To the normal eye – indeed to anyone who passes – the house you can see is perfectly normal. Detached, with a large garden to the rear and a large enough drive for two cars. Perfectly, absolutely normal.
So why does this house, in the suburbs of a large city, have the reputation for being the most robbed house in Britain? Researchers and criminal experts have considered this problem, and nothing has suggested itself as a solution. What is known is that all residents have been robbed at least once, sometimes more – and, for obvious reasons, they never mention this to future buyers.
One of the first recorded cases was in 1955, and the first owner, a bank manager named William Desmond who had bought the house as new two years before. On this day, his wife Elaine and his eighteen year old daughter Judith were at home, talking as Elaine worked on a new dress for her daughter.
“Just hold still a minute – there!” Elaine put the final pin in the hem of Judith’s dress and looked up, smiling as she said “I think that’s the right length now.”
Judith looked down, biting into an apple as she examined her mother’s work. The dress had a grey flower pattern on a white background, with a grey stripe down the front to one side and a little bow towards the bottom of the knee length skirt. A grey band was around her waist, and it had short capped sleeves.
She did a little twirl in her black kitten heels and said “That’s great Mum – when can you have it finished?”
Elaine was sitting on the floor, the skirt of her own dress covering her legs. It was pink with darker pink vertical stripes, and an open collar, while she had a pink sewing apron tied on the front. “Give me an hour or two,” she said as he looked up, “and it will be ready for the dance.”
“Sorry, ladies – that will have to wait.”
Both women looked to the door, where a man, a stranger to both of them, was standing. He wore a smart grey suit, a white shirt with a thin black tie, and patent leather shoes – but he also held a small pistol in one of his black gloved hands, and he had dark glasses on covering his eyes.
“Oh my god,” Judith whispered as she dropped her apple on the floor, putting her hands to her mouth as Elaine stared at the intruder.
“Please, no screaming – All I want to do is look through your jewellery, and maybe take a few things, but I need you both to keep out of my way. Very slowly, stand up and sit on the seat over there.” He indicated with his gun towards a wooden two seat couch, with red cushions on the base and back.
“Just… Just do as he says, darling,” Elaine said as she slowly stood up, her skirt rising to reveal a matching pair of black shoes like her daughter, and walked over to the seat, sitting down and smoothing the apron out as she did so. Judith joined her, her eyes fixed on the gun.
“Thank you,” the man said as he reached into his jacket pocket, and drew out a wooden tube with twine wrapped round it. “Mummy, will you put your hands on your head for a minute, while I take care of your charming daughter?”
“What are you going to do with that,” Judith said as the man knelt next to her, placing the gun where he could reach it and she could see it, before he made a loop with the end of the twine.
“You’ll see,” he said as he put her hands together, and then passed the loop over, pulling it so that her palms were pressed together before he wrapped it several times around her arms, and twice between them. He then pulled the twine down, making her hands sit on her lap before he used it to secure her ankles tightly together. Taking a pocket knife out, he then cut the twine away before using it to secure the binding behind her legs.
“Your turn,” he then said to Elaine before he secured her wrists and ankles in the same way, and stood back up again, putting the twine and the pocket knife away. The two women tried twisting their hands free, as he walked behind Judith and removed the grey and white scarf she had been using to hold her long reddish brown hair back.
“What are you doing now,” she said as she felt his hands on her head. The answer came when he told her to open her mouth, and he used the scarf as a cleave gag, sitting it between her lips as he tied it round her head.
Elaine listened to her daughter’s muffled words as the man left for a moment, returning with a larger head square, this one blue with a red trim, and used that to cleave gag her. “Now sit still,” was all he said as he went upstairs, and they could hear the sounds of him searching through the bedrooms.
A short while later, he looked in on them, and then he left, the two of them listening to make sure he had gone. Elaine then started to shuffle forward, her eyes on the pair of sewing scissors sitting on the floor….
An early example, and their freedom came soon afterwards, with her husband returning to see the police talking to them. Despite this they remained in the house for some years.
In 1965 the house had passed on to a couple who had moved to the UK from the West Indies – Desmond worked in a local factory, while Brenda stayed at home to look after their two children. On this particular Saturday, Despond had taken the kids to a local football game – leaving Brenda to catch up on the ironing…
“And that is the news at two. Next today on the Light Programme…”
Brenda put the hot iron onto the stand, and walked over to the other side of the room, re-tuning the radio to Radio Luxembourg. “That’s better,” she said as she listened to the new record by Cilla Black, and picked up the iron again, putting the towel down as she went over Desmond’s shirts.
She was wearing a white dress with a brown dogtooth patter printed on it, which came down to just above her knees and had a short skirt. The sleeves came down to her elbows, and she was wearing a pair of comfortable slippers.
It was the sound of something breaking in the kitchen that alerted her to the fact something wasn’t quite right. “Oh wonderful – has next door’s cat come in through the window again,” she said to herself as she unplugged and switched off the iron, and walked through, calling out “Tibbles? Are you in there you naughty cat?”
It wasn’t Tibbles – what Brenda saw when she walked into the kitchen was a young man in a leather biker’s jacket, his scarf pulled up over his mouth and nose. He looked at Brenda for a few minutes, before he said “Shit” and grabbed a large bread knife from the work surface.
“Right, lady,” he said in a muffled voice, “you just do as I say, and nobody gets hurt, all right?”
“All right,” Brenda said as she held her hands up, “I won’t do anything if you won’t.”
She could see him looking wildly round, until his eyes alighted on a large roll of Sellotape on the kitchen table. “Sit down,” he said as he pointed to one of the chairs, “and hold the side of the chair with your hands.”
By this time, Brenda was more scared that he was going to hurt himself, so she pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and sat down, watching as he freed the end of the clear tape from the roll and taped her wrist to the chair back on each side, and then her upper body to the chair.
Kneeling in front of her, he then taped her ankles together, and her legs below her knees, before he picked up a dish towel and rolled it into a band.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly as Brenda opened her mouth and she felt the cotton pushing her tongue down, the band forcing her lips apart as he tied it tightly round her head, the fringe of her black hair sitting over it.
She watched as he went into the house, and heard him throwing things around, before he came back through. “I’m sorry,” he said again before he left her there, the radio playing in the other room…
He had found some jewellery, but not much – and Brenda was stuck in the chair for another ninety minutes until her family returned.
The house changed hands a few times over the intervening years, until in 1976 it was the home to Geoffrey Cavendish, the manager of a local paper supplies company. He had a beautiful wife called Roberta and a sixteen year old daughter called Hannah. In 1976, the family had been for a night out at a local restaurant, and returned home at about ten…
“That was divine, darling,” Roberta said as they pulled up outside the house. “Thank you for a wonderful evening?”
“Yeah, thanks dad,” Hannah said from the back seat. Both of the women were wearing brown fur coats, as Geoffrey got out of the car and opened the door for them. He wore a light blue dinner jacket and trousers, with dark blue trim, a ruffled front white shirt and a dark blue bow tie.
“Nothing is too good for the ladies in my life,” he said quietly as they closed the doors, and he locked the car, the family walking into the house as Geoffrey turned the lights on.
“Don’t move an inch, any of you.”
The three family members looked in horror at the man standing in front of them in their front room, wearing a boiler suit and with a black mask over his head, only his eyes and mouth showing. He held a sawn off shotgun in his leather gloved hands, pointed straight at them.
“Who the hell are you,” Geoffrey shouted, but when he went to move forward the man said “Move another step and my friends shoot your wife and daughter.” He turned his head to see two more masked men behind Roberta and Hannah, pointing guns at them as well.
“Take those coats off and hand them to the men behind you.”
Hannah slowly removed her coat, to reveal a brightly patterned maxi dress in shades of orange and cream. Her long blonde hair fell over the shoulders and the round collar, while the sleeves flared out and just covered her elbows.
As for Roberta, she wore a similar style of dress, except hers had a plunging neckline at the front, and a gathered waist instead of the belt around Hannah’s. Both women’s skirts fell to the floor, covering the stiletto heels they were wearing.
“Get them upstairs and keep them quiet, while I talk to Mister Cavendish,” the first man said, as the two women felt a gloved hand grip them tightly on the arms and they were marched up to the master bedroom.
“What do you want with my husband,” Roberta said as the door to the bedroom was closed, the men looking at them.
“His co-operation – which you will help with. Turn round, and put your hands behind your back?”
The second man produced several coils of rope, and looked at Hannah before he said “so that we can tie you up and keep you in here. Now, do it, or we start asking you to strip.”
“That will not be necessary,” Roberta replied quietly, “do as they say Hannah. Better we face this with dignity.”
Hannah nodded as she felt one of the men cross and bind her wrists tightly together, watching her mother as the same thing happened to her. They were then made to sit back to back on the floor, Hannah watching se her skirt was folded back and her ankles tied together and the other man pulled their upper bodies together with bands of rope around their stomachs and arms.
Ten minutes later, both women were tightly bound, their ankles secured and their skirts wrapped around their legs with a band of rope above their knees. One of the masked men then took a roll of brown sticking plaster from a pocket, and tore a strip off, saying “purse your lips” to Hannah. As she did so, eh smoothed the fabric over her mouth, and then did the same to Roberta.
They sat there, only able to mumble as one of the men searched through Roberta’s jewellery boxes, and the other went to the other rooms.
Eventually, they left them alone to struggle and try to get free, with no idea of where Geoffrey was…
Geoffrey had been bound and gagged on a leather couch in the front room, after giving details of how to open the safe at his office. It was the next morning before the police came to rescue them, after the robbery had been discovered.
The Cavendish family lived in that house for some years after that incident, and were one of the families that had more than one visit. Ten years later, and a year after Geoffrey’s untimely death, Hannah was preparing for her wedding with Roberta when they had unexpected visitors…
“I really wish Dad was still here,” Hannah said as she sat back, looking at the reception seating plan. She was wearing a pink sweater and white pants, with a pair of black shoes on her feet.
“I know – but Uncle Dave is going to do a great job giving you away,” Hannah said as she held her coffee mug in her hands. There were streaks of grey starting to appear in her blonde hair, as she sat in her light blue blouse and fawn trousers, a lattice leather belt around her waist and a pair of brown moccasins on her feet.
“I know he will,” Hannah said with a smile. “So that’s the seating plan sorted out – now what do we…”
The doorbell ringing interrupted Hannah’s train of thought, as Roberta stood up and said “I’ll deal with it.” The daughter returned to looking at the plans on the coffee table, saying to herself “If I put Aunt Anne there…”
She heard the different tone in her mother’s voice and looked up, to see a man standing behind Roberta, a stocking pulled down over his head as he looked at her.
“Oh god, not again,” she whispered, “how many times now?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” the man said as he threw a large roll of silver duct tape to Hannah, and watched as he caught it. “Tape her wrists together behind her back, and then wrap it round her waist and her chest to keep her arms in place.”
“Just do as he says, love – he’s got a knife as well,” Roberta said as she was pushed forward. Hannah saw the hunting knife in his belt, and nodded to show she understood, tearing the end of the roll free and then taping her mother’s wrists together behind her back, before wrapping it around her arms and chest at her waist, below her breasts and around her shoulders.
“Good,” the man said as he looked at Roberta. “Sit down, and then this charming young lady can use the tape on your ankles and legs.”
“Well, at least we can be together this time, unlike last time,” Roberta said as she sat on one end of the couch, watching as Hannah taped her ankles together, her legs below her knees, and her thighs.
“Now, put this in her mouth and cover it with tape.” The man handed Hannah a small kitchen sponge, which she compressed and then put into her mother’s mouth, before covering her lips and jaw with three strips of the silver tape.
“Now you,” he said as he handed Hannah a second sponge, watching as she gagged herself while Roberta wriggled round. He then made the young woman tape her own ankles and legs as she sat down, before he finished the job on the upper half of her body.
“Don’t worry – wedding gifts and rings are off limits, but I’m looking for anything else,” he said through the nylon as he walked off, leaving the two women to look at each other, and wonder if this would be the last time…
It was the last time – Roberta sold the house a year later, and moved to be nearer to Hannah. The house was bought by the Graham family, who had two young daughters, Cindy and Mary.
In 1995, when Cindy was 20 and Mary 19, they were preparing to go to a seventies disco night at the local college. Their parents had gone out for the evening, so they were on their own…
“Hurry up, Cindy,” Mary called put her stairs as she looked at herself in the mirror, running a brush through her short brown hair. She had chosen to wear to the disco a peach coloured long sleeved blouse and a blue denim mini skirt, with a long matching sleeveless tunic that came down to the hem of her skirt. A pair of black leather wedge boots covered the lower half of her legs.
“Give me ten minutes to get my clothes on,” she heard Cindy call down, shaking her head as she went towards the kitchen. Pouring herself a glass of water from the filter, she drank it carefully, not wanting to smudge her red lipstick, before putting the glass on the table and starting to walk out – which was when she was grabbed, and the gloved hand was pressed over her mouth…
“All right, I’m ready,” Cindy said as she came down. She was wearing a long brown suede sleeveless coat that came to her knees, buttoned with one button at the front over a white v-necked long sleeved top and flared white jeans, the bottoms of her black boots just visible. A brown scarf was tied round her neck, the ends visible under her throat.
“Mary? You’re very quiet?”
The reason became clear as she walked into the front room, and saw the two men standing behind Mary as she sat in a red upholstered armchair. Her arms had been taken behind her back, and bands of rope above and below her chest held them tightly in place. A knotted black silk had been pulled between her teeth, her red lips over the knot itself, and her tunic pulled to the side over her chest.
“Don’t say a word,” one of the men said as he stepped forward. He wore a grey leather jacket over a mustard coloured jumper and blue jeans, and he held several lengths of rope in his hand.
“Thrrrbrrs,” Mary mumbled, but Cindy had got their intent, as she felt her own wrist being secured together behind her back, and watched the second man kneel in front of Mary to bind her ankles tightly together.
“We don’t have a lot,” Cindy said as she felt her arms been pulled into her side, and looked down to see how the ropes held her, “but I can tell you where it is if you promise not to hurt us.”
“A fair deal,” the man behind her said. Cindy looked at the other man – young, dark haired, in a pair of black chinos and a leather jacket. He looked cute – if he wasn’t busy tying her sister’s legs together below her knees.
She then gave a grunt as the ropes around her were give one last tug, and the man said “Sit on the long couch.” Cindy walked over, Mary nodding to show she was all right as she sat down and watched her own legs being secured.
“All right – where?”
“In the two smaller bedrooms upstairs – we keep our jewellery in the top drawers. Mum’s is all kept in the bank.”
“Right – open wide.”
She watched as he rolled up a scarf printed with diagonal black and white stripes, and tied a knot in the middle. Opening her own mouth, she allowed him to push the knot between her teeth, tasting the perfumed silk on her tongue as he tied it round her head and forced her long brown hair against her neck.
He then helped her to lie on her side, putting the television on to further muffle their conversation to the outside world, as the two men went to find what they could take…
One of the most recent robberies happened in 2010 – the house was now owned by Yolanda Barrland, a sales executive, and she lived there with her nineteen year old daughter Sapphire. One September afternoon, the two women returned from a shopping trip…
Sapphire threw her denim jacket onto the coat rack and went up the stairs, carrying her shopping bags with her. “Coffee,” her mother called out as she came in, dropping some bags on the hallway floor.
“Please,” came the reply as Yolanda put her handbag by the telephone point, and checked herself in the mirror. Now in her mid-forties, she still looked good, her black hair cut in fringe that framed her face. She was wearing a charcoal grey trouser suit with a white blouse underneath, open at the collar, and the pants hiding her brown high heeled sandals.
Walking to the kitchen, she didn’t hear the front door open and close behind her, or see the three masked women, one of whom indicated as another started to climb the staircase.
Sapphire was looking in her wardrobe, hanging up the clothes she had bought with the earpods of her iPhone playing the Kaiser Chiefs at a reasonably loud volume. Loud enough for her not to hear the door open and the woman walk in, dressed from head to foot in grey with only a white mask showing where her face should be. IT was only when she turned round and saw her standing here, her head to one side as she pointed a gun at her, and held a small rucksack in her other gloved hand, that Yolanda said “shit.”
The masked woman stayed silent, indicating Yolanda should turn as she moved the gun. The teenager nodded slowly as she stood there, wearing a patterned top with a square neck and short sleeves, grey leggings and brown Ugg boots, and felt the soft rope draped over her shoulders.
It only took ten minutes, and she was lying on her side on the bed, twisting round to try and free her arms, but it was useless. The masked woman had wound the rope around them and pulled them behind her, securing them in a box behind her back before she used the rope to enclose her upper arms and chest in a snug rope harness.
Her legs were secured above her boots and below her knees, the rope going round and between her legs, and then they had been bent at the knees, before they were secured to the chest ropes with one final length.
She could not say much either – her mouth had a large folded white scarf pushed into it, and a wide stripe of white tape covered her lips and jaw, adhering like a second skin as it kept the cloth in place.
All she could do was watch, and wonder where her mother was…
Yolanda asked again, but the two women in grey said nothing, instead ensuring the ropes that were holding her to the dining chair were tightly and properly secured. They hadn’t said a word from the time she had seen them both, watching her in the kitchen, until now. All she knew was that they meant business – their guns, their silent orders, the fact Sapphire had not said anything at al. All of that had meant she offered no resistance as her arms and upper body were secured to the chair back, her ankles pulled back and tied to the rear legs of the chair.
One of the masked women produced a blue silk square, which she folded and then held in front of Yolanda’s mouth. She looked at the masked woman, the fear reflected in the sweat glistening on her coffee coloured skin, as she said one last time “Is Sapphire safe?”
There was an imperceptible nod, as Yolanda allowed the intruder to put the cloth in her mouth, and then watched as she tore a strip of wide white tape from a roll and press it down over her lips and jaw. She felt it stick tightly, and as she tried to speak all that came out were muffled moans.
One of the masked women stood guard, as the other started to search for whatever she could find downstairs…
The China Doll Gang eventually left both of them unable to call for help, until a concerned neighbour saw the door open, came in and raised the alarm. They live here to this day, so far without any more visits.
So why? Why this house? The theories continue to abound, but maybe they were just really, really unlucky?
Dave Harper, reporting for Crime Mysteries, at Ladrones Parasio.
All reconstructions in this program were based on real events, and produced with the full cooperation of those involved. Names and locations have been changed.