The Stanswood Affairs

On November 5, 1971, the body of 35-year-old Peter Stanswood was found in a small car parked along a remote lovers’ lane outside Portsmouth, England called Purbrook Heath Road. He had been stabbed to death.
At first it appeared the only interesting fact in the case was that Stanswood had been slain with a semi-exotic weapon: a blood-covered Japanese paper knife that was embedded to the hilt in his chest. There were no fingerprints on the knife, but there was blood on the knife and the steering wheel of the car that did not match Peter Stanswood.
However, it wouldn’t take long before the backstory to the murder would far outstrip the novelty of a homicide.
Murder investigation 101 demands that detectives begin their hunt for the killer among the people who are closest to the victim. In the case of Peter Stanswood, the first stop for investigators was with Heather Stanswood, the grieving widow. After their first interview with Heather, police were confident that at the very least, Heather had a pair of suitable reasons to want Peter dead.
First off was the tried-and-true insurance motive. With her husband dead, she stood to receive a payoff worth nearly $50,000 (which has the buying power of about $200,000 in current dollars not accounting for fluctuations in the pound and dollar). While not exactly a fortune, people have killed for less.
Secondly, Heather supplied police with a list containing no fewer than 25 names of Portsmouth women with whom Peter was having an affair, or had once been intimate. Two of the women on the list had presented Peter with illegitimate children, and another was pregnant with his baby.
One of the women on the list was Elizabeth Thompson, the wife of Peter’s business partner, Ken Thompson. The two men owned a boating business on the Isle of Wight.
Heather, however, was not content to play the role of the wronged wife. She had had more than her share of outside dalliances (at least 16 acknowledged affairs), which only made the job of finding Peter’s killer that much more difficult. Peter was apparently aware of several of Heather’s love affairs.
Thus began one of the most unusual murder investigations in the annals of British criminal history, which is really saying something.
Following the leads provided by Heather, authorities eventually linked Peter to no fewer than 66 illicit relationships. It further turns out that the ladies of Portsmouth, a seafaring town on the English Channel with a large British Naval base, were not content to simply wait patiently for their men to return from the sea. Infidelity, it seemed was de riguer and the favorite pastime in Portsmouth.
During the course of running down leads in the Stanswood investigation, police interviewed 20,000 Portsmouth residents and took formal depositions from about 2,000 women, most of whom had been involved in extramarital affairs — meaning (very roughly) that one out of every five married women in Portsmouth had been unfaithful.
Most statements were tales that merely embarrassed detectives and witnesses because of their prurient nature without advancing the case. Just a few of the highly confidential depositions aided the investigation into Peter Stanswood’s death, police said.
One of those statements was made by Ken Fromant, an out-of-town boilermaker, who had once been Heather Stanswood’s lover but had moved on to Elizabeth Thompson (remember, she was one of Peter’s lovers and the wife of his business partner). Fromant admitted that he had once bedded Heather but that their romance had ended two months before Peter was slain. He also confessed that he was involved with Liz Thompson, but swore that he was home in Berkshire with his wife and two children the night of the murder.
Furthermore, Fromant told police, he had never met Peter Stanswood and had no reason to kill him or even want him dead.
For several years police did not turn up any significant clues in the crime, but did amass a collection of tales that would make Alfred Kinsey blush. It appeared that the insurance/jealously motive assigned to Heather Stanswood was gaining credence.
Then, one of the 20,000 interviews gave police the break they needed. One of the women questioned mentioned that she was with her lover, Ian Dance, the night Peter Stanswood was killed. Ian Dance was familiar to police because as a friend of Ken Fromant he had been one of the earliest interviewees to visit police headquarters. Dance, it turns out, lied to authorities about his whereabouts on the night of the murder. Dance swore he had not been in Portsmouth that evening.
Under a grilling by detectives, Dance admitted that he had not been entirely truthful. Yes, he had been in Portsmouth that day, but his friend, Ken Fromant, had dropped him off at the train station in the late afternoon and at the time of the murder he was miles away. Dance’s alibi held up and it turns out that he had nothing to do with Peter Stanswood’s killing.
But wait, detectives said, Fromant said he was home in Berkshire that night, and that he hadn’t been in Portsmouth at all. Could it be that Fromant was also lying about breaking up with Heather Stanswood?
To test that theory, investigators went back to Liz Thompson to see if she could shed some light on Fromant’s activities that day. To their surprise, Liz shot their theory to pieces.
Breaking down under questioning, Liz tearfully admitted that Fromant was in Portsmouth that night, but that he was with her, not Heather. But still, she insisted, they had nothing to do with Peter Stanswood’s death. Fromant independently confirmed that he was with Liz Thompson that night, and reasserted that he had no reason to kill Peter because his affair with Heather was long over.
Portsmouth police weren’t so sure, and they began to look more closely into Fromant’s activities on the day of the murder.
While textbook flat-foot police work turned up the inconsistent statements of Dance, Liz Thompson, and Fromant, it was sheer chance that provided the evidence needed to break the case.
The day after it was returned, the car that Dance and Fromant rented that November day had — as cars sometimes do — simply stopped working and was taken to a garage for repairs. There it sat forgotten for more than three years until tracked down by the bobbies.
Samples of dirt were taken from the vehicle’s tires. This dirt proved to be identical to earth taken from the crime scene. In addition, Fromant’s blood type matched the blood found on the Japanese knife and on the steering wheel of Stanswood’s car.
Fromant and Heather Stanswood were arrested and charged with murder. But Heather continued to insist that she had nothing to do with the crime. For his part, Fromant wasn’t talking. Heather told detectives that Peter had received a call from Liz Thompson the night of November 5, asking to meet him on Purbrook Heath Road for a bit of intimacy. She never saw her husband alive again.
Heather went on to say that Liz confessed to her that Fromant had killed Peter in a fight. It turns out that when Peter arrived at the lovers’ lane rendezvous, Fromant and Liz were waiting in the rented car. They then joined Peter in his car, where the fight broke out. Fromant drew his paper knife, but Peter managed to wrench it away and cut the boilermaker, accounting for Fromant’s blood on the steering wheel and the knife. Fromant regained the upper hand and stabbed Peter Stanswood — a man he had never seen before that night — seven times.
Fromant and Liz Thompson then went to her home where Fromant bandaged his hand and changed clothes before returning to his wife in Berkshire.
The claims were investigated and Liz Thompson admitted they were essentially correct. The charges against Heather were dropped and Liz Thompson took her place in the dock.
In October 1975, during their 17-day trial, Liz and Ken Fromant blamed each other for the actual killing, which didn’t matter as each was equally guilty. It turned out that Liz Thompson was in love with Peter Stanswood to the extent that she wanted him all for herself. He didn’t feel the same way, and Liz decided that if she couldn’t have him, no one would.
In sentencing the murderers to life terms, the judge in the case expressed the commonly held belief that the whole story of the murder of Peter Stanswood had not been told.
After the trial police burned the 2,000 depositions gathered during the investigation, much to the relief of the women of Portsmouth who had shared the intimate secrets of that seaside city.