Our new series examining historic crime stories of the rich and famous begins with the case of the unsolved murder of an architect in Shropshire, the jailing for fraud of his aristocratic ex-wife and her children and her daughter’s subsequent marriage to a famous actor
Four times married former debutant Baroness de Stempel (née Susan Wilberforce, born 1935) was cleared of the still to this day unsolved 1987 murder of her reclusive, architect ex-husband Simon Dale in 1989. She then got herself into an equally big mess with the law by defrauding her late aunt, Lady Illingworth, alongside a subsequent husband, Baron (Michael) de Stempel, and her two children.
Partially blind, 17-stone Simon Dale’s death at the couple’s former home, a 50-room Queen Anne mansion, Heath House at Hopton Heath in Shropshire was gruesome. He was bludgeoned to death (allegedly) “with a brass poker in his library” in Cluedo style and “left in a pool of blood in the kitchen [with] toad-in-the-hole still cooking in the oven… Police never established [his] time of death [as] the intense heat from the cooker distorted the rigor mortis process.”
The “impeccably bred” Baroness de Stempel was eventually charged with the slaying. Mr Dale’s ex-wife, from whom he had been divorced 12 years prior, stood accused of telling all and sundry that she wanted him out of Heath House and was alleged to have talked about wanting him dead on many occasions. Despite reports of this “disdainful woman” having been seen “lurking” in the grounds on the day of the killing also, de Stempel was ultimately found not guilty of murder due to insufficient physical evidence at Worcester Crown Court in the summer of 1989. Prior to being cleared, she shouted: “Bollocks” at one prosecutor, but found herself immediately returned to a remand centre to await a trial for yet another crime.
During their delving, police had found evidence that the “cold-hearted” de Stempel had lived extremely extravagantly and according to a 2018 Worcester News story: “Officers [became] puzzled by the lifestyle and possessions of the Baroness, who claimed she had no means of supporting herself yet her cottage was packed with paintings and antique furniture. Digging deeper, they discovered the will of the Baroness’s great aunt, Lady Illingworth, had been changed in 1984 in favour of Susan de Stempel and other minor beneficiaries, none of whom had figured in the old lady’s previous will.”
Further examination of her home, ‘Forresters Hall,’ “a grandly named but [actually] small roadside cottage in Docklow, near Leominster,” and investigations into the demise of Lady Illingworth – the wife the vastly wealthy businessman, Liberal politician and Postmaster General between 1916 and 1921, Albert Illingworth, 1st Baron Illingworth – resulted in the discovery that Baroness de Stempel had lured her “senile” great aunt to her house for a brief holiday in February 1984. She was never to return home.
Over the next two years, Baron and Baroness de Stempel and her children siphoned off £1 million in stocks, shares, paintings, furniture and jewellery from Lady Illingworth. They left her £8,000 in debt in a Hereford nursing home after “dumping” her there nine months after her arrival with them. In the end, this poor, no doubt terrified old lady was cared for by the state and died a pauper in 1986. In the end, nobody even paid her funeral expenses.
Enquiries into the fraud included a search of the grounds of Heath Hall for £12 million in missing gold bars that had allegedly belonged to the late Lord and Lady Illingworth. They were never found and equally bizarrely, it transpired that another unsolved (though plainly unconnected) murder had been committed at Heath House in 1968 when a local GP was shot and killed in his car on the driveway.
At the trial at Birmingham Crown Court in April 1990, Baroness de Stempel – a descendant of the 19th century anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce – was branded “a malign and appalling influence on her children.” She was sentenced to 7 years in jail. Baron de Stempel was locked up for 4 years, her son Marcus Wilberforce for 18 months and her daughter Sophia Wilberforce for 30 months.
Prior to sending the “aristocratic family” down, Judge Richard Curtis, remarked: “All four of you are convicted of a most heartless fraud on a defenceless old lady who was a member of your family… [Your actions were] absolutely barbarous.”
Of Baroness de Stempel, he then added: “It was without doubt a meticulously planned and executed conspiracy. You are undoubtedly the chief architect and everything you did was skilfully covered up.”
On her early release from prison in August 1992 for good behaviour, Baroness de Stempel, in spite of “being officially bankrupt was taken to a five star hotel in Manchester.” She was “seen getting into a red Mercedes” and brazenly remarked: “Jail was an absolutely fascinating experience which I would not have missed for anything. You have not lived until you have been arrested.”
Penniless after spending her ill-gotten fortune on lawyers and accountants, Baroness de Stempel then briefly resumed her life with Baron de Stempel, but he “mostly stayed with his second wife, Francesca Tesi, in a small terraced house in Acton.” It is not known whether she is still alive but her story did feature in the 1991 paperback The Trials of the Baroness by Terence Kirby. On his release, her son, Marcus Wilberforce, married and became a building surveyor in Scotland.
During their trial de Stempel’s daughter [who later changed her name from Sophia Wilberforce to Sophie de Stempel], was alleged to have bought a £200,000 villa in Monaco for cash. She subsequently became a muse for Lucien Freud, “stepped out” with Richard Gere and eventually became an artist herself. She married the Laurence Olivier and BAFTA awarding winning actor Sir Ian Holm CBE – best known for his roles as Ash in Alien and as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit film series – in December 2003 has held exhibitions in London’s Cork Street, appeared in Vogue and counts Bella Freud, Kay Saatchi and Alan Yentob amongst her collectors.
Mike Cowley, the officer who headed the fraud case against the de Stempels, later remarked of the still missing thirty gold bars: “Anything which now remains [of the missing assets] is a matter for their consciences.”
Meanwhile, the double murder scene that is Heath House was sold to pay Baroness de Stempel’s creditors for £272,000 in 1993. In 2000, it was bought by a city businessman named Rupert Lywood for £1.5 million. It has now been “extensively renovated” and shows no sign of what one writer describes as a place that exhibits signs of “something unsettling over the horizon.”
If this sordid story were made into a film, most simply wouldn’t believe it true. As her alibi, Baroness de Stempel claimed to be watching Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage on the television at her cottage on the night of the murder of Simon Dale at Heath House. A poker was even found in the boot of her car, but she just claimed she’d borrowed it. You just couldn’t make it up.