Ella Dalby would have been 16 this summer. She loved Latin American dancing 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 May 28, 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 “gratuitous savagery”. Boon fled, leaving his and Laura’s two youngest daughters, aged six and two, alone in the house after telling them he had killed their mum and sister.
On Wednesday, a joint investigation known as the Domestic Homicide Review (DHR) and the Major Case Review – called when a child or vulnerable adult dies or is injured under certain circumstances – will be released, more than three years after the deaths. A DHR is intended to allow lessons to be learned and recommendations to be made.
Surprisingly, 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, moronic mother. 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 had gone to her aunt’s pub, but that doesn’t make her a drunk. DHR also had a number of facts wrong, so how do we learn the right lessons?”
Following the deaths, Stinchcombe, Ella’s paternal grandmother, Kim Clements, Ella’s aunt Jo Piontek and Sue Haile – a lawyer with the charity Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse (AAFDA), which supports families after murder – have become a formidable quartet fighting to establish the truth and reclaim Mortimer’s reputation. What they have achieved, backed by Nicole Jacobs, Independent Chair of DHR and now Domestic Violence Commissioner for England and Wales, could prove groundbreaking.
“The attitude of the DHR panel when we first came in with our questions was, ‘What are you doing here? “, Clements said. “We, the panel, are here to discuss the loved ones you have lost – but it 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 doctorate on women’s voices in DHR. “Families know things that agencies don’t,” added Frank Mullane, AAFDA’s founder.
Now, Stinchcombe, Piontek and Clements hope that if DHR’s recommendations are widely implemented, Ella’s death can still save other children. Domestic violence is present in 41% of child deaths and stepchildren are at higher risk. For seven years, starting at age four, Ella’s behavioral problems at school were interpreted as a conduct problem, not a sign that at home she and her mother were under duress.
The family says the DHR recommendations address the uneven understanding of coercive control demonstrated by police, social workers, teachers and GPs. Abusers use psychological, emotional, financial, sexual, and physical means to invisibly isolate, intimidate, and incarcerate a partner. It takes skill to detect a generalized pattern of abuse and not a so-called “sudden loss of control”. So for Mortimer and Ella, what clues were missed?
A few weeks after meeting Mortimer in 2010, Boon had moved in with her. Within months, she was pregnant. What the family didn’t know — and police haven’t disclosed — is that earlier in 2010, Boon received a suspended sentence for assaulting his former partner and mother in front of two children.
Between 2011 and 2018, Ella’s behavior became an issue. In school meetings, Boon was always present, while Ella’s father was excluded. DHR calls for clarity in recording family relationships and who is involved in decision-making.
Boon claimed that Ella had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and lied, and that he treated her differently than his two biological children. “Ella often said she didn’t like Chris,” Clements said. “But when I asked why, she changed the subject. Maybe she had conflicting loyalties, not wanting to upset us or her mother.
The family later discovered that all of Mortimer’s earnings went to Boon’s account. Fantasy, he had a debt of £28,000. “He hid the key to the back door and he and Laura only had one key to the front door,” Piontek said. “So she had to be home to let him in.” Mortimer saw her GP often and went to hospital with pain in her legs, stomach and back, but no one asked her about domestic abuse.
The family say an opportunity was lost on Boxing Day 2014 when Ella and her distressed mother fled to a neighbour’s house. Mortimer said Boon punched her in the face, but later changed her story and declined to press charges. A social worker considered Boon a high risk. She called the school, but did not explain why she was inquiring. In April, the case was dismissed. Mortimer could have had more support – although she may have decided then that staying in the relationship was safer. In 2017, according to the Femicide Census, 55% of women killed by an ex-partner were murdered within the first month of separation, 87% within the first year.
Prof Jane Monckton Smith in her book, In Control – Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder, identified an eight-stage homicide timeline that begins with the perpetrator “love bombing” a victim, then moves into solitary confinement. “I thought she was writing about Boon. That’s exactly what happened,” Piontek said. DHR recommends that frontline professionals be trained by Monckton Smith.
In hundreds of DHRs, similar recommendations have been made and ignored. They include better collaboration between agencies, risk assessment, mental health awareness, and management of serial perpetrators. Sophie Naftalin, a lawyer at Bhatt Murphy, has worked on 10 DHRs. She said: ‘Some DHRS are great, but as a lawyer my job is to find out the truth. Unlike the coroner’s inquest, where the documents are available to the family, DHRs rely on agencies to come forward. Some may be frank and truthful; others are not. Even when true, the meaning of what might be important may not be understood. DHRs give the appearance of investigation and reflection, but too often they are a completely blunt tool. This must 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 DHR, police conduct investigations and findings of coroners and a national oversight mechanism to ensure recommendations are implemented. . It is also one of the objectives of the Observerof the End Femicide campaign, launched with the Femicide Census. The Home Office has now funded a DHR repository alongside which the Office of the Domestic Violence Commissioner is developing a national oversight mechanism, which could come into effect this year. “I believe this new mechanism can help prevent future tragedies,” Jacobs said.
Stinchcombe is a strong advocate for her granddaughters’ happiness. Both children are in therapy. Piontek said of a niece: “We went to the pantomime to see White as snow. She was so upset when a [prop] knife was taken out in the forest, she did not sleep for two nights. Boon is serving 29 years. The little girl’s constant refrain is, “I’m 26 years older and then we can never leave the house again because Chris will be away.”
In January 2018, Mortimer learned that Boon had been having an affair. In May, days before her death, she said she told him to leave the house. Ten days before the murders, his eldest child told his school that his father had knocked on the door and injured his hand – “It was a little scary.”
“Why didn’t the school, social workers and police make the connection?” said Clement. “If they had, Laura and Ella might still be here.”