In the early '90s, journalist Howard Sounes was working for the Sunday Mirror. His work varied. He did bits of crime reporting, he covered celebrity news and the goings-on of the royal family. He enjoyed his work but by his own admission, he wasn't proud of anything he'd done.
Then one day at work in February 1994, the phone rang, and Howard Sounes' life changed forever.
In 1994, I was 7 years old and lived on the outskirts of a village called Bishop's Cleeve in Gloucestershire. When news broke of the horror unfolding at Fred and Rose West's house, just 20 minutes away in Gloucester, I was blissfully unaware and managed to remain largely so until 2011, when ITV's BAFTA-winning, Emily Watson and Dominic West-starring drama Appropriate Adult aired. Watching it, I was dumbfounded. I stared in disbelief as the hellish activities that had occurred inside the Wests' home unfolded on screen: the sexual abuse, the incest, the murders and the bodies buried under the house and garden. Subsequent research told me that Rose had actually grown up in Bishop's Cleeve and Fred had lived there for several years. How had I not known? I mean, I had known, but I hadn't really known.
The answer, of course, is that I was lucky enough to be surrounded by adults who filtered my childhood view of the world. My parents and teachers sheltered me and my friends and classmates from the worst of what is one of the bleakest cases in British history – even as it was happening, just up the road. The married couple committed at least 12 murders of young women, including their own daughter Heather and Fred's stepdaughter Charmaine. Howard Sounes, as the journalist who first broke the news of the nine women buried under the Wests' property, was aware of every last gruesome detail.
His new podcast, Unheard: The Fred & Rose West Tapes, takes a look back at that time, 25 years ago, when he went in deep, interviewing friends, neighbours and family members of the Wests, helping to build a picture of the monstrous story for his paper and subsequent book, Fred & Rose. For this podcast, he's pulled all his old recordings out of storage, and created more, interviewing new witnesses who are still haunted by their time with the West family.
In episode one, we hear from Gill Brett, a former lodger in the Wests' house who mercifully escaped harm. She recalls liking Fred, explaining how he would let her off rent if she was a bit short. She was less keen on Rose, whose behaviour she says seemed "odd" – Rose walking around the house with no knickers on made Gill feel uncomfortable, although not as much as the screams and bangs from the bedroom as Rose entertained clients for sex work.
The most chilling revelation from Gill, however, is her recollection of shouting to Fred when she saw him leaving the house with a bulky, rolled-up carpet. "You haven't got dead bodies in there have you?" she called jokingly and they both laughed.
But how could she have known?
I know you don't need YET ANOTHER true crime podcast to add to your already overflowing podcast library. Listening in great detail to descriptions of murders of women by sadistic men is hardly conducive to your already precarious mental health. In fact, I'd cancelled my subscription to every true crime podcast going (except Criminal – I'm not a maniac) in favour of political and cultural listens. But due to something Sounes says early on, I'm making an exception for this one.
Many true crime podcasts have been criticised for glamorising the perpetrators and ignoring the (largely female) victims. Not so in this case. "At the time, the focus of attention was the Wests. The victims were little more than a list of names," Sounes remembers sadly. "But now, 25 years on, that list still stays with me – 12 young women and girls lost their lives, many were not even reported as missing. How could so many people disappear unnoticed for so long? What were their stories?"
Dutifully, this first episode focuses largely on Heather West, the couple's daughter whose disappearance eventually led to the arrests and excavation. Her friend tells Sounes that Heather was a quiet girl who loved Sylvanian Families and Heather's half-sister's boyfriend remembers teaching her skills to survive in the wild after he learned of her plan to run away to the Forest Of Dean.
These are the stories that should have been told at the time and, although they weren't, Sounes appears to be making up for it now. No, it's not an easy listen, but if the podcast continues down this route of remembering the victims while it tells the wider story, it will at least be a worthwhile one.
Unheard: The Fred & Rose West Tapes with Howard Sounes is available from 10th September from Somethin' Else Production.