The murder of Jillian Howell
When this call came in from the yellow emergency phone outside Brighton’s John Street police station, it wasn’t immediately clear that a horrific crime had been committed by the calmly-speaking caller.
The caller, David Browning, then aged 51, had, sometime in the previous few hours, murdered his 46-year-old boss Jill Howell at her home in the city.
Following the evidence given to the court, a jury found Browning guilty of the October 2017 murder.
What happened on Wednesday 25 October?
Not for the first time, David Browning, Jill’s deputy in the payroll department at the University of Brighton, had been invited to her home in Sandgate Road in the Fiveways area of Brighton for a curry supper. He took along a bottle of wine.
As his manager, Jill had been supporting him after the sudden death of his father a year before, and they had occasionally met outside work as she tried to help him come to terms with his loss.
On the day of the murder Browning, a married father of two, left work at the university and went home to Seaford, before leaving at about 6.30pm for Jill’s house
Stopping on the way to buy wine and flowers for Jill, he arrived at her door around 7.35pm in a van he hired the previous day and they shared the curry she had prepared.
When he was due to go home, Browning told Jill he was contemplating suicide and had posted suicide notes to family and colleagues. Jill, who was a volunteer for the Samaritans, told him he should seek medical help and that he needed to go to the hospital.
It was as she went to put on her trainers to take him there that Browning took a knife from his pocket and suddenly struck his fatal blows.
After stabbing her 15 times, Browning put his shotgun to his throat but couldn’t pull the trigger. Officers learned that he had practised with the weapon empty, but again failed to fire it once it was reloaded.
Ironically, given that his victim had been a volunteer for the charity, he then rang The Samaritans to talk about what had happened and his options. The result was him deciding to surrender to police.
Police first became aware of the crime when Browning used an emergency phone box outside Brighton's John Street police station just after 6am the following day, saying he was suicidal, had a shotgun and wanted to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
When officers met him outside he held out his shotgun and said he had murdered someone, guiding officers to the murder weapon - a lock-knife with a 10 centimetre (three inch) blade - located in his top jacket pocket.
Browning told police they should go to an address in Sandgate Road where they would find the front door on the latch for easy access.
On arrival at the house officers made the grim discovery of Jill’s lifeless body laid in her living room and a note from Browning to police on the table.
Investigating the crime
Detectives quickly established that Browning had intended to use the opportunity of a shared supper to kill his boss and then commit suicide using the shotgun. Two boxes of cartridges were found on the table in the living room.
Despite having their suspect in custody, police began painstaking forensic work, house-to-house enquiries, mobile phone analysis, conversations with colleagues and media appeals to try to piece together exactly what had happened.
It became clear during the investigation that Browning had sought to implicate a good friend of Jill’s, Sean McDonald, in the crime, even forging a death in service form, which was received by a pensions administrator two days after her death, assigning her benefits to him.
During the investigation, officers established that six weeks before the murder, Browning had visited a shop in Brighton and put down a deposit to buy a Browning shotgun, which he said he wanted for clay-pigeon shooting. When he later returned for it he bought the knife used to kill Jill.
Evidence of his intentions to kill Jill were contained in several suicide notes he had written and posted to relatives and work colleagues, writing that he was “ridding the world of a horrible person”. To further the claim of Jill being a bully he uploaded an image to his Facebook account after killing her.
Yet during detailed phone analysis, texts between him and Jill gave a different opinion of her, disclosing instead an almost fawning regard for and deference to her. In one he called himself, “Your ever loyal lieutenant Dave” and in another said, “Every good payroll manager needs a loyal black Labrador called Dave.”
Following a meeting in a Brighton pub outside work on 7 June he texted Jill:
“Thank you for tonight. I managed to get to know you so much better which is a good thing for both of us it seemed. I ran out of time so would like another beer when some free time in the future and we have mutual respect for each other. I adore you personally and professionally and we will get there. I am there for you on any subject at any time. Dave x.”
After an earlier shared meal at Jill's house on 3 August Browning texted:
"Thank you for tonight. I enjoyed the chat and company and I meant every word. The curry was spot on as well and book me in for another chat in September/October. I think you realise how much you actually mean to me as a friend and vice versa. I will continue to be inappropriate at times but that is what I do to make you laugh and smile. Every Jill needs a Dave."
The next day another text from Browning said:
"You make me feel relaxed and I am glad we can trust each other. You are more than just my boss and I think you know I would love to do the same again in a few months' time as I still have plenty to tell you so please see if you have a slot in your diary ... I will continue to make you laugh and smile."
Jill’s replies, when she did respond, were friendly but professional, suggesting her feelings were nothing but supportive.
Browning admitted killing Jill but denied murder, instead claiming manslaughter by diminished responsibility.
On 30 October David Browning was charged with murder and remanded in custody.
During the two-week trial at Hove Crown Court, presided over by Her Honour Christine Laing, jurors heard how a post mortem examination found that Jill had been stabbed 15 times and died from from the wounds to her neck, chest and abdomen.
Browning claimed to be severely depressed and, although he had no previous mental health issues, he had started to visit a psychotherapist to help him deal with his father's death before killing Jill.
In court, psychiatrists for both the prosecution and defence agreed that at the time of the killing Browning was suffering from a depressive illness but disagreed on the level of his depression.
On Wednesday 2 May the jury, having deliberated for just under two hours, found David Browning guilty of murder.
A reflection from the Senior Investigating Officer
Detective Chief Inspector Till Sanderson, who led the investigation for the Surrey and Sussex Major Crime Team, said: "Browning has been convicted of this horrific crime despite his efforts to minimise responsibility for his actions.
"Unfortunately what he did has resulted in almost unimaginable distress for members of Jill's family and her friends, who will never erase the memories of a kind and caring person so abruptly and brutally taken from them. Jill gave up so much of her own time to help others through her voluntary work as a Samaritan, as well as to the person who killed her. It astonishes me that Browning still turned for advice and support from the charity that meant so much to Jill.
"Although this verdict will not bring Jill back to her loved ones, I'm pleased that suitable criminal closure has been brought to this case and I would like to thank those people who assisted in our investigation for their help and understanding in such tragic circumstances."
A tribute from Jill’s family
Jill Howell, 46, lived alone in her terraced home in Sandgate Road, Fiveways, Brighton, and worked as payroll manager at the University of Brighton.
She was described as being well-liked and respected both at work and outside it. She had close bonds with her family, some of whom live locally, and she was a dedicated Seagulls supporter.
It said much about her that Brighton and Hove Albion’s players led a minute’s applause in her memory at their first match following her death.
Her family said: “We would like to thank Sussex Police for their thorough investigation into Jill’s death, the prosecution for their diligence and our family liaison officers and homicide support worker for their support and patience.
“We would also like to thank family, friends and colleagues, including Jill’s many friends and colleagues, for their love and support. Many of you have showed us such kindness and this has gone some way to restoring our faith in humanity.
“But most of all we would like to pay tribute to our beautiful Jill: Jill loved life, and lived it to the full. She was a loving and caring sister and the best Auntie in the history of the world, ever. Jill was a gentle and kind soul; she had an aura of calm and peace with a warm heart and an infectious smile. She was a fun person to be around and was always cheerful and laughing. She was hard-working, had tremendous honesty and integrity and had such a positive impact on all who knew her.
“Jill was generous with her time and loved to help people, always putting others before herself. Much of her spare time was spent volunteering as a listening volunteer at the Samaritans and we are so proud of the support and kindness she gave so readily to callers at a time in their lives when they needed it most. We hope the £4000 raised in her memory will enable the local branch to continue its good work. Many thanks are due to all those who have given so far and donations can still be accepted.
“The last six months have been truly awful. Jill’s death was shocking and incomprehensible and we are still struggling to accept and make sense of it. We are pleased that this process is now over but it doesn’t change anything for us, it doesn’t bring Jill back and we miss her so much. The deep sadness and emptiness we feel will be with us for the rest of our lives.
"Jill, we will carry you in our hearts forever.”
A tribute from Jill’s employer
Professor Debra Humphris, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton, said: “The whole University community was shocked and saddened by Jill Howell’s death and our focus and thoughts remain with Jill’s family and friends who have suffered such a tragic loss.
“Jill was a much loved, compassionate and highly respected colleague and she is greatly missed.
“Her death and the circumstances surrounding it have made this an extremely difficult time for colleagues who worked closely with both Jill and David Browning, and the University is continuing to provide support for all those affected.”
On Thursday 3 May at Hove Crown Court, David Browning was jailed for 28 years for the murder of Jillian Howell. Imposing the sentence, Judge Christine Laing told Browning he was a selfish man who depression had been exaggerated as a reason for stabbing Jill to death.
She said his self-concern was apparent throughout the trial and he had shown little remorse while trying to blame others. He had made plans to kill her, murdered her in her own home in a ferocious attack and defiled her body. Everything was about him and his problems, and now Jill's family had to suffer the irreversible consequences of his actions.
Disclaimer: This is a story of how detectives investigated the crime, it is not intended as a court report. The material has been released with the awareness of Jill Howell’s family.