‘I’m not a total monster. I know what I did’
Murder trial hears Northampton primary teacher Fiona Beal confessed in her notebooks to killing partner Nicholas Billingham, but she denies murder
By Sarah Ward
A primary school teacher who had a ‘dark’ alter ego killed her partner and buried his body in the back garden, Northampton Crown Court was told yesterday.
Fiona Beal, 49, who wrote in her notebooks about planning the killing of her partner Nicholas Billingham, 42, stabbed him in the neck in November 2021, disposed of his body and then returned to her job at Eastfields Academy and carried on with life as normal according to crown prosecutors.
Her crime was discovered three months later in March last year after she signed herself off sick from the classroom and ran away to a lodge in Kendal, Cumbria, where after being reported missing she was found by police in a bath with her wrists cut.
She was detained under the mental health act and after reading notebooks found in the lodge, hospital nurses became concerned about the contents ‘where it had been written that she had killed her long-term partner and had hidden him’.
Northamptonshire Police was alerted and after a search of the couple’s home in Moore Street, Northampton they found a blood stained mattress in the basement.
Billingham’s partly mummified body was later found buried in the back garden.
Beal denies murder and yesterday on the first day of the trial her defence counsel told the jury she does admit killing Billingham, who died from a stab wound to the neck.
Her barrister Andrew Wheeler KC said Beal had been ‘literally broken’ by the ‘psychologically domineering’ treatment by Billingham. The prosecution argue that Beal had a choice to leave the relationship but instead plotted to kill him.
Timeline of the killing and beyond
Starting just after 10.30am, crown prosecutor Steven Perani KC took the jury through the series of events which had led to builder Billingham’s death. He said it is the prosecution’s case that Beal had planned to kill Billingham after becoming ‘unhappy’ in their relationship and believed that he was having another affair. He said after telling work she had covid and had to isolate, sometime around November 1 she killed Billingham by stabbing him in the neck. She then decorated their bedroom - which the prosecution say is likely where the killing took place - to conceal the bloodstains and visited a DIY store to buy some decorative stones and bark to cover up the area where she had buried his body in the back garden.
She disposed of his clothes and told others he had left her for another woman.
She returned to work on November 13 and told her head teacher Clair Mills that Billingham had left her.
Throughout the months after she killed Billingham the prosecution say she used his phone to pretend to friends and family that he was still alive. She sent messages over a number of weeks from Billingham to his mother Yvonne Valentine as well as to people he worked with.
Three months after she killed Billingham, at the end of February last year, Beal called in sick at work and then on March 6 went to Cumbria. After her head teacher Clair Mills became concerned about her absence on March 11 she called Beal’s mother, who said her daughter had told her that she was on a school residential trip. Mills called the police and the next day Beal was tracked down to Cumbria where she told officers ‘she wanted some peace and quiet’ and said she was not feeling suicidial, but had felt so in the past. Three days later she sent a group message to her family saying ‘I am so sorry. I love you all so much’.
The message prompted her family to again contact police who after gaining access to the lodge found a note which prosecutors say ‘read like a suicide note’ and said ‘do not go into the bathroom’. Beal was awoken in the bath after being pulled by the ear. She was then taken to the Royal Lancaster Infirmary where she was detained under the mental health act. Notebooks which had been in the lodge with her were given to the mental health team, who after reading them alerted police who found the contents ‘disturbing’.
After contacting Northants Police, the house was searched by officers on March 17 and a bloodstained mattress and duvet were found in the basement. Northants police asked Lancashire police to arrest Beal for murder.
After noticing some fresh bark in the garden, the section was dug up and a body was found. There was a black bin bag over the head, which had a sleep mask over the eyes and printed inside was ‘this is my morning after face’.
It was Billingham, who was identified through dental records.
Throughout the opening speech the jury was read a series of notes by the prosecution that had been taken from Beal’s notebooks. The books had been found in the lodge where she had ran away to. In the notebooks she wrote of an alter ego she called Tulip22.
One note said:
“This book is my rambling thoughts book. . . . How I ended up here. 17 years of him being argumentative, mean, cruel, nasty, lying, cheating, gambling, narcist [sic], controlling, emotionally abusive, verbally abusive, sexually demeaning.”
“Everything changed last year. There’s a quote from Thelma and Louise that feels appropriate: Thelma: “You be sweet to them, especially your wife. My husband wasn’t sweet to me. Looked [sic] how I turned out.”
The jury was also read:
“I suppose I ought to explain what happened to get me to this point. My mental health has been deteriorating. He was fucking around again . . Whenever he was cheating he would up the ante on the belittling, moaning and critisizing [sic]. . . .
“I have to confess. Ok here goes. October 2021 he spat on me and threatened me during sex . . . I thought about leaving but the things he did fuelled my dark side - I call her Tulip22, she’s reckless, fearless and efficient. Ruthless.
“I started plotting as Tulip after he’d gone to bed. I could no longer sleep in the bed due to my breathing being too loud, or I moved too much or I was snoring, etc. I got used to sleeping downstairs and then waited for him to go to bed and let Tulip22 out. I knew I couldn’t let him get aware with it. Halloween sealed it. He was vile.”
The note continued:
“Mon 1st Nov . . . I had smoked all day. I had a bath, left the water in. He had been pushing for sex.
“I encouraged the bath with the incentive of sex afterwards. While he was in the bath I kept the knife in my dressing gown and then hid it in the drawer next to the bed. I brought a chisel, bin bag and cable ties up too. I got him to wear an eye mask.
“It was harder than I thought it would be. Hiding a body was bad. Moving a body is much more difficult than it looks on TV. I started to believe the cover story. Flashes interrupted. But in the dark times or just at random moments I would remember, remember what I’ve done. What I am.”
“People will blame my mental health. Yes it is a factor and I’ve always had issues there but I (words crossed out) could have/should have . . . fixed myself.”
Notes were also read from her phone. One said:
“I’m not a total monster. I know what I did.”
The prosecution’s case
The prosecution told the jury that Beal is ‘cunning, cruel, deceptive and devious’.
Towards the end of his opening speech Steven Perani KC said:
“The prosecution’s case is that whatever may have been going on in the relationship . . . the defendant had a choice. She could have left him, but she did not.
“Instead what she did was, she planned to kill Nicholas Billingham and set about putting her plan into action and then concealed his body. Her chilling confession of what she did and how she did it, the prosecution say all point towards the fact that at the time of stabbing Nicholas Billingham in the neck; the defendant knew what she was doing. Her confession discloses that she had one intention only. The intention was to kill Nicholas Billingham on 01.11.21.”
At the end of the afternoon Beal’s defence counsel addressed the jury and gave a short statement. Her barrister Andrew Wheeler KC referred to Beal as a ‘hardworking’ and ‘thoroughly liked’ teacher.
“How did that person suddenly go on to kill? Because there is no dispute in this case that she unlawfully killed Nick Billingham.
“What this case is really about is her state of mind at the time she carried out the act.
“You will hear that she has over the years struggled with her mental health.
“So what caused that dramatic change, what was the catalyst that led to the tragic circumstances?
“The defence say you will hear evidence that Mrs Beal suffered from mental health issues and was also in a coercive relationship with Mr Billingham.
“Her actions and thoughts were controlled and manipulated by him not necessarily through physical threat although you will hear evidence that there was such physical threat on occasions, physical and sexual.
“He was psychologically, domineering, and over the years wore her down until she was quite literally broken.
“You will hear the details of how that all unfolded.”
He said rather than the recordings of a ‘cold blooded killer’ they were the ‘scribblings’ of a ‘disturbed mind’. The defence will argue over the course of the trial Beal is not guilty of murder because of her state of mind at the time of the killing.
Throughout the day Beal, who was sat in the dock dressed in black and with her hair in a high ponytail, listened to what the court was being told and followed along with the folder of notes.
The trial continues.
(As this is a live trial we ask readers not to comment on the case).
This report is not the usual style of news email we send to readers. However due to the fact Fiona Beal was a Northampton primary school teacher and the case of coercive control that will be argued by her legal team, the decision was made to attend court and cover this case.
We will be reporting from the court throughout much of this week and will return to the court throughout the trial, which is expected to last for around six weeks (with a break for Easter) and include 60 witnesses.