The Torture of Michael Gilbert
Bedfordshire's most reprehensible family of killers
I hope you’re ready for this one. This case is truly horrific, and I think the list of trigger warnings would be as long again as the post itself as there are lots of layers of abuse and Bad Things here, so please proceed with caution if there is something you would struggle to deal with reading.
Killer: James Watt, Natasha Oldfield, Nichola Roberts
Victim(s): Michael Gilbert
Dates Active: 1998 - 2009
Location: Luton, Bedfordshire
Method of murder: Torture (precise cause of death unknown)
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3.9.1982 | Michael Gilbert born 1993 | Accusations of sexual assault on sister 1995/6 | Mastectomy at age 13 1997 | Accusations of sexual assault on boy 1998 | Gilbert and Watt meet in a care home 2001 | In a single year, Watt family receives 112 | police visits 1.2002 | Police called to Gilbert wounds in Luton 6.2007 | Gilbert abducted by Watt in Cambridge 11.7.2007 | Gilbert arrested on suspcion of rape 1.2008 | Gilbert abducted from Blackburn 22.1.2009 | Michael Gilbert dies 10.5.2009 | Headless, mutilated body found in Blue Lagoon 2.2010 | Head and other body parts found 2.2010 | Murder trial begins 7.2010 | Rosie Gilbert reports police failure to IPCC
Michael Gilbert was not your typical easy-to-mourn victim.
He wasn’t innocent. In fact, he’d been in trouble with the law more than once himself before his death. His own sister accused him of sexual assault, though the investigation into that was inconclusive1, and his mother claimed he also sexually assaulted a young boy when he was only 13.
For all that, he also had a troubled start to his life. He was in and out of care, and his family - he was the third of five sibings - moved often, leading to frequent bullying at school. He had to have a mastectomy when he was 132. It couldn’t have been easy, and perhaps he acted out what was done to him - it’s not clear.
We can’t ask him, because Michael Gilbert is dead.
The horrific abuse and torture he sustained at the hands of his killers was not a short-lived incident. This wasn’t a case like that of Japan’s Junko Furuta3, who was kidnapped once and then kept until she died under a steady stream of torture. No, to see the beginnings of Michael Gilbert’s abuse, we have to go back to 1998 - a full eleven years before he died.
It’s not clear exactly when it started. Whether it began as a friendly relationship between two boys from troubled backgrounds who both needed someone to lean on. Whether it developed over time, or was there right from the beginning.
What we do know is how it ended - and that is more than enough.
In 1998, James Watt was in Brambles Children’s Home in Luton. He saw another young boy who was being bullied and manipulated, often getting tricked into doing things he didn’t want to because he was either unintelligent or not emotionally developed enough to see what was happening to him.
Maybe James Watt wanted to protect him. Maybe he thought they were kindred spirits.
But what seems more likely is that he spotted an easy mark and realised that here was someone he could use, manipulate, and take out all of his anger on - for the rest of his life.
After leaving the children’s home, Gilbert didn’t find his own new way in life. Instead, he started moving in and out of Watt’s homes in Luton, repeating a pattern which was to last until the day of his death. Relying on Watt, being accepted as part of his family, living with him - and then being tortured until it drove him away to seek refuge somewhere else.
Only to return again later under the false hope of being accepted once more and loved as a member of the Watt family.
Julian Sturdy from BBC News calls the Watts “Luton’s most notorious anti-social neighbours”4. They moved frequently and were frequently in contact with the police: by 2001, they had been visited by police officers a stunning 112 times5.
All this time, while they were terrorising each new neighbourhood, while James Watt was being arrested and convicted 14 times for 22 different offences6, while 11 years passed - all this time, Michael Gilbert was being subjected to horrific torture at the hands of his adopted ‘family’.
And his real family, too.
In the early days, he’d introduced his sister to Watt - and she apparently saw something appealing in her brother’s friend. She began a relationship with him, even moving in with all of them. She witnessed much of the early abuse, and perhaps you might think that she would have encouraged it due to the way Gilbert is recorded as having acted as a child. However, she was no perpetrator: she was another victim of the violence which eventually drove her out of the relationship and the house. Reportedly, it was after Watt heard of the sexual assault allegations that he began his campaign of terror - even inflicting the same abuse on Gilbert himself7.
Eventually, Michael Gilbert was cut off from the rest of his family. Feeling that he had nowhere else to go, he stayed with Watt - and despite multiple attempts to escape, he always returned, whether willingly or not.
The beatings and intimidation he was subjected to were enough to cow him into submission, forcing him into a cruel and vicious pattern which left him with fewer and fewer options for getting away.
Tragically, even law enforcement and social workers missed the chance to save him - and there was more than one.
If we were to take a look at an average day in the life of Michael Gilbert, it would be horrifying - but that’s what we’re going to do, because it’s important to understand the level of brutality he was subjected to.
He was frequently beaten, and forced to work as a slave for the Gilbert family, doing whatever they told him to. It wasn’t just fists he had to duck: they would swing at him with baseball bats, shoot him with air pistols, threaten him with their pet pit bulls, and even force him to goad giant pet lizards until they would attack him too.
They took his benefit money so that he had no means of supporting himself without them, then forced him to drink his own urine. They took away his clothes so that he wouldn’t be able to run, forcing him to walk around in nothing but his boxer shorts no matter the weather. They forced him to stand in boiling water and dropped him on his head on purpose. They even filmed his humiliation and pain for their own amusement.
At night, they would chain him to his bed - until later they decided he didn’t deserve a bed at all, and instead handcuffed him to Watt’s bed so he would have to sleep on the floor.
Gilbert did escape, and frequently. But when he did, he was easy to find. Watt would use his National Insurance number to call the DWP and ask where he had last claimed benefits so they could track him down. Then he would be ruthlessly punished for his absence.
In 2002, a member of Gilbert’s family called Bedfordshire police to report that he had been stabbed with a knife and shot with a pellet gun, causing obvious injuries8. A statement was taken and the police attempted to contact Gilbert for a meeting. But he didn’t show, and he didn’t answer calls - probably because he was being monitored by the Watts and warned against such actions.
It’s thought that the investigating officers didn’t believe Gilbert - they suggested he had invented the causes behind his injuries.
In June 2007, Gilbert had one of his temporary escapes, heading to Cambridge9. He and a friend were walking in public when Watt appeared and told Gilbert to get into his car - an order which he obeyed.
That friend was sure that something hadn’t been right about the exchange. He was convinced Gilbert had actually been abducted. He went to the police and there was an attempt to trace him - until he was arrested by the Bedfordshire police on suspicion of rape on the 11th July. He was later cleared via DNA sample10.
He was no longer missing, and the Cambridgeshire Police were told he had denied the abduction, so they closed their case. But in Bedfordshire, what actually happened was that Gilbert said he HAD been abducted - but that he wasn’t willing to cooperate with any investigation. Most likely because he was afraid of the consequences. This failure in communication was another missed opportunity.
In January 2008 - six years since the first report - Gilbert was standing with his girlfriend’s brother outside a job centre in Blackburn11. Watt once more drove up and abducted him, clearly having worked out that he would be there at that time to collect his benefits.
His girlfriend and his family were in contact with him after that date and knew something was up, so they once again called the police on the 1st February. Officers visited his girlfriend and took a statement as well as the contact details for Gilbert himself - but they wrote the number down incorrectly.
As a result, when they called Gilbert to get his side of the story, the man who answered responded that he was not Michael Gilbert and did not know him. Officers assumed he was trying to avoid his family and closed the case.
In the months before Gilbert’s death, his treatment was escalated to even more sadistic levels. Watt started to keep a snooker ball around so he could throw it at Gilbert, and Watt’s girlfriend - Natasha Oldfield - took to hitting him in the stomach with a hammer.
Brother Colin Watt moved out of the family home at this point, feeling that the violence had progressed to a level he could no longer stand. “It made me feel ill. I thought, I can't take no more of it, I am going," he said in his court testimony12.
Another brother, Richard, was “too scared” to leave or get help, even being warned by their mother Jennifer Smith-Dennis to “think of the outcome”. Along with Jennifer, Richard, Colin, Natasha, and Nichola (Richard’s girlfriend), the household also included Antonio Watts, the only working member of the family. All of these people, with the possible exception of Antonio, witnessed the ongoing abuse and did nothing to stop it.
Oldfield wrote a plan in her diary for a so-called gameshow, the premise of which was clearly stated on the page: “Gilbert ends up dead”. The contestants would pay a certain sum of money to assault him - such as £5 to slap him or £25 to headbutt him13.
Watt came up with a new game: he would order Gilbert to lie on the floor and then jump on him with both feet. Nichola Roberts joined in.
This was the last piece of the abuse he would be able to take.
Not long after the attack, he lost control of his bowels and also had much difficulty with walking. He did not last through the night. Sometime between the 21st and 22nd of January 2009, he died as a result of his injuries.
Two anglers were fishing at the Blue Lagoon when they noticed something unusual in the water. It looked like someone had thrown a builder’s bag into the lagoon.
But when they got a closer look, they realised it wasn’t tools in the bag. It was a human torso, wrapped in black bin bags as well as clingfilm and then placed inside the holdall. His left forearm, severed hands, and his lower legs and feet were also inside the macabre package.
When the pathologist examined the body, he found a catalogue of injuries dating back over a long period of time. He had stab wounds on his chest, his aorta had been cut, and he had internal injuries to his stomach and intestine - so much so that the pathologist wasn’t able to determine a precise cause of death. He had burns and bruising and his body still had airgun pellets embedded in it.
It wasn’t until February 2010 that his head, knees, and right forearm were found in the same lake14.
Over the course of the investigation and trial, a clear picture emerged of the day that the deadly injuries were inflicted. Watts had weighed down the body with a stone from his own patio and placed it into the boot of his car before dumping it in the lake.
Colin Watt reported that not long after, his brother Robert called him back to the family home to tell him something in person. When he arrived, they revealed the grisly truth. "Robert said: 'We killed Michael'," Colin said in court. "I just walked out crying."15
James Watt, 27, was jailed for life for murder, with a minimum term of 36. He said “cheers” to the judge as he was sent down. The judge, John Bevan, refused to give him a whole-life sentence as he believed Watt would see it as a ‘badge of honour’.
His girlfriend, Natasha Oldfield, 29, was jailed for a minimum of 18 years for murder.
Richard’s girlfriend, Nichola Roberts, 22, was jailed for a minimum of 15 years for murder.
Robert Watt, 20, was jailed for eight years for familial homicide.
Watt’s mother, Jennifer Smith-Dennis, was jailed for ten years for familial homicide.
Richard Watt, 25, pleaded guilty to familial homicide and was jailed for six years, later reduced to four years on appeal because he helped to find the body parts and offered evidence to convict the others16.
All six were also found guilty of perverting the course of justice.
Antonio Watt, James’ father, stood trial with his family, but was acquitted.
A serious case review by the Luton Safeguarding of Vulnerable Adults Board (LSVAB) in 2011 found an inadequate response from police, social workers, and medical professionals. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found that the investigation had been carried out properly by police, but that each investigation had been ‘inadvertently hindered’17.
"If Michael could have just fought back just once and defended himself years ago when it started, the violence would have ended," said Rosalie White, Michael’s mother. "Instead he would stand there and take it. It was like he was always an adolescent even when he was a grown man."18
This case is a chilling one from start to finish. But the most tragic note came during the testimony of Richard Watt, who was recalling a conversation he had had with Michael Gilbert while he was still alive.
"One day I said to him 'why are you putting up with it?' and he said to me 'I love you lot, you are my family'."19