The first time Frank Mullane’s sister Julia confided that her marriage was unhappy, that her husband of 23 years was controlling and abusive, and that she intended to ask for a divorce, Mullane responded in what he now calls “a John Wayne kind of way”. “I asked: ‘When can I give him a thump?’” he recalls. “My life is completely different now, but at the time I didn’t have a clue. I knew nothing about domestic abuse, but I felt 100% solidarity. I wanted to show I was on her side – the cavalry.”
Mullane and Julia were two of eight siblings from a close Irish family. Their parents had come from Cork to London, then Wiltshire, where their father built a house big enough for all of them. As adults, they stayed close. “We were a loving family, always in each other’s houses,” says Mullane. He was unmarried and had remained in Wiltshire as a business consultant for Nationwide. Julia had trained as a nurse before marrying Alan Pemberton, an accountant and businessman. She later retrained as a health visitor. They lived with their two teenage children 25 miles away, near Newbury, in a house they built – large, secluded, set in acres of woodland.
Three months after she told her brother she wanted to leave her husband, Julia called Mullane in a state of terror. It was a Saturday in September 2002. She had asked Pemberton for a divorce and for weeks he had veered between tears and remorse, then verbal aggression. That Friday night, he had calmly announced that he was going away for a few days, but that on his return they would “live as man and wife for a specified amount of time”, before he decided if it was working. If Julia did not agree to these terms, Pemberton said, “I will take my life. I will take your life.” Before leaving, he laid out their wills on his study desk with instructions for their children in the event of their deaths.
Julia did not doubt that he meant it. Mullane says: “I drove straight over, camped in the house and slept by the front door, everything bolted. This was me trying to step up for my sister. There was a crazy surrealness. We were calling the police all weekend, begging them to come out, but they never did. They would not come.”
For the next 14 months, Julia was terrorised by Pemberton. He texted, called and dropped notes through the letterbox of the house where she lived with the children. (They read: “It’s appalling. I will take my revenge,” and: “You’ve ruined my life, you will have to face the consequences.”) Julia sought police help multiple times and had contact with a domestic violence coordinator on six occasions. Pemberton was never interviewed or apprehended. For six months, Julia had an injunction against him, which was then downgraded by the court to an undertaking by Pemberton to stay away.
On the evening of 18 November 2003, Pemberton arrived on the false premise of taking their 17-year-old son, Will, a promising musician, for a driving lesson. (Their older child was not at home.) Julia, 47, had done her best to help the children maintain contact with Pemberton. On this day, as an exception due to bad weather, he was allowed on to the driveway.
Pemberton shot and killed Will outside the house, then broke inside, where he killed Julia and then himself. Julia’s harrowing 999 call lasted 16 minutes, ending with: “I’ve got about one minute … He’s coming now,” followed by a scream and silence. Despite the call handler’s advice to “stay hidden” because police officers were “on their way” and “trying to approach carefully”, in truth officers had not even been dispatched. When they were, they could not locate the house. When they did, there was a lengthy risk assessment. No one entered for another six hours.
Eighteen years on, Mullane’s life has changed immeasurably. Where once he knew little about patterns of abuse and domestic homicide, now you are unlikely to meet anyone who knows more. As the founder and CEO of Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse (AAFDA), he has helped hundreds of bereaved families, guiding them through inquests, police complaints procedures and – his area of expertise – domestic homicide reviews (DHRs). These are exhaustive investigations into domestic homicides and suicides, conducted on a no-blame basis – an approach Mullane requested to help identify every missed opportunity, unheeded cry for help and lesson that could be learned to try to prevent such deaths.
DHRs became a legal requirement for every domestic homicide in 2011. AAFDA is a centre of excellence, providing the national accredited training for DHR chairs and panel members. As a Home Office reader, Mullane has quality-assured more than 900 of them. Julia’s case was the first DHR in England. This was down to Mullane and his dogged refusal to stop asking questions.
In November 2003, in the aftermath of the murders, he was as stunned and numb as any bereaved brother and uncle could be. He recalls standing in his mother’s kitchen in the early hours of 19 November and his sister Siobhan asking: “What do we do now?” “I looked at her and said: ‘Breathe,’” says Mullane. “There is no map for this – but one thing that happens is that we breathe.”
In the following days – identifying the bodies, visiting the crime scene – the family began to get angry. Why was Pemberton never apprehended? Why was Julia’s address not in the police system when she had been assured it was? Why did it take so long for officers to enter the house? “We got some answers, but then they abruptly refused to give any more, so we got organised,” says Mullane. “We’d have meetings at Newbury police station. I remember once there were 20 of us there. I had 70 questions from friends and family.”
Mullane became the family spokesperson. “It was something to do with my nature,” he says. “My job was about studying systems and procedures. I’d been trying to keep Julie alive and I was disgusted by the police response. I did not like being denied information. It riled me. I thought: ‘You’re not a private police force – you’re a public body, paid for out of taxation. You’ve got to open the books. How dare you?’”
The inquest shed no light. The coroner exonerated the police, adding that any action might have escalated Pemberton’s plans by “enraging him even further”. He also referenced events from Pemberton’s perspective – the stress of the injunction, the impending divorce. Unsurprisingly, Mullane walked out of the court.
By now, the Mullanes had a lawyer and were on good terms with their MP, Julia Drown. She told them about plans to introduce DHRs in England. Why not push to make Julia’s case the pilot? It made sense immediately. “Julie’s story still hadn’t been told,” says Mullane. (She was known as Julie to her family. He chose Julia, her given name, for official documents.)
“The inquest had allowed society to think there was nothing wrong with the police response. How outrageous. We wanted the facts that were still outstanding to us. We wanted the story of this horror told accurately – and we wanted to see change.”
The review took two years. The panel interviewed everyone involved – multiple members of Thames Valley police, the Pembertons’ GP, friends, colleagues, employers, expert witnesses. The Mullanes supplied Julia’s diaries and sourced telephone records. Mullane was integral – it took over his life. Before it was finished, he had left his job.
“By now, I’d begun to educate myself,” he says. “I’d Googled ‘domestic abuse’ – I still question why I didn’t do that when Julie was alive. I was corresponding with people in the sector.
“What really struck me was, first, its gendered nature and, second, its prevalence,” he continues. “The status of the crime isn’t high enough. It’s got nowhere near the status of terrorism, yet it kills more people and ruins many more lives.
“I always say I had both taken Julie seriously and believed her, and yet somehow didn’t understand the dangerousness of these men. People underestimate the danger of domestic abuse perpetrators, they really do. But Julie didn’t. She predicted her own murder.”
In November 2008, the 300-page Pemberton homicide review was published. It pointed to a series of failings, individual and systematic, within Thames Valley police. There was no domestic abuse policy and no strategic understanding of domestic abuse or risk assessment. The firearms policy was overcautious. It included pages of recommendations and was followed by a written apology from the chief constable.
“It was a great thing,” says Mullane. “It gave us enough information to feel like we were over the line. Something I say to bereaved families is to think about where the line is for you – otherwise, you’ll be there all your life.” But it did not mean that this was the end. “For me, it meant a cup of tea and we start again. What were the police doing with the action plan?”
Mullane now has a strong relationship with Thames Valley police and has started an award for any professional in the region who has gone beyond the norm to tackle domestic abuse. The John Latham award is named after the lawyer who represented them, who died in 2010.
AAFDA was launched that year, 2008. “I knew there would be lots of families out there that wouldn’t have the knowledge my family had acquired,” says Mullane. “The support available was passive – tea and sympathy. What you need is advocacy.” But dealing day in, day out, with murder? “Well, injustice makes you anxious and I learned that that creates adrenaline – and with the help of my lovely family, it has sustained me ever since,” he says. “You don’t forget about murder and injustice. They keep filling your fuel tank to have a go at making things better.” Mullane’s siblings and extended family are central to his life; some live only minutes away.
One of the first cases he assisted on was that of Claire Marshall, who was stabbed to death by her former partner in 2009. Her three children were taken in by their grandparents and Mullane supported them in every way possible – fighting for funds, getting an extension built on their house, securing a taxi to take Marshall’s traumatised daughter to school. Mullane even assisted them in the family court when their solicitor did not show up.
A more recent case was that of Suzanne Van Hagen, who was found dead at home in Birmingham in February 2013 alongside her partner, John Worton. West Midlands police insisted it was an accidental overdose, despite Worton’s long history of domestic abuse and evidence that Van Hagen was killed as she attempted to leave.
For eight years, AAFDA supported the family as they pushed for and won a DHR and a police review. “The only credible conclusion is that Suzanne was killed in domestic abuse,” says Mullane. “Her legacy has been restored.” Last month, West Midlands police finally issued a public apology, admitted liability for its failings and agreed to pay substantial compensation.
Mullane is acutely aware that there is so much more to be done – but he believes policies and awareness are improving. He has worked to make sure the professionals in DHRs are treated appropriately, too – he is not interested in attributing blame or scapegoating, but rather wants everyone’s insight and testimony. Mullane wrote much of the DHR statutory guidance, including a seven-step model to make families “integral” to the process. The word used previously was “involved”. (“‘Involved’ is a wedding invitation,” he says. “The guests have a limited role. ‘Integral’ means much higher status – to a degree, it’s a joint review.”)
He is pleased that the man who, with others, started the review movement, Neil Websdale at Arizona State University, told him England’s DHRs are “hugely influential”. With an AAFDA staff of 16, his future aims include working to give more children a voice after fatal domestic abuse, as well as helping to educate family and friends on safe interventions when they fear a loved one is at risk. In 2019, Mullane was awarded an MBE for services to families bereaved by domestic homicide.
His life has more meaning now. “It has given me incredible purpose,” he says. “Two people lost their lives and two women a week have been murdered ever since. I was rudely awakened and my life has changed totally.”
Julia remains at the heart of it. “I have her 999 call on a tape upstairs,” says Mullane. “I’ve read the transcript, but never heard it. I started listening a year ago, but stopped it in one second. My sister and I have said we’ll listen one day together.” Why would he, I wonder? “It’s about being a witness,” he says.
“When the house was no longer a crime scene, I went on my own one evening to stand in the room where my sister was murdered – it was a small storeroom. For over a year, Julie had thought every day when she went out that he’d be waiting in the bushes to shoot her. She took temazepam to get some sleep and still only got two hours a night, because she thought he was coming for her.
“On the night Julie died, she must have been thinking: ‘I’ve been telling them all along and none of them quite got it,’ so I wanted to experience it with her. I wanted to stand in the darkness and experience the fear – but I couldn’t turn off the final light. I was too frightened.”
He sobs suddenly, then composes himself. “It’s ridiculous, as I couldn’t simulate it – I’d have had to have got shot, wouldn’t I? But it was me trying to say: ‘There’s one witness to this, Julie and Will. You’re not alone.’”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via befrienders.org