‘In my sleep, he put my finger to my mobile phone to spy on my texts: Watched by millions, TV weather girl RUTH DODSWORTH bravely reveals how she was privately tormented by her coercive husband, now jailed
- It took Ruth Dodsworth almost ten years to sound alarm she was being targeted
- Jonathan Wignall was jailed after a nine-year campaign of controlling behaviour
- Ms Dodsworth said she hoped her story would support other victims of coercion
Today’s TV presenters are trained how to spot a stalker. Since the chilling murder of Jill Dando in 1999, vast support networks have been in place to help TV personalities — particularly female ones — deal with individuals who have become obsessive, persistent and downright dangerous.
Why, then, did it take weather presenter Ruth Dodsworth almost ten years to sound the alarm that she was being stalked and targeted, to the point where she felt her life was at risk?
Ruth, a familiar face for viewers of ITV Wales, answers the question herself. ‘Because when that pattern of abusive behaviour and harassment happens within a marriage, it’s much more difficult to pinpoint what is going on.
‘I certainly didn’t think of it as stalking, or even necessarily illegal.
‘It was only on that night, when I realised that if I went home he would kill me, that I accepted I had to get help. I still struggle with the idea that I was a victim of domestic abuse. I have trouble with the term. I had this idea — and yes, I’m ashamed to admit it — that this couldn’t happen to someone like me.’
It took weather presenter Ruth Dodsworth almost ten years to sound the alarm that she was being stalked and targeted
And yet here we are, with the sunniest of TV presenters (‘it’s all about the sunshine when you do my job,’ she half laughs) admitting that her marriage to Jonathan Wignall was a very dark place indeed.
While it was all smiles on screen, home life was hell. ‘At work I have my own dressing room and, towards the end, I’d go in every morning and cry for 20 minutes before putting my make-up and my smile on.
‘I never wanted to go home because Jonathan was Jekyll and Hyde and I never knew which one I would get. At home, I’d cry in the bath. Outwardly, I had a charmed life. If you saw me on Instagram with my lovely husband, beautiful kids, house, dog, you’d think — idyllic. I worked hard at making it look idyllic.’
Ruth’s ex-husband was sentenced to three years in prison this week for a campaign of abuse against her. Former nightclub owner Wignall, 54, pleaded guilty at Cardiff Crown Court to coercive behaviour and stalking. The court heard that far from rejoicing in his wife’s TV success, he was an obsessive partner who would set an alarm to check Ruth’s nightly forecasts on TV and call her dozens of times a day demanding to know where she was and who she was with.
He would turn up to her outside broadcast locations or insist that she ate her lunch in the car with him, rather than at a studio canteen. At home, he would demand access to her phone so he could check her messages and delete contacts he didn’t like.
He would insist on watching her use the toilet and shower in case she was using her phone in the bathroom and accompany her to medical appointments. He even placed a tracking device under the steering wheel of her car.
Judge Daniel Williams told Wignall he was an ‘unrepentant possessive bully’ who posed ‘high risk’ to his ex-wife and imposed an indefinite restraining order, meaning that when he is freed he will be banned from going near her.
By any standards, a dangerous man, then? ‘Not the way he sees it,’ says Ruth. ‘When the police arrested him, Jonathan said ‘harassment? How can it be harassment? She is my wife’.’
Ruth is 46, attractive, blonde and has been, at times, perhaps a little too petite. A few years ago (when she was still known at ITV as Ruth Wignall) her fans started speculating on her dramatic weight loss.
The truth, she can admit now, is that her weight plummeted to 7st and her hair started to fall out at the same time she started to fear not getting out of her marriage alive. ‘It was the physical manifestation of what he was doing to me, emotionally,’ she says. ‘There wasn’t one aspect of my life that he didn’t try to control.’
This is Ruth’s first interview about her ordeal, and while she is nervous about going public (‘because it’s humiliating and degrading to admit you, an intelligent, educated woman, are the victim of domestic abuse’), she is also relieved ‘it is over’.
She tells me that on Wednesday night, as her ex spent his first night in prison, she slept soundly ‘for the first time I can remember’. They had been living apart since October 2019, and Wignall on bail, as they awaited the court date.
‘I went to bed without obsessively locking the front door or going round checking all the windows.’
Sleep, she explains, had been an early casualty of her marriage. ‘Jonathan would only let me sleep when he wanted me to. Sometimes, he’d wake me by slapping me on the face. Once I woke to find him pressing my thumb to my phone so he could access my text messages. It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep when you live like that.’
Weather presenter Ruth Dodsworth is a familiar face for millions of viewers of ITV Wales
Her children are supporting her today, as they have throughout. Grace is 17, Jack, 15. She falters only once during our interview, when she tells me that, during one of her husband’s drunken ‘episodes’, she had to barricade herself and her children in the bathroom.
Was this the final straw, the day she finally called the police? ‘Oh no, this was quite a bit before. It happened a few times. It’s what you do. You gather everyone up.
‘You lock yourself in the bathroom to keep the monster out. On one occasion, the kids were sobbing; we all were. I remember promising them I would get us out, find a way for us to leave.’
She is racked with guilt that she did not and that her children witnessed much of the abuse. ‘Too much. They saw things no child should see. When they’re little you can keep it from them, but then the arguments get bigger, the shouting, swearing gets louder.
‘When there was more… physicality… they saw it. Jack kind of became my protector. Once, when Jonathan had wrestled me to the ground to get my phone off me, he pulled him off. Both kids started filming him during his rages.’
The danger built gradually. She says Jonathan would take delight in belittling her, ‘telling me how rubbish I was’. At home she was ‘constantly walking on eggshells’.
‘Drink was a major factor. He’d always get more aggressive when he was drunk. He thought the whole world was against him. ‘He’d be verbally abusive. I remember him calling his mother a ‘f****** c***’ on the phone. I can’t repeat what he called me. But in the next breath he’d tell me no one would ever love me like he loved me.’
Clearly, she needed to run. ‘Where to?’ she asks. ‘I am very close to my parents but my dad was diagnosed with cancer ten years ago, around the time it started to escalate. I didn’t want to worry them.’
She told no one? ‘No one, ever. At first you think ‘it will get better. He’ll get better’. Then you start making excuses for his behaviour. You adapt. The kids couldn’t have friends around. My friends stayed away — he made sure of that.
‘I think you go into a place of denial. If Jonathan had kicked off one night, he often just wouldn’t refer to it the next day. He’d act as if everything was normal. That became our normal. I lost my confidence. It’s hard to think straight.’
The abuse was physical and mental. In 2016, Ruth suffered several fractured ribs after Wignall attacked her (‘I told everyone at work I’d fallen over the dishwasher’), yet she does that thing that domestic abuse victims often do, of stressing that the physical violence could have been worse.
‘It’s not as if he ever pulled a knife on me,’ she says. ‘If he had done it would have been easier. I think the psychological abuse is harder to deal with because you blame yourself. You ask ‘what am I doing to antagonise him?’.’
Yet every day she pitched up to work. Bright smiles. ‘People want sunshine,’ she says. It was her children who finally ensured the police intervened. On October 17, 2019, they called Ruth at work and told her not to come home.
‘Things had been getting progressively worse. Jonathan was drinking more and more. They’d come home from school and he’d been drinking all day.
‘He was angry and shouting. They phoned me at work — I finished at about 7pm — and said: ‘Mum, he’s out of his mind drunk, you can’t come home, he will kill you.’
‘I stayed at a friend’s that night and knew that would be the game-changer. He wouldn’t stand for it.’
The sunniest of TV presenters admits today that her marriage to Jonathan Wignall was a very dark place indeed
Police records show Wignall tried to contact her over 150 times that night. ‘That was his pattern,’ she says. ‘I knew he wouldn’t hurt the kids. He never had.
‘I was the subject of his fury. He called, texted, FaceTimed. Next morning, I called home and he was still drinking at 7am, 8am. I had no option. I phoned the police.’ Bang went the pretence of the happy family life. Ruth can no longer look at the ‘happy’ snaps of the sort she used to put on Instagram.
‘Even on the days where we were happy I remember what happened off-camera. Everything is tainted by it. So much of that marriage was a sham.
‘I know people will say now ‘why didn’t she get out sooner?’ but I wanted my children to have a family. I didn’t want them to come from a broken home. Yet it was broken. So broken.’
A few days after her husband’s arrest, she was served with an eviction notice on her ‘lovely’ home, a home she thought they owned.
‘Then all the lies started coming out. We’d never owned the house. It was rented. My car? It wasn’t mine. He’d taken out loans in my name. He was up to his eyeballs in debt, some in my name, with credit cards I’d never signed for. He’s left me without anything — home, self-respect. Gone. Yet I know I’m lucky to have my life.’
They had met in 2001 when she was a promising journalist and he a charismatic star of the entertainment scene in Swansea. His family were well known in the area, owning nightclubs and venues, and he went on to organise music events.
‘They were wealthy. He went to private school, had fast cars, all that. It was a glamorous life, but there were issues about his father. They had fallen out when Jonathan was young, and they’d never had a chance to reconcile.
‘A lot of the problems in our marriage were about money and I think it stemmed from his family and a sense of entitlement.’
Wignall was always quick to temper. ‘But that temper was never directed at me,’ says Ruth. ‘At least not at the beginning.’
They married in 2002 and the following year Grace was born. Eighteen months later, along came Jack. Then Ruth went back to work, two days a week to begin with.
Her career blossomed, viewers loving her bubbly on-screen persona. But ten years ago the recession hit and Jonathan’s business got in trouble, changing the family dynamic.
‘I became the major breadwinner which he couldn’t handle. He’d always been jealous, possessive, but he started to fixate on whether I was having an affair. The phone-checking started and the turning up at my work.’
Harassment within a marriage can be tricky to prove. Some of Wignall’s methods of keeping tabs on his wife passed under everyone’s radar.
‘I only discovered recently that on one occasion he’d phoned up a friend with some made-up story about how I’d lost my engagement ring and could she remember where I’d been the night before? On another occasion, after I’d been out for drinks with work friends, Jonathan phoned up the pub I said we’d been to, to check.’
Some of his behaviour seemed ‘odd’ rather than scary. ‘He would take pictures of me at strange times, like when I was brushing my teeth. I’d say ‘what are you doing?’ but he thought he was entitled to, because I was his wife.
‘I was a possession to him. When the police went through his phone they found hundreds of pictures of me that I’d no idea he had taken.’
Her husband’s arrest saw Ruth file for divorce. His response was to threaten suicide. She had to wait 18 months for the case to come to trial — another ordeal.
‘I used to be a court reporter, but it was still utterly terrifying. I felt I was the one on trial. Right up until the verdict, I was thinking: ‘What if no one believes me?’ I understand why many women in my position never want to go to court. Sometimes it is easier to live with it.’
She never wanted to go public. For legal reasons, she expected to be given anonymity during the trial, but the goalposts were moved, meaning that her private life was suddenly out there. She has agonised about whether to remain silent but says: ‘Maybe I have been silent enough.’
Since Wednesday, she has been contacted by thousands of women. ‘Some are saying: ‘I am so sorry you had to go through that.’ But a surprising number have said: ‘I’ve been through something similar.’ If me speaking out will encourage one woman in an abusive relationship to seek help, then good.’
What would she say to the next woman who finds herself praying behind the bathroom door? ‘I’d say: ‘Tell someone. Get help. You have to trust in the system.’ ‘
Nevertheless, her ex could be out of prison in as little as 18 months. Will she sleep soundly then?
‘I don’t know. I am still frightened of him. I have to hope he will get help inside, even if he doesn’t accept yet that he needs help.’
Things are complicated. ‘He is still the father of my children and that is heartbreaking.’
Meanwhile, she is back at work and in a new relationship. She doesn’t want to go into details, for obvious reasons, but she says she is still learning about what a ‘normal’ relationship is.
She says, with wonder, that her new partner hasn’t once demanded to see her phone. The clouds are lifting. ‘I feel free,’ she says. ‘I’d forgotten what that felt like.’
n THE 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, freephone 0808 2000 247.
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