As a millionaire is found guilty of murdering his escort, how did he claim Asperger syndrome made him do it?
He was a multi-millionaire property developer with a wife and family going through a “mid-life crisis”, she was the 10,000-a-month escort he pinned his hopes for a future on.
Former burlesque dancer and stripper Georgina Symonds enjoyed the trappings of being with millionaire Peter Morgan – spa days, exclusive luxury hotel stays, a BMW and a Range Rover.
He housed her rent-free in a bungalow in the vast grounds of the castle in Llanmartin, Newport, south Wales, he owned and gave her cash-in-hand to pay the bills, as well as paying for her to have full-body liposuction.
Morgan, from a prominent and wealthy Welsh farming family, was infatuated with and hoped to build a future with the dancer he called “George”, the woman for whom he left his wife of 23 years, the mother of his two children.
Miss Symonds’ childhood best friend Nadine Tilley said: “She told me she was really happy and things were going well. She said he treated her well.”
But when Miss Symonds’ on/off boyfriend Peter Deem and her father both killed themselves within six months of one another, she turned to drink and drugs to cope.
She started to blame Morgan, of Llanellen, near Abergavenny, for Mr Deem’s suicide in November 2015, and for a meeting she then had with social services about the welfare of her daughter.
Her mother and friends watched her verbally abuse him repeatedly, and said he “just stood there and took it” whilst remaining “calm”.
Mother Deborah Symonds told the murder trial at Newport Crown Court: “She was trying to do things to upset him, to make him feel hurt but I don’t think anything could make him hurt.
“That’s what she said she was doing it for. She wanted him to have a bit of pain.”
Morgan planted a listening device in her home which he nicknamed “Isobel” – which was essentially a SIM card and microphone hidden in an adaptor he could ring in to listen through.
He said this was to monitor her drug use rather than spy on her, but he phoned the device 514 times during 10 weeks.
Then, in January 2016, he overheard the mother-of-one on the phone talking about blackmailing him to “fleece him” for everything he had.
Morgan, who had been seeing Miss Symonds for three years, knew she had sexually explicit photos and films of them having sex in his wife’s home and the marital bed, and that she had previously successfully blackmailed at least three former clients.
That night Morgan made a precise murder “to do” list on his phone, strangling Miss Symonds the next day in her home with orange baling twine.
Before leaving the scene of the murder he fed Miss Symonds’ three Jack Russells, did the washing up and put out the rubbish.
He wrapped her body up in polythene sheeting and duct tape and put it in his car boot, before hiding it in a workshop at his estranged wife’s farm in Beech Hill Farm in Usk, south Wales.
Morgan then went about his daily business, including visiting the bank and going to the building site he was developing at that time, saying he just wanted to get back to his routine.
He told police it was not until he got a phone call saying Miss Symonds had not picked up her daughter from school that he remembered he had strangled her to death.
Later that night he confessed to killing her and, while refusing legal help, gave the police a detailed account of the events leading to her death.
Despite this he pleaded not guilty to murder, pleading diminished responsibility due to having Asperger syndrome.
The unusual defence was that the syndrome – a collection of personality traits – meant Mr Morgan had diminished responsibility and had committed manslaughter rather than murder.
It was a complex argument built around the premise that Morgan saw things in such a black and white way he felt forced into a course of action someone else would not normally take.
- Asperger syndrome is a lifelong developmental disability
- It affects how people see the world and interact with others
- People with Asperger syndrome are of average or above average intelligence
- Some people with Asperger syndrome say understanding the world feels overwhelming and this can cause them considerable anxiety
- Some parents of autistic children say that other people simply think their child is naughty, while adults find that they are misunderstood
Giving evidence in the trial consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr Phillip Joseph said Asperger syndrome could provide “an explanation” for the killing.
He said: “If he suffers from the condition it is at the very least a significant contributing factor.”
Asperger syndrome is a form of autism, the difference being the person suffering from it does not have learning difficulties. They may have a very binary way of thinking, have difficulties communicating and crave routine and predictability rather than change.
Someone with Asperger syndrome may also have very particular, obsessive interests, which they are keen to tell others about.
Director of the Autism Research Centre Professor Simon Baron-Cohen told the court although there is not much research on Asperger syndrome and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in murder, there was growing awareness of how it could lead to the crime in a small number of cases.
He added: “There are an increasing number of cases that the courts are hearing about. When the alleged involved find themselves trapped in a certain way they might resort just through logic alone to the idea that they have to get rid of the person who is causing the threat. This is just an impression there is insufficient research to draw solid conclusions yet.”
Obsessed with machines
Morgan himself, who had built two successful businesses and was married with children, was said to initially find it inconceivable he could have Asperger syndrome.
But Prof Baron-Cohen, who diagnosed Morgan just before the trial, said it explained a lot of the millionaire’s actions both during and before the murder.
He pointed to the businessman’s preference to fix up machines rather than spend time with people, and his obsession with machinery and military history.
Morgan kept excavators, cranes, tanks, an old American fire engine and motorbikes at his home, where he displayed his collection of guns such as an Uzi submachine gun, an AK-47 and Mossberg sawn-off shotgun on the walls.
“His accounts of his social relationships are not that of a typical person,” said Prof Baron-Cohen. “He said he doesn’t like to bother with people much.”
Property developer Morgan had a multi-million pound property portfolio including Llancayo Windmill.
He was brought up on the 300-acre family farm near Usk, son of David and Nancy Morgan, and has a younger brother and sister.
He was driving tractors and a motorbike by the age of 10. After leaving school he began working for the family business, working for his father until the age of 34.
Morgan met his wife Helen on December 5 in 1984, driving her to a Young Farmer’s party in his Porsche 911.
Morgan told the professor he had to “sort it out” when he found out Miss Symonds’ plan to blackmail him. So he went to her house with 400 and a 1m life insurance policy with her as a beneficiary in the case of his death. But when she wasn’t grateful, he decided to threaten her.
Prof Baron-Cohen said: “Peter told me he went to the house thinking he would give her the life insurance policy and give her 400 to pay off current debts and start to get their lives back on track.
“He saw it as either A – you take the presents, or B – she would have to get out of his life. He was really hoping she would go for option A, he was giving her all this generosity – that was how he saw it – but if she didn’t come round he would have to get her out of his life.”
Morgan said: “The only way I could think of stopping her was to frighten her.”
He added: “It was a case of if I couldn’t stop her I may end up killing her, yes.”
Morgan left the 400 on the sofa arm, and, sitting down beside Miss Symonds told her she needed to put the 1m life insurance policy somewhere safe. When she didn’t respond to that, but was angry with him still, he pulled the twine out and wrapped it around her neck.
Prof Baron-Cohen said Morgan told him: “I was hoping she would back down, I didn’t want her dead, but I was backed into a corner. I didn’t want to give up to a lifetime of blackmail, it had to stop.”
Giving evidence in court Morgan was mostly unemotional and almost monotone. He described in detail how he tied loops in the baling twine he used to strangle Miss Symonds so “my hands were free”, and how he looped the twine around her neck to carry out the murder.
Many people would be upset by describing how they killed their girlfriend. For Morgan it was as if he was detailing how he had taken a train somewhere, or fixed a car.
He said when he loosened the twine to see if she would back down she instead said he “would pay” for what he was doing. So he carried on strangling her until she died.
The prosecution maintained Morgan planned the murder down to the smallest detail, and was fully in charge of and responsible for his actions that day, driven by the desire to control Miss Symonds.
Ultimately the jury agreed and Morgan was found guilty of murder.
There are few, if any, precedents for Asperger syndrome successfully being used as a defence for murder in the UK, although one expert who carried a study out in the UK’s secure hospitals including Broadmoor and Rampton in 1997, said offenders with the condition were “over-represented” in the population there, and often diagnosed after being incarcerated.
Dr Dougal Julian Hare, a member of the Wales Autism Research Centre at Cardiff University, said: “We found people who had offended because of a very very narrow special interest. So people who had followed their special interest without really realising where it would lead.
“There were people who were interested in guns but not to use, they were interested in what was the calibre, what is the velocity, what is the magazine capacity, what is the rate of fire, not realising that other people see guns as lethal weapons.
“Other people have obsessions that look political, but aren’t. So there are people who are obsessed with Nazi uniform and regalia to the extent that they have almost become one, but they are not as they are not political, instead they are consumed with collecting information about the Nazis.”
This obsessive interest usually focuses on things much more innocuous like the serial numbers on LPs, or plotting the make and location of street lamps.
Prof Baron-Cohen said: “It is almost like talking to a professor of that subject. It is a mind that likes precision. That is talent. That excellent recall and attention to detail and can lead to success in life.”
This obsessive focus was what led to Gary McKinnon hacking into CIA computer system.
He had hacked into Pentagon computers to try and find evidence of UFOs and was set to be deported to the USA to face charges. But fought this after he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
Theresa May, then Home Secretary, blocked the extradition on human rights grounds, saying there was no doubt Mr McKinnon was “seriously ill” as he had Asperger syndrome and suffered from depressive illness.
There are around 700,000 people in the UK living with autism, according to the National Autistic Society – more than 1 in 100, although not all of these have Asperger syndrome. There are no figures for this alone.
Historically it has been recognised that people with Asperger syndrome are much more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of crime.
Dr Hare said: “It is sadly quite easy to take advantage of someone with Asperger syndrome, there is a lack of worldliness and a commendable honesty. They are not very good at lying and tend to be very honest and confess to what they have done.
“Unfortunately the outcome of this case could have repercussions for those who are autistic and the way they are seen. Normally the way I would expect someone with Asperger syndrome to react to a situation like this would be for them to run the other way.”
But whatever the repercussions on a wider scale the very human tragedy of a man having a mid-life crisis desperate to regain control of the woman he feared would blackmail him, and the innocent lives ruined remains.
Miss Tilley said: “It is just so sad George is gone at such a young age. She was someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s friend.”
Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-38314421