A dog breeder who smothered his wife to death as she slept has been jailed for life after a jury ruled he had faked a suicide pact between the couple, writes Ted Davenport.

Stephen Parsons claimed that his wife Erica, a Crufts Dog Show judge, had pleaded with him to end her life because she thought she had cancer.

He told Exeter Crown Court they had agreed he would kill himself after he had rehomed their 21 pedigree English Pointer dogs, eight horses and five cats.

Parsons was found with cuts to his lower arms at the thatched farmhouse after he texted a neighbour saying “by the time you read this, we will both be dead”.

However he was found guilty of murder after the jury rejected his claims. Judge James Adkin sentenced him to life in prison where he must serve a minimum term of 13 years, less the time already served.

The jury reached their verdicts after hearing medical evidence which showed 69-year-old Erica was healthy for her age and did not have cancer.

It also showed that she had suffered three cracked ribs shortly before her death, suggesting he had knelt on her chest as he killed her, giving the lie to his claim that her death had been peaceful and dignified.

He told the jury that his wife wanted to die because had lost interest in life and become disillusioned with the dog-breeding world but computer evidence showed she had emailed the Kennel Club about renewing her membership just hours before she was killed.

Parsons was deep in debt at the time and had fobbed off bailiffs trying to repossess property by repeatedly telling them that he and his wife were both dying of cancer. He even told one debt collection agency that she had died.

He staged his own attempted suicide by cutting his arms with a knife but none of the wounds were potentially fatal. He claimed to have taken an overdose of tablets but there was no trace of them in a blood test.

He waited more than a day after killing his wife before cutting himself and had already arranged for friends to pick up the dogs at 1pm on February 11 last year. He was found semi-conscious shortly before that time.

The couple had been childhood sweethearts since they met in North Somerset when they were 15 and 16. They had a shared love of dogs and horses and Erica inherited her parents’ dog breeding business.

They moved from Mark, near Bridgwater to a farmhouse on the edge of Dartmoor in the early 2000s when housing developments encroached on their land and for many years ran a successful business. 

They sold all but 20 of their 64 acres of land as their finances became strained but their house was valued at around £1.5 million. Parsons wanted to sell up or take out equity release to pay off their debts but his wife would not agree.

They were highly regarded dog breeders and she had been a Crufts judge and Kennel Club committee member. Their Pipeaway pointers sold for up to £5,000 a time, were exported to and won dog shows all over the world, and are considered one of the best bloodlines for the pedigree.

Parsons, aged 71, of Cadditon Farm at Bondleigh, near Okehampton, denied murder but was found guilty by a jury at Exeter Crown Court.

During the trial Parsons said his wife had asked him to kill her in her sleep but had not agreed a specific time or date.

 “She had been saying how awful her life was and she could not go on and we should go together. She was not able to take pills because she could not swallow. She kept asking me and pleading with me to help her.

“When I cut my arms I thought I would bleed out with the help of the tablets I had taken. I wanted to die, the same as I do now. 

 “I promised to go with her and I let her down. I have been a failure. I did not achieve my side of it. The decision had been our decision for both of us to go together.

 “She went on and on and on. She had no will to live. She had lost the will to live. She kept on about wanting to die until I agreed we would both go.

“There is no way I want to be here without her. That was not my decision. In the end I failed her by not doing it. She is at peace and I am in hell.”

 Under cross examination, he said his wife had not agreed an exact time when he would initiate the suicide pact by killing her but believed she was drunk and in deep sleep when he did so.

Detective Superintendent James Dowler, head of the Major Crime Investigation Team at Devon and Cornwall Police, speaking after the hearing, said: "This was a sensitive and prolonged investigation. We welcome the verdict reached by the jury after hearing all the evidence and also the sentence passed by the judge today.

“Our thoughts are with Erica Parsons and all those who knew who her. Erica loved animals and was heavily involved in the care of dogs and horses throughout her life. I hope the outcome reached today provides some closure to all those who have been by her death.”