The last time ‘Black Widow’ killer Dena Thompson was seen in public, she was being led from the dock at the Old Bailey, about to begin a life sentence for killing her second husband.
Sitting across the courtroom from her that day nearly 20 years ago was her first husband, Lee Wyatt, whose evidence had helped to put his former wife behind bars.
‘I couldn’t look at her,’ he says, speaking exclusively to the Mail this week. ‘I knew that the moment I did, I’d be back in her power again. I was literally shaking. The thought of bumping into her again makes me feel physically sick.’
Which is why the news this week that 61-year-old Dena is set to be released from jail has revived distressing emotions.
‘The woman I knew was an evil psychopath,’ says Lee, a 67-year-old retired businessman from North London. ‘She has never shown any remorse for her crimes and it sickens me to think that soon she’ll be out and walking the streets again.’
The last time ‘Black Widow’ killer Dena Thompson was seen in public, she was being led from the dock at the Old Bailey
For not only did Dena murder her second husband, Julian, poisoning him with a curry on his 31st birthday — she initially claimed his death was suicide — she was also acquitted of attempting to kill her third husband, Richard, by hitting him around the head with a baseball bat and stabbing him with a carpet knife.
Little wonder many believe it is a terrible mistake to release a woman who was also a bigamist and serial fraudster, described by police at the time as ‘every man’s nightmare’.
Outraged by the Parole Board’s decision to release Dena and fearful she will find new victims to seduce, manipulate and defraud, Dena’s two surviving husbands have spoken to the Mail. Both believe they are lucky to have escaped their ill-fated marriages with their lives.
Dena’s third husband 63-year-old Richard Thompson, who runs a property management business in East Sussex, tells me: ‘She can’t change. She’s never shown remorse. So many men were her victims. She’s the master of putting on an act. She’s a schemer. There’s no way she should be released.’
Adding his voice to the concerns of her two ex-husbands is Martyn Underhill MBE, the former Sussex Detective Chief Inspector who led the original investigation into her crimes.
He told the Mail this week that in a career spanning nearly 50 murder investigations, Dena was ‘the most dangerous woman I’ve ever met’.
Describing her as ‘callous and calculating’, he added: ‘She has never shown remorse and never admitted her crimes. To see her come out of prison without doing either is especially concerning. My gut feeling is that this is a bad thing.’
It’s not difficult to understand why those who knew Dena are so worried about her release.
Aside from seducing men to fleece them of their money, she was an accomplished con-artist, stealing from the Woolwich building society where she worked in Arundel, West Sussex, and taking in all three of her husbands, as well as a string of lovers, with her incredible lies.
Julian died on his 31st birthday in July 1994 after eating a curry his wife had laced with a mixture of ground up pills
She wove a fantastic web of deceit, drawing each man in with the promise of a new life; forging documents so they believed they were being offered amazing jobs or business deals.
She told several men she was dying of cancer so they’d give her money to pay for treatment.
Dena had already been to prison twice for fraud by the time she received a life sentence in 2003 for the murder of second spouse, Julian — a conviction which only came about nine years after she’d poisoned him and after a jury had acquitted her of trying to kill her third husband, Richard.
So how did she ensnare so many men in her web of lies?
Lee Wyatt was bowled over by 22-year-old Dena Holmes when they were introduced by his cousin in 1982. The eldest of three children born to a prison officer and his primary school teacher wife, Dena had been a successful amateur gymnast as a teenager, trained by her father who also accompanied her to competitions around the world.
She left school with ten O-levels and took a job at a Halifax building society branch near her family home in Cricklewood, North-West London.
Their first date, Lee recalls, was to see the Agatha Christie murder mystery The Mousetrap at a West End theatre.
‘Looking back, it was a bad sign,’ he says, somewhat ironically. So, too, he thinks now, was Dena’s obsession with the U.S. television drama, Quincy, about a medical examiner who investigates suspicious deaths.
‘She was very pretty and fun to be with. She had a good sense of humour. I wanted someone to grow old with,’ he says.
They moved to Worthing in West Sussex and married in October 1984. By the time their son, Darren, was born in 1987, Lee had quit his job as a medical rep and set up a soft toy business with Dena, who was keen on sewing and handicrafts.
By forging documents, she convinced Lee that Disney wanted to pay millions for the rights to a leprechaun character she had created. She later used the same technique to trick him into believing that the Mafia wanted a cut of their money.
Before long, she had created an alternate reality, swearing Lee to secrecy about the dozens of letters arriving at their home, some threatening their lives, others ostensibly from a ‘protection squad’ sent by the FBI. ‘As hard as it is to believe, I was in fear for our lives,’ he says.
Conned: Sitting across the courtroom from her nearly 20 years ago was her first husband, Lee Wyatt, whose evidence had helped to put his former wife behind bars
If this part of the story seems incredible, it is worth remembering that Lee was just the first of several men to be taken in by Dena’s gargantuan lies. She was highly skilled at manipulating all the men she met and often held them cruelly in her thrall.
The family moved to the Sussex village of Yapton and Dena started work at the Woolwich building society in Arundel.
But she persuaded Lee he needed to go on the run, telling him the Mafia were also threatening their son. For the next few years, Lee lived under the radar, changing his name and moving around.
He ended up working as a maintenance worker on arcade machines in Cornwall, paying most of his wages into Dena’s bank account.
She kept telling him it wouldn’t be long before he could return home, but had already moved another man into their house.
He was Julian Webb, an advertising sales executive on the West Sussex Gazette. The pair married, bigamously, in November 1991, after a three-month whirlwind romance. Not long after, she told Julian she had cancer and persuaded him to give her his £25,000 savings to pay for her treatment.
Dena was also stealing money from the Woolwich building society where she worked, transferring £23,000 into an account created under a false name.
In 1994 Lee returned home to demand answers. Dena persuaded him to leave but, it was later said in court, the very real possibility that her two husbands might meet prompted her to kill Julian.
He died on his 31st birthday in July 1994 after eating a curry his wife had laced with a mixture of ground up pills.
The following day, Dena turned up at the newspaper office where he’d worked to ask how long it would take to receive his £36,000 death-in-service benefit.
While she insisted his death must have been suicide, a coroner recorded an open verdict and Julian’s suspicious mother, art lecturer Rosemary Webb, refused Dena’s demands to have his body cremated. Instead, he was buried near her home in Hayling Island, Hampshire.
Soon Dena had new victims, including a mental health worker and a customs official at Gatwick Airport who both gave her £6,000 after she said she was dying of cancer. She convinced a landscape gardener she had got him a job at NASA and used his credit cards behind his back.
In between these callous relationships, she served nine months in jail for her theft from the Woolwich. By the time she came out, Lee had begun divorce proceedings against her.
Her third husband, divorced BT manager Richard Thompson, met Dena via a newspaper’s ‘lonely hearts’ column. They married in April 1999, in Florida, six months after meeting.
As with her previous partners, she was soon forging his signature, emptying his savings account and running up thousands of pounds of debt on his credit cards. Dena encouraged Richard to pursue his dream of becoming a ‘big game’ fishing skipper and, with the couple planning a new life in Florida, Richard studied for U.S. coastguard qualifications and took early retirement.
Richard claims he and Dena had been married for only ten months when she attacked him. On that day, he said, she told him that a solicitor would be arriving with a green card and the following day he was due to fly to Florida.
She ran a hot bath for him to celebrate and, in an attempt to seduce him, told him she had a ‘surprise’ for him and asked him to lie on the bedroom floor.
Richard claims he and Dena had been married for only ten months when she attacked him. On that day, he said, she told him that a solicitor would be arriving with a green card and the following day he was due to fly to Florida
Richard finds it hard now to speak of what followed, but in court said that she tied his arms behind his back, put tape around his ankles and placed a towel across his face before hitting him twice around the head with an aluminium baseball bat and stabbing him in the shoulder.
He managed to fight her off after getting his hands free and sticking his fingers into her eyes.
But in 2000 a jury at Lewes Crown Court believed Dena’s claim that she had been defending herself after a row about money. She was found not guilty of attempted murder but jailed for three years and nine months after admitting conning Richard and two previous lovers out of £12,000.
But the case led Sussex Police to re-investigate Julian’s death. In 2001, his body was exhumed and re-examined.
Interviews with new witnesses revealed that Dena had told multiple stories about how he had died. Martyn Underhill recalls the moment he charged her with murder in a prison cell: ‘She gave me that wistful look that she obviously used to attract men and I remember thinking: “Oh my God. I’m about to charge you with murder and you’re coming on to me!” ’
Dena was found guilty of fraud and murder in December 2003 and given a life sentence with a minimum jail term of 16 years. Meanwhile, Sussex Police expressed their fears that there were other victims. They interviewed several men who had lost money to Dena, but they were too embarrassed to press charges against her. Some were married or had left their wives for her.
According to former Sussex police officer Sean McDonald: ‘She targeted her men very cleverly. A lot of them were vulnerable and lonely and looking for companionship and they found this seemingly perfect woman.’
During her 2003 murder trial, one of her ex-lovers, Robert Waite, told how he had been woken in the night by ‘a sharp jab in my side’.
Speaking afterwards, he said that Dena had been awake and told him: ‘Sorry I scratched you.’
He said he was ‘as sure as I can be’ that he had ‘lost a day that week’. He added: ‘I don’t want to think about those hours I was unconscious.’
First husband Lee, who says Dena used to call the adrenaline shots she needed to control her diabetes, ‘my poison’, tells a similar story. He also recalls being violently ill after eating food she’d prepared, which he blamed on food poisoning.
Yet despite the fears of those who knew Dena, the Parole Board says it is satisfied that she is ‘suitable for release’.
A spokesman said: ‘No prisoner will be released if it is deemed their risk management plan is not robust enough or licence conditions stringent enough to ensure they can be safely managed.’
One factor they believe will reduce the risk of Dena reoffending is ‘the financial backing built up from the sale of her artwork’.
Dena’s flamboyant creations, including a giant Diet Coke can made from metal ring pulls and a black and red painting of a couple arguing called ‘The Break Up’, have been displayed at the Southbank Centre in London.
But are they evidence that she has turned over a new leaf?
Her former husbands certainly don’t think so. ‘To say she’s taken up art and that’s part of the reason for her release is a joke,’ says Richard Thompson.
The Parole Board insists victims are consulted before any prisoner is released. But while Julian Webb’s 80-year-old mother, Rosemary, is believed to have been notified of the decision to free Dena, Lee and Richard found out via newspaper reports last week.
‘I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t believe the authorities didn’t notify me,’ says Richard. ‘It’s appalling that I’m not considered to be a victim despite what happened to me.’
Meanwhile, Lee Wyatt has a word of warning for any man who crosses Dena Thompson’s path.
‘Be careful,’ he says. ‘She’s extremely clever and whatever she says will be a fairy tale, except there are no happy endings. She has ruined people’s lives.’