Dear Diary: Testifying from beyond the grave

When murder victims are put on trial, how do they make themselves heard?

“I am aware that you have the capability to kill me with a word, whether you desire it or not, I depend on you so desperately, like that woman I have never admitted to being.’’

I was yet to turn 15-years old when a 19-year-old English language undergraduate and accomplished poet, Rachel McLean went missing on 14 April 1991. Rachel was subsequently found dead 18 days later, murdered by her boyfriend John Tanner. Thirty years later, the case has stayed with me, or the words written by Rachel did, anyway. It was reported that the jury was handed a 100-page file during the trial. This file contained Rachel’s innermost thoughts and feelings, in her own words, from letters and her diary.

“Your passion consumes me, sometimes I am afraid we are welded together, we are two molten metals made stronger by their unity — apart we are useless.’’

An environmentalist and vegetarian, some might say Rachel was ahead of her time. While studying at the all-female St Hilda’s College in Oxford, Rachel was Vice-President of the Junior Common Room and a student representative involved in finalising a code of conduct for all colleges on sexual harassment. Safety for female students at Oxford was clearly a cause close to Rachel’s heart. Female students were already feeling vulnerable when Rachel disappeared due to a spate of recent unsolved sex attacks in the area.

“I don’t want anyone or anywhere else. I just want you. Thank God for those golden days, John, they were the best of my life. I hope we can make more memories as the days go by, as lovers and husband and wife, as mother and father.’’

On 14 August 1990, eight months prior to her disappearance, Rachel had begun dating John Tanner. John Tanner moved from New Zealand to the UK in 1986 to study the classics at the University of Nottingham. John and Rachel had met at the Adam and Eve nightclub in Blackpool, where Rachel was from. Rachel was sharing a terraced house on Argyle Street in Oxford with four other girls.

“You have shown me the way I want to lead my life, so don’t forget me for a second. You obsess me, even in my dreams.’

In the beginning, Rachel appeared smitten. However, over time the long-distance relationship had proven to be challenging with Tanner becoming possessive and demanding. An intense romance had become suffocating for Rachel. Tanner was obsessive to the point of paranoia, writing two or three times a week. Should Rachel not be home when he telephoned, Tanner subjected her housemates to questioning about where she was, who she was with, what she was wearing and when she would be home.

“No man can love a strong woman without wanting to weaken her.”

Despite knowing her less than a year, Tanner pressurised Rachel into an engagement which she later broke off. Rachel’s mother said, “She said she was very fond of him but that she wasn’t sure about settling down.”To regain her affections, it was reported that Tanner claimed to be suffering from Cancer.

“Sometimes I think dark thoughts, his cancer. Sometimes I don’t think it is true. What is truly cancerous is his self-pity and the vampire-like way he leeches on my affection. Will I marry him, will I get engaged to him, simply because I cannot be bothered to make the effort to stop it? I see through his soul as one sees through a dirty window. Oh, how dark and deep is the soul of a strong woman. The way the mask slips on easily to protect him from my naked soul.’’

On Sunday 14 April 1991, Rachel took Tanner into her bedroom to talk with the intention of ending their relationship. It was reported at the time that Rachel may have lied and told Tanner she had found someone else, in the misguided belief it would make it easier. This angered Tanner and Rachel asked him to leave. Tanner strangled Rachel with his bare hands, finishing her off with a ligature. It was over in 12 seconds. 18 days after her murder, her body was removed from its position, wedged under the floorboards. It took the police 5 hours to remove her body. John Tanner was arrested on 2 May 1991.

What was remarkable about this case was the actions of Tanner in the period between the murder and his arrest. Tanner lied about Rachel’s last movements, stating she had met a friend at Oxford Railway Station, leaving him to get the train home. Tanner even took part in a televised police reconstruction of their fictional last moments together. Tanner sent letters to Rachel two days after her death. He had written the first letter at Oxford station on 15 April, posting it the following day. It included the following:

“My dearest lovely Rachel. Thank you for such a wonderful weekend…Please excuse my handwriting. I am now on the train… How can I leave you on the platform?…I love you now and forever.’’

In a second letter dated 18 April, Tanner wrote “Fancy seeing that friend of yours at the station” and “I have tried calling you all week but I guess you are working. A call would be appreciated. Being without you is a terrible burden to bear, but I live in the knowledge that I shall be in your arms next weekend. I miss you. Yours, John.’

On 2 December 1991 at Birmingham Crown Court, despite confessing to police, John Tanner pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty of manslaughter by reason of provocation. The trial of Rachel McLean had begun. Tanner claimed they had sex up to seven times a day. When he was discharged in April 1991 from a hospital stay for what he had claimed was Cancer, Tanner and Rachel spent the weekend together. Tanner told the court “Rachel was very frustrated that I was not able to make love to her… This caused some anger, but we still got on. It did not cause any animosity. She constantly told me that she loved me.’’ Tanner told the court: “She indicated without warning that she had slept with — and I believe her words were — ‘a few other people.’’’ Tanner’s defence was that it was this confession of infidelity that amounted to provocation, making him innocent of murder.

“Even in the dark I feel you are standing next to me. Sometimes I feel your love as if it was something I could touch, but it scares me to see something so alive that could not live on its own without feeding on my flesh like some selfish vampire. I truly believe you are unselfish, that you don’t want to own me or suffocate me in a glass box on a shelf.’’

Tanner’s statements about his sex life with Rachel were inconsistent with her diary entries, however. “John arrived Wednesday night and didn’t we have a marvellous time. Having someone for four days and having and having, if you catch my drift, is more than a little trying.’’ Rachel’s friends said that claims of her having affairs were nonsense. She was far too busy to see other boys and simply did not have time to be unfaithful. Demonstrating a total lack of awareness of how he would be perceived, Tanner testified that “Life is lonely, sir. It’s lonely because I have lost the ability to trust people” and “I do not believe Miss McLean actually sought to destroy me, although the circumstances have proved to be so.’’

“To my one and only John. The one who is with me through the most wondrous moments of my life. The one who guides me through tears and shares my smiles. The one who prizes me above all others. To the man who had made me feel like a woman once more. Who lights my fire and who burns with and takes me to places of which I had only dreamed. To my John, the fulfilment of my heart and my mind’s desire. To the union of all we had ever hoped for. To the lengths of our days together. To the warmth of our nights together. To the sweetness of the time and place which is ours and only ours. You are and will always be my Valentine and I am yours for ever.’’

“What a joke. I just wrote John’s St. Valentine’s card, full of sweet, pure words that I shovelled out of some fountain of molten fire inside me which is now dead. Somehow I do not think he would have appreciated sweet nothings along the lines of ‘you sick, childish bastard. You are so busy generating self-pity that you cannot see how you slice me to pieces. I hope your romance (with yourself) lasts forever and ever.’’’

“Where does my venom come from? I was never so deeply in love with him. I loved the laughter and the tenderness; where did they go? I have made no discoveries about him, but I guess he must have made some about me. The tragedy of self-deception is painful indeed. How sad it is, indeed how sad, that one can love a man only to discover that all men are children if allowed.’’

Tanner blamed Rachel for her own death and called her a “dark angel’’ who had destroyed his life. A fellow-inmate at Winchester jail said, “At first John was full of despair over killing Rachel. Then he found out that despite all her love letters to him, she privately wrote about him with contempt. Now he blames her for provoking him into killing her. He has convinced himself it was her fault.’’

“I do not want to be forced into the role of a submissive, passive woman.’’

On 5 December 1991, Tanner was found guilty by a 10–2 majority at trial and sentenced to life imprisonment. Three members of the jury wept. 11 years and 8 months later, Tanner was released in August 2003. He was deported to New Zealand. Tanner had a chance at a fresh start, something Rachel McLean had been denied.

However, in September 2018 Tanner was sent back to jail for two years and nine months in New Zealand, after punching and choking his latest partner during an argument where she had stated she was leaving him. After punching her twice with a closed fist and putting both hands around her neck to restrict her breathing, Tanner pulled her underwear off, stating he wanted to have sex with her. He then punched her several times in the head when she tried to escape. In a statement, Tanner’s partner indicated that she wanted the relationship to continue. In March 2019, Tanner’s parole was denied on the grounds that he was yet to address the factors which led to his violence against intimate partners.

Thirty years on, this case still raises some interesting questions. What is being done to protect women? Why is it acceptable to denigrate a murder victim’s memory in the name of a defence? Can men like Tanner ever be rehabilitated?


Sources:

John Twomey in New Zealand and John Coles, Daily Express “Death of an Oxford Student: Dark obsession that silenced a free spirit” Friday, December 5, 1991. This news source is not freely available online and is the author’s own copy.

Joanne McElgunn, Sunday Independent, Fatal Obsessions, December 8, 1991. This news source is not freely available online but is available via the British Library Archives.

Rosalind Renshaw, Why was Rachel put through this? Evening Post, Monday, December 9, 1991. This news source is not freely available online but is available via the British Library Archives.

Steve Brookside, Crimes That Made The Headlines: Back In Prison: Oxford’s Body-Under-The-Floorboards Killer, True Detective magazine, January 2019. This news source was located on Scribd.

Leave a Reply