Grieving relatives of murdered teenager Lucy McHugh last night accused the authorities of failing to protect her from a sexual predator.
Lodger Stephen Nicholson, 25, has been found guilty of stabbing the 13-year-old to death ‘execution-style’ as he feared she would expose his sadistic abuse.
The drug-dealing care worker can now be exposed as a ‘cold and calculated paedophile’ who pursued a string of underage victims.
Police suspect he used his skills as a tattoo artist and his access to cannabis to groom other children. Family members questioned why social workers did not spot Lucy was in grave danger – despite repeated warnings being raised up to a year before her death.
Lucy McHugh (pictured) was murdered ‘execution-style’ by Stephen Nicholson as he feared she would expose his sadistic abuse
Facebook failed to reveal messages for a year
Facebook took an entire year to hand over crucial evidence to police investigating Lucy’s death, it can be revealed.
Its refusal to share messages between the teenager and killer Stephen Nicholson in the hours before her death forced officers into a torturous legal process.
After months of pleading for assistance, the tech giant finally handed over the information on the day Nicholson was due to stand trial at Winchester Crown Court.
It prompted widespread calls for reform to force social media companies to provide information more quickly during criminal investigations. Britain’s top police officer Cressida Dick said tech firms should be made to assist ‘within minutes’. Prosecutors and police yesterday said that if Facebook had supplied the information sooner, the wide-ranging investigation may have been much easier.
Hampshire Police was forced to ask the US company for assistance after Nicholson refused to hand over his password, claiming it would reveal information about his drug use. His stonewalling led to a 14-month jail sentence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act before he had even been charged with Lucy’s murder. Officers from the force were then forced to apply to the US Justice Department for access to Nicholson’s accounts.
When the information arrived on the day the trial started, it simply contained a log of contact between Nicholson and the girl, with no information about the messages, which had been deleted.
Detective Chief Inspector Dave Storey described the information as a ‘damp squib’, adding: ‘It has been frustrating. Facebook have to show they have done their duty.’
John Montague, senior prosecutor for the CPS in Wessex, said that if access had been provided earlier more details may have still been available and provided further evidence.
A Facebook spokesman said: ‘This is a tragic case and our hearts go out to the family of Lucy McHugh.
‘We agree that this legal process can be far too slow which is why we have actively lobbied for reforms to EU, US and UK laws to allow us, and others, to directly and more quickly provide information to UK law enforcement authorities.’
Southampton City Council launched an urgent serious incident review after it was revealed teachers were warned she had a ‘boyfriend’ ten years older than her.
But during the trial, jurors heard social services dropped their enquiries after Lucy’s mother insisted she was not in any danger – allegedly claiming she simply had a ‘crush’.
Lucy’s paternal grandfather Keith McHugh, 65, said the failure to investigate caused the family ‘a lot’ of concern. He said: ‘The school did their bit [by flagging the case] but social services did not do their bit.’
Nicholson, who has the word ‘freedom’ tattooed across his forehead, remained stony-faced yesterday as a jury at Winchester Crown Court convicted him of murder and three rape charges.
They also found him guilty of persuading a 14-year-old girl to have sex with him in 2012 as ‘part payment’ for a tattoo. The crime took place in the same woodland where Lucy was murdered.
Last night her father described how the murder had left him facing ‘an emptiness that will never be filled’ while her mother said she had finally achieved ‘justice for my precious daughter Lucy.’
Police immediately pointed the finger at Nicholson after Lucy’s body was found with 27 stab wounds in the woods at Southampton Sports Centre on July 26 last year.
Detectives believe Nicholson, who took a number of rudimentary steps to cover his tracks, may have tried to disguise the murder as suicide.
Having moved out of Lucy’s home days earlier, he launched the ‘controlled and repetitive’ attack to silence the teen, who incorrectly told him she was pregnant. Prosecutor William Mousley told the trial: ‘The cat was going to be let out of the bag.’
Nicholson had been offered a bed in the property by Lucy’s ‘stepfather’ Richard Elmes, 22, a childhood friend. Also living in the property was Lucy’s care worker mother Stacey White, 31, who brought up Lucy and her 12-year-old brother Dylan after the breakdown of her relationship with Andy McHugh, 37.
While at the property Nicholson sold cannabis and kept pets including tarantulas, a gecko, pythons and a 9ft boa constrictor. His abuse was detailed in distressing diary entries and letters written by Lucy that were discovered only after her death.
In one note entitled ‘abuse’, Lucy wrote that he would ‘make me…rape me anyway’ before detailing how she was forced to lock herself in the bathroom to avoid sex. Other entries described how Nicholson, who spent several of his teenage years in a youth prison for holding somebody at knifepoint, choked her during sex.
Care worker Stephen Nicholson lured schoolgirl Lucy McHugh to woodland near her home in Southampton before stabbing her almost 30 times. The killer is pictured right on CCTV, carrying a Tesco bag on the day of Lucy’s death
At the time of the abuse, the ‘vulnerable’ girl was receiving mental health care and had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
During the trial, jurors heard how social services dropped their inquiries after Lucy’s mother insisted she was safe. Emma Wright, an assistant head teacher at St Anne’s catholic all-girls school, contacted social services in June 2017.
When Lucy moved to Redbridge Community School in year eight, teachers made a further referral to social services. A schoolfriend’s mother then raised further concerns but Lucy’s mother allegedly claimed her daughter was living in a ‘fantasy land’ and simply had a ‘crush’.
Investigators eventually found a bag of Lucy’s bloodied clothing containing Nicholson’s DNA beside a stream a mile from the murder scene.
Speaking outside court, her father described how the murder had left him facing ‘an emptiness that will never be filled’. He added: ‘Nicholson stole Lucy’s life away from her and from us.
‘She will never go to prom, she will never get married, she will never have children, she will never grow old, we will never be reunited. She had her whole life ahead of her.’
Lucy’s father Andy McHugh (left) described how the murder had left him facing ‘an emptiness that will never be filled’. The victim’s mother Stacey White (right) brought up Lucy and her 12-year-old brother Dylan after the breakdown of her relationship with Mr McHugh
Mr McHugh, who split from Lucy’s mother when she was young, had not seen his daughter for several years after they had a falling out.
In a statement last night, he said: ‘Without Nicholson’s evil desire for sexual gratification and his brutal destruction of her life, we would never have had to go through this and Lucy would still be alive.
‘We still do not know how to come to terms with someone committing such cruelty and violence against our defenceless little girl.’
Lucy’s mother said: ‘I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart the support from our close family and friends during this harrowing time.
‘The dedication from Hampshire Constabulary, the specialist teams across the country and the local communities helped to get justice for my precious daughter Lucy.’
Detective Superintendent Paul Barton said: ‘I would describe Nicholson as cold and calculated, I would describe him as a paedophile. He has targeted Lucy, taken advantage of her and, when she wanted a relationship with him, he has taken the decision to silence her once and for all by brutally killing her.’
Mrs Justice May will sentence Nicholson today.