Living With a Serial Killer: ‘My worst fear was before he cut me up, when I knew what he was going to do and that police weren’t going to help’
- Credit: Archant
When Delia Balmer met John Sweeney in a Camden Town pub he had already murdered and dismembered at least one girlfriend. Balmer’s book tells her story
It took nearly 30 years before police linked Liverpudlian carpenter John Sweeney to Melissa Halstead’s remains, dumped in a Rotterdam canal.
In the interim Royal Free nurse Delia Balmer endured an abusive relationship with the killer, before he brutally attacked her outside her Kentish Town flat.
On the run for six years, the law finally caught up with Sweeney in February 2001 when the body parts of his girlfriend Paula Fields were found in holdalls in the Regent’s Canal.
But the physical and mental scars from the December 1994 attack still remain says Ms Balmer: “The last thing I remember was seeing my finger fly through the air, I awoke in the Royal Free and all I wanted to do was die, I didn’t want to live any more in this body, in anger and pain. I was in no condition to write. My nerve endings were raw, I had torn tendons, a broken arm, the slightest touch was sensitive.”
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The 67-year-old who lives in Belsize Park, feels terribly let down by Kentish Town Police who failed to take her warnings about Sweeney seriously until too late. Her book starts on spring bank holiday 1991, with Sweeney’s unsettling stare, and offer to buy her a drink.
“I was bored, alone, the Hawley Arms had the best jukebox and I liked people watching. I think now that he smelled me, there was something there he could get into.” Early on there were flowers, he rang when he said he would, and fixed her window.
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“I thought of him as a bohemian, like me he travelled a lot. He seemed so nice and tended to a stutter. But now I know it was all a big show. He was playing his game and I was stupid because I was alone.”
Sweeney moved into the Leighton Grove flat pledging to “be no trouble,” but his behaviour became increasingly aggressive and controlling, from deliberately breaking Balmer’s possessions, to stealing money.
“Subtle changes happened slowly,” she says. “I should’ve known something was wrong but I am too soft and trusting. I’d never come across anything like it before.”
By the time he viciously beat a man in Germany, Balmer wanted out.
“Once I saw what he was like, I tried to get rid of him. He kept saying he would go, but I knew he wouldn’t. I thought I should go but knew I had to do it carefully or I could end up in worse trouble. The police just saw me as a domestic violence victim. I knew a restraining order wouldn’t work on John and it would put me in more danger.
Finally Sweeney did go, leaving behind a portfolio of violent drawings and a murder bag hidden behind a bath panel.
Balmer describes her terror that he would return, getting the lock changed, and the police to search the flat. But he broke in through a bathroom window and held a gun to her head, tied her to the bed, and told her about murdering Melissa.
“It was as if he could read my thoughts, I knew not to scream, there was no telling what he might do, he had this evil look in his eyes.”
Sweeney was held in Pentonville for holding Delia hostage, but was let out on bail.
“I begged them ‘don’t let him out or he will cut me to bits’. I told them about Melissa, showed them his drawings but they let him out. I was in such a state, so scared.”
The Domestic Violence team assured her Sweeney wouldn’t break his bail conditions, but on December 22, as Balmer returned from work, he was waiting with an axe and knife.
“I was on the doorstep he had the axe over his head, I shut my eyes waiting for it to come down, then the neighbour’s son hit him with a baseball bat and he ran off with the axe.
“When I gained consciousness this time the serious crime squad came, but it was a big joke. He was gone and in the meantime Paula Fields was murdered. I remember reading about it in the paper and thinking ‘sounds like something John would do’.”
When Sweeney was arrested in 2001, Balmer didn’t want to testify.
“I was not brave. I was angry at the system and knew I would be interrogated, that the hell wouldn’t end.”
He was given four life sentences for Delia’s attempted murder, but it wasn’t until a cold case review in 2008 identified Melissa’s body that police paired it with the virtually identical Fields murder. In 2011 Sweeney received a whole life sentence for their murders. Police fear he may have killed three more women in the late 70s and 1990s.
Balmer says: “I’ve read things and thought’ that’s not what happened. I thought telling my version might help. People ask am I afraid, but my worst fear was before he cut me up, when I knew what he was going to do and that Police weren’t going to help. After that he could finish me off for all I cared.”
My Story: Living With a Serial Killer (Ebury £6.99)