Suzy Lamplugh and her brother Richard
A few nights ago, Richard Lamplugh’s teenage daughter was late home. There was no text message and her phone went to voicemail. It was only a matter of minutes but, as every parent who’s experienced that stomach-churning panic will testify, those minutes can feel like hours.
Not least when your family’s name is synonymous with one of the most famous missing person cases in British history. The young girl who eventually flustered in the door, gushing apologies, carries a surname that’s a constant reminder that sometimes, for some unfortunate souls, the worst really does happen.
Richard is the elder brother of Suzy Lamplugh — the vivacious, pretty, 25-year-old estate agent who went missing in broad daylight 32 years ago — and this week has been particularly difficult for him and his wife Christine, trying to get on with their lives in Aberdeen.
Their home is hundreds of miles from the suburban semi-detached house in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, where a specialist forensic team have been digging beneath the garage floor, looking for missing Suzy’s remains.
The house was once owned by the mother of convicted murderer and rapist John Cannan, but the search is the first proper dig at the site despite the fact that, in 2002, police had taken unusual step of naming the smooth-talking ex-public schoolboy — who is already serving three life sentences — as their chief suspect.
Police had wanted to prosecute Cannan — who liked to visit his mother’s home after committing his crimes — at that time, but the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that, without a body, there was not enough evidence to proceed.
Suzy’s family — those of them who are left — are now waiting and hoping that, finally, the years of not knowing might be over.
Suzy and brother Richard (circled) with, from left, siblings Lizzie, Tamsin and parents Paul and Diana visiting Lamplugh in Cumbria
Search: The Sutton Coldfield garage and garden where it’s hoped Suzy’s body might be found
Richard, 58, and his sisters Tamsin and Lizzie have been unable to think of little else all week. Each of them is waiting for the call which might tell them that this drab corner of middle England is Suzy’s current resting place.
Meanwhile, Richard and his wife Christine are trying to focus on their own family while they wait for news. They talk about how if feels to bring up daughters, knowing just how dangerous a place the world can be for young women.
They are proud that despite the fact their girls share Suzy’s famous surname, they have been able to give them as normal a childhood as possible.
‘For a certain generation, Lamplugh is very fixed in the mind, and in that sense it hasn’t always been an easy name to carry,’ Richard admits. ‘Of course the girls know about their Aunty Suzy — her picture is on the wall — but it’s hard for them because they never met her, which is so sad.
‘I don’t want to stop them doing the things they want to do. You can’t wrap them in cotton wool. Of course we worry, but that’s teenagers for you.’
Richard learned of the latest development in the search for Suzy when he received a telephone call on Monday from his sister Tamsin, who’s three years his junior.
‘It came out of the blue and of course a part of you thinks, “Is this the time?” But I think none of us wants to get our hopes up.
Richard is the elder brother of Suzy Lamplugh — the vivacious, pretty, 25-year-old estate agent who went missing in broad daylight 32 years ago
‘It would be lovely to give Suzy a proper funeral, something so far denied to all of us. But we have been on this rollercoaster for years and it is so incredibly hard. And the one thing that remains constant is that, whatever happens, it won’t bring her back.’
This is a recurring sentiment in this, his first major newspaper interview — and in which Richard, a school technician, lays bare the lasting impact of Suzy’s loss.
Behind all the headlines, the police investigations, the hopes of resolution raised and dashed, is the simple tale of a much-loved daughter and sister who never came home, leaving their mother Diana and father Paul to die never knowing what became of her.
‘When something like this happens, it takes part of the fabric of your family away and that is always there, always part of you,’ says Richard. ‘It’s there in the background whenever you meet up, because one vital part of your family is missing.’
Richard — a reserved man who would not naturally put himself in the spotlight — clearly finds many of his memories too difficult to talk about. He is the eldest of the Lamplugh clan, who now in turn have seven children between them.
Lizzie, 47, who lives in Rutland with husband Johnny Bingham has three, while London-based Tamsin has two children by her husband Kenneth Tomlin.
Despite the geographical separation, they remain close. ‘We always were, but I think what happened made us closer,’ says Richard.
The four siblings were raised in East Sheen, South-West London, by Diana, a fitness club manager, and Paul, a solicitor. It was a happy, middle-class childhood and Richard has fond memories, in particular, of their regular holidays to South-West Wales.
‘We’d all run wild, playing on the beach and rock-pooling. They were wonderful, happy times.’
He also recalls going to Cumbria in the family campervan and visiting the town of Lamplugh.
Diana and Paul Lamplugh, the parents of Suzy, pictured in their garden
‘My parents must have thought it was fun to visit a place that bore our name,’ he says. ‘We stayed in the grounds of an old manor house. We loved our holidays in the van — we went all over the place. I’d sleep on the bottom bed, Suzy and Tamsin shared a bunk and Lizzie was in the back.’
Richard was just a year older than Suzy, and as children, he says, they were as thick as thieves.
‘She was a bubbly girl. When she got older, her motto was “Life is for living” — and when you look back at old cine movies we took at the time, you can see that in her from the early days. She was always running around.’
At the age of 17, Richard moved to Inverness to take a course in fish-farming. Suzy, meanwhile, was enjoying all that life had to offer in Eighties London, working as an estate agent and renting a flat in Putney. ‘She had a lot of friends and she seized life with both hands,’ recalls Richard.
That busy, promising life was cut short following the events of a Monday lunchtime. On July 28, 1986, after telling colleagues she had a viewing at 12.45 pm at a house in Fulham, Suzy was never seen again.
The appointment was recorded in her desk diary with the time, address and the name ‘Mr Kipper’ — a nickname known to have been used by Cannan. Suzy’s car — the keys still in the ignition — was found nearby, her purse still in it. Richard, by then 26 and working on a fish farm in Hertfordshire, received a call from his mother that same evening.
‘She said she didn’t want to worry me but Suzy hadn’t returned to work. They’d rung the police and hospitals, but there was no sign of her,’ he recalls.
Pictured: Suzy Lamplugh (second left) pictured with her sibling and parents on a family holiday to Wales
Later, Diana would say that she knew from the very first moment she learned that Suzy hadn’t returned from lunch that her daughter was dead.
Richard felt differently. ‘I was trying to think of anything else, like maybe she had gone off with a boyfriend, or maybe she had hit her head and lost her memory.
‘None of them seemed likely scenarios but you try to play through every one you can.
‘I just kept expecting her to walk through the door with her big smile, saying it was all a terrible mistake. The worst bit in a way was the feeling of powerlessness. I am quite a pragmatic person and my instinct was to do something to help find her, but where do you even start? It felt impossible.’
As days turned into weeks, the siblings strove to be positive for their desperate parents.
‘We didn’t want to cry in front of them and they didn’t cry in front of us. I think we were all desperately trying to be strong.
‘For a certain generation, Lamplugh is very fixed in the mind, and in that sense it hasn’t always been an easy name to carry,’ Richard admits. ‘Of course the girls know about their Aunty Suzy — her picture is on the wall — but it’s hard for them because they never met her, which is so sad’
‘As the weeks went on you are still trying to think positively. I remember telling myself that maybe she was in a foreign country. I just didn’t let myself feel she was dead for a long time.’
Even when, eight years after her disappearance, Suzy was officially declared dead — a formality that at least allowed the family to hold a memorial service, if not a funeral — Richard says a part of his brain refused to register it as a fact.
‘I had known deep down for a long time by then, we all had. But in the church where we held the service, there was still a bit of me that expected her to walk down the aisle and say “Here I am — I’m so sorry’’.’
From the outset, a grim pattern was set. The police would ring with apparently new information about what had become of Suzy, and the family’s hopes would be raised, then dashed again.
Then, in October 1987, Bristol-based John Cannan was arrested in conjunction with the murder of factory manager and newlywed Shirley Banks — like Suzy an attractive 20-something blonde.
Cannan, now 64, had a history of sexual violence against women dating back to the age of 14, and at the time of Suzy’s disappearance had been on day-release from a bail hostel in West London after serving five years of an eight-year sentence for rape.
John Cannan, now 64, had a history of sexual violence against women dating back to the age of 14, and at the time of Suzy’s disappearance had been on day-release from a bail hostel in West London after serving five years of an eight-year sentence for rape
The hostel was close to where Suzy worked and socialised, and Diana remembered her daughter being pestered by an unwanted suitor with links to Bristol who was sending her bouquets.
It was enough for her and her husband to raise questions about Cannan to the police.
Yet those questions were never properly addressed at the time, it was revealed this week. Instead, apparently angered by his belief that Diana Lamplugh was behind media reports linking Cannan to Suzy, the then lead investigator Det Supt Malcolm Hackett refused to properly consider him as a suspect.
As far as Diana and Paul were concerned, however, Cannan was the killer. ‘My mother went over all the evidence with us. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence and my mother felt that it all pointed to him,’ Richard recalls.
That mother’s instinct was ultimately — albeit rather late in the day — shared by the police, who reopened the investigation into Suzy’s disappearance in 2000.
In the summer of 2002, they presented a case file to the CPS and formally named Cannan — who continued to deny his involvement — as the man they believed had murdered Suzy.
Six months later, the CPS’s decision not to bring charges against Cannan led to outright condemnation from the Lamplughs, who spoke at the time of their ‘great distress’.
Perhaps surprisingly, Richard admits he felt differently.
‘They would have liked to see a conviction but … a part of me was relieved there was no trial,’ he says. ‘You get to a stage where you don’t want a wound reopened.’
Despite the obvious shortcomings of their investigation, he also holds no rancour towards the police. ‘What’s the point? Again it doesn’t bring my sister back. I think the best way of honouring Suzy is by trying to live life well and focus on the good.’
In the wake of the tragedy, Diana threw herself tirelessly into setting up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, to improve awareness of personal safety, for which she and husband Paul both received OBEs in 1992. Richard remains enormously proud of what she achieved.
Diana died in 2011, never knowing what happened to Suzy. Paul died in June at the age of 87, just six months before this week’s developments. It leaves Richard, Tamsin and Lizzie as the sole custodians of Suzy’s memory.
For now, Richard’s focus is on the house in Sutton Coldfield, where the wait continues to see if it may yet give up a long-held secret.
‘I can’t speak for my sisters, but as far as I am concerned if they don’t find a body this time, I would rather they just stopped looking,’ Richard says. ‘It is so hard, going through it all again and again’
It is a sentiment that could, perhaps, poignantly sum up the last three decades for the Lamplugh family.