‘Sinister reason my mum killed my dad’
Sally and Richard Challen, 56 and 61, were travelling from the UK to Australia, where they'd previously lived for five years, when something happened that changed the course of their lives forever.
During a stopover in Bangkok, Richard told Sally he was getting a massage. It was something he did often and Sally knew exactly what was really going on. She had once followed him to a UK "massage parlour" which ended up being a brothel of trafficked women.
"He felt entitled to cheat, repeatedly - that it was 'a man's thing'," their son David Challen, 31, tells news.com.au.
David says this pattern of behaviour from his dad - philandering, lying, gaslighting, and in addition, isolating, controlling and humiliating his wife - drove Sally Challen to the brink after 31 years of marriage.
'SHE JUST SNAPPED'
In August 2010, Sally bludgeoned her husband with a hammer more than 20 times while he ate the breakfast she'd cooked. Afterwards, she placed a note on his body: "I love you, Sally."
When handed a life sentence, David says he didn't recognise the woman portrayed. "Our mother was painted as vengeful, jealous, manipulative. It couldn't be further from the truth."
Hurt by misleading media portrayals, David's brother James, 34, declines interviews while David has decided to speak.
"We were burnt by publications like the Daily Mail," David says. "He supports what I'm doing, but privately. It's a lot of responsibility for me to speak out on behalf of my brother - but the truth must come out."
A SECOND CHANCE
David "burst into tears" when he heard his campaign for his mum's murder sentence to be reviewed was successful: The appeal date is February 27, 2019.
He hopes her murder sentence will be downgraded to manslaughter. A new story is emerging, one that differs entirely from the woman who appeared in the dock with dishevelled hair and a missing front tooth in 2011.
"She looked a state" David says. "It wasn't helpful to her case."
A phrase David returns to consistently during our conversation is that his mum "isn't a threat to society". Another repeated phrase is key to the understanding of David's story and appeal: "coercive control."
COERCIVE AND CONTROLLING BEHAVIOUR
Four years after Sally's trial, in 2015, "coercive and controlling behaviour" became a criminal offence in the UK.
It was the first time David says he had the vocabulary to describe the psychological, financial and emotional abuse his dad inflicted upon his mum: "Before there was a legal term, it was difficult to verbalise. We'd just talk about all the bad things that happened."
Australia has played a key part in the Challen's family life. Richard and Sally spent five years here, Richard's late brother emigrated here and his brother's wife, Trish, still lives here. And it was here that things really started to unravel.
Richard attended his nephew's Australian wedding and caused embarrassment: "He came without mum so he could get up to whatever he wanted - chasing younger women. It was very inappropriate."
Years later, in 2010, Sally had forgiven Richard and had their house valued for $1.84m. They planned to use the money to move back to Australia. "I'm unsure how long for," David says. "In hindsight, it was another opportunity to further isolate my mother away from her family because he knew they all had a lesser view of him." But Richard was killed before the plan came to fruition.
Even Trish, Richard's brother's widow, supports David's appeal which "speaks volumes," David says. "My aunty sent a nice, handwritten card to me and my mother saying how supportive she is. She said she's proud of what I'm doing," he says.
A LANDMARK CASE
This is the first case solely appealing on coercive control. "It's a landmark case and a landmark moment for domestic violence" David says.
A bill giving the statutory definition of domestic abuse in UK law (including non-physical abuse) is due for debate in early 2019. "We're hoping the proximity to that counts in our favour," David says.
WHEN GASLIGHTING GOES WRONG
The day of the murder, Sally had discovered another of her husband's infidelities but was told not to question him when she raised it. "She confided that he'd made her actually believe she was making it all up, questioning her sanity," David says (this is what's known as "gaslighting".)
Sally was talked down from a clifftop by a suicide prevention team for hours immediately after the incident. David remembers that day: "When she dropped me off at work, before I closed the car door, she looked right at me and said, 'You know I love you, don't you David?'
"At work I was told dad was dead and mum was at the top of Beachy Head. I waited for two hours to see if she jumped."
It was both a shock and not at all surprising to him: "It very sadly made sense, as anyone who takes more than five minutes to read her case will understand."
THE REAL VICTIM
Understanding her own abuse is taking time. Sally says she still loves and misses Richard. But David says this is what happens when someone is "gaslighted and controlled from 15 when she met my dad," and who "had a childlike understanding of her relationship".
In her first year in prison, while being bullied by other inmates, Sally undertook a Women's Institute course about psychological abuse. "She said: 'David, I can't believe it. Everything they were saying was me - the fat-shaming, the subservience, the telling me to shut up, the coercion.'"
It has been reported that Richard remarked publicly on Sally's "big arse" and "thunder thighs." When he wanted sex, she'd be sent upstairs to prepare because he hated seeing her naked, and she'd be instructed to wash because he claimed she smelled, even after a doctor assured her she didn't.
He restricted the family from watching TV to save money, which he spent on a Ferrari. He posed with topless models on that Ferrari for a Christmas card he sent out. "It was very crass and embarrassing for my mother," David says.
When Richard saw his oldest friend give Sally a peck on the cheek as he said goodbye, Sally says he took her upstairs and raped her.
Sally called the police when drunk, saying she wanted Richard out. "When she drank, she realised how horrible he was," David says. "But the police just treated her as a drunk woman having an argument.
"You can hear dad's acting, whimpering voice saying, 'You're going mad Sally, you're losing your mind.' The police never treated this as a potential cry for help from a woman being isolated. They never followed up."
DECADES OF ABUSE
She left once, and lived with David for a year, but was "manipulated to return to dad," David says. An email sent by Richard, gives financial demands and reads: "I will consider your return only on these terms … When we go out together, it means together. This talking to strangers is rude and inconsiderate. You will give up your constant interruptions when I am speaking."
"I told mum she'd be mad to sign that and from that point, she stopped confiding in me as much," David says.
David attended his dad's funeral, but has only returned to the grave once.
He realises his mother deserved jail time, but not life imprisonment. "She'd been imprisoned (by dad) since she was 15," he says. "Me and my brother believe a sentence of course needed to be served - she committed a crime. It's not right to kill someone. Dad didn't deserve to die. But in turn, she needs her abuse recognised."
He's reluctant to answer my final question - what they might like to do together if her sentence is downgraded to manslaughter (she'd likely be released imminently afterwards, having served almost eight years), in case it's a "bad omen," giving false hope that'd be "devastating if destroyed".
Perhaps she'd like to do that trip back to Australia after all, I suggest? "I'm sure she'd really like to, and see that side of (Richard's) family" David says. "I'd happily join her."
- Gary Nunn is a freelance journalist. Continue the conversation @garynunn1