11 April 2010
I finally pluck up the courage to call Mags, Fred Handford’s 93-year-old sister. I’ve been warned that she is a little hard of hearing but apart from that has a “mind like a computer”.
As soon as I tell Mags why I’m calling I feel the antagonism coursing down the phone line. She is alert and pin-sharp.
“She (Janet) is not a farmer and never was. She sold the farmhouse, then she sold the cottage and now she’s selling the land. When my mother died I gave my quarter share of the farm to Fred; not to anyone else.”
I mention that the police told me that all enquiries and accusations about Janet being linked to Fred’s disappearance only surfaced after Janet had been to court in September 1997 when she implicated her friend Helen, Mags’ granddaughter, in her naïve money laundering attempt. This was 20 years AFTER Fred had disappeared.
“Helen could have gone to prison because of Janet Holt,” says Mags, with force.
She then goes back to March 1976 and describes the night Fred disappears as if she is recalling something that happened last week.
“Janet came up to Knightwake Farm to see us, bringing a pair of jodhpurs for my 12-year-old granddaughter (Helen). It was unusual because she didn’t rush home; she stayed with us until 11pm. The next day, her mother phoned at 8.30am saying Janet didn’t know where Fred was and asked if I knew where he could be. No-one seemed to know. That night Mrs Holt phoned again. Alarm bells started to ring. The next morning we phoned the police.”
Mags comes across to me as a bitter woman. She lives on the doorstep of the farm where she grew up, where her brother, Fred, farmed and where generations of Handfords have farmed before her. Mags gave up ownership of her quarter share in Ball Beard Farm. It seems she has lived to regret this decision.
I go through what I’ve discovered so far – which isn’t much – and pretty well amounts to the fact that both Mags and the police believe Janet knows more than she is letting on about the night Fred Handford disappeared, whereas Janet remembers nothing.
But there is one big discrepancy between Mags’ belief and what the police have told me:
Stuart Barlow of Derbyshire Constabulary told me all enquiries about Janet’s involvement in Fred Handford’s disappearance were instigated by others, while Mags tells me all enquiries were instigated by the police.
“There was nothing wrong with Fred; he would never have gone off and left his animals,” is Mags’ parting shot.
Bizarrely that’s exactly what Janet believes too.