IN many ways it was a murder straight out of Cluedo – hit over the head with a poker in the library. Except by the time former architect Simon Dale, the only occupant of a rambling Queen Anne country house in deepest Herefordshire, was

whacked, he had moved to the kitchen and the blunt instrument that brought about his sudden demise was more likely an artisan jemmy. Although police believed it could actually have been a brass poker.

Nevertheless the killing set in motion a chain of events which sent shockwaves through aristocratic circles and unveiled a grubby plot of deceit, deception, greed and avarice that led to a once wealthy society hostess dying penniless in her old age.

At the heart of the saga was Baroness Susan de Stempel, a four times married, 55-year-old former debutant who appeared in court in 1989 on a murder charge. Strictly speaking that wasn’t who she was, because Susan had divorced her most recent husband, Baron Michael de Stempel, three years before, but had retained the title.

 The Baroness was also the ex-wife of Simon Dale, but had divorced him and gained an ancient Russian title when she married for the fourth time to Michael de Stempel. Not that her own bloodline lacked cache. She was a direct descendent of William Wilberforce, the anti-slave trade campaigner, and indeed two of her children, Georgina Sophia and Xenophen Marcus, went by that surname.

 Right from the start, the case was odd. After Dale’s body was found in remote Heath House, a 50-room mansion at Hopton Heath, near Leintwardine, detectives set out to question his former wife. The address she gave them was Forresters Hall, Docklow, near Leominster. But instead of the country pile they were expecting, their journey ended at an end terrace cottage beside the A44. The real address was 1, Forresters Hall.

 At that point it would have been easy to feel some sympathy for Susan de Stempel. She had apparently bought Heath House in 1959 with her own money, proceeds from the sale of a Yorkshire estate, but after their stormy marriage ended in divorce in 1974, Simon Dale refused to leave and frustrated all her efforts to sell to release her equity. For 14 years there had been a protracted legal battle with Dale staying put.

 A big man, 6ft 3ins tall and around 17 stones, he was an amiable figure in the neighbourhood, but partially blind and unable to drive. Also somewhat eccentric,  he claimed to have discovered the Court of King Arthur in the grounds of Heath House.

With robbery soon ruled out as a motive, attention turned to who would want Simon Dale out of the way and the spotlight fell on his ex-wife. However, she always strongly denied any part in his death. Although lacking direct evidence,  police built what they thought was a strong circumstantial case. But it did not convince a jury and when Baroness de Stempel appeared at Worcester Crown Court in the summer of 1989 charged with the murder of Simon Dale, she was found not guilty after a two week trial.

 However, as the saying goes, there was more. A lot more. During their investigations into Simon Dale’s killing, detectives uncovered a crime almost as bad. Officers were puzzled by the lifestyle and possessions of the Baroness, who claimed she had no means of supporting herself yet her cottage was packed with paintings and antique furniture. Digging deeper, they discovered the Will of the Baroness’s great aunt, Lady Margaret Illingworth, had been changed in 1984 in favour of Susan de Stempel and other minor beneficiaries, none of whom had figured in the old lady’s previous Will.

 Lady Illingworth had once been a darling of London’s high society. Her late husband was a successful politician, a Cabinet Minister and former Postmaster General. When he died in 1942 he left everything to his wife, including their mansion home in Grosvenor Square, two Rolls Royces, silver, furniture, jewellery and investments. Yet when she died in a Hereford home for the elderly in 1986 she was £8,000 in debt. De Stempel and her children were the only people at the funeral at Hereford Crematorium.

It transpired that Lady Illingworth, who was living in London but by then becoming senile, was persuaded to visit the Baroness at her Herefordshire cottage for a holiday in 1984. She never returned home. Over the following two years, money from her accounts was systematically channelled into the Baroness’s control using false signatures. Police believed Susan de Stempel took a total of around £1million from Lady Illingworth, including stocks, shares, paintings, furniture and jewellery. 

At Birmingham Crown Court in 1990, the Baroness pleaded guilty to five charges of theft and two of fraud and was jailed for seven years. After a nine week trial, her former husband Baron Michael de Stempel (who received four years) and her children Sophia (30 months) and Marcus (18 months) were also given custodial sentences for their parts in the plot.

During the trial, Sophia was alleged to have bought a £200,000 villa in Monaco for cash. She later became an artist with a penchant for painting in the nude and “stepped out” with actor Richard Gere.

 With time off for good behaviour and taking into account two years in custody on remand, Susan de Stempel was eventually released from prison in August 1992. Although being officially bankrupt, she was taken to a five star hotel in Manchester where she was seen getting into a red Mercedes.

Despite her guilty pleas she proclaimed her innocence and her parting shot was: “Jail was an absolutely fascinating experience which  I would not have missed for anything. You have not lived until you have been arrested.”