This woman found her brother's killer on Facebook
Facebook is an extremely powerful platform but it’s usually not until someone truly needs something that its merits as something functional become clear. Whether its a lost wedding ring or a campaign to find the kind stranger who turned someone’s life around, it’s a great way to put the word out.
However, after years spent trying to uncover the truth about her brother’s murder, it certainly wasn’t here that Penny Farmer was expecting to find her brother’s killer, in that familiar square frame, looking calm and collected.
It was in the idyllic waters of the Caribbean - a world of sea, smiles and sunshine - that Chris Farmer and Peta Frampton were murdered. The couple, 25 and 24 respectively, had been travelling and were thought to have set off on a sailing expedition from Belize.
The world was a very different place in the seventies and communication was understandably patchy. Chris’ last letter to his parents said that they had met an American and his young sons and that they would be travelling on his boat, rather than getting a bus to Mexico as they had planned. Now setting sail for Honduras, they trusted their host entirely.
In July 1978 their bodies were found floating off the coast of Guatemala. They had been tortured, tied up and weighed down with engine parts. The doctor who performed the autopsy stated that "the aspects of [both bodies] were monstrous".
After the hiatus had begun to drag, Chris’ father called the harbour master in Belize. He revealed that the Justin B had set sail with Chris and Peta on board but had returned without them. He made no further progress.
Meanwhile, Peta’s family were similarly distraught. Her letters confirmed that they were indeed on a sailing expedition. In the last letter she sent to her parents, Peta signed off with: "Nothing much happens on a boat."
The yachtsman, Silas Boston, was traced to Sacramento in California. He had a criminal record including firearms charges, assault and rape. Furthermore, the father of the two boys - his third of seven wives - had completely disappeared. Boston was questioned by the British Consulate General about the disappearance of the British couple however, they could find no conclusive proof.
"It's difficult to imagine just how difficult it was back then, with no computers or mobile phones," says Penny. However, Chris’ mum was allowed to speak to Silas over the phone. However, he was rude and obstructive.
It wasn’t until February that they had the phone call they had hoped would never happen. Penny came home and instantly noticed her brother’s graduation photograph. "The thought flickered through my head,” she told the BBC. “There will be no more photographs."
The bodies had been identified. It was Chris and Peta. The tone of the Farmers’ Manchester changed completely. But they couldn’t properly mourn the loss of Chris with so many questions unanswered.
"I could see the effect it had on my parents,” Penny explains. “But they didn't buckle. My mum took one day off work, not because she didn't love Chris, but because she thought she couldn't give into it. There was no counselling or medication, Mum and Dad just knew they had to cope. I find that really admirable."
"Guatemala was a third-world country and there wasn't really a Guatemalan police force. There was no communication with Britain, because they laid claim to Belize, which was a British territory.”
Boston’s story was inconsistent but the Sacramento Police Department couldn’t pin him down. With no Guatemalan news stories about the murder of the couple, there was very little local interest in the case. But most crucial of all was the fact that no one, it seemed, had tried to contact Boston’s sons.
"The American police weren't very helpful,” Penny adds. “The Greater Manchester Police handed the case back to my dad. And something happened in the 1980s, which we don't know the full extent of, that made the case fall off a cliff completely.”
The internet age meant fresh hope for Penny’s parents. Her dad emailed Sacramento Police Department, hoping to open up a fresh dialogue. However, they never replied and in 2013, he died not knowing why his son had been murdered.
On a cold October afternoon in 2015, Penny came home from a countryside walk in Oxfordshire. She opened her laptop, loaded Facebook and searched for the man she suspected of killing her brother. "Heaven knows why I didn't look earlier," she says. “But thank God I did."
Sure enough, he popped up. The beard, sunglasses and baseball cap might even have concealed his identity, did he not have his name written next to him. "I suppose I thought he was lost to us,” Penny explains. “He just seemed so remote and hidden.”
Penny consequently managed to find Russell and Vince, his two sons, as well as his fifth wife. She messaged them all but got no immediate reply. She contacted Greater Manchester Police, who contacted the Sacramento Police Department. It just so happened that they had recently reopened the case into the disappearance of Boston's third wife.
Russell and Vince were brought in for questioning and they explained that they had lived their whole lives in fear of their father’s violent tempter. Unbelievably, it turned out that the murder of their mother was an open family secret - and that they had spent decades trying to convince the police that their father had murdered Chris Farmer and Peta Frampton in Guatemala.
In March 2016, armed with statements from the two sons, Greater Manchester Police sat down with Chris Farmer’s family at their offices in Ashton-under-Lyne. "It's quite incredible how much I know about what happened that day," says Penny.
"Boston was a rapist. My brother was in a very bad way, tied-up on the top deck. Peta was down in the cabin. I don't really need to say any more. I hope people can join the dots without me being too graphic."
"The really heart-warming thing was that even though Chris had a fractured skull and other broken bones, and there was blood all over the deck, he was still trying to comfort Peta, telling her it was all going to be alright. Even when they were trussed-up like turkeys, waiting to be thrown overboard."
Russell claimed his father murdered two more tourists, possibly Scandinavian, just two weeks later. However, he also stated to Russell that he had killed 33 people - which would make him one of the most prolific serial killers in recorded history.
Penny travelled to California to meet Russell who, in an impossibly surreal scenario, had described the death of her brother. He explained that Chris had defended him from his father and that he had therefore turned on Chris.
Boston was eventually tracked to Eureka, California. Having lived a life of hedonism and horrific violence, he was nearing the end. He resided in a nursing home and it turned out, oddly enough, that the Facebook page had been his carer’s idea - after he’d complained about a lack of friends.
Now strapped to a hospital bed and facing a testing trial, he exercised his right to withdraw medical treatment. On 24 April 2017, Penny received the news that Boston had died. "He took the coward's way out," says Penny.
"I felt cheated. I would have relished seeing him in court and telling him how he'd devastated both our families. Bringing him down had become an all-consuming passion. But he exited on his terms. That was him sticking two fingers up at the world."
"Closure is a lovely term, and I do believe that closure only comes when the truth is known. My mother is 93 and now has all the answers to the questions that haunted her for 38 years. But just because you've found answers doesn't mean you stop hurting. I'm not quite there yet."
Penny’s book, Dead in the Water, sheds further light on the many twists and turns of their search for answers. A statement from Greater Manchester Police said the case was never closed: "As with all cases, when new information came up, we started looking back into it. The Farmer family were very positive about our investigation when more evidence came to light."
The Sacramento Police Department, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the FBI, Interpol, Scotland Yard, the National Crime Agency (formerly the Serious Organised Crime Agency) are all thought to have been involved. And yet, despite the adamant testimonies of two key witnesses, the case went cold.