Mary-Ann Mitchell was just seven years old when her big sister disappeared. No more daily school pickups or shared bags of sweets enjoyed together on their walks home, these all stopped when Juanita vanished.
But alarm bells didn’t ring immediately for the family, who assumed the rebellious 18-year-old was staying away with friends and would soon return home, just like she had done countless other times.
“Juanita was a loveable rogue - we just thought she’d gone off with friends on a little jaunt. But she never came back,” recalls Mary-Ann, now 50.
It wasn’t until 19 years later that her relatives would finally learn the horrific truth about exactly what happened to the young woman and how she fell prey to Britain’s most notorious serial killing couple, Fred and Rose West.
This harrowing family tragedy, along with stories of the 11 other murdered women, forms the basis of a new ITV documentary Fred and Rose West: The Real Story. The documentary which was postponed for legal reasons just hours before it was due to air on Thursday, promised an insight into the police investigation and testimony from the people at the heart of what was to be one of the worst criminal cases in British history.
Juanita Mott was staying with a friend in the town of Newent when she suddenly went missing in April 1975. Before her remains were found, along with the eight other bodies buried in the grounds of Gloucester’s 25 Cromwell Street, her family remained in disbelief.
“You never think something like that is going to happen to you,” her sister says, the shock so many years on still palpable. Along with her other sister, Belinda, she would regularly travel down to London in anxious pursuit of their missing sibling, after several people tipped them off that she might be lodging in Barnham.
They searched relentlessly, for years. “We never gave up”, she says defiantly. Belinda would spend every last bit of her money she had down at the registry office, desperately sifting through birth and death certificates for any clues to Juanita’s whereabouts. “We went through phone books in different areas looking for J Motts.”
But, in all that time, her beloved sister was much closer to home than anyone had ever suspected. “I had a basement flat in Wellington Street, the next one to Cromwell Street,” explains Mary-Ann, so Juanita was “right behind me the whole time” buried in the grounds of what would soon to be known as the infamous ‘Gloucester House of Horrors.’
The family believe the Wests picked the 18-year-old up from a nearby bus stop as she was travelling into the city to sign on at the job centre. Along with Lynda Gough, Carol Cooper, Lucy Partington, Theresa Siegenthaler, Shirley Hubbard, Shirley Robinson and Alison Chambers, Juanita’s journey ended brutally behind the closed door of a benign looking terrace house.
Walking the same suburban routes as the sadistic pair who barbarically murdered your teenage sister, even passing the site where her remains were found years later under a newly laid cement floor, is more than most could tolerate. But for Mary-Ann, Gloucester is still her home, “I’ve got to stay here ,” she sighs.
The torment of what happened to her sister and to many of the other local girls and young women from the close-knit community is never far from her thoughts. Juanita went to school with the couples 16-year-old daughter, Heather West, whose remains were also discovered in the house. And she lived just around the corner from another of Fred and Rose West's victims, schoolgirl Mary Bastholm, who disappeared in 1968 and whose body to this day has never been found.
The pain of what happened to her sister hit her mother the hardest, who Mary-Ann says would just sit, rocking, for entire days because what else is there to do “when you find out your child has died in that way?” Until her own death in 2010, the 76-year-old lived in constant hope that it was all “a huge mistake and Juanita would turn up one day and say mum I’m here”.
The pain and sorrow permeated down into the younger generations as well. Mary-Ann’s own daughter Lauryn has been deeply affected by what has happened to her auntie, “she’s grown up with it, with the trauma of it all.”
“She [Rose] destroyed the victims lives, their families lives and the families of the families,” she says.
But, somehow, through it all have tried to remember the teenager as she was in life. “We want to keep her alive” says Mary-Ann, who still celebrates her birthday, the 1st of March, every year.
She recalls her sister often in precious “little tiny memories” which she clasps tightly to long after the documentary cameras are switched off and public intrigue has faded into the background once again.
“I have my memories of her and they’re private to me and I’m not sharing them.....that’s what I hold on to”
Fred and Rose West: The Real Story was postponed from airing "for legal reasons" on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Cara McGoogan