Sunday, 13 Jun 2021

Inside the mind of psychopath church warden Ben Field

A very charming psychopath: Behind the crafted image, church warden Ben Field was executing the twisted plot that destroyed his partner’s sanity — before he killed him. Now a new book by top criminologist DAVID WILSON gets inside his mind

The betrothal ceremony which took place at a church in North London on a beautiful spring day in May 2014 was a joyous occasion — for one of the participants at least.

Later, Peter Farquhar, 68, would describe it in his diary as ‘a blessed day’ and ‘one of the happiest moments of my life’.

In a photo taken shortly afterwards, his partner, 24-year-old deputy churchwarden Ben Field, seems equally enamoured. In fact, he was actually cheating on Peter with four different women, while also having covert sexual liaisons with various men he met through the gay social networking app Grindr.

Peter Farquhar, 68, left, was murdered by church warden Ben Field, right, who has been described as a ‘very charming psychopath’ 

And his real thoughts towards the man he professed to love may be divined from the music which played hauntingly in the background during the ceremony — an aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The most famous cinematic use of this piece was in The Silence Of The Lambs, when the serial killer Hannibal Lecter chewed the face off one of his guards. It was also much listened to by the troubled and murderous central character in Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thriller The Talented Mr Ripley.

That book contains one of the most accurately drawn portraits of a psychopath I have ever encountered in literature. It is my opinion as a criminologist that Ben Field is also a psychopath, and I suspect he chose the music for the betrothal ceremony as a macabre setting of the stage for what was to follow.

In little more than a year, he would have murdered Peter after persuading him to change his will in his favour. This was not a spontaneous killing. Field is an example of a ‘process-focused’ perpetrator, someone who gains great pleasure from prolonging their victim’s agony and watching their suffering.

Notable examples include the nurse Beverley Allitt, who enjoyed the spectacle of the emergencies she created in the Lincolnshire hospital where she killed four children between February and April 1991, and Colin Ireland, who in 1993 murdered five gay men in London and liked to slowly torture his victims. Allitt and Ireland didn’t want death to come immediately but over time.

Oxford Crown Court convicted Field of murdering Mr Farquhar who lived in this house in the village of Maids Moreton

Ben Field took his time, too. He tormented Peter Farquhar over a period of many months and also wrote a list of one hundred people to target next — a list that included his own parents. Had he not been stopped, he could easily have become the next Harold Shipman.

I was particularly intrigued by this murder, not just because I am a criminologist but because it happened in the village of Maids Moreton which is on the edge of Buckingham, the sleepy Home Counties market town where I have lived for the last 30 or so years.

A crisis here is much more likely to be an absence of sauvignon blanc in Waitrose than anything crime-related. So when people heard that I was going to write about the murder, they said things like, ‘He seemed like such a nice young man,’ or ‘Can you believe that happened here?’

Yes, is the answer, I can believe it. Murder doesn’t just happen somewhere else and murderers are often described as ‘nice young men’.

But Ben Field certainly made a thorough job of grooming the local community to consider him a serious scholar and committed Christian — the very last person you would suspect of preying on the elderly and vulnerable.

When the truth finally came to light, the Crown Prosecution Service described the case as ‘like something out of a novel’. Ironically, it was a love of literature that had brought Peter and his killer together.

They met in 2011, at the University of Buckingham, the small, private university spread over two campuses within the town. There 20-year-old Field, who was in the final year of an English degree, enrolled in a module on Romantic literature taught by Peter. A slight, bird-like figure, Peter had become a part-time lecturer after retiring as a very successful head of English at nearby Stowe, the public school whose old boys include the actor David Niven and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson.


Field was accused of grooming several elderly people including Mr Farqhuar, pictured 

While at Stowe, his connections had enabled him to invite such literary luminaries as Iris Murdoch to give talks and, after he left, he continued to lead a life described to me by several who knew him well as ‘fulfilling’ — making regular trips to Oxford and London to visit galleries and attend concerts.

He also ran a very serious book club called The Stowe Reading Group and had a circle of friends. But he struggled with a moral dilemma, which was also the focus of all three of his self-published novels. Put simply, could he have gay relationships and still retain his faith despite the Church of England’s official intolerance towards homosexuality?

In his diaries, he recorded how desperate he was to give his love to someone and Father Andrew Foreshew-Cain, a rebel priest who has always been open about his sexuality and who conducted that betrothal ceremony, told me that Ben Field was the kind of person that Peter fantasised about: ‘a younger man who was well read’.

Back home in the Northamptonshire town of Olney, just 20 miles from Buckingham, Field’s family were described as ‘the backbone of the community’. His mother was a former Liberal Democrat councillor and his father a Baptist minister.

They brought up their three children to value education and have a good work ethic but their middle child Ben was, as one of his former classmates described it to me, ‘in love with his own intellect’.

He claimed to have written a romantic novel for Mills & Boon and also boasted of having learned sign language. Neither was ever proven. But he liked to think of himself as a cut above the rest. One school friend remembered him memorising obscure words from the dictionary and trying to embarrass teachers who didn’t know what they meant.

For him to succeed, someone else always had to fail. At university, one of his lecturers told me, he had a condescending sneer, laughing scornfully at other students’ contributions in class and rolling his eyes if he didn’t think they were up to scratch. Such feelings of superiority are seen in many process-focused killers.

In deciding who should live and who should die, they feel powerful and God-like, and Field’s rampant narcissism also persuaded him that he was irresistible and that everyone must desire him.

His seduction strategy depended in part on the good looks which, in his first year at university, saw him selling sexual services to men he allowed to pleasure him in hotel rooms for £30 to £50 a time.

He also had the gift of the gab. In his journals, he described how he ‘snake-talked’ his way into Peter’s home where he played perfectly the part of besotted suitor. For his part, Peter’s own diaries described Field as ‘a delightful young man’.

Field went with him to services at Stowe Parish Church and embedded himself as a trusted member of the congregation, going on to become a deputy churchwarden with a view to one day being ordained. His motive for that was of the most dubious kind. ‘I’m gonna become a vicar and s*** just because I can out-manoeuvre the church,’ he wrote in an online chat with a friend.

It’s alarming to think that, as a clergyman, he would have gained access to a new pool of elderly and vulnerable people. But, for the moment, he was focused on Peter and building the credibility which was key to his success, just as it had been for Harold Shipman.

Very few people had questioned Shipman’s clinical behaviour, even if the elderly people who died in his care had been fit and well prior to him visiting. He was, after all, a doctor. Similarly, Field used his supposed faith and academic achievements to allay suspicion.

After graduating from Buckingham with an upper-second degree Field undertook an MA in English Literature and when he completed it in 2013 the university took the highly unusual step of publishing his dissertation. This public endorsement implies that it was investing in him as a scholar for the future and he would later go on to a PhD, teaching undergraduate seminars and regarded as the university’s ‘poster boy.’

By the time he finished his MA he was living with Peter. His relationship with a man so respected locally further enhanced his plausibility, as did his part-time work at the Red House Nursing Home in Maids Moreton.

Although the police have released few details about who was on Field’s hit-list, it seems likely that it featured some of the Red House’s residents. It is possible that he was a gerontophile and so gained pleasure from having sex with the elderly.

Even if he was only pretending to be physically interested in his much older partner he was very successful in his deception, suggesting, on Peter’s 68th birthday in January 2014, that they should solemnise their love for each other in that betrothal ceremony.

Oblivious to the fact that Field was cheating on him with both women and men, Peter could not believe his luck in having met him.

‘God is good to me, far better than I deserve,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Gone are the fears of dying alone.’

From January 2015 onwards, Field began creating the evidence that, when the time came, would convince not only Peter’s family and friends but also the coroner that there was nothing suspicious about his death.

Posing as a concerned partner and carer, he began spreading rumours that Peter was drinking heavily and, later, that he had dementia. In a small town, these spread like wildfire.

To lend credence to these stories, he began drugging Peter with flurazepam and other sedatives alongside drugs available only illegally online.

Hiding these in food and cups of tea, Field also broke open capsules of Peter’s prescription medicines and replaced the contents with his own drugs.

Their combined effects left Peter complaining about tiredness and forgetfulness.

He also experienced terrifying hallucinations and began falling down and just generally feeling ‘wretchedly ill’.

Along with drugging Peter, Field was gaslighting him, removing items from their usual places only for them to reappear unexpectedly elsewhere, leaving Peter feeling as if he was going crazy.

When Peter found all his contacts on his mobile phone had been mysteriously erased, he could only conclude that he had done this in his befuddled state of mind, but all the time it was Field doing it behind his back.

We glimpse Peter’s distress in letters that he emailed to Dr Jonathan Pryce, his GP.

In one, he describes an evening when he had spent ‘a dreadful night’ seeing illusions. These included a ‘mass of black insects on the carpet and climbing the radiator. While it was happening, I felt that I wanted to die, the experience was so unbearable.’

When people began noticing that Peter was no longer attending church or social functions, Field merely suggested that his absences were due to his dementia and alcoholism. He was careful to provide supporting evidence for these claims should they be challenged, filming his victim lying dazed and confused in his bed.

One clip reveals the extent of Peter’s suffering as he tries to make sense of what’s happening to him.

‘I feel I am so dependent. It’s such a strange world . . . I actually used to be sort of competent,’ he says wearily.

As a process-focused killer, Field would have enjoyed watching Peter’s confusion, while he deliberately kept the community at arm’s length so he could control the narrative about what was happening to Peter.

To that end, he gave him a dog they called Kipling. While Field would derive pleasure from torturing this poor creature — filming it tumbling downstairs in a cardboard box — it served a more practical purpose in that Peter would stay in to look after the dog rather than attending concerts or visiting the theatre as he had before.

Field was so successful in his deception that, after he was convicted, Peter’s brother Ian and his wife Sue explained that they had believed what he had told them — that Peter was sick, and required constant care — and were pleased that he was helping him.

Indeed, when Field was first arrested, Sue thought the police had made a terrible mistake.

Here was yet another echo of Shipman, whose patients had lined up to defend him in the Press, insisting he was a good doctor.

That August came what Peter described to a friend as ‘the worst day of my life’. It concerned the publication of his book A Wide Wide Sea by a company called Farquhar Studies, set up by Field and a friend from university to profit from sales of Peter’s novels.

The book launch was held in the grand marble hall at Stowe School. When he arrived with Field, Peter looked flushed and was visibly shaking. He struggled to remember people’s names, even those of friends he had known for many years, and found it almost impossible to sign the books that people bought.

In the words of one attendee I interviewed, ‘Peter wasn’t himself. He looked awful and was, sad to say, falling apart in front of my eyes. I thought that he was ill, or drunk, or both.’

Peter’s rambling, shambolic appearance at the launch was no doubt exactly what Field wanted. Here was evidence that Peter really was ‘losing it’ and more came in September when Peter summarised his health issues in another email to Dr Pryce, his GP:

‘I have felt very tired. I have confused dates. I forget names of people and places. My sense of balance has been uncertain. Formerly a voracious reader, I have not read a book for some time.’

For a man who cared so much about literature, this last issue must have been especially upsetting. Robbing him of this great love of his life no doubt gave Field tremendous satisfaction, and it was literature he turned to when, on the evening of Sunday, October 25, 2015, he decided it was time to make his final move. Or, as he put it so bluntly in one of his notebooks, to ‘end Peter’.

Only Field knows exactly what happened that night but, just like a key character in his book A Bitter Heart, Peter was somehow made to consume a dangerous combination of a sedative and whisky.

It’s likely that, at the very end, Field suffocated Peter with a cushion to ensure that he was dead. And, as if this wasn’t appalling enough, there was one more sadistic twist. We now know from his journal that, as Peter was dying, Field said to him: ‘I hated you all along.’

He also reminded Peter that he had changed his will, boasting that ‘this is my house’.

So the last words Peter heard from the man to whom he’d pledged his love in a betrothal ceremony only the previous year were of hate and vitriol.

When Peter’s cleaner found his body the next morning, he was slumped on the sofa with a near-empty bottle of whisky.

The coroner decided he had died accidentally of ‘acute alcohol intoxication’, just as Field had planned.

The following month, he delivered the eulogy at Peter’s funeral in Stowe Parish Church, reminding the congregation of a night the previous November when Peter was ‘gleeful, sparkler in his hand, writing his name in the air amongst shrieks of laughter’.

This must have brought a smile to the faces of many in the church, unaware that this image of a happier time was being conjured up by the man who had murdered Peter. A man who, as I will describe in Monday’s Mail, already had his sights set on his next elderly and equally vulnerable victim.

  • Adapted from A Plot To Kill: A True Story Of Deception, Betrayal And Murder In A Quiet English town by David Wilson, published on June 17 by Little Brown at £20. © David Wilson 2021. To order a copy for £17.80 (offer valid to 30/6/21; P&P free), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.

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