Ella Dalby would have been 16 this summer. She loved Latin American and ballroom dancing. Her parents were separated, but she saw her father, Tom, every weekend, as part of a close extended family. In the early hours of 28 May 2018, in the kitchen of her Gloucester home, Ella, 11, was stabbed 24 times by Christopher Boon, 28, her stepfather.
Ella was trying to protect her mother, Laura Mortimer, 31, whom she adored. Laura was stabbed 18 times in what the judge called “wanton savagery”. Boon fled, leaving his and Laura’s two younger daughters, aged six and two, alone in the house after telling them that he had killed their mummy and sister.
On Wednesday, a joint investigation known as a domestic homicide review (DHR) and a serious case review – called when a child or vulnerable adult dies or is injured under certain circumstances – will be published, more than three years after the deaths. A DHR is intended to allow lessons to be learned and recommendations made.
Astonishingly, Wednesday’s DHR is in its 14th draft and some recommendations have already been implemented. “In the first draft, my daughter was described as an alcoholic, rubbish mum. It was awful,” said Mortimer’s mother, Hilary Stinchcombe. “Laura had her own successful wedding planning business. She was a wonderful mother. The night she died she’d been to her auntie’s pub, but that doesn’t make her a drunk. The DHR also had a number of facts wrong, so how can the right lessons be learned?”
After the deaths, Stinchcombe, Ella’s paternal grandmother Kim Clements, Ella’s aunt Jo Piontek and Sue Haile – an advocate for the charity Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, (AAFDA), which supports families after a killing – became a formidable quartet battling to establish the truth and reclaim Mortimer’s reputation. What they have achieved, supported by Nicole Jacobs, the independent chair of the DHR and now the domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales, may prove groundbreaking.
“The attitude of the DHR panel when we first turned up with our questions was, ‘What on earth are you doing here?'” Clements said. “We, the panel, are here to discuss the loved ones you have lost – but that has nothing to do with you.”
“Families are too often pushed to the back of the queue in the DHR process,” said Haile, who is completing a PhD on women’s voices in DHRs. “Families know stuff that agencies don’t,” added Frank Mullane, the AAFDA’s founder.
Now, Stinchcombe, Piontek and Clements hope that if the DHR’s recommendations are widely implemented, Ella’s death may yet save other children. Domestic abuse features in 41% of child deaths and stepchildren face a higher risk. For seven years from the age of four, Ella’s behavioural problems at school were interpreted as a conduct issue, not a signal that at home she and her mother were under duress.
The family say that the DHR’s recommendations tackle the patchy understanding of coercive control demonstrated by the police, social workers, teachers and GPs. Perpetrators of abuse use psychological, emotional, financial, sexual and physical means to isolate, intimidate and invisibly incarcerate a partner. It takes skill to detect a pervasive pattern of abuse and not an alleged sudden “loss of control”. So, for Mortimer and Ella, what clues were missed?
Within weeks of meeting Mortimer in 2010, Boon had moved into her home. Within months, she was pregnant. What the family didn’t know – and police didn’t divulge – is that earlier in 2010, Boon had been given a suspended sentence for assaulting his previous partner and her mother in front of two children.
Between 2011 and 2018, Ella’s behaviour became an issue. In school meetings, Boon was always present, while Ella’s father was excluded. The DHR calls for clarity in the recording of family relationships and the people involved in decision making.
Boon claimed Ella had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and that she told lies, and he treated her differently from his two biological children. “Ella would often say she didn’t like Chris,” said Clements. “But when I asked why, she would change the subject. Perhaps she had conflicted loyalties, not wanting to upset us or her mum.”
The family subsequently discovered that all of Mortimer’s income was going into Boon’s account. A fantasist, he was ?28,000 in debt. “He hid the back-door key and he and Laura only had one key to the front door,” said Piontek. “So she had to be home to let him in.” Mortimer often saw her GP and attended hospital with leg, stomach and back pains, but no one asked her about domestic abuse.
The family say an opportunity was lost on Boxing Day, 2014. Ella and her mother, who was in a distressed state, had run to a neighbour. Mortimer said Boon had punched her in the face, but subsequently changed her story and refused to press charges. A social worker saw Boon as a high risk. She called the school, but didn’t explain why she was making inquiries. In April, the case was closed. Mortimer could have been given more support – although she have may decided then that remaining in the relationship was safer. In 2017, according to the Femicide Census, 55% of women killed by an ex-partner were murdered in the first month of separation, 87% in the first year.
Prof Jane Monckton Smith in her book, In Control – Dangerous Relationships and How they End in Murder, has identified an eight-stage homicide timeline that begins with the abuser “love bombing” a victim, then moves on to isolation. “I thought she was writing about Boon. It was exactly what happened,” said Piontek. The DHR recommends that frontline professionals are trained by Monckton Smith.
In hundreds of DHRs, similar recommendations have been made and ignored. They include improved collaboration between agencies, risk assessment, mental health awareness and management of serial perpetrators. Sophie Naftalin, a solicitor with Bhatt Murphy, has worked on 10 DHRs. She said: “Some DHRS are excellent, but as a lawyer my job is to get to the truth. Unlike a coroner’s inquest, where the documents are available to the family, DHRs rely on agencies to self-report. Some may be upfront and truthful; others are not. Even when truthful, the significance of what might be important may not be understood. DHRs give the appearance of investigation and reflection but too often they are a thoroughly blunt tool. That needs to change.”
Last year, the Femicide Working Group, a coalition of NGOs and lawyers who support and represent bereaved families in investigations, campaigned for a central repository for all DHRs, investigations into police conduct and coroners’ findings and a national oversight mechanism to ensure recommendations are implemented. This is also one of the aims of the Observer‘s End Femicide campaign, launched with the Femicide Census. The Home Office has now provided funding for a DHR repository alongside which the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s office is developing a national oversight mechanism, which could come into operation this year. “I believe that this new mechanism can help prevent future tragedies,” said Jacobs.
Stinchcombe is a fierce defender of her granddaughters’ happiness. Both children are receiving therapy. Piontek said of one niece: “We went to the pantomime to see Snow White. She was so upset when a [prop] knife was brought out in the forest she didn’t sleep for two nights.” Boon is serving 29 years. The little girl’s constant refrain is: “I’ve got 26 more years and then we’ll never be able to leave the house again because Chris will be out.”
In January 2018, Mortimer learned that Boon had had an affair. In May, days before her death, she said she’d told him to leave the house. Ten days before the killings, her older child said at her school that her father had punched the door and hurt his hand – “It was a bit scary.”
“Why didn’t the school and social workers and police join up the dots?” said Clements. “If they had, Laura and Ella might still be here.”