Thursday


Lady in the lake


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When wealthy widow Evelyn Taylor met divorced tree-surgeonRobert Lund at a mutual friend's party in 1991 it seemed they were made for each other. Within three weeks, Robert Lund had left his own home and moved into Mrs Taylor's elegant farmhouse in England's Lancashire countryside.

In vain her three daughters warned Evelyn that the bearded tree surgeon had something of a reputation in the district as a ladies' man — and that he also had eyes on the million pound legacy left to Evelyn by her late husband, but Evelyn Taylor was now truly infatuated with her new love — and he, it seemed, with her.

Three years later they married and four years after that, Robert Lund persuaded his wife that she should sell her property near Darwen, Lancashire, and buy a luxury home in France.

Originally the idea didn't appeal to Evelyn but Robert persisted and in 1997 the couple moved to a picturesque 400-year-old farm near Rayssac, 70 miles from Toulouse in southwest France.

And from that moment, everything went from bad to worse. Within weeks, Evelyn had become homesick, missing her family and friends. She was unable to master French and complained that there was no one in the tiny village to talk to.

She began to drink heavily. There were constant violent rows and in December 1999 she turned up at the home of one of her few English friends, 30 miles from Rayssac, distressed by the state of her marriage and saying that she was contemplating returning alone to England.

Later that day she drove away in her Toyota 4x4 truck, leaving her friend a note that she had returned home to feed the animals. It was three days before Robert Lund appeared at the local police station to report that his 52-year-old wife was missing.

He said she had stormed out of the house after returning from seeing her English friend and he assumed she had returned to Lancashire to see her family.

The authorities were suspicious — news had got around that the Lund marriage was unhappy and Lund was questioned for 25 hours. More than 100 police also descended on the Rayssac farm and dug up large areas of the yard and garden but found nothing.

Evelyn remained missing for nearly two years. She had not returned to England and private detectives employed by her daughters were unable to find any clues as to her whereabouts.

Then after a severe drought in the autumn of 2001 the water of Lake Bancalie, 15 miles from the farm, dropped 10 metres to its lowest level in living memory, revealing a grisly secret ... the roof of a Toyota Land Cruiser. It belonged to Evelyn Lund and the remains of her body were on the back seat.

When the case was reopened, Robert Lund was questioned again. He could only suggest that his wife's death was an accident — she had swerved off the road while drunk.

But police experts thought otherwise. They were certain it was murder, but it would take them three years to build a convincing case.
In fact the findings were still awaited when, in the autumn of 2004, Lund returned to England to start legal proceedings which he hoped would overturn a freeze on his wife's will which had left him all her property and money.

But Evelyn's daughters had already spent over £15,000 on legal moves to block his efforts to get their mother's money and Lund was just about to launch a new application when news came through that the French authorities had finally got the results of forensic tests. Robert Lund returned to France — and promptly wished that he hadn't. Police raided the farm at dawn and Lund was arrested and charged with his wife's murder... five years after her disappearance. French police scientists had come to the conclusion that Evelyn Lund had not driven into the water on her own, thus ruling out suicide or an accident. A police statement declared: "It is our belief that the victim was pushed into the water and that her husband was responsible."

But it was not until October 2007, eight years after his wife vanished, that Robert Lund finally faced a jury at Albi Assizes accused of murder.

He was now 55. Since his arrest his family had spent £20,000 on legal bills including £100 a month to make life easier for him in jail.

A spokesman for Lund told the media: "If we had not paid this money he would have had to do without such essentials as soap, toothpaste and toilet-paper. The conditions in jail are very poor. If the French are so sure he did it, why must he wait so long for a trial?"

In court the prosecution claimed that at the time of Evelyn's death the Lund marriage was in ruins and Robert had killed his wife in order to continue living in the farmhouse and benefit from her life insurance.   

It was alleged that traces of blood had been found on Evelyn's clothes and on her car and she had died from violence not a driving accident.

A post-mortem claimed to show that Evelyn was not breathing when she entered the water, showing that she had already been knocked unconscious and then made to look like an accident victim. Christophe Barthe, prosecuting, claimed that Lund had lied when he told detectives that his wife did not come back after storming out of the house following an argument.

She always wore spectacles when driving and they were found in her handbag at the farm proving that she had returned home before her death.

Lund claimed that his wife "had simply run away" but Inspector Jean-Claude van Batten, leading the police inquiry, told the court that there were inconsistencies in Lund's story. He had also taken journalists straight to the spot where the car had been found, despite claiming that he had never been there.

Giving evidence to a hushed court, Lund said the marriage had problems but he had never been violent even though Evelyn had once attacked him with a 10-inch knife and thrown a microwave oven at him.

He told the jury: "On the night she left she stormed off in the car. I believe she was in a state of deep depression and drove herself into the lake."

He claimed that the French police had been determined to pin the murder on him from the very start. "They told me that in 99 per cent of cases the spouse of a missing person had killed them and that they were certain I was guilty. From that moment there was no other suspect except me."

Lund's lawyer Thibault Terrie told the court "There is no proof or objective evidence against my client and no witnesses. These are baseless charges.

A friend of Evelyn's, called by the defence, told the court that the dead woman would not accept she had a drinking problem: "When she moved to France she got more depressed and drank more. Robert was very good with her, very patient. It is my view that she killed herself by driving into the lake. I do not believe Robert is responsible. Violence is not in his nature."

But the court did not agree. The jury cleared Robert Lund of murder but found him guilty of involuntary homicide, accepting that he did not intend to kill his wife. He was jailed for 12 years.

Robert Lund's relatives were devastated by the result and mounted an appeal. Said one: "There is no way he can be linked to what happened in Lake Bancalie. We will never rest until Robert is free again."

But two subsequent appeals have been turned down and Robert Lund's sentence has been increased each time. Evelyn's brother Gerard Wilkinson said: "Had he accepted his punishment he could have been out of jail by now.

As far as we are concerned no sentence is long enough for what he has done."

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