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Sunday, October 14, 2007

RASHOMON IN SOMERSET

I can think of no more boring spot to retire to than Bellingen, New South Wales, population of 2,700. Here, over 1,000 miles from the excitement of Sydney, the Laundromat is the town’s default cultural center. Bellingen was founded in the 1830’s to harvest the surrounding red cedar forests, but they were quickly ravaged, leaving behind farms and rolling grass lands and a characterless, ugly, quiet little community on the banks of the Bellinger River. The town is dotted with storefront arts shops and dreams of becoming an Australian tourist Mecca. But perhaps the greatest attraction of Bellingen is that it has no TV station and only one tiny newspaper, the Courier Sun, down on Hyde Street. And that lack of media outlets makes this little speed bump off the coastal road the perfect place to retreat to if you want to escape your infamous past in England.
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The atmosphere of Bellingen offers faint echoes to the green rolling farms of Somerset, in the west of England, where, at the base of the Great Tor, legend says Joseph of Arimathea jammed his staff into the ground at the foot of the Tor and from it sprang the Chalice Well, whose waters were tinged with the very blood of Christ. The iron tainted water still flows in the village of Glastonbury, which also had dreams of inventing a tourist industry. In 1191, in the burned ruins of their monastery, the now destitute monks fortuitously discovered a heavy stone inscribed in Latin, “Here lies, Arthur, King”, and 800 years later the town still draws tourists to the graves of the mythical Arthur and his faithless wife, Genevieve. Marital infidelity, it seems, is a recurrent theme in history, and so is betrayal and revenge.
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On the evening of Friday, July 27, 2001, Andrew Chubb, a well respected 58 year old circuit judge, left his apartment in Portsmouth, where he stayed during the week, and returned to the 19th century Somerset farmhouse he shared with his 60 year old wife, Jennifer, and informed her that he wanted to end their 34 year marriage so that he could wed his mistress. It was not the smartest thing he ever did, but it was about the last thing. Ninety minutes later Andrew was dead. And despite suspicious firemen, despite the neighbors’ observations of Jennifer’s “odd” behavior, and despite the police eventually arresting Jennifer for the murder of her husband and perjury, the Lord Chief Justice declared there was “not a shred of evidence to suggest murder”, and no charges were ever filed against her.
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All of the neighbors agreed that Jennifer “wore the trousers” in the Chubb household. Jennifer was a nurse and volunteered with the local Red Cross. Andrew had been a judge for almost 30 years, and was described as a positive and pragmatic fellow. The couple had three children, their daughter Harriet, and sons Charles and Tom. To all outward appearances they were a typical contented upper middle class English couple. Charles was the eldest child. Harriet, the youngest, was just beginning her career, while Tom, the middle child, struggled with learning disabilities. Jennifer had at least one recent extramarital affair and Andrew had been seriously perusing his own mistress for the last two years.
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According to Jennifer, four weeks earlier Andrew had informed her of his affair, telling his wife that the other woman was “basically blackmailing” him. He said, according to Jennifer, “I’ve given her money but she’s threatening to go to the press.” And that very morning he had called to tell her, according to Jennifer, that he felt so trapped he was considering “jumping off a building”. And that was why, according to Jennifer, she was surprised but not shocked by Andrew’s announcement on the evening if July 27.
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But what did surprise Jennifer, according to Jennifer, was that after making his announcement Andrew had gone out to the garden shed (Photo; The garden - but not the shed). She says she followed him and found him in his work clothes, sitting on a riding mower. According to Jennifer she told him, “You just can’t cut the grass. We have to talk about this.” They argued for a few moments in the driveway, she says. She wanted to work things out, she says, but Andrew wanted to sell the house and live with his lover. She says she told him, “I thought you were a good and honorable man, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.” She says she then went back into the house, scrambled some eggs, poured herself a glass of wine, turned on the television and sat down to eat. About twenty minutes later, at about 8:45pm, she heard “a terrific explosion”.
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The shed was immediately fully engulfed in flames 20 feet high. Jennifer dialed “999”. According to recordings she told the operator, “Oh my God, oh my God, he’s done it quite deliberately.” Peter Evans, who lived across the road, arrived first. Jennifer told him that her husband was in the shed, that he had asked her for a divorce and that he had earlier considered throwing himself out an attic window but didn’t think it was high enough to kill him. Mr. Evans said, “She did say quite a few things that seemed a bit personal for someone who I did not know at all.” But about one thing she left no doubt. "I remember her being certain her husband had committed suicide." Then, while Evans tried to find a way into the shed, Jennifer began to take in the laundry hanging on the backyard clothesline. Beth Luck, another neighbor, escorted Jennifer to her home where they waited for the fire department. While there Jennifer told her of Andrew’s announcement that he wanted a divorce, about his affair, and about his wanting to commit suicide. “She said he had asked for a divorce but said he didn’t love the other woman.”
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The Taunton Fire units arrived on scene at 9:06pm and by 10:08 pm, having extinguished the fire, they found Andrew’s chard body lying with his legs under the riding mower. They reported back to base, “Confirm one fatality; incident being treated as a crime scene and being passed over to the police.” By this time Jennifer, described as "emotional, distressed and tearful" had told police constable Roger Saunders that her marriage was “amicable”. But she also told him about the fight in the driveway and her husband’s desire for a divorce. What she did not mention were Andrew’s alleged suicidal thoughts.
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In the morning Jennifer insisted on seeing Andrew’s body. Looking down on his corpse she announced, “Oh, I see what’s happened now. He’s poured petrol everywhere, laid down in the hay and set fire to himself”. Firemen then loaded the corpse into a plastic bag and noted there were no obvious signs of injury to the body. They also noted a residue of gasoline around the body and a scorched open gas can near the shed’s door. But the firemen had no authority to question Jennifer, and somehow their concerns never reached inspired the police. The next day Jennifer had the remains of the shed bulldozed and had it and its contents carted away (with police permission). She had her husband’s body cremated without an autopsy (again, with police permission).
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Four months later the coroner’s inquest into the death of what was called by the London Press “The Fireball Judge” ruled that Andrew's death was accidental. this allowed Jennifer to collect over $200,000 in life insurance, and a $400,000 payoff of Andrew’s pension, despite having said repeatedly that she thought her husband had committed suicide. She then sold the Somerset estate for a couple of million dollars and moved to the tiny village in Bellingen, New South Wales, Australia, and bought a small farmhouse there to be close to her eldest son, Charles. And there the story might have faded away except that Andrew Chubb’s mistress proved to be as formable a woman as his wife.
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Her name was Kelly Sparrow, a 38 year old blond legal executive secretary, and she was accused of blackmailing Andrew. Despite her tearful denials she signed a statement to that effect, and then spent the next six years battling the entire British legal system before finally, in 2007, winning a second inquest into what she saw as the murder of the man she loved. The new inquest convened in Glastonbury in October of 2007, and Kelly was finally allowed to testify under oath and in public as to how much she had loved Andew Chubb. The Andrew that Kelly knew lived in a loveless marriage with a wife who showed no interest in his work. He told Kelly that “Since the birth of Harriet, he had not so much as a kiss or a cuddle.” In fact the only thing stopping Andrew from divorcing Jennifer, according to what Andrew told Kelly, was his concern over what would happen to Tom.”
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The testimony continued for a week, with the court hearing from pathologists (who were hindered by not having a body to exhume), and arson investigators (who were hampered by not having a crime scene to examine) all expressing doubts about the original inquest. The court heard how Andrew had once refused to attend the funeral of a close friend because he had committed suicide. And it heard a train if witnesses who marked how Jennifer had been certain Andrew had committed suicide. But they did not hear from Jennifer. She decided not to return to England since, she said through her lawyer, she could not conceive of anything helpful she could add to the investigation.
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In the end Coroner Sheriff Payne admitted there were some things about the Fireball Judge that bothered him. The post mortem examination of Andrew’s body was “insufficient” and “confusing”. The police in 2001 had excavated the mower from the landfill where it had been buried but because of its condition even a re-examination failed to rule it in or out as an accidential source of ignition. And as for murder, Mr. Payne noted the lack of injuries observed on the body and said that for Jennifer to “…kill him in the shed and immobilize him seems almost impossible...I therefore discount any suggestion that she killed…(Andrew).” Mr. Payne also ruled that the evidence of a suicide did not rise to the level of proof, so it too was discounted.
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But, Payne noted, all that must mean that Andrew had been alive when the fire started. So why hadn’t Andrew simply smashed his way out of the old flimsy shed when confronted by the fire? Mr. Payne ruled, “It has not been possible to determine whether (Andrew) was disabled…by the products of combustion or any other means.” So the second inquest concluded that the cause of Judge Andrew Chubb’s death was “unascertained”.
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Poor Miss Sparrow admitted afterward, “I will probably never know for sure what happened on the night Andrew died.” And in far off Bellingen , according to one of her new neighbors, Jennifer Chubb has been on the phone to “ her boyfriend back in England and says he might come out.” The neighbor also says that her children wanted Jennifer to buy a new home to cut down on the maintenance, but that Jennifer preferred the 1920’s cottage she bought for $500,000 Australian, because it had character.
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