Twenty-seven women. Falling. Off balconies, out of windows, from the top of multi-storey carparks. And there, in most of the cases, is a man, standing in the shadow of her fall. What if these women didn’t just fall, but were pushed?
Warning: This episode contains some upsetting content around the issues of domestic violence, sexual violence and homicide.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this podcast, you can contact the charities Women’s Aid and Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse.
1 November 2021
4 April 2022
Why this story?
On 6 August 2018, Bianca Thomas fell from the 11th floor of Birmingham’s iconic Cleveland Tower. Her body was broken beyond repair and she died nine days later.
Bianca’s family think she might have been pushed over the balcony by her boyfriend, but they’ll never know for sure because the police dropped their homicide investigation, and the coroner returned a verdict of accidental death.
But what if she was pushed? And what if there are more women like Bianca across the UK who are falling in suspicious circumstances, and their deaths aren’t being fully investigated?
In a way, it’s the perfect crime. The forensic evidence is slim. A body so shattered it leaves no trace of any tussle that might have come before the fall; no blood pattern at the crime scene; no weapon; no witnesses to the fall. A case of he said, versus she can’t say.
But look a little closer and you see a pattern emerge. Falls happening at home. A man often arrested at the scene. Neighbours who say they heard an argument – sometimes screaming – right up to the moment the woman fell. And friends and family who come forward to say the boyfriend was abusive and the woman was scared. Gemma Newby, Producer
Louise Tickle, narrating: It starts with a woman lying on the ground.
Perhaps breathing, perhaps not.
Now rewind, just a few seconds. The woman is on the balcony of a tower block.
Now go back just a tiny bit more.
There’s a man with her. Maybe there’s shouting, maybe not. The only thing we know for certain is that in a few minutes one of them will be dead.
And pretty quickly you find yourself with three options. Did she jump, did she fall or was she pushed?
Brian Suffolk: The language was appalling, it was getting heated very, very heated. And I thought, you know, this is bad
Louise Tickle, narrating: That’s the puzzle I’m investigating in this week’s Slow Newscast.
Brian Suffolk: …and she was coming down and headfirst and it was a matter of seconds from the drop of the balcony to there.
Louise Tickle, narrating: And it’s not one puzzle, it’s dozens: 27 seriously injured or dead women. 23 men present in the moments before they fell.
Brian Suffolk: And then the screaming on the way down was just… never forget it as long as I live, I don’t think.
Louise Tickle, narrating: And just a single conviction for murder.
Brian Suffolk: That was a mother with three kids.
Louise Tickle, narrating: I’m Louise Tickle. From Tortoise, this is Fallen Women.
Louise Tickle: So first interview from the suspect at 15:54 on the day that Bianca fell.
Gemma Newby: There’s a break and it picks up again 17:26. Then there’s a second interview by him on the 23rd of the eighth, which is a week after she dies.
Louise Tickle, narrating: In January 2021, Tortoise published a series called Hidden Homicides, where we uncovered how police were failing to investigate the deaths of women in abusive relationships, missing the fact that there were reasonable grounds to suspect these women had been killed by men.
Then, earlier this year, I reported on how the former MP Andrew Griffiths, had used the family courts to cover up how he had coercively controlled and raped his wife, the MP Kate Griffiths.
And I’ve found myself, through these stories and others, telling the same story over and over again. A story about institutional failure to protect women from misogyny, domestic abuse and sexual violence.
And so perhaps it’s no surprise that in August last year I got an email from the MP Jess Phillips who, every International Women’s Day, reads out in Parliament the names of each woman killed by a man in the previous year.
Jess was asking if I would meet someone who had a particular case she thought needed investigating.
Jhiselle Feany’s sister had fallen 11 storeys from a Birmingham tower block in 2018. But Jhiselle had told Jess that she thought her sister might have been pushed to her death by her boyfriend.
And this thought haunted her so much that she’d started scouring the internet for reports of other falling women.
And then we started investigating at Tortoise, and we couldn’t stop finding them either. To give you a sense of what we were seeing, last November alone, two women fell to their deaths. Sophie Leigh, from Southend, was 22, and had just got engaged. The other woman? There was no name. Merely the detail that she had fallen to her death from a tower block in Islington, London.
And if you look closely, as we did, you begin to see a problem. Multiple deaths, that might actually be homicides, hiding in plain sight.
27 women. Falling.
Often young, vulnerable women, falling off sixth and seventh and fourteenth-floor balconies; falling out of windows; falling off the edges of multi-storey car parks… and there, in most of the cases – a man – standing in the shadow of her fall.
Twenty-one arrests. Five convictions.
Jhiselle’s sister’s name was Bianca. Bianca Thomas.
Diane: Bianca was a little bit like me. Um, you know, she had this slight, really infectious laugh
This is Bianca’s mum, Diane, she’s a social worker.
Diane: …and she smiled all the time and people would often say, you know, Bianca’s your double and I actually felt that as well, because, personality-wise, we used to have like long discussions. We used to go on long shopping trips. We used to, um, enjoy each other’s company, just relaxing, really.
Diane told me how, when she was pregnant with Bianca she miscarried her twin, and it was a miracle Bianca survived. Unashamedly, she also told me Bianca was the favourite of her five children.
Diane: Bianca came at a good time in my life and we just really enjoyed her company.
Bianca was shy, funny, caring, the kind of girl who always falls for the bad guy. You know the one: the girl who sees the good side in a person when no one else does, who wants to rescue them. She liked to look after people and she was trusting. Too trusting, her big sister Jhiselle says.
Jhiselle: If they had a sob story, she’d really buy into that.
In this podcast, Jhiselle and her family are talking openly about Bianca’s death for the first time.
Louise Tickle: Tell me your memories of your sister.
Jhiselle: So, I have really good memories actually. Um, when my mom and dad split up, we had to stay with him for a little while so we were kind of like homemakers, to be honest with you. We’re quite similar in that way. So we like to cook. We like to clean. We like to look after people. Bianca was very much so like that…
She was a bit impulsive, whereas I’m quite organised, I’m quite straight-laced, so that’s where we would clash. Um, but other than that, no, um, exactly the same personality as me. Like we’re a family where we have banter, you know, we would sit and talk and laugh and have jokes.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Bianca was 25, she was mixed race, and she loved make-up and fashion. When I met her younger sister Chard, many of Chard’s stories began with a memory of Bianca in her bedroom, Chard doing Bianca’s hair or eyebrows.
Bianca was also a mum – she had three girls – the oldest of whom was eleven when Bianca died. And… she was vulnerable. In her short life, she’d been in two seriously abusive relationships. Her children were looked after by Diane to protect them from the violence that would, on occasion, engulf Bianca.
Diane: She wouldn’t go into things. If she was feeling really down, she wouldn’t share it with you, um, until it would get to crisis point.
Jhiselle: When you knew that there was stuff going on, she would never have opened up to you. And if she did, it was almost like scratching the surface.
Louise Tickle, narrating: On Sunday 5 August 2018 – the day before she died – Bianca was spending the weekend at her family’s home in Birmingham.
Her two youngest daughters were away, on a weekend trip to London; the eldest was in the house with Bianca along with Bianca’s dad Darren and her then 16-year-old sister, Chardonnay – who is sitting with us in a very hot and very tiny room, in a serviced office building in Birmingham – with her six-month-old baby, Kyro, who you can occasionally hear gurgling in the background while she painfully recalls that night.
Chard: It was really late when she said she was going out. I think was 11:45, the taxi came.
Louise Tickle: Did you get the impression she’d be back soon or do you think, did you think she was going to be back the next morning?
Chard: Soon, soon, she said she was coming back the same night.
Louise Tickle: Were you surprised she was getting out that late?
Chard: Not not really, but I was surprised that she was going there.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Bianca wrapped up some leftover chicken and rice her Dad had cooked for dinner, said goodbye to her daughter and younger sister Chard, and took a cab to Birmingham City centre to visit her boyfriend, who lived on the 11th floor of Cleveland Tower.
Less than two hours later Bianca was lying on a metal canopy at the bottom of the 31 storey tower block. Her body broken beyond repair.
Chard: I remember waking up and the police were at the door. They said that she’s in a bad way and they were like, you need to come to the hospital. Bianca is not good… she’s damaged so bad that she had, um, a white sheet over, um, body up to her neck cause obviously her body was like, shattered.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Despite intensive medical intervention Bianca never regained consciousness. She died nine days later unable to tell anyone what had happened in those final few seconds of her too-short life.
Chard: Growing up, my sister, she was scared of a lot of things, especially heights. She’d never put herself in the situation to do something like that herself, sorry, she’d never do that.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Let’s go back a little – to a few minutes after 01:00 on the Monday morning – and a phone call which we’ve voiced up from the 999 call log.
[999 call reconstruction]
Operator: Ambulance Service.
Caller: A girl’s just jumped from the flat.
Operator: Oh right ok, wh-, what’s the address, is the patient conscious and breathing?
Caller: Er Cleveland –
Caller: Cleveland Tower
Operator: Ok so, do you know which a- how many floors?
Operator: Are you watching, are you, is it male or female do you know?
Caller: It’s a female… (crying) I’m too scared to look.
Operator: No don’t, don’t worry
Caller: I’m sorry. She was in my flat, she was…
Operator: Jumped from your flat?
Caller: Yeah yeah I’ve got a balcony, she was on the balcony.
Operator: What’s the name of the lady who’s jumped?
Operator: Bianca. Is she your girlfriend or a friend, or…?
Caller: (inaudible) just my friend.
Operator: Did you see her jump?
Caller: No, no.
Operator: Have you been out to the balcony yet to see what’s happening?
Caller: Nah, nah.
Brian Suffolk: He didn’t take any time to look over
Louise Tickle: He didn’t look over after?
Brian Suffolk: No
Louise Tickle, narrating: The caller told the emergency operator that the woman must have jumped. One moment she was there. Then she was gone. Fallen. But the man who watched her fall has a different version of events…
Brian Suffolk: All I could see at first was just a top part of the shoulders and somebody leaning, like leaning like that, just yeah, the back of the shoulders. And then suddenly it was as if somebody had got her ankles or her waist. She came over with all the screaming and her hair and everything was just… she was coming down and she was coming head first. Do you know what I mean? For that few seconds, she’d come over and you could see it was headfirst.
Louise Tickle, narrating: We’re outside, at the exact spot where Brian Suffolk was standing the night he saw Bianca fall. Brian’s a retired nurse who started his working life as an orderly and worked his way up through nursing in hospitals and then prisons. Brian tells me he knows pretty much everyone in Cleveland Tower, where he’s lived for 46 of his 66 years –
Brian Suffolk: …and I absolutely love it. It’s amazing.
Louise Tickle, narrating: …and entering his flat on the 12th floor, where I’ve now been twice, is a bit like walking into one of those curio shops tucked away on little side streets – the ones that sell exotic items from far away shores – a mirrored head of a Bodhisattva; an Indonesian puppet; and a full-size suit of armour that, on occasion, Brian wears.
Louise Tickle: What you’ve told me is that the towers have got a bit of a reputation.
Brian Suffolk: Yeah. It’s… in the eighties, there were, it was full of druggies, a lot of, um, gay people lived here, which is no problem, none whatsoever. And then, um, the druggies started to take over really bad. So it got a bad reputation. And everybody, if you said you lived in Cleveland tower. It was, known as the druggie block, the AIDS block. Now it’s been pulled up from Birmingham City Council which has made a vast difference.
Louise Tickle, narrating: And from this one-bedroom flat, with its small kitchen and bathroom tucked in on one side, and vast living room with a window stretching right the way across it, Brian has a birds’ eye view over Birmingham.
It is breathtakingly high.
You can see the cranes and construction sites pushing the city upwards, and the old and decrepit buildings that are being left behind.
And you can see all the way out to a sweeping curved line of hills beyond the edges of the city.
And then… down and straight ahead of me is the corner from which Brian tells me, he heard the argument.
Louise Tickle: Can I take you back to that night?
Brian Suffolk: Yeah.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Just before 1am Brian remembered he hadn’t put his blue disabled badge on his car.
Brian Suffolk: … if you don’t put it in at eight o’clock you get a ticket for £60.
Louise Tickle, narrating: He headed downstairs.
Louise Tickle: It was August wasn’t it?
Brian Suffolk: Yeah, it was very, very clear. Do you know what I mean? It was one of them nights where the moon was just bright and, um, as soon as I came out the exit doors, I could hear rowing and it’s nothing new, you can hear people sometimes having a row and I crossed over, sorted my car out which was at like the top of the hill where I crossed over.
And, um, I looked up, being a bit nosey, as one does, I stood there by my car messing about when there was nothing the matter, I didn’t need to, but then I decided to lock my car, walked down the hill a bit, cause I want you to have a look up and then I could see people on the balcony.
Louise Tickle: How many people could you see?
Brian Suffolk: I’ve seen, I seen two, but it was more her, um, you know, backwards um, mainly occasionally she turned around a little bit, but not, not much. It was more like from the back.
Louise Tickle: And could you hear what they were saying?
Brian Suffolk: You could hear the language.
Louise Tickle: But you couldn’t hear what it was really about?
Brian Suffolk: No, not really, because it was just f-ing and b-ing and you know, you’ve done this. It weren’t anything coming out specific but it was getting heated very, very heated. And I thought, you know, this is bad.
Louise Tickle: And you can hear it cause they were on the balcony?
Brian Suffolk: Yeah. Yeah. It’s only the 11th floor and I could hear it quite, um, so, uh, I moved down a little bit further so I could have a look up and I could see what was going on and, um, kitchen light was on and that’s that part of the flat…
And then all of a sudden it was as if, um, she become tall and then came back. Her hair was just down and she was screaming, you know, everything at him, screaming everything at him.
It was a matter of seconds from the drop of the balcony to there. The screaming on the way down was just… I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Brian ran back to the tower block, dragged a wheelie bin towards the canopy and used it to clamber up onto, edging his way over to where Bianca lay.
Brian Suffolk:… by this time people had started to come out and shouting what’s going on. And, um, I was shouting ‘just phone an ambulance, phone an ambulance, everybody, phone the police’ a lot.
Louise Tickle: Are you alright?
Brian Suffolk: Yeah.
Louise Tickle: Just going back to that moment when you were watching and you said she suddenly got taller, and then she came over… Did you see him at that point?
Brian Suffolk: No. You couldn’t see him. No. You couldn’t see him. There was a side view there. That was the back view. And there was a side view there. That’s where I think he disappeared.
Louise Tickle: Into the kitchen?
Brian Suffolk: No, in front of her. He was still on the balcony when obviously when she come over, but he didn’t take –this is always my own thoughts about it all – he didn’t take any time to look over. He never looked over.
Louise Tickle: He didn’t look over after?
Brian Suffolk: No… he didn’t look over after she came over he didn’t um… The lights went off in the kitchen. All the lights went off… he never looked over and he never come down.
Louise Tickle: He didn’t come down?
Brian Suffolk: No, he didn’t come down at all. No.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Bianca was rushed to Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The police took a statement from Brian and arrested her boyfriend on suspicion of attempted murder. Her family were told by doctors that, if it weren’t for the canopy breaking her fall, she would have died instantly.
Louise Tickle, going through paperwork: This is a short description of what happened. Police were alerted to an incident at Cleveland tower, Holloway Head, Birmingham, at 01:06 on Monday the 6th of August. And that was by the ambulance control. Um, initial inquiry suggested that the occupant of the flat, um, had been involved in an argument immediately prior to the fall…
Louise Tickle, narrating: We got hold of the 999 calls, the witness statements from the boyfriend, from Brian and from Bianca’s mum and dad, and Bianca’s hospital reports for the inquest…
Louise Tickle, going through paperwork:… as a result, he was arrested on suspicion of murder and interview. In interview, he denied any guilty knowledge, it says, and has been released on police bail.
Louise Tickle, narrating: …and we’ve spent hours going through it all trying to piece together what happened.
And this is what we can establish about the night Bianca fell.
Bianca arrived around midnight with food and a small bottle of vodka. She drank a few shots in the flat – her family told me this was normal, she liked a drink. They ate the leftovers she’d brought. She then told her boyfriend she wanted to go home to be with her daughter and he told the police that he “advised” her – his words – not to, because she’d been drinking.
Then, according to the boyfriend, at some point, she went out from the living room to sit on a chair, on the narrow balcony…
Boyfriend [reconstruction]: “It’s normal for her, she always used to sit on the balcony.”
Louise Tickle, narrating: … and sat there, wearing her coat, holding her handbag, whilst he pleaded and pleaded with her, he told the police, to come inside.
Boyfriend [reconstruction]: “But she wouldn’t come in, like I’m begging her, begging her to come in, saying it over and over again.”
Louise Tickle, narrating: He denies over and over again that they argued that night. In fact, he denies ever arguing with Bianca.
And those final moments? He says she was sitting on the chair on the balcony while he went inside to get a cigarette. After rolling the cigarette, he says, he sat down to watch a film whilst she stayed outside.
And then – he heard a bang and she was gone.
With two diametrically opposing accounts from Brian Suffolk and Bianca’s boyfriend, it seems at some point between August when she fell and her inquest in December, the police discontinued their homicide investigation.
And so Bianca’s family had to wait for answers from the coroner.
Mrs Hunt, coroner [reconstruction]: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Mrs Hunt, and I’m the senior coroner for Birmingham and Solihull. And we’re here this afternoon for me to resume an inquest, touching on the death of Bianca Martina Gobourne Thomas who passed away on the 15th of August of this year.
An inquest is a fact-finding inquiry and the law is governed by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
There are four statutory questions to be answered at an inquest: who the person was, where and when they died, but also, importantly, how they died.
Louise Tickle, narrating: The coroner – voiced here by an actor – spends less than two hours going through all the statements from the night of Bianca’s fall.
She asks Brian questions about his police statement, and she questions whether it was really possible for him to see so clearly, 11 floors up, at 1 am. And when I heard that in the audio from the inquest I sent my producer Gemma a message.
Louise Tickle: So listening to this evidence from the police officer at the inquest they’re showing a picture which was taken from the ground, I think in December, or at least, you know, winter, which obviously shows it is quite dark.
And although the officer says, you know, remember it was August, she sort of seems to agree that visibility would have been pretty bad… but I’ve just looked up, um, the August 2018 weather in Birmingham and looking at what it was like between midnight and six in the morning on Monday, the 6th of August, uh, it was not far off a full moon, and it was clear.
So in terms of the light situation, plus Brian was saying that there was a light on, either on the balcony or in the kitchen, I’m not sure that it really stands up to say that it was so dark you couldn’t possibly see who was on the balcony.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Brian also told the coroner that he knew the exact flat Bianca fell from because when he first heard the argument he’d counted 11 floors up and saw a balcony with plants on it, which Bianca’s boyfriend confirmed.
Coroner [reconstruction]: And are those your plants that we can see on the photograph?
Boyfriend [reconstruction]: Yeah.
Coroner [reconstruction]: You’ve been in court and heard the previous witness haven’t you? And he says that there was an argument going on and he counted up. And that was your flat, your balcony. What do you say to that?
Boyfriend [reconstruction]: It’s impossible.
Coroner [reconstruction]: Why is it impossible?
Boyfriend [reconstruction]: Cause we weren’t arguing.
Coroner [reconstruction]: When she’d been to your flat before, had she ever sat on the balcony rail?
Boyfriend [reconstruction]: No.
Coroner [reconstruction]: No…. I said at the beginning that no witness has to answer any question that may incriminate them. I’m going to ask you a question that could incriminate you. You don’t have to answer it, but I’m going to ask you anyway, were you on that balcony, did you push Bianca off the balcony?
Boyfriend [reconstruction]: No
Louise Tickle, narrating: This is where the evidence, and what level of rigour the evidence has, gets both interesting, and tricky.
The police knocked on doors on the 10th, 11th and 12th floors. Nobody else told them they had heard any argument. The forensic investigation of the scene found a partial footprint on the balcony chair they thought matched Bianca’s shoe – although the police officer who recounted the forensic evidence at the inquest admitted that they had no way of knowing when it had been made.
Smeared fingerprints on the metal rail above the balcony barrier were said to be facing inwards – as if Bianca was sitting on the ledge, her back to the air, her hands gripping upwards on the rail. But the forensic investigator didn’t attend the inquest and so couldn’t be interrogated on that evidence.
Claire Ferguson: That was quite strange to me. Firstly, I’ve never heard of a fingerprint examiner drawing conclusions on how a person moved based on the fingerprints that they left.
Louise Tickle, narrating: This is a forensic criminologist Dr Claire Ferguson. Claire’s another person who contacted me after Hidden Homicides and we stayed in touch. I spoke to her at length for this podcast, and when we got hold of the audio of Bianca’s inquest we sent it to Claire to get her professional opinion.
Claire Ferguson: My understanding is that a person’s fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, et cetera are too dynamic to draw meaningful conclusions about this. And I think that this is exacerbated by not being able to date the fingerprints. So not knowing when they were made.
Louise Tickle, narrating: And then after less than two hours the Coroner concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, Bianca had fallen over the edge of her boyfriend’s 11th floor balcony by accident.
Coroner [reconstruction]: The likely cause of her fall was overbalancing while sitting on the balcony railings, whilst intoxicated. And at the time of her death, she had a blood-alcohol level of 222 milligrams per a hundred mil, along with the presence of cocaine and MDMA. And all of that leads me to record a conclusion of accidental death.
Claire Ferguson: I would want to know how the examiner could tell that Bianca was actually sitting on the railing rather than standing with her hands in the same position and her elbows up. I think there could be a perfectly simple explanation, but calling a third party to testify to someone else’s findings means that we can’t ask the question now.
Louise Tickle: right. Let’s go out onto the balcony.
Louise Tickle, narrating: When I read the Coroner’s verdict I tried to imagine how it would be possible to accidentally fall from the 11th floor. So I asked Brian Suffolk to take me out to his friend’s balcony on the 12th.
Louise Tickle: Let’s see… I’m just leaning against it and it comes up to, it comes up to my chest, comes up to my chest level. Bloody hell. Don’t do that, Brian.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Picture a concrete wall, about five foot high – I’m 5’8 and the top of the wall is about chest height on me – on top of which is a metal safety railing, running through the middle of a narrow concrete ledge. In the inquest the police investigator said Bianca must have climbed onto the chair she was sitting on to sit on that narrow ledge, and then accidentally fallen.
But it’s difficult to imagine why – when she’d never done it before, when she was afraid of heights – that she would do that. It’s also hard to imagine how that’s physically possible too …
Louise Tickle: Well actually, no, you couldn’t sit on the top because your head, I don’t think you could, because the top of the balcony is too low I reckon.
It just feels to me that if you’d come and you’d seen this balcony, it would be such a difficult judgement to make that you would accidentally fall over it.
Claire Ferguson: So what we see in accidental deaths, um, is that they’re usually at a job site or a worksite doing construction or something like that.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Dr Claire Ferguson specialises in “equivocal death analysis”.
Claire Ferguson: … So how do we tell the difference between an accident or a suicide and a homicide? Most of my research surrounds looking at what offenders do to try to make deaths look like accidents or suicides or natural deaths.
Louise Tickle, narrating: She’s explaining to me what the research shows on accidental falls.
Claire Ferguson: They’re usually from the sort of three to four metre mark in terms of height. And I think that’s because that’s when people are more likely to be a little bit fast and loose with safety.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Claire co-wrote the only academic paper I’ve been able to find – anywhere – that has attempted to research into homicide convictions after death by falling. She found and analysed 12 cases, over 32 years, of homicide convictions in Australia, Canada and the US. Ten out of the 12 perpetrators were men.
Claire Ferguson: We were just trying to explore what happens in those cases where it is determined that a fatal fall was a homicide. What do those cases look like and how might we be able to extrapolate from those cases to better train people, to deal with fall deaths or to, I guess, inform the investigation of other cases that might be homicides, uh, where the death has resulted from a fatal fall?
Louise Tickle: What made you particularly interested falls, in deaths by falling that were in fact homicides?
Claire Ferguson: I think having done a few studies on generally deaths that are made homicides that are made to look like natural deaths or suicides or accidents, I started seeing a few interesting cases where there were fall deaths that looked like homicide or could have been homicide, but which were very, very complex. So that’s what got me thinking that we probably need a little bit more information on those types of homicides, if that’s what they are, or those types of complex death investigations.
Louise Tickle: And why is it hard to determine whether a fall from height is in fact, a homicide?
Claire Ferguson: Oh, it’s so difficult because police often look for indicators or wait for indicators from medical professionals and what we have in fall deaths, especially when you’re talking about extreme heights, is that the autopsy report says ‘multiple injuries consistent with fall from height’, which is 0 per cent useful to investigators.
So that in and of itself makes investigating these cases very difficult. You also don’t necessarily have some of the same indicators that you might have in other types of homicides. Lke there’s not necessarily going to be a bloodstain pattern analysis or something like that at a crime scene that you can point to and compare to various theories of the case or statements of potential people of interest. So fall deaths can be really difficult that way.
The other thing is that I think a lot of offenders make the assumption that investigators will think ‘no one would do this. No one would throw someone from a height.’
Louise Tickle, narrating: Many of the falls that had led to homicide convictions in Claire’s research had something in common beyond the fact that they were pushed – they were largely outdoors – on locations like cliff tops.
Claire Ferguson: I think that there were more of those because the planning creates evidence. So they are actually easier to prosecute.
Louise Tickle, narrating: A husband luring his wife on a weekend trip to a high up location leaves traces. The deaths we’ve been looking at, less so…
Claire Ferguson: Um, the ones that are spontaneous look like, I don’t want to say ‘regular’ because that’s just a gross term, but they look like other domestic violence-related homicides. Um, they involve threats of separation or actual separation. They are very angry. Um, and the offender is trying to regain control and basically throws the person usually off of a balcony rather than a cliff or some like wilderness sort of location.
Louise Tickle, narrating: The femicide census shows that in 2020 that 70 per cent of women killed by men in the UK were killed at home.
Claire Ferguson: There’s usually some sort of argument that’s going on. You often have witness statements saying, you know, yelling and screaming in the apartment or what have you. And generally, the woman is attempting to, or actually leaving in those moments, or has threatened to leave in those moments, and that’s the trigger for homicide. So the throwing the person from the balcony might be the first instance of known physical violence, but the relationships are abusive and controlling for a period of time leading up to that. Um, and the separation is I guess, the final point.
Louise Tickle, narrating: But let’s return to Bianca’s story. Because there is something we discovered while investigating her death that, according to her family, West Midlands police either didn’t know or didn’t bother pursuing.
Chard: She kept saying that they weren’t together, um, but for weeks before that she kept she was going to break up with him. She doesn’t, she didn’t know um how to go about it. Cause obviously he wasn’t being a very nice person and being a bit racist, not treating her nice.
Louise Tickle, narrating: You can hear how nervous Chard is because she’s not sure how to talk about her adored big sister without giving away private, intimate details. These sorts of interviews are always excruciating.
Louise Tickle: Was she frightened of him?
Louise Tickle: Why?
Chard: Because he was abusing her.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Chard, who was sixteen at the time of Bianca’s death, was the last person – other than Bianca’s boyfriend – to talk to Bianca. But the police didn’t interview her.
Chard: …and if they would have asked the right questions and, and asked us, ‘Oh, you were the last person who spoke to her. What happened? What was going on months before?’. They would have knew all this, but they just didn’t care.
Louise Tickle: You asked the police directly?
Chard: My family and I did. I think when one of the police officers came out to the house, I asked if I could speak and they said ‘yeah, we’ll give you a chance to speak later’, but they didn’t.
Louise Tickle: They never came back to you.
Louise Tickle: What did she tell you about him?
Chard: Um, that at the start, everything was alright, as normally it is. But after like I think it was about like a month or two she kept coming to me and saying like, he’s not like a very nice person they’re not getting along like how they was before…she feels like pressure, stress, things like that. Like around him, and she doesn’t feel really safe.
Louise Tickle: Did you feel worried for her?
Chard: Yeah. Yeah. I think every time when she went out I had anxiety, I was worried like, I was texting her I would ask her, is she coming back, how long things like that.
… she would always have bruises on her arm and her leg. I don’t think there was any on her face, but it was on her body mainly.
Louise Tickle: She showed them to you or did you just see them?
Chard: Yeah. Both.
Louise Tickle, narrating: And there was something else. Something Chard didn’t want to go into the first time we spoke. Something we saw on Bianca’s pathology report and felt we needed to ask her about…
Louise Tickle: It’s a single line. And it just says that her genitalia were swollen. And there are potentially a number of reasons why that might have been, but one reason potentially could be that she’d been sexually assaulted. And I wondered if there was any history that you knew of Chard in her relationship with [name redacted] where she had alleged that he had sexually assaulted her?
Chard: There was things that she was saying, that she didn’t want to do. Sexual things. And she felt forced and pressured.
Louise Tickle, narrating: We’ve got Chard on speaker-phone and she’s just told us Bianca felt forced to do sexual things.
Louise Tickle: And she told you that?
Chard: Yeah. I was I think she came upstairs and she was like, ‘Oh can you do my eyebrows and makeup?’ And I said ‘no problem’ and that’s when she was like, gave information about him, uh, being abusive and a bit volatile and the sexual situation.
Louise Tickle: I know, I know this is really difficult Chard, but if you feel able to answer this question, was he raping her?
Chard: There was, there was a mention of, um, there was a mention of that once.
Jhiselle: Can you tell them exactly what her words were to you? Say it.
Chard: I hate, I hate, obviously it’s information that everyone needs to know, but I hate it.
Jhiselle: Mum already knows anyway, so just say it.
Chard: She mentioned that he raped her once. She was saying she was in his bedroom, and they were just like chilling, whatever, sitting down together in the bedroom and then they were talking and he was trying to like, touch her and things but she didn’t feel comfortable. And she was like ‘ah nah’. And then she said she felt forced and pressured into obviously that, what I just said, that she mentioned that he raped her once. She said that the dog was there, and the dog was barking or something because they arguing with each other and of rent, the dog, she thought he was barking in the living room
Louise Tickle: Was he being violent to her during the rape?
Chard: She said that he was holding her hands, no holding her arms sorry, holding that arms. But that’s all she said and then she was like, ‘oh, I shouldn’t even tell you this anyway’. And then she changed the subject really quick.
Louise Tickle, narrating: We tried to get hold of Bianca’s boyfriend to ask him about these allegations. We tried calling him. We sent three letters to his home address. But we’ve had no response. But there’s little doubt he would deny all allegations against him.
Louise Tickle: Were you surprised that she was going out to see him that night, that late, taking food? Is that a normal thing?
Chard: I just remember how I kept, kept going to the toilet and answering the phone that night. And he kept saying can you come, can you come, can you come. But I just heard her saying things like ‘oh, it’s a bit late’ and ‘I’ve got my daughter over’ things like that.
Louise Tickle: She was trying to put him off?
Chard: Yeah and she’s like, ‘I can bring my daughter’ and I think she offered the eldest daughter to come because she was worried and scared.
Louise Tickle: Do you think he had a hold over her?
Louise Tickle:… if you are a police officer arriving at the scene where a woman is dead on the ground and a man is upstairs, somewhere in a building…
Louise Tickle, narrating: I’m back talking to Dr Claire Ferguson.
Louise Tickle: … and you find out for instance, from the family, that that relationship is abusive. Although you may have no records on your central computer system, what should you be doing at that point?
Claire Ferguson: Starting a suspicious death investigation.
Louise Tickle, narrating: We were – clearly – curious as to how thoroughly West Midlands police had investigated Bianca’s death and the background to it. In a statement they told us:
Police statement: We thoroughly investigated the circumstances around Bianca’s death.The investigation was initially led by our Homicide team and statements were taken from a number of witnesses. We recovered CCTV from the area and carried out a forensic examination of the scene and an arrest was made as part of the investigation, but later released with no further action. There was no evidence of foul play and we passed our findings to the coroner, who recorded a verdict of accidental death.”
Louise Tickle, narrating: So what are we left with? A young woman who told her sister she had been physically and sexually abused by her boyfriend. Who told her family she was trying to break off the relationship. A young woman who was, her sister told us, scared, and who didn’t want to go and see him that night. A woman who, just over an hour after arriving at her boyfriend’s flat, had fallen and was dying…
To me, it seems so unlikely she fell by accident – both from the research on accidents that shows they happen at much lower heights and, frankly, from standing on an identical balcony and seeing how impossible it is to sit on the ledge, without scrunching up to stop your head hitting the floor of the balcony above.
There was no indication that she was going to jump. And a witness with no skin in the game heard a ferocious argument right up until she fell.
There is no official, collated data on Fallen Women. No accumulation of evidence. No information on the circumstances surrounding the deaths or catastrophic injuries sustained.
So, like Bianca’s sister Jhiselle, we started searching online media for news stories of falling women so we could develop a database.
And a pattern began to emerge. This is Tortoise reporter, Ellen Halliday
Ellen Halliday: So I basically started with a very simple online search. I was looking for women if they’d fell, and I was looking to find out what the police had said about the nature of that fall. And so the results in this spreadsheet that we’’e got in front of us is a list of women who’ve died in different ways. Some of them, um, are clearly accidents. Some of them are tragically suicides, but there’s a number of cases in there that the police then went on to deem suspicious.
Ellen Halliday: We found 51 cases of women who were seriously injured or killed as a result of falling from a height. 27 of the cases were deemed to be suspicious. A woman died in 17 of those falls and was seriously or critically injured in 6 others. In one case she was otherwise injured and we couldn’t find information on the outcome in the other three cases.
Louise Tickle: So we’ve got Georgina Drinkwater. She was a 30 year old mother of two, oh and she was almost six months pregnant. Annabelle Lancaster, she was 22, she fell 90 ft from an eight-storey flat in North London. That was in 2019…Then 2014, that was an open verdict. Her mum said she would never have climbed over the balcony she fell from. And here’s a recent one: Donna Price, she was 43 in 2021, she fell from a height and died. Two men arrested on suspicion of murder. They’ve been released on bail.
Louise Tickle, narrating: One of the things that really stands out as I’m looking at the data is that a man was present in 23 of the 27 cases where a woman fell in circumstances deemed by police to be suspicious.
Louise Tickle: Out of the cases that you’ve looked at, where is it reported in the media coverage that there was an abusive relationship and what was going on at the time of that fall?
Ellen Halliday: So in eight cases that we looked at there was known abuse. And we know that because it was something that was reported at a trial or an inquest, often information fed by friends or family in the lead up to this incident that we have then recorded.
Louise Tickle: And I’ve read articles where the journalist has gone round and got eyewitness evidence or has spoken to neighbours and they say there was an argument, I could hear it, or there was always an argument. It was always going on.
Ellen Halliday: Yeah. So separately to those eight cases of abuse, there were other reports where eyewitnesses said, ‘we heard arguments, we heard shouting’. Sometimes they could hear what the women were saying. Sometimes it was more of a disturbance that they are aware of. So there are also four cases that we found where eye witnesses said there had been a row.
Louise Tickle, narrating: We also collected data on falling men from the same period and there is a striking difference when you compare what happened to the men against what happened to the women.
Ellen Halliday: Many of these women are falling from tower blocks or blocks of flats in major British cities in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow. Men are also often falling from flats. So in some ways it’s similar, but rather than them being at home, they are often with friends or one man even fell from a pub window. They’re in public places rather than an what should be a safe home. A safe space.
Louise Tickle: When you say they’re in public places, do you mean they’re sort of with other people at the time there’s a group of them.It’s a party. That kind of thing.
Ellen Halliday: It’s a party, train station, or their colleagues are there whereas the women are falling from a private space where there’s fewer witnesses.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Out of the 38 falling men we found for the same time period five of those falls were deemed to be suspicious.
Ellen Halliday: So in the cases of the men. It’s more often been an obvious accident out of nowhere, out of the blue, in the women’s cases, there are records of arguments. There are records of abuse in the relationship of patterns of violent behaviour, by men, towards the women involved.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Of the fifty-one female falls, 27 were deemed suspicious. And out of those 27, arrests were made in 21 of the cases, charges were brought in six and convictions secured in five.
And of the seventeen deaths? Two convictions for manslaughter and one for murder.
Bianca’s boyfriend was released without charge – with only one eyewitness account of an escalating row heard by nobody else, a footprint and some smudged fingerprints there wasn’t enough evidence to do anything else.
Would it have made a difference if West Midlands Police had looked into the abuse allegations made by Bianca’s family?
In a death that shares so many features with Bianca’s the police did just that, and it still wasn’t enough to get the boyfriend charged.
Kate Ellis: So we have seen an investigative report produced by the police, which was disclosed to the coroner, in which they had recommended to the Crown Prosecution Service that a charge be pursued of manslaughter. They had concluded, again, that there was insufficient evidence for a charge of murder while that was a hypothesis that was open to them. But they felt that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that at the very least, his sort of violent and aggressive behaviour towards Jordain had caused her death.
Louise Tickle, narrating: This is Kate Ellis, a solicitor from the Centre for Women’s Justice. Kate represents women who have been directly affected by male violence, as well as relatives of women who’ve been killed, who are struggling to get the authorities to recognise the sometimes-fatal consequences of domestic abuse. And this is how she came to be involved in the case of a falling woman.
Kate Ellis: Jordain fell from her fourth storey flat after what can only be described as a fierce argument it seems with her ex-partner. We know that that argument took place firstly, because there was a text exchange between Jordain and her partner earlier that evening, in which she had pleaded with him to be reasonable. She had apologised for some mistake that she wanted him to forgive her for. She had said that she was scared of him, and he had said that he was going to come over.
Numerous other residents or people who were in the flats that night gave evidence to the effect that they heard an argument taking place, or they heard a combination of shouting, a woman sounding distressed, a male voice sounding angry. They heard the sounds of sort of something physical happening… and then some of them then heard the sound of her crying for help from the balcony, which must have been near the moments just before she fell.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Jourdain John Baptiste fell from the fourth floor of an Enfield tower block in 2015. Like Bianca she was young – just 22 – mixed race, and in an abusive relationship.
Kate Ellis: We didn’t have a direct account from Jordan to say that she was assaulted by him previously, but there was a considerable volume of hearsay evidence from her friends who had been told by her or shown photographs by her indicating that she’d been assaulted and abused by him over a number of years.
Louise Tickle, narrating: It’s the sort of circumstantial hearsay evidence known as “bad character evidence”.
Alex Bailin: Bad character evidence is evidence that the person has been involved in criminality other than that for which they’re charged. So if, for example, it’s said that the suspect was a domestic abuser of the victim and the text messages support that conclusion, that would be bad character evidence.
Louise Tickle: So I’m just the first thing I want to ask you to do is just to simply introduce yourself.
Alex Bailin: So I’m Alex Bailin, I’m a barrister, a criminal barrister, and I’m instructed in a wide variety of criminal cases. One of the things that I’m sometimes instructed in is homicide in unusual circumstance.
Louise Tickle, narrating: In a noisy room at Matrix Chambers overlooking Gray’s Inn Road, Alex Bailin QC is explaining to me what it takes for a judge to agree to admit bad character evidence of the sort we’ve been hearing, in a criminal trial.
Alex Bailin: When I started out, it was inconceivable that that sort of evidence would form part of the evidence in a homicide case. The law changed about 20 years ago to permit that sort of evidence to come in. And what you now need, in essence, is evidence that the bad character evidence shows a propensity to commit this type of crime.
Now, obviously, you can’t work on a presumption of domestic violence in those sorts of situations, but it may become clear fairly early on that there is that sort of relationship potentially, and the police need to keep a very open mind and investigate that as thoroughly as possible.
And it’s really then for the prosecutor to decide: do I think this is a sort of bad character evidence, which would actually go in at trial, which is going to make a real difference.
But the real question in a homicide case is: what is it probative of in this case? And that requires proof of an unlawful and dangerous act. Typically an assault involving actual or the threat of violence which legally caused death.
What a prosecutor may do is say look, there are certainly arguments that bad character evidence could go in here, there’s certainly a legal basis for all getting a trial that this evidence should be admitted. But in making a charging decision, I may not be confident enough that it will be admitted at trial and therefore I will make a charging decision putting that sort of evidence to one side.
Louise Tickle: But put that history of abuse to one side, in a scenario where all the evidence you have is circumstantial. Bodies too shattered from the impact of a fall to show any evidence of force; a witness who heard an argument, but maybe through a wall, and didn’t see anyone being pushed, and a few inconsistencies in the suspect’s account of what went on – and it’s hard to imagine how you can get past that evidential threshold.
What would it take?
Kate Ellis: These are all kind of complex questions of course they are, but it’s why it’s so important I think that cases involving a fatality, following a kind of complex pattern of domestic abuse put to a jury to determine, and that, that the police and prosecutors don’t play judge, jury, and executioner, you know, in the case and decide cases before they’ve been heard fully before a court.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Kate Ellis represented Jourdain’s family after the Crown Prosecution Service ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to put her boyfriend in front of a jury.
Louise Tickle: Why did the CPS decline to prosecute?
Kate Ellis: The crown prosecution service felt that it was a fundamental problem to the case that there was no eyewitness who actually saw Jordain fall or saw what the suspect was doing when Jordain fell. So that was a really fundamental thing. They came back to. They also relied on the fact that Jordan had self-harmed. It wasn’t disputed by the family or by anyone that when she was a young teenager, there had been at least one occasion of self-harm,
Louise Tickle: Were the police saying that a period of self-harm several years previously threw doubt on her mental state at this particular point?
Kate Ellis: Yes, I think in addition they took into account the fact that the suspect had himself brought up the fact of her self harm and he had given an account to the fact that this was, you know, this was symptomatic of her mental health, generally that she’d always struggled with these feelings. But of course, that account could be said to be a self-serving account. It rather assists the suspect’s case that she had…that she had jumped deliberately or put herself at risk.
The suggestion made, I think in the final decision letter from the Crown Prosecution Service was that maybe this was a case where Jordain had kind of not known what she wanted, that she’d got up onto that balcony, you know, in a state of great distress, perhaps hysterical threatening suicide. And then, and then had fallen before she’d had a chance to think it through.
Louise Tickle, narrating: Many of the women we have found are young, vulnerable, have alcohol or drug problems, and are in and out of abusive relationships. Bianca had been drinking – she must have drunkenly climbed up onto the balcony and then fallen; Jourdain had self-harmed several years before she fell, she was clearly unhinged.
Kate Ellis: That left the family feeling really insulted. They just felt like, well, that’s not our daughter. That’s not how our daughter would have behaved. She wasn’t hysterical and hot-headed. If she went over that balcony, it would have been because she was trying to survive
Louise Tickle, narrating: Pushed to the edge, even if not over?
I’m going to end this episode back where I started, with a puzzle.
27 suspicious falls. 17 dead women. A man almost always arrested at the scene, and then almost always released without charge.
And really, we’ve only scratched the surface. Who knows how many more women are falling in situations like these?
When we began this investigation we asked 45 police forces across the United Kingdom if they could tell us how many women had fallen from height in suspicious circumstances; if there had been an arrest at the scene; was there a marker of domestic abuse; and had anyone been charged with or convicted of murder or manslaughter?
And, I suppose after doing so many stories like this, I don’t find it very surprising, that none could – except one, which was Leicestershire Police, which had been counting.
They told us that between 2016 and 2021, three women died and 43 were seriously injured in falls. Nobody was charged with the death of a woman who had died from falling from a height; eight people were charged in relation to women being seriously injured. And what’s most interesting is that of the 43 women who were seriously injured, 35 reports had a domestic abuse marker next to them. So either the police knew before, or now know, that these are domestically abusive relationships.
So are all these women killing themselves immediately after rows with their abusive partners? Or carelessly falling from great heights in the wake of an argument so ferocious the neighbours can hear? Or are we ignoring a dark figure of homicidal falls that are not recognised as such by police, or that can never be brought to a trial?
Claire Ferguson: No, no one seems to care. And this is the thing that I don’t understand about all of my research. Nobody talks about this as an issue. Like we have kind of this notion that people that commit intimate partner femicide, often use concealment of some type. They try to get rid of bodies, or they try to make it look like suicide or accident or whatever, but there’s no one actually doing the research and thinking about, well, how do we train the people that go to death investigations that don’t immediately scream homicide and make the right choice? Because if they don’t make the right choice, then the investigation is going to be very, very difficult to make up later.
Louise Tickle: Having spent months investigating Fallen Women, what I see is a failure to really thoroughly investigate.
A failure to count.
And a failure to care… about women who don’t easily fit the definition of perfect victim – young mothers, pregnant women, women drunk or on drugs, trapped in abusive relationships, living in city tower blocks where seemingly accidents happen all too often.
And so their deaths… and their lives… go unnoticed and ignored by the very institutions that exist to protect them.
Fallen Women was reported and produced by me, Louise Tickle, Gemma Newby, Ellen Halliday and Nimo Omer, with sound design by Tom Kinsella. Our editor was Basia Cummings.
How we got here
After her death, Bianca’s older sister Jhiselle Feanny started scouring the internet for reports of other women, like her sister, who had fallen in suspicious circumstances. She took her research to the MP Jess Phillips, who brought it to Tortoise and we started to investigate.
We spent months looking for press reports of falling women, looking at the circumstance surrounding their falls, the location, their age and ethnicity, their background, and any details on their final moments. And the more we looked the more we found to concern us.
Twenty-seven women falling in suspicious circumstances. Men arrested at the scene in 21 cases. And we compared these figures and these deaths to falling men and found stark differences.
There is no official collated data on falling women. Only one police force could give us numbers on women who fell and men who had been arrested or charged with a crime. And if nobody is counting then how can we know how big the problem really is? Could the falling women we’ve found merely be the tip of a dark iceberg? Gemma Newby, Producer
- ‘New York: Sentimental Journeys’ – Joan Didion, the New York Review of Books
- The Podcast on Crimes Against Women
- ‘Women still fear for their safety but are louder and more determined than ever’ – Alexandra Topping, the Guardian
- ‘Femicide detectives: “Counting bodies is the best place to start”’ – BBC News
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