The Handyman

updated 03/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Before searchers are through, police fear the body count may reach 20

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, FRED WEST WAS AN INDUSTRIOUS CHAP. For years he and his second wife, Rosemary, rented out rooms in their three-story house at 25 Cromwell Street in the English city of Gloucester to help make ends meet. Charging rock-bottom rates of less than $10 a week, the Wests attracted a steady stream of boarders, many of them teenage drifters. A contractor by trade, Fred constantly puttered around the house. "He never socialized much," recalled Shaun Boyle, who visited the West home in the late '70s when one of his girlfriends lived there. "He always seemed to be in the house, doing bits of building work."

Suddenly, the reason for West's passion for renovation has become sickeningly clear. Over the past month, authorities have uncovered nine bodies, all believed to be women, at 25 Cromwell. Three of the corpses, which reportedly were dismembered and mutilated, were buried in the backyard; others were entombed in the foundation. So far only two of the victims have been publicly identified. One is Shirley Robinson, 18, who roomed with the Wests in the late '70s and was close to giving birth at the lime she was killed. The other is West's own daughter Heather, 16, who vanished in 1987. West's attorney Howard Ogden says his client is being "utterly cooperative" with police.

In all, investigators fear that West, 52, may have murdered as many as 20 women, which would make him the most prolific serial killer in British history, surpassing Dennis Nilsen, who slaughtered 15 men from 1978 to 1983. (Despite his notoriety, Jack the Ripper apparently called it quits after murdering and mutilating five prostitutes in the East End of London in 1888.) Among West's possible victims: his first wife, Catherine Costello, who disappeared in 1970, at 26, and one of their daughters, Charmaine, who was last seen in 1975, when she was 12.

So far officials have not said why West killed—or how. Also uncertain is what prompted investigators to begin excavating his property. By some reports, authorities were tipped by another of the Wests' children that Heather's body might be found there. Whatever the case, police armed with a search warrant arrived on Feb. 24 and, using a high-tech radar scanner that can detect where soil has been disturbed underground, soon began ripping up flagstones and sifting tons of dirt.

Meanwhile detectives brought Fred and Rosemary, 40, in for questioning. The couple had much to explain, including why they had never reported Heather missing. (Fred had told friends a vague story about her working at a vacation camp in Wales.) Authorities have charged Fred with eight counts of murder but released Rosemary on the ground that they did not have sufficient evidence to hold her. Last week, Rosemary's attorney, Leo Goatley, issued a statement insisting that his client had known nothing of her husband's killing spree. "It is quite obvious she is very distressed," said the lawyer. "She has been subjected to mental trauma and shock."

As Britons tried to fathom the horrors at 25 Cromwell, the Wests' domestic life came in for close scrutiny. To some observers the couple and their children (the Wests reportedly had as many as 10 children) seemed perfectly benign. "They were a lovely family," said Joe Hefferan, a neighbor for 21 years. "The kids were always immaculately turned out."

Others, however, told of ringing the family's bell and being greeted at the front door by Rosemary, naked. A former boarder, Liz Brewer, 33, told reporters that Shirley Robinson had been having an affair with Fred and that it was his child she was carrying when she was killed. As Brewer, who was living in the house at the time, recalled, Rosemary didn't seem to mind her husband's dalliance, perhaps because she was allegedly carrying another man's child herself. "The Wests had told Shirley that they had an open marriage," said Brewer, who has been interviewed twice by police. "It was an amazing situation, really, but they all seemed to be getting on with it."

In recent years, according to local residents, Rosemary had been working as a prostitute and frequently brought clients home. Former lodger Rob Williams, who at one time dated one of Fred's teenage daughters, the provocatively named Mae West, said that Fred enthusiastically endorsed his wife's activities, to the point of eavesdropping on her sessions with the help of a baby monitor.

At this point investigators are losing hope that Fred's first wife or their daughter Charmaine are still alive. Fred told friends that his wife had run off with another man after eight years of marriage. After their separation, Charmaine was temporarily placed with the local social services agency. Two years later, when West married Rosemary Letts, then 18, Charmaine moved in with the couple. Then Charmaine suddenly disappeared. "One afternoon I noticed Charmaine wasn't there," said Graham Letts, Rosemary's brother. "Fred explained that she had gone to live with her real mother in Scotland."

Once authorities finish going over 25 Cromwell Street, they intend to search other places where West may have stashed bodies—a trailer park where he once lived with Catherine, a field in the Gloucestershire countryside and another home he once owned in town. There is even talk that police may want to examine building sites where he worked over the years. That would surely upset West—if only for aesthetic reasons. Gloucester police officials say he is enormously proud of his handyman skills and has spent much of his time in jail thumbing through do-it-yourself and gardening magazines. According to one newspaper account, his one concern has been that detectives not spoil his years of work. "Please," he reportedly begged one interrogator, "put everything back the way you found it."

BILL HEWITT
LIZ CORCORAN in Gloucester and TERRY SMITH in London

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