‘The last time I saw Charli I had an awful premonition’: Parents of woman killed during a date on a speedboat trip urge fugitive Jack Shepherd to hand himself in as they lay bare the human cost of his cowardice
- Charlotte Brown, 24, was killed in a speedboat tragedy on the River Thames
- Jack Shepherd was convicted of manslaughter by gross negligence last summer
- Charlotte’s parents learned Shepherd has won the right to appeal his conviction
The start of each New Year is an especially painful time for the Brown family. Three years ago today, they laid their bright, vivacious daughter Charlotte to rest, at a small cemetery near where she grew up in South-East London.
A few weeks before Christmas 2015, Charlotte, just 24, was killed in a speedboat tragedy on the River Thames. She had been on a first date with a man she had met online when, just before midnight on December 8, his boat hit a submerged log at high speed and overturned, throwing Charlotte and her date into the river. While he was dragged from the icy water alive, rescuers could not save her.
The last time her father Graham, mother Roz, and two elder sisters, Katie and Vicky, got to see their beloved Charlotte, she was lying in a mortuary. ‘I wanted to say goodbye,’ says Graham, fighting back tears. ‘I stood over her and I opened her eyes. I looked into them, into my daughter’s eyes for the last time, and just said: “Why?” That moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.’
Pictured: Graham Brown with daughter Charlotte. ‘I wanted to say goodbye,’ says Graham
Roz fainted when she saw her daughter. She still struggles to talk about what happened. She suffers flashbacks and finds it difficult to sleep because of the pain of losing her youngest child. ‘Grief is a very lonely path,’ she says. ‘We will never feel the same as we did when Charlotte was here. Every second of every day is agony.’
At family occasions, the Browns lay a place for Charlotte at the table. Photos of her smiling, laughing and pulling faces adorn their homes. Roz and Graham separated more than 20 years ago.
The past three years have been taken up with legal battles, fundraising efforts and, most recently, a campaign to improve safety on UK waterways — an initiative they have named ‘Charlotte’s Law’.
Despite their split, Roz and Graham are united in their love for their daughter, and their determination to bring the man responsible for her death to justice.
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He is Jack Shepherd, 31, a web designer originally from the West Country, who was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter by gross negligence at a month-long trial last summer.
He WAS drunk when he took Charlotte out in his speedboat, bought for the sole purpose of seducing women, and drove recklessly and at high speed along the dark river with no regard to safety. There were life jackets on board, but he didn’t produce them.
Not only did cowardly Shepherd fail to turn up to face Charlotte’s family in court, but he has now been on the run for nine months, and police admit they have no idea where he is hiding. Earlier this week, the Mail issued a £25,000 reward for his capture.
To compound the Brown family’s grief, this week they learned that Shepherd has won the right to appeal his conviction — despite being a fugitive. Astonishingly, his solicitors’ fees are being funded by legal aid — that is, paid by the taxpayer — of which he has already received £100,000.
Charlotte Brown as a baby with her mother Roz. To cope with the pain, Roz has started crocheting, making blankets and hats for everyone in the family
‘He is mocking justice,’ says Graham, 55, whose job — in what now seems to him a cruel irony — involves monitoring prison populations for the Ministry of Justice. ‘We are smashed to bits over this whole thing, while he’s out there doing who knows what. My message to him is that he has stolen a beautiful life through his reckless, crass actions, and he needs to come back and atone for what he has done. I will never, ever forgive him for the damage and devastation he has caused our family.’
Though they are doing their best to stay calm, as they don’t know what form the appeal will take or if it will ever reach court, the Browns are struggling to understand how one man — a convicted criminal who has shown no remorse — can be so difficult to find.
‘There’s got to be someone harbouring him, financially or otherwise,’ says Roz, 53, who lives with her second husband, Mark, in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. ‘He’s got support. I believe he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. But he needs to serve his sentence.
‘His actions killed my daughter. If it was not for Jack Shepherd taking her out that night, Charlotte would still be with us.’
Jack Shepherd was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter by gross negligence at a month-long trial last summer
The Browns’ grief is still raw, their words peppered by tears and angry outbursts. Shepherd’s selfish behaviour has left them without closure, unable to properly mourn Charlotte, whose loss has left a chasm in their lives.
The walls, windowsills and mantelpiece of Graham’s living room in Sidcup, South-East London, are covered in photographs of his youngest daughter, a beautiful, bright-eyed brunette with a captivating smile. His middle daughter Katie, 29, sits by his side, the two supporting one another as they reminisce about Charlotte.
‘It’s funny, when she was little she used to hate being called Charli,’ smiles Graham. ‘She’d say: “Da-ad, my name is Charlotte, not Charli.” Then when she grew up, it all changed and she was Charli from that moment on.
‘She was the most incredible woman. She was so loving. Katie and Charlotte, especially, were like peas in a pod — they phoned each other every night; they went out every weekend; when they weren’t at work they were together. They always got mixed up as twins.’
Graham and Roz split up in the mid-Nineties, when their daughters were young, and Charlotte and her sisters spent their childhood between the two parents.
She went to Bexley Grammar School, then the University of Essex, where she graduated with a 2:1 in English Literature. In her spare time she joined the Air Cadets, where, as a teenager, she became the youngest woman to fly a glider solo. ‘That shows her determination,’ says Graham. ‘She would never say: “I can’t do it.” She gave everything a go. She had a sense of adventure but she was sensible and she had a very clear idea of right and wrong.
‘If I ever made a Daddy error, it was Charlotte who told me off. Boy, she knew how to give me a dressing down.’ He smiles. ‘She was amazing.’
After university, Charlotte moved to London and started her first job, in marketing. She later moved into a flat-share in North Finchley and got a new job, as a consultant at the Institute of Anti-Ageing. Shortly before she died, she was celebrating a promotion.
Left to right: Father Graham Brown, sister Katie and mother Roz Wicken arrive at the Old Bailey
‘I met her for dinner in Leicester Square on December 2,’ recalls Graham. ‘She was really excited. Katie had sneakily told me her sister had got a promotion, but she was so happy when she told me herself. She was learning to drive and she’d just booked her test.
‘She’d found herself. Everything was going right. We had a lovely meal and afterwards she thought I was a bit tipsy so she walked me to the Tube station. I played along with it and let her escort me.
‘But the strangest thing happened when we said goodbye. I had this awful feeling, like someone was walking over my grave. I turned around one last time and she was gone. It made me feel uneasy — like a premonition that something was going to happen.’
Neither Graham nor Roz knew Charlotte was going on a date with Shepherd a week later, but she kept her sisters informed on a group the trio had set up on the WhatsApp messaging service.
Charlotte had previously been in a relationship for four years and had been single for a year when she decided to try online dating.
She and Shepherd had connected on the site OkCupid and messaged for a few weeks before he tracked Charlotte down on Facebook and persuaded her to accept his advances.
Charlotte and Shepherd had connected on the site OkCupid and messaged for a few weeks before he tracked Charlotte down on Facebook and persuaded her to accept his advances
They spent £150 on a lavish meal and wine at a restaurant in The Shard before Shepherd, then living on a houseboat, persuaded Charlotte to come on a champagne-fuelled cruise on his speedboat. It emerged in court that Shepherd had bought the boat on Gumtree and used it on dates with other women, one of whom remembers asking him to ‘slow down’.
That night, intoxicated, he sped along the Thames at 30 knots — well in excess of the 12-knot limit. It was dark, the water murky and the boat, which had faulty steering and a partially opaque windscreen, had no functioning kill cord (which would have switched off the engine in an accident).
Charlotte messaged her sisters throughout the date, sending her last heart-wrenching texts just hours before the boat capsized. In one, Katie asked: ‘Please message that you’ve survived this escapade?’ At 10.12pm, Charli replied: ‘I’m alive.’
But less than two hours later, rescuers heard Shepherd’s cries of ‘help me’ — not ‘help us’ — and found him clinging to the upturned hull near Wandsworth Bridge, the boat apparently having hit a log and flipped over.
Charlotte was found in the water just before midnight. She was taken to hospital, where she was pronounced dead from cold water immersion. Emergency crews said Shepherd appeared drunk and confused, and couldn’t even remember Charlotte’s name.
Graham was sitting in his office in central London at 11.30am the next day when he got a phone call from Vicky. ‘I still remember what I was wearing — a blue jumper with a red-and-white stripe across it. Vicky rang, but she couldn’t speak. All she could say was: “Dad, you need to phone Mum.”
‘I called Roz and she was in a similar state, so she put a policeman on. He said: “We’ve had to recover your daughter from the River Thames.” I threw my phone down and screamed. It was the most awful, awful thing.’
Because Charlotte’s phone was waterlogged and Shepherd was no help in identifying her, it took police almost 12 hours to track down her distraught family. ‘I was numb,’ says Graham. ‘It was like I was there but I wasn’t. The police told us that they had been on a boat, that they’d been drinking, that it had capsized. But I couldn’t get my head around it.’
Pictured: The vessel owned by Jack Shepherd. ‘She’d never been in a speedboat before,’ her father says
Despite Shepherd’s claims that he handed the controls to Charlotte for a ‘thrill’ before it crashed, her family refuse to believe she would have taken the wheel.
‘She’d never been in a speedboat before,’ her father says. ‘She would have trusted him. She would have got into that boat thinking they would go for a pootle to the bridge and back. She wouldn’t have thought for one minute he would go full throttle.’
Roz adds: ‘I do not believe that she was driving the boat. She never took risks — she’d never even been on the back of a bike. She wasn’t like that. There’s no evidence other than what he said.’
Agonisingly, to this day, the family still don’t know the truth of what happened that night.
At first, they were told there wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge Shepherd with a crime, and the incident was just a horrific accident. With help from their MP, and a family friend QC, they got the case reviewed and transferred to a special homicide squad, who re-interviewed witnesses and organised a video reconstruction.
Eventually, having battled obstacle after obstacle, and faced Shepherd three times in preliminary magistrates’ hearings, a trial was scheduled for June 2018. The family learned the day before it started that he wasn’t going to show up.
‘We were relieved the trial went ahead as there was a risk that the judge would delay it without him being present,’ says Graham. ‘Then to get the guilty verdict, and a sentence of six years, well that was the justice we wanted.
‘Shepherd’s lawyer stood up at the end and said the stress of the case had affected him and it was because of cowardice that he couldn’t face the family. We later found out he was messaging his legal team via an internet chatroom during the trial. Not only that, but he got married just a few weeks after Charlotte died, and he’s got a two-year-old child who he’s abandoned. His behaviour makes me sick.’
The prospect of an appeal came up last August, but no one believed it would be granted. This week’s news has struck yet another blow to a family crippled by grief. ‘Even now, I cannot believe it’s happened,’ says Roz. ‘Not only is Charlotte not with us, but this is an awful situation. It’s completely out of our hands.’
To cope with the pain, Roz has started crocheting, making blankets and hats for everyone in the family. It keeps her busy, she says, and helps her feel like she is doing something for others.
Graham, meanwhile, has taken up running. ‘It’s all I do now,’ he says. ‘I feel like Charlotte is running next to me.’
He started by doing the Great North Run in 2016, raising £3,000 for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and since then has completed three marathons.
Both he and Roz, and their daughters, are channelling all their energy into raising awareness of safety on our waterways, launching their petition calling for tighter laws on boats.
In memory of Charlotte, and to stop others from losing their lives in the same way, they want to see mandatory speed limits, enforced wearing of life jackets and all vessels and drivers subjected to tests and safety checks before they are allowed on the water.
As THEY try to move forward, however, Shepherd’s spineless and callous abuse of justice casts a shadow over the family.
Later this month, they are meeting Home Secretary Sajid Javid, hopeful that he will reassure them of the measures being taken to apprehend Charlotte’s killer.
‘We just want answers,’ says Graham. ‘It’s left us deeply frustrated. We want to know this is a high priority for the authorities, and that they are doing all they can.’
As today’s anniversary dawns, the Browns have marked their third Christmas and New Year without Charlotte.
‘We try to enjoy it, but this time of year is tinged with sadness and memories. There is always a tear — and I think there always will be,’ admits Graham.
He will, he says, fight until his dying breath to track down the man who robbed his daughter of her life.
‘She was a young woman with everything in front of her. He stole that. She’s never going to have a husband, children, her dream career — all because of him.
‘As her dad, it breaks my heart to say those things. She was the most beautiful soul and she did not deserve any of this.’
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