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Norma Bell murder: The horrific killing of a 'remarkable woman' by a small-time drug dealer

Murder victim Norma Bell was described as a 'remarkable woman' Credit: Cleveland Police

Norma Bell was "a rather remarkable woman" - the words of the judge overseeing the trial of her killer.

Mrs Bell was a widow, a mother, grandmother and former foster carer, just weeks away from celebrating her 80th birthday when she died.

She and her late husband had three sons of their own - but they also fostered more than 50 young children over three decades. Six of them long-term foster children who stayed in close contact, and were considered family.

Her husband John died in 2010, but she was still in good health.

Norma Bell was a fit and healthy woman who stayed active at 79 Credit: Cleveland Police

At 79, she went line dancing each week, and used an exercise bike in her front room. She would go from her home into Hartlepool town centre on errands for her children and grandchildren, who she saw regularly.

Mrs Justice Whipple described her as "a fit and active woman in her late 70s" and "the head of a close and loving family."

With the help of her family, she kept her independence, living alone in the home on Westbourne Road that she had been in for nearly 30 years.

Early on a Sunday morning last spring, she was found dead inside that home. The property had also been burgled and set on fire.

Gareth Dack set fire to Mrs Bell's home after killing her Credit: Cleveland Police

At around 8.20am on 3 April 2016, a neighbour who saw smoke coming from Mrs Bell’s home, and called the fire service.

Firefighters broke down the locked front door, and discovered Norma Bell’s body in a downstairs living room, a wire cable tightly wrapped around her neck.

She had several fractured ribs, and fractures and bruising to her neck. She had been strangled, before the fire was started.

Dack was also found guilty of arson after setting fire to Mrs Bell's home Credit: Cleveland Police

It was put out - but there was severe fire and smoke damage throughout the house. A fire examiner judged that it had clearly been started deliberately - in a living room downstairs, and a bedroom upstairs. The gas hob had also been left on in the kitchen, in an unsuccessful attempt to cause an explosion.

Police immediately described Mrs Bell’s as suspicious, calling for any witnesses to come forward, and urging people with elderly relatives or neighbours in the areas to check on them.

The next day, they announced it was a murder investigation.

Gareth Dack was found guilty of murder and arson Credit: Cleveland Police

The killer

Gareth Dack was a family friend. He had grown up on the street where Norma Bell lived, and had been childhood friends with one of her foster children, and visited their home regularly as a youngster. As an adult, he sometimes visited Mrs Bell with his own children.

Giving evidence at his trial, he said: "I knew her well, she was a wonderful woman. You always saw her in the street, she would make a point to come over to talk to me.”

By spring 2016, Dack was 32 years old, a father-of-four, living nearby in Hartlepool with his partner and their children. His parents still lived on Westbourne Road, it was still his second home.

Gareth Dack's car Credit: Cleveland Police

Dack had a drug habit, he admitted in court. He regularly used cannabis and cocaine.

He had worked as a maintenance engineer, but was off work with depression last April. That meant money was tight, and he borrowed it from loan companies, friends and, ultimately, from Norma Bell.

A week before Mrs Bell’s death, she lent him £10 to pay for petrol. Dack told the court that he returned to her home several times that week, to say he wasn’t able to pay her back yet.

Norma Bell's phone was found in Dack's garaga Credit: Cleveland Police

According to his version of events, he had visited Mrs Bell the evening before she was found dead, and borrowed a mobile phone from her, leaving her safe and well at around 9pm.

He said he then spent the night dealing cocaine from his parents’ garage down the road, and had unwittingly bought a TV, taken from Mrs Bell’s home, from an unknown man who walked past.

He said he had nothing to do with her death, and the fire at her home.

The jury at Teesside Crown Court didn’t believe him.

Norma Bell's Hartlepool home Credit: Cleveland Police

A murder for money

Instead, they agreed with the prosecution - that Gareth Dack stole from and killed Norma Bell to fund his cocaine habit.

Nobody, except Dack, knows exactly what happened that Saturday night last April.

The evidence shows that, after rowing with his partner, he left his home nearby at around 8.30pm. He went to Mrs Bell’s house. DNA matching his profile was found in a number of rooms, and on the ligature around her neck.

The television taken from Mrs Bell's front home had Dack's fingerprints on it Credit: Cleveland Police

At around 10pm, Dack walked to a friend’s house nearby, holding a new boxed television he had taken from Mrs Bell’s front room, and sold it to him for £60. That television was later traced by police, and had Dack’s fingerprints on it.

A mobile phone belonging to Norma Bell was also found in Gareth Dack’s parents’ garage, on the same street.

Between 11.15pm and 5am the following morning he used Mrs Bell's landline phone to call a sex chatline three times. A voice recognition expert said there was ‘strong support’ for the fact that the voice on the call was Dack’s.

At around 1am, he returned to his friend’s home nearby, and they used cannabis and cocaine together. Dack then took his car, which had been left outside his friend’s home for several days, and drove it back to Westbourne Road, leaving it near to Mrs Bell’s home. When police looked inside three days later, there was £400 cash in the glovebox. £700 was missing from Norma Bell’s home.

Gareth Dack's footprints were found on top of the bin in Mrs Bell's yard Credit: Cleveland Police

Crime scene examiners also looked at the top of a bin in her backyard, and found footprints which matched Dack’s trainers. It had been his escape route after he set fire to the house, and left the gas hob on in an attempt to cause an explosion and hide the evidence.

Gareth Dack went back home to his partner that Sunday afternoon. Norma Bell’s foster son, his childhood friend, informed Dack’s parents that she had died, but he never responded.

He went about his business as usual, travelling to Liverpool and back with friends two days later, when police first contacted him to ask about Mrs Bell’s death.

Late that night, his phone was used to search for "Gareth Dack, Hartlepool" online.

He was arrested at his home in the early hours of 6 April, and spent the next two days in custody, refusing to answer questions, before he was charged with murder.

After a trial lasting nearly three weeks, in which he continued to deny responsibility for killing Norma Bell, Gareth Dack, now 33 years old, was found guilty of murder and arson. He showed no reaction as the verdicts were read out.

He is due to be sentenced on Thursday.

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