By Roger Graef
Last updated at 12:17 AM on 04th April 2009
Millionaire Christopher Foster murdered his wife Jill and daughter Kirstie, 15, before committing suicide, a coroner ruled yesterday.
Mr Foster shot his family and their pet dogs and horses before setting his £1.2million mansion ablaze in August last year. Earlier, the court had been shown the last actions of Mr Foster, caught on CCTV security cameras on the night of the blaze, as he walked around the grounds of his home in Oswestry, Shropshire, carrying what is thought to be a bucket, a rifle and a battery pack in preparation for setting the fire.
It also heard how Kirstie had spent the final moments before her death texting a friend, with no indication of the horror that lay ahead.
So what drove Mr Foster to end their lives? Here, the producer of a documentary on the case reveals the full, chilling story.
Police believe he shot his wife and daughter before setting the fire.
When someone commits suicide, those close to the victim wrack their brains for any signs they might have missed. For Christopher Foster’s family, though, there was little indication that anything was amiss.
On the day in question, an August Bank Holiday last year, the Foster family – Chris and Jill and their vivacious, horse-mad daughter Kirstie – attended a neighbours’ shooting party and barbecue. They seemed a happy, loving family, enjoying the fruits of Chris’ success in business.
In the course of 21 years of marriage, Chris and Jill had moved from their first home, a nondescript suburban new-build in Wolverhampton, to a beautiful country house in Shropshire, set in 16 acres of land, with four much-loved dogs, five horses, and Jill’s doves.
Chris’s father had sold mattresses door to door in Blackpool. His first job was as an apprentice electrician, but he had always coveted a big house and a grand lifestyle. When he made it big, he turned his back on his family’s roots to live the life of a country squire. He went shooting four days a week, drove grand cars, and proudly watched over his daughter Kirstie’s success in riding.
Belinda Fathers, the Fosters’ housekeeper and friend, recalls that Friday as normal, ‘nothing out of the ordinary’, with Chris and his family ‘larking about’. But there was one possible signal of the impending horror: Chris and Jill had been looking at family photographs, including his childhood pictures. As Belinda recalls: ‘They watched the wedding video and cried.
With wife Jill, 49, and daughter Kirstie, 15, hours before the fire
‘Chris had turned 50, so that might have been the reason. But it did cross my mind later that it was a bit strange. Maybe that was part of ending it – a final look at everybody.’
Whatever the truth behind those tears, early in the hours of August 26, a 999 call reported a fire at Osbaston House. The scale took everyone by surprise. It took 12 fire crews and several days to contain the flames.
But what unfolded, as the full horror became apparent, shocked even hardened investigators. As an inquest yesterday ruled, Chris had shot his wife and beloved daughter, as well as the family pets, before starting the blaze that would lead to his own death.
The court did not, however, investigate the broader question of what kind of man Christopher Foster was, nor what effect the case had on his family and the emergency services who had to deal with it.
For answers to that, a Channel 4 documentary team has spoken to Foster’s closest family and associates, as well as the emergency services involved in the case, to piece together, in unprecedented detail, exactly what took place in the buildup to the tragedy at ‘murder mansion’. It reveals a story as haunting as it is compelling.
On the night of the fire, the first indication that something truly bizarre had taken place was when West Mercia Police turned up but no one could enter the scene, first because a horse box had been left blocking the gate with its tyres shot out, and then because of the flames and the heat.
Police stood watching vital evidence go up in smoke for three days. ‘It was like a clay oven turning everything to ash’ said Det Superintendent Jon Groves who led the investigation.
Rifles found in the debris. Guns and shooting were central to his life
Meanwhile, nobody knew what had happened to the Foster family. The last time Chris’s mum, Enid, had seen them was at Kirstie’s 15th birthday party. Chris had merely waved her off in the new car that he’d bought for her – saying: ‘Bye Mum, see you.’
Chris loved cars. He’d arrived to move into Osbaston House in two Range Rovers to impress the neighbours. At various points, he even had matching ‘his and hers’ Porsches, a silver Jaguar, a Mercedes, a Ferrari, an Aston Martin and a Bentley. But last summer he had to explain to his Mum that ‘he had a problem with the tax man’ that meant he was ‘a bit short of cash’.
‘He bought me a small car that he ensured worked well,’ she says. ‘Now I realise he must have been preparing me to manage without him.’
Trouble with the taxman was a more serious matter than Chris let on to his family. It led him into murky business dealings that had prompted threats, accusations of blackmail and betrayal, and a level of paranoia that moved him to keep a handgun in his car.
He set fire to his brother when they were boys
This greatly worried his old friend from Wolverhampton, Dave Mitchell. ‘I didn’t think: “Christ, he’s become a gangster.” But there must have been some reason why he had a gun in his car. He must have made enemies that he thought would do a hit on him.’
As Foster’s worries and fears grew, he installed high electric gates, and told Belinda, his cleaner, to refuse entry to anyone who was not known to him.
In the days after the fire, the dark side of Foster’s business affairs inspired rumours about possible suspects – from the Russian mafia to other unwholesome, disgruntled associates.
The carnage police found when they finally entered the scene – the blocked gate, shots fired on the front drive, shot horses, shot dogs – was highly unusual. It led them to believe ‘someone was trying to tell us something’, said DC Paul Beeton, one of the first to get through. They thought the sheer scale of the fire pointed to several people being involved.
But Foster knew a great deal about fires. According to his brother Andrew, he was always fascinated by them. He even set fire to Andrew accidentally when they were boys.
Ironically for a man who incinerated his family, Foster made his money through stopping fires.
In the late Eighties he was selling pizza boxes as an alternative and cheap form of insulation when an inspiration struck him that would change his life.
His brother Andrew said Foster was always fascinated by fires
He was riveted by television pictures of the Piper Alpha oil rig fire disaster, which lasted many days. Foster was prompted to invent a kind of insulation that could protect the valves from being destroyed by fire.
Big oil companies wanted proof it worked. But the test was expensive. So Foster mortgaged his house for £5,000 worth of gas to fuel a demonstration.
His mum Enid recalls him ‘standing there with his fingers crossed while this fire was blazing. He knew that when the fire died down, if the material had protected the valves, that was it. It worked – and after that he was making money hand over fist. He had so much that he didn’t know what to do with it.’
Foster soon found ways to spend it. Along with cars and motorbikes, he moved his wife and young daughter to a five-bedroom new-build on the edge of Wolverhampton with a heated indoor swimming pool. And he started mixing in higher social circles. As his friend Dave Mitchell put it: ‘To come second place wasn’t Chris’ style. He had to be up there with the winners.’
From early on, he’d always wanted a grand house. When Jill saw Osbaston House in Shropshire Life magazine on a Thursday, they viewed it on Saturday and bought it for £1million that afternoon – with cash, as he proudly told his mother (it later emerged it was mortgaged several times). Another £216,000 went to local antiques dealers for furnishing it in appropriate fashion.
Dave Mitchell felt his pretensions led Chris to be less than careful about the authenticity or state of what he bought. ‘The house was in an awful state but he hadn’t even looked. Some of the pictures and furniture were fakes. When the veneer burnt on one of the tables, there was softwood underneath.’
It was to prove a good metaphor for Foster’s grandiose lifestyle and shaky financial underpinnings.
Some of the cars Foster collected were found. At various times they owned Porsches, a Jaguar, a Mercedes, a Ferrari, an Aston Martin and a Bentley
Guns and shooting were central to his life as a country gent. He joined the local gun club, and would shoot up to four days a week. ‘300… 400… 500 birds,’ said a fellow member. ‘He loved shooting.’
At £4,000 a day, it was an expensive hobby. He ordered custom-made shotguns from Purdey and Beretta that cost £70,000 and £35,000 respectively. One year he spent £80,000 just on shooting.
‘They were killing machines, but beautifully crafted,’ said Dave Mitchell. ‘Chris always said they were an investment – that if anything happened to him, they were Jill’s insurance policy.’
In hindsight, that was a strange remark from someone who would use one from his extensive gun collection to murder Jill, and their daughter.
Foster kept guns all over the house. And his targets included Jill’s doves when they got into the garage and left droppings on his cars. He also shot Kirstie’s pet Labrador when it worried sheep and the angry farmer threatened to shoot it himself.
Kirstie was very upset, and his friends were shocked he hadn’t given it away or let a vet put it down. But they describe him as ‘like Jekyll and Hyde’ – very charming and attractive, but also headstrong, and impulsive. When in ‘one of his moods’, Jill would steer clear of him.
As his spending mounted, his business practises became more questionable. His accountant shopped him to the Inland Revenue for unpaid taxes. One version has it that he fixed Foster’s tax planning, but the businesman refused to pay him for it; another that they fell out over a £100,000 property in Cyprus.
West Mercia Police were not able to enter the estate because a horse box had been left blocking the gate with its tyres shot out
Loyally, his mother, Enid, insists Chris was honest, but there’s no doubt that Foster saw himself as above the rules. The Mitchells recall him bragging that thanks to his ‘brilliant accountant’ he’d moved so much offshore that he ‘didn’t have to pay taxes like ordinary people.’
The row with his accountant went to court, when Foster told police he was being blackmailed. The accountant was acquitted but Chris’ paranoia deepened.
As financial pressures mounted, Foster found a cheaper supplier in the U.S. for his insulation materials – breaching his exclusive contract with a British supplier, DRC. They took him to court and won. The judge described Mr Foster as someone known ‘to be bereft of the basic instincts of commercial morality’.
Soon, the legal and financial quagmire he had created led to him losing his business, his prized cash-cow. With the loss of the company, Foster’s dreams of the golden life were unravelling. The liquidators froze everything.
He bragged about a new £11million deal
But, to their deep regret today, he didn’t tell Enid, or the Mitchells – instead carrying on pretending to work, and speaking at the barbecue party of an £11million Russian deal that he said was in the pipeline. Since his death, the full extent of his debts – some £4million – have emerged.
But there were hints that all was not well. In August, his former partner Pete Grkinic texted Chris asking if he was OK. The reply was ‘I’m not good’.
DS Jon Groves says: ‘He talked to his former associates about using a gun to shoot himself, but with a plea, “can you look after my wife and daughter?”‘
He told another friend, Mark Bassett, that he would never let any liquidators take his home or possessions away from him, saying: ‘I would top myself before that. They would have to carry me out in a box.’
And he spoke to his GP on three different occasions about his suicidal thoughts. He was on anti-depressants from March of last year.
And, on the Friday before he killed himself and his family, he went online and visited a suicide website.
It turned out to be a spoof site. But Chris was deadly serious. Police are clear that the timings of the killings of the animals and his family and the setting of the fires reflected someone who was ‘calm, collected, rational’.
Police initially thought several people were involved due to the scale of the blaze
His last moments were captured by the CCTV cameras he’d set up to protect the family. It shows him approaching the kennels and stable block at 3:10am, with a .22 rifle, with a silencer and a lamp attached to illuminate the target.
‘He’s come out with a plan in his head, and he’s carrying it out,’ said DC Beeton. Having shot Jill and Kirstie, he shot the horses, and set fire to the stables, and then puts the dogs in their kennels and killed them.
Then he dragged their carcasses to the stables. Dominic Black, the first forensics officer to enter the house, was deeply disturbed by what he saw. ‘He shot the dogs in the head, shot the horses in the head, shot the wife in the head. No distinction is there? It indicates he classes them all the same.’
Police found Chris and Jill’s bodies by accident, while taking pictures. ‘I stepped on something spongy by the fireplace, which turned out to be their bodies.’ They were revealed to have fallen through the burned floor from above while still entwined, suggesting Chris had set the fires – pouring 200 gallons of oil into the house to do so – and then climbed the stairs to end up with Jill on the bed.
The coroner recorded that Mr Foster had died as a result of smoke inhalation, but a loaded rifle was recovered from near his body. Whether or not he intended to turn the gun on himself will remain a mystery.
The position of his body suggests to Enid and others his motive was one of love – trying to protect Jill from the humiliation of his financial troubles.
The remains of the interior of the five-bedroom Osbaston House
But, forensics officer Dominic Black and Jill’s sister Anne Giddings just find it ‘evil’. They especially mourn his decision to kill his daughter Kirstie.
‘I think that Chris Foster did was the most despicable thing I’ve ever had to deal with,’ says Black. ‘As a father, he had been put on this planet to protect that girl. She was in her own home, in her own bedroom, with her own parents. The safest place in the world for anybody and he takes her life. That fills me with horror.’
When her remains were carried out, all the officers – experienced men – had to stop work to recover from the shock of what they had found.
The trigger for Foster’s actions seems to have been a letter attached to the gates of the house a week earlier. The housekeeper found it on her arrival: it said ‘to be opened only by Christopher Foster’. She gave it to Chris as he left the grounds. ‘He looked puzzled, put it on the seat and drove off.’ It was from the bailiffs. They were coming to repossess the house.
The shock of the killings and fire still resonates through Foster’s family and friends. Strangers, too, have issued threats to Enid and Andrew.
Their barrister raised unanswered questions at this week’s inquest about who else might have been responsible for the family’s death. And a card was posted on the gates after the fire that read ‘Money is the root of all evil’.
Foster also set fire to the stables (pictured at bottom)
But Foster’s impending financial ruin makes his actions consistent with a man who would sooner murder his own loved ones than endure the shame of penury.
The Mitchells mourn the fact that Chris valued material things so much more than friendship that he never shared his worries with them.
Andrew and Jill’s sister Anne are dismayed that even if he felt suicidal, why did he have to take his wife and daughter with him, in what seemed an act of defiance against those coming to destroy their idyll.
But Enid, his mother, feels differently. ‘You always love your children, whatever they do. You can’t cut off because they’ve done something horrible . . . I know what he did was horrible. But it just wasn’t Chris.’
• Roger Graef is Executive Producer of Cutting Edge: The Millionaire And The Murder Mansion showing on April 9, at 9pm on Channel 4.