Adopted teen discovers real mum was brutally killed by Suffolk Strangler
For years Ellie Heil dreamed of seeing her real mum again after being put up for adoption.
She had some happy memories of her early childhood, although chaotic, before she was taken into care aged five.
Ellie asked her adoptive parents what had happened to her mother but they were reluctant to tell her.
Instead they promised that she and her two younger sisters would find out when they were older.
Eventually Ellie discovered the truth for herself when she was 13 by going online and googling her birth mother’s name – Paula Clennell.
Up popped a YouTube documentary about the hunt for Suffolk strangler Steve Wright in 2006.
At first Ellie did not understand what was going on.
But she was stunned as the programme revealed a terrible story – that her mum was the serial killer’s fifth victim.
“I will never forget that moment,” said Ellie, speaking of the trauma for the first time. “It was so hard to watch.”
She also learnt for the first time that her mother had been a prostitute, which led her to become a victim of Wright.
The documentary showed Ellie’s mum being interviewed on ITV news just days before he murdered her aged 24.
In it Paula was asked about the danger she and other sex workers in Ipswich faced while the strangler was still at large.
Paula replied that she was worried about getting into punters’ cars but would carry on doing it because she needed to earn the money.
“I couldn’t speak when I saw my mum being interviewed,” said Ellie.
“There was my mum on the screen. I remembered her voice and she even looked and sounded like me.
“It made me so angry that people were speaking to her about the danger she was in and she still wasn’t helped.
“She may have been a prostitute, and she may have done drugs but she was still a wonderful woman.”
Wright’s victims also included Ellie’s godmother Annette Nicholls, 29.
Now 19, Ellie remembers growing up in an unsettled household with her two younger sisters, 17 and 18.
She looked after them and remembers strange men coming to the house.
It was something she understood the meaning of only after seeing the documentary.
Ellie recalled: “It was a hectic childhood but my mum was so nice. She cared for us all on her own and whenever she saw us upset she would give us sweets or chocolate.”
Ellie’s happiest memory of her mother is sitting under the stairs on beanbags with Paula while munching through a packet of rainbow cereal.
It was a ritual they carried out every night as they chatted after her sisters had gone to bed.
When Paula could not look after her young children they would go and stay with her sister Alice Bradshaw.
But it was not enough to keep the family together. And when Ellie was five, she and her sisters were taken away by social services. “I remember being driven away in a car,” said Ellie. “Mum didn’t come to say goodbye because it was too painful but auntie Alice cried as we were taken away.
“We didn’t know what was going on. We just thought we were being taken home, not being adopted.
“It wasn’t mum’s fault we were taken away. She was just so young.”
They spent a year in foster care before the three sisters were adopted by a couple in their 40s, in Lowestoft, Suffolk, who both had steady jobs.
Ellie recalls happy years spent with her sisters, and going on holidays to France and Centre Parcs with her family.
But Ellie was determined to find out more about her past and asked her adoptive parents about her mother every day. “I never forgot my mum,” she said.
“I called my adoptive dad “Dad” because we always had a good relationship and I’d never had a father figure before. But I couldn’t call his wife “Mum”. I already had one.
“I would always ask my adoptive parents about her but they always shut me down, telling me, ‘You’ll know when you’re older. We can’t talk about it. Your sisters are too young.’
“I asked about her every day. It was the first thing I did each morning. Each time they didn’t tell me, I kicked off. I wasn’t the best behaved child.” Aged 13 Ellie took matters into her own hands and found the documentary online during an IT lesson at St Felix School in Reydon.
“Everyone was talking about their parents and someone asked about my mum,” recalled Ellie. “I looked up my mum’s name on YouTube and up comes this documentary.
“I watched it over and over again and it made me so angry.
“How could I not find out about any of it until I was 13, despite me asking my adoptive parents every day what had happened to her?
“It was comforting to watch her but, at the same time, crushing to know I’d never see or talk to my mum again.”
Ellie was bullied by her school friends after sharing her shocking discovery with them, and she spiralled into depression.
She eventually ran away from her adoptive home but was found a few days later, and moved into another foster home. At 16 she became pregnant with twins and had to give them up for adoption.
Ellie said: “My biggest fear has always been following the same path as my mum.
“But I couldn’t see a way out.
“Then auntie Alice messaged me and invited me to stay with her while I got back on my feet.”
Alice helped Ellie get a job in a chip shop and the pair would sit up all night and talk about Paula.
“She told me about what my mum was like when she was a kid, and about how Steven Wright smiled at her in court,” said Ellie, who now lives in Lowestoft. Although it was difficult hearing about mum, being with auntie Alice again helped me find closure in a small way.
“No one had ever been as loving and kind as Alice was to me before.
“Being with her has also made me feel closer to Mum in a way.”
But the comfort of speaking to her aunt, who she no longer lives although they are still close, has done nothing to stem her anger towards Wright, 61, who is serving life in jail.
Ellie said: “He took my mum away from me and ruined any chance of me seeing her again.
“I hope he rots in prison.”
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