Great Britain

Denise Welch meets survivors who were stabbed by strangers, raped in paedo rings & dragged behind car by evil foster mum

HOW do you rebuild your life after a stabbing, multiple rapes by a paedophile ring or years of horrific abuse at the hands of an evil foster mother?

That’s the question that Denise Welch is keen to address in her new series, Survivors, which airs on Crime + Investigation from April 19.

The Loose Women star meets victims of harrowing crimes, including Kayleigh White, stabbed by a drug-addled stranger at the age of 17 - and Sammy Woodhouse, the brave victim who brought down the Rotherham sex ring in 2013, after being raped from the age of 14.

Other interviewees include Christopher Spry, whose foster mother Eunice beat him with a cricket bat, forced knives and hot pokers down his throat and forced him to eat his own excrement and vomit.

At 11, Denise reveals, Christopher was tied to a Volvo by his leg and dragged around a field behind the car for an hour and Eunice, jailed in 2007, also locked him naked in a bare room, without food, for a month.

Denise, 62, says talking to the survivors for the eight part series had a profound effect on her.

“All of them moved me in their own way, because they're very different stories,” she tells the Sun.

“But they have all been through horrendous trauma and all of them share this incredible inner strength, and a sense that 'I am not going to be defined by this, I am not going to become a victim'.

“They feel that the perpetrator in all their cases tried to ruin their life and the only way to get back at that person is to say, ‘you scarred me for a time, but you will not scar me forever.’

“Inspirational is a word that is bandied around a lot but these people really are.”

Knifed in stomach by stranger at 17

A long term mental health campaigner, Denise says the show came about because of her “obsessive” love of true crime and her interest in how survivors of horrific attacks find the courage to move on.

“I’m a true crime aficionado and I’m fascinated by every aspect of it, playing amateur psychologist and working out why people do these things,” she says.

“But the focus is often on the perpetrators and I've always been interested in the people who survived violent crime.

“I wonder how they overcome such a horrendous thing.

“As a mental health advocate, I’m interested in people and what makes them tick. How people choose to not be a victim but to be a survivor.”

Kayleigh White, who appears in episode one, was walking home from a friend’s home in Yeovil, Somerset, in 2015, when she was knifed in the stomach by addict Lee Jeffries-Jones, then 31.

The 17-year-old was given a 1 per cent chance of survival and underwent 10 hours of surgery to stop the bleeding. She was in so much pain she begged the doctors to let her die.

Denise says meeting Kayleigh, who is now a mum, left a huge impression.

“Whatever you expect when you walk into a room to meet a survivor of a violent crime like that, you wouldn’t expect Kayleigh,” she says.

“She is the most gorgeous, beautiful, fun loving girl.

“Not only has she survived this brutal and unprovoked attack, mentally, but she has chosen to forgive her attacker. That was inspirational.

“I left feeling completely devastated for her but uplifted by her story and her strength.”

Tortured for three hours by violent partner

As well as telling moving and terrifying stories, the series raises issues around violent sexual attacks on women and domestic violence against both sexes.

Denise interviews Bethany Marchant, who was 24 when she was subjected to three hours of violent torture by her then-partner Stefan Carr.

Carr, who had shown no previous signs of being abusive, held a pillow over Bethany's face and forced his fist down her throat during her ordeal, which was captured on his own CCTV.

He was sentenced to 11 years at Leeds Crown court in 2019.

“Bethany’s story had a deep effect on me,” she says. “Her domestic violence case was different to others, because the red flags weren't there in the relationship.

“He wasn't a jealous type, he showered her with affection and flowers, so it was so shocking when this happened.

“But he had installed CCTV cameras inside the home that she wasn't aware of, and some of the footage is in the show.

“It's terrifying and we can’t show all of it but there are parts where you can't see Bethany but you can hear her, which are chilling.

“We know that this goes on in so many homes and domestic violence has been a huge problem during lockdown, so it’s a conversation we have to have."

Tony Hannington, who also appears in the series, was physically and mentally abused by his wife, Tracy, who punched him, hit him with wood, tools and even a hoover and held a knife to his throat.

She was jailed for two years at Canterbury Crown Court in 2019.

“It’s estimated that one in three domestic abuse survivors are male but men are conditioned, sadly, to not talk about it as much as women," says Denise.

"It’s so brave of Tony to come out and I'm sure that it will help many people.”

Mental scars last longer than physical injuries

Although Denise says she has never experienced trauma on the scale of her interviewees, she says surviving a mentally abusive relationship, as a young woman, gives her some insight into domestic abuse.

“I've been very lucky that I haven't been the victim of violent crime and/or sexual abuse,” she says.

“But being in an emotionally abusive relationship has perhaps made me more empathetic to women who have been through this.

“I fought for years to have the mental health aspect of life taken as seriously as the physical health because once those physical scars have healed, nobody looks after the mental scars.

"It's only recently begun to consider emotional abuse and coercive control to be equally as important."

Because my sons are doing well in their careers, people say ‘you must be so proud of them’ but I'm more proud of the men that I've brought up.

Denise Welch

Denise - mum to The 1975 singer Matt Healy and Emmerdale actor Louis Healy - says educating our children is the key to stopping violent crime.

“What we can do about it is what we're doing now, which is having the conversation," she says.

"We say to women who are attacked, 'you shouldn't be wearing that', or 'why were you walking down that back alley?

“People say to Bethany Marchant and Tony Hannington,‘You should have just left.’

“We should be asking, ‘Why are we creating people who commit these crimes against both women and men?’ Let's turn the spotlight on what we can do to change that.

“I don't have the answers but as a mother of sons, I brought them up to show the utmost respect to women, to love women and to be feminists.

“Because my sons are doing well in their careers, people say ‘you must be so proud of them’ but I'm more proud of the men that I've brought up.

“We all have a responsibility to keep talking and keep educating.

“So if I can help shine a light by bringing the show to the fore then I feel we can all do something about it even in small, little ways.”

Together with producer Steve Regan, Denise helped develop the series from day one and was determined she would interview the participants herself.

“I didn’t want to be a presenter of something for the sake of it, I wanted to be involved across the whole process,” she says. “I'm very proud of the stories that we've told and very proud of the survivors.”

Survivors begins on April 19, at 9pm, on Crime + Investigation

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