Huddled together, John and Leigh Sabine’s five young children couldn’t understand what was happening.
Why were their mummy and daddy leaving them?
It was 1969 and the couple had dropped Jane, Steve, Susan, Martin and Lee-Ann, off at a care home in Auckland, New Zealand.
‘We’ll be back next weekend,’ they promised.
Aged just two to 11, the innocent tots believed their parents. But as weeks turned into months, John and Leigh never returned.
After John – a once respected accountant – committed fraud, the couple set up home in Australia, hundreds of kilometres away. Desperate for fame, Leigh got a job as a cabaret singer while their five brokenhearted little ones were left behind.
When friends asked Steve about his parents, he had one answer: ‘They’re dead.’
By then, his parents were in fact settled in the UK. In 1997, John and Leigh moved into an apartment block in South Wales.
To anyone who met them, they seemed like a respectable, happy couple.
Then one day, John, 67, vanished. After 37 years together, it appeared the Sabines had gone their separate ways.
‘He was abusive and a womaniser,’ Leigh told her neighbours. ‘He’s run off with someone else.’
They listened intently as she regaled tales of years of betrayal. She threw herself into tending to the communal garden and telling neighbours stories of her glamorous time overseas.
‘I was a famous singer in Australian nightclubs and worked as a supermodel,’ she’d boast.
Eccentric and talkative, Leigh was well liked.
There was one subject she wouldn’t touch on though. Her children. All she would say was that they were estranged.
One day, Leigh was on the phone to an old friend, Valerie Chalkley, who she hadn’t spoken to for two years.
‘I wondered what had happened to you and John,’ Valerie joked. ‘I would’ve thought by now that one of you would’ve killed the other!’
‘It’s funny you should say that,’ Leigh laughed. ‘I’ve killed him. I’ve battered him with a stone frog that was at the side of the bed. He was just driving me mad!’
Leigh was known for her dark sense of humour. Valerie found her dramatic confession so funny, she told her family and it even became an in-joke where they’d laugh and say, ‘watch out or I’ll frog you.’
Leigh kept up the joke too, mentioning to anyone who would listen that there was a skeleton in her apartment.
Even after she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, she kept her sense of humour. She told her neighbour Michelle James there was a medical skeleton in the shed in the communal garden.
Leigh said she’d used it when she was training to be a nurse years earlier.
‘Can you help me move it to the attic?’ she asked.
‘As long as it’s not an actual body,’ Michelle laughed.
‘You never know,’ Leigh grinned, wagging her finger.
The mystery of the body came up again when Leigh visited her hairdresser, Bernadette Adamiec.
‘People are going to talk about me after I’ve gone,’ she said. ‘I could be famous.’
‘Why’s that?’ Bernadette asked her.
‘Because of the body in the bag,’ Leigh winked.
Bernadette thought she was just having a laugh.
A few months later, in October 2015, Leigh passed away, aged 74.
Three weeks on, Michelle was helping clear out Leigh’s belongings from the shed. There she found a large package.
She thought it was probably the medical skeleton. Tied up in green string and bungee-elasticised rope, it was wrapped in 41 layers of tin foil, plastic wrap, old bags and roofing material.
Eventually, she used a knife to prise it open. But as Michelle peeled back the wrapping, she screamed.
‘It’s a dead body!’ she cried. ‘It’s a dead body!’
Her hands were covered in partially decomposed gristle. She called police and officers quickly arrived and were assaulted by the horrific stench.
DNA tests were carried out and revealed the remains belonged to a man - John Sabine. He was still wearing his pyjamas.
A post-mortem report showed he’d been bludgeoned on the head 18 years earlier. The blow to his skull left a curious outline, which matched an object sitting next to Leigh’s bed. A 1.1kilo, 14cm long ornamental frog.
Police only had one suspect in mind for the brutal murder – Leigh.
It was believed she’d stuffed John’s body under their marital bed, moving it to the communal area at her block of flats when she knew she was dying.
On the other side of the world, their son Steve, 53, was still living in NZ.
Married with two sons, he hadn’t spoken to his parents in 30 years. But then a police officer called to break the news that both his mother and father were dead.
Steve was in shock, but of course there was more…
‘We think your mother murdered him and kept it a secret for 18 years.’
It was too much to take in.
In May this year, an inquest was held into John’s death. The court heard John’s body had been wrapped in so many layers, it had been ‘mummified’.
The ornamental frog found near Leigh’s bed had a bulging eye and hind leg which precisely matched his injury. It was ruled to be the likely murder weapon.
Coroner Andrew Barkley recorded a verdict of unlawful killing.
‘Precisely what happened will never truly be known, but it is without doubt that foul play was the cause of death and consistent with being caused by the stone frog,’ he said.
Although Steve remains angry with his father for the way he abandoned his kids, he believes it was his mother who led John astray.
‘My father was actually a good, soft-hearted man,’ he said.
‘But she was a conniving b***h. She controlled him but he loved her to pieces. If anyone was going to do it, she was.’
In many ways, Leigh Sabine committed the perfect murder. She was so methodical in concealing her husband’s body, that it was only discovered after her own death. She took the secret to her grave.
Leigh might have been eccentric, but no-one ever imagined she was a killer.
This story originally appeared in that's life! Issue 28, 2016.