappuccino all day and gaze out at the corpses floating past.”
Unlike the demolition of other homes where atrocities have been committed, the houses at both 91 and 97 Langworthy Road remain standing. The area surrounding them appears untouched by the passage of more than 20 years since Suzanne’s murder. The streets are still littered with rubbish, and children still live in crowded and cold council estates, their parents and caregivers struggling to provide a stable home. The hard times have never really left Moston.
And whilst her death is considered one of the worst crimes of the early 90’s many in this area have never heard her story.
And what of Elizabeth, Suzanne’s mother?
Elizabeth attended the trial until she could no longer bear to hear what her daughter had experienced in those agonising five days of torture.
“In the end I couldn’t cope with the trial and stopped attending. I went to the sentencing though and I can still remember clearly the moment the guilty verdicts were read. When they were taken away and sent downstairs they just started screaming. Just screaming and shouting and I thought, ‘They didn’t care when Suzanne was screaming. They didn’t hear Suzanne’s screams.’
Whilst she will always regret turning her daughter away that day when she showed up bruised and beaten, she suspects the outcome may still have been the same had she allowed her to stay.
“Suzanne was very forgiving,” “But she was also a girl who would try to sort out her problems on her own. That’s what she did in the end, she survived her ordeal long enough to name every single one of them.”
In the intervening years since Suzanne’s death, she has dedicated her life to attending and appealing all parole hearings from any of her killers. She labels this fight as relentless and exhausting.
“I feel like she’s never rested with all the fighting we’ve done as a family to keep them in prison,” “I’ve discussed it with my family and we all agreed that this needs to come to an end. This process of constantly being told about an appeal, then doing an interview and making statements to parole boards is making me ill. I don’t want to know anything anymore.” ”She will only have justice if those murderers remain in prison.”
Host – Rhiannon Doe
Voiceover – Kwesi
Website layout & design – Fran Howard
Research & writing – Sophie Wild
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