For 56 years they had loved each other; unconditionally, faithfully and with absolute devotion. Retired miner David Hunter and his wife Janice were a rarity, a couple so constant and committed they never tired of each other’s company.
When they first met in Ashington, Northumberland, as teenagers, David thought Janice was ‘the most beautiful girl in town’.
‘He always said that from the moment he saw her, he never looked at another woman,’ says their daughter, Lesley. ‘They laughed together, always had something to say to each other; they never left one another’s side.’
That David, 74, is now languishing in a Cyprus jail cell charged with his wife’s murder seems unimaginable.
Yet it is alleged that, in December last year, he suffocated Janice, 75, who was dying — in excruciating pain from incurable blood cancer — at the home near Paphos where they had hoped to enjoy the final years of an idyllic retirement.
It has been alleged that David Hunter, 74, suffocated his wife Janice, 75, (both pictured) who was dying – in excruciating pain from incurable blood cancer – at their home near Paphos
David then tried to kill himself with an overdose of prescription pills, but was brought back from the brink of death after video-calling his younger brother in England to tell him what he had done, while urging him to ‘please look after Lesley’.
Now, as Lesley, 49, grapples with the awful ramifications of this double tragedy, she is appealing — with the help of UK-based organisation Justice Abroad — to Cyprus’s top legal officer to have the charge against her father reduced to assisting suicide.
Unless her legal team can persuade the island’s Attorney General to commute the charge, David, who pleaded not guilty to murder when he appeared at a preliminary court hearing earlier this month, will face a mandatory life sentence when his case is heard in April.
Telling her family’s harrowing story in full for the first time, Lesley says: ‘Dad is a good man. He doesn’t deserve to die on his own in a foreign prison. He is so lonely. After 56 years with Mum, it’s like missing a limb.
‘He is living with 12 other prisoners in a single room, sharing one lavatory. He is used to a spotless house and the levels of hygiene trouble him. It is grim.
‘He has done nothing but love Mum. He’s a true gentleman. Some people have asked: ‘How can you forgive him?’ But I just see his kindness and compassion.’
She implores through tears: ‘We have to bring him home. I think Mum and Dad had made a pact. They just wanted to go together. Mum had repeatedly made her wishes clear to Dad during the final six weeks of her life. She was, Dad has now told me, talking about it daily.
‘To begin with, he tried to dissuade her, then he said he would go with her. He loved her so much. He has nightmares now when he can still hear her screaming in pain, and they had to deal with that on their own.
‘I’m horrified they were so desperate they thought that dying together was the only way out.
Lesley, 49, (pictured) said her parents always underplayed things and didn’t tell for awhile that Janice had been diagnosed with blood cancer
‘They always said they didn’t want to be a burden to me because I was their only child. Dad would say: ‘You don’t want to be lumbered with us.’ They were both very proud. So they hid from me how terrified they were and it breaks my heart that I didn’t know they were in such despair.
‘They were big ones for giving other people help, but not good at asking for it themselves. They belonged to that generation that would still go to work even if a leg had dropped off.’
Much has emerged now about the quiet stoicism of a couple determined to protect their child from the extent of their plight. Covid restrictions further isolated them from support on the island that had been their home since David — a miner from the age of 15 — retired from Ellington Colliery, Northumberland, in 1999.
Soon after they moved to Cyprus, buying a beautiful house in a village near the resort of Paphos, Janice became ill. She developed rheumatoid arthritis, then a growth on her ovaries. One operation followed another: after an appendectomy she had a double knee replacement, then she fell and shattered her collarbone.
Then David suffered a stroke in 2015 from which — with typically resolute determination — he made a marvellous recovery.
‘He said: ‘I didn’t come here to live my dream and spend my days drooling in a chair’,’ recalls Lesley.
They couldn’t get upstairs so lay in chairs. All night he held her hand
However, she wondered why, in the midst of it all, they sold their villa and moved into a more modest rented maisonette. Only later did it emerge that they needed to release capital from their home to pay their escalating medical bills.
Then, in 2016, their troubles worsened: Janice was diagnosed with blood cancer.
‘They always underplayed things. They didn’t tell me for quite a while because they wanted to protect me,’ says Lesley. And Janice had already resolved not to have chemotherapy.
‘Her sister, Kathleen, died of leukaemia in 1987 and the chemo had been gruelling, horrible. Mum was quite adamant she didn’t want it and I knew the worst would happen, that we would lose her.’
Perhaps fears about the cost of the treatment also played their part; Lesley will never know. Her parents hid from her, too, the fact that Janice’s diagnosis was terminal, and for three years she slowly declined. Then, when Covid restrictions hit the island, their plight worsened again.
Lesley said her parents became increasingly isolated during lockdown and dealing with terminal illness took an enormous toll on their mental health. Pictured: The couple on their wedding day
‘During lockdown they became increasingly isolated and desperate, cut off from their many friends and medical care,’ says Lesley.
‘Mum had no proper pain relief. She relied on paracetamol. I was so worried about them but Dad would say: ‘You’re my bairn. It’s not your place to worry about us. It’s our job to worry about you.’
‘But dealing with that degree of pain and terminal illness took an enormous toll on their mental health.’
It was as the world was tentatively emerging from lockdown that Lesley’s world imploded with a brutality that has left her reeling.
A compliance consultant for the financial advice industry, she was looking forward to Christmas with her family, when the news came that shattered her life.
She recalls how the awful events unfolded on December 18 last year, as she returned from an outing with her husband and daughter — their only child — in Norwich, where they live.
‘My daughter had just broken up from school and we’d all gone out for a pre-Christmas lunch.
Dealing with that pain was a toll on their mental health
‘I’d switched off my mobile phone as we ate our meal — I wanted to set a good example — and as we turned into our street I put it on again and it rang immediately. It was the police. They said: ‘Can we come to your house? It’s urgent.’
‘There were two police cars, four officers. They came inside but wouldn’t tell me what had happened. They said: ‘We’re trying to get in touch with your dad.’ I was really confused. Then my phone rang. It was my uncle, Dad’s younger brother, and he just said: ‘Your mum is dead and your dad has tried to kill himself.’ ‘ She stifles tears.
‘My dad had FaceTimed his little brother after he’d taken an overdose, a right old mix of blood pressure tablets, pain medication; anything he could get his hands on.
‘He told him what had happened and said: ‘Goodbye. Just look after Lesley.’ My uncle was traumatised, convinced Dad would die.
‘He phoned the UK police, who contacted Interpol and they swung into action. It was a very slick operation.’
Lesley discovered from the Foreign Office that her father was clinging to life in intensive care a day after learning about her mother’s death. Pictured: David and Janice with daughter Lesley
David was already being rushed to hospital in Paphos as Lesley took the desperate call from her uncle.
‘Your world just goes from under you. I howled like an animal. I remember saying: ‘No, no, no, that can’t be right.’ I don’t think I took anything in. I was sobbing, hysterical.
‘The police were being very kind but I just wanted them to go. I think one of the officers said: ‘Your Dad has ended your Mum’s suffering.’
‘It was hard to take in what had happened. I kept saying: ‘But is my dad still alive?’ No one could tell me.
‘That night I couldn’t sleep — I’ve barely slept since — and I lay there thinking: ‘Mum is dead and I don’t know whether Dad is alive.’ I was out of my mind with grief.’
At lunchtime the following day, Lesley discovered from the Foreign Office that her father was clinging to life in intensive care.
The next day, the Cyprus High Commission in the UK intervened to help and Lesley was able to speak to her father on the phone at Paphos Hospital, where he was still in the intensive care unit.
‘I kept saying: ‘Daddy, don’t leave me.’ He sounded really heavily medicated. He was crying and said: ‘I love you. I’m sorry but I just want to be with your mum. I want to die.’
‘I’d already lost Mum and couldn’t cope with the two of them dying.’
David spent four days in intensive care before being transferred to a cell at Paphos police station. Lesley’s fears mounted.
‘I thought: ‘That can’t be right. He’s a suicide risk, he’ll kill himself.’ I was terrified I’d get a call to say he’d hanged himself.’
Lesley (pictured) was told that her mum had horrendous nose bleeds in the last week of her life and couldn’t eat or drink
Her fears were only mildly assuaged when she was told he had been sectioned and taken to a psychiatric hospital in Cyprus’s capital, Nicosia.
‘The next time I spoke to him he sounded less groggy but disoriented. He was saying he wanted to die and I would beg him to stay alive for me. Each day I spoke to him, he seemed to come out of the fog a bit more and kept telling me how much he loved me.’
It was only then that she started to piece together the awful events that had driven her parents to despair.
‘Dad told me Mum had been in constant, agonising pain in the weeks before her death. She had continual diarrhoea and Dad would make nappies out of towels and lift her into the shower to wash her. She was mortified. She felt she’d lost all her dignity. She only had paracetamol and that didn’t touch the sides of her pain.
‘The last week of her life was terrible. She had horrendous nose bleeds, her sight was going, she couldn’t eat or drink and though exhausted she couldn’t sleep. Dad couldn’t get her upstairs to bed so they lay in reclining chairs downstairs. All night he held her hand.’
As David recounted the harrowing facts that prompted his wife’s mercy killing, it seemed as if a burden lifted.
On New Year’s Eve, he was moved from the psychiatric hospital back to a police cell at Paphos. More setbacks followed. Although the prison authorities promised he could attend Janice’s funeral on January 5, they reneged on the pledge and he was kept in his cell.
Lesley, who suffers from a pathological terror of flying, could not face the trip to bury her mother and her distress at missing the funeral, which she arranged with her parents’ ex-pat friends in Cyprus, was compounded by a 16-day silence from her father.
Lesley (pictured) said she hasn’t started grieving for her mother yet because she has to keep going for her dad
He had been transferred by then to the prison in Nicosia, where he has remained ever since. But unable to recall Lesley’s phone number — his memory is fading —and without a mobile phone, he could not make contact with her.
She, meanwhile, was forbidden from ringing the prison. ‘I was frantic. Dad had said that hearing my voice was the only thing keeping him alive. What if he thought I’d broken off contact? I didn’t know what to do.’
Help came from barrister Michael Polak, director of Justice Abroad, who took over David’s case from a Cypriot solicitor.
‘It was a game-changer for us,’ says Lesley. ‘He spoke to the Cypriot High Commission and they sent a consul to visit Dad. Two days later he phoned me. It was amazing to hear his voice.’
Mr Polak tells me: ‘David is a model prisoner, however at this stage in his life he needs to be with his family in the UK, not in jail abroad. So we are concentrating on getting the charge reduced to assisting suicide so he can serve a shorter sentence at home.’
The Hunters were dependable, kind, hard-working and popular; their lives centred round the close-knit mining community that is now rallying with donations to support a fighting fund Lesley has set up to help pay her father’s legal costs.
‘I feel I’m in the fight of my life,’ she says. ‘I haven’t even started grieving for Mum yet. I can’t. If I do, I’ll dissolve. I have to keep going for my dad or I’ll lose him as well.
‘I keep talking to Mum, saying: ‘It’s not that I’ve forgotten you. I’m just waiting for Dad to come home so we can grieve together.’ ‘
- To donate, go to crowdjustice.com/case/help-bring-david-home