Care worker Stephen Nicholson has been found guilty of raping and murdering schoolgirl Lucy McHugh after she told him she was pregnant with his child.
The 25-year-old repeatedly raped the schoolgirl, with whom he’d had a secret year-long relationship, before stabbing her to death.
The trial heard how Nicholson had “an interest in under-age sex” and exploited the “vulnerable” 13-year-old, who was found with stab wounds to her neck and upper body near Southampton Sports Centre last summer.
Lucy was exploited by Nicholson, a court heard
She had been slashed with a knife 27 times and died from “catastrophic bleeding” two miles from her home, with a blood-stained hoodie containing DNA from both Lucy and Nicholson found near her body.
Twenty stab wounds and seven slice wounds were identified across her face, upper chest and forearms, caused by a single-bladed knife.
Nicholson had been a lodger at the home of Lucy, her mother Stacey White and stepfather Richard Elmes, who was his best friend, but he denied he had been in a sexual relationship with the girl.
He told Winchester Crown Court that she was “stalkerish” and that he pushed her away because she followed him around, adding: “We didn’t get along… at the same time, I do not feel any child should be killed.”
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Prosecutor William Mousley QC read a letter from Lucy found on 26 July last year, the day after she died, which was addressed to Nicholson.
It said: “I have missed my period for almost two months. To be honest I think I am pregnant.”
Nicholson, of no fixed address, was asked whether she was killed for asking for money and threatening to tell her mother she was pregnant, to which he replied he was “not interested”.
He later said: “I have never slept with anyone underage so I know I am not a paedophile.”
Nicholson denied all charges against him
Lucy was said to have kept a diary which detailed her relationship with Nicholson, dating back to May 2017, which described how the two would make arrangements for sexual encounters.
One note said: “He grabbed my neck tightly and it sort of hurt this time and I told him and he said good.”
Nicholson admitted he “soft-choked” women, which involved squeezing their neck, during sex, but when asked if the diary entry sounded like “the sort of thing you have done with other females”, he said: “That sounds like assault.”
He added: “I have never had a sexual relationship with Lucy.”
But one of her friends told the court Lucy – who had been diagnosed with ADHD and referred to child mental health services – loved Nicholson and he had taken her virginity.
The girl said she told her mother, who contacted Ms White, who then rejected the claims as “fantasies” and said social services had already looked into the allegations.
She added that Nicholson became possessive due to another boyfriend Lucy had, and that she urged Lucy to leave the house and live with her grandparents.
Mr Mousley said Nicholson claimed the diaries and allegations were the “fantasies of a 12/13-year-old girl”.
CCTV shows Lucy the day before her body was discovered
The carer and tattoo artist was staying with his mother at the time of the murder, but visited the home where Lucy lived on 23 July to feed his pet reptiles that he kept there and ended up in an argument with her.
Lucy was alleged to have been heard shouting at Nicholson.
She told him “this is all your fault” and “I have got a hold on you anyway”.
As well as being found guilty of murder, Nicholson was convicted of three counts of rape against Lucy when she was 12, but was acquitted of a charge of sexual activity with a child when Lucy was 13.
He was also found guilty of sexual activity with a child in relation to a 14-year-old girl in 2012.
The victim on that occasion, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told the court Nicholson led her to have sex in the same woodland where the body of Lucy was found.
They made contact about Nicholson giving her and a friend a tattoo, but the court heard how they became “flirtatious” and he asked her to meet up for sex.
When asked why she had met a stranger for sex, she said: “I was 14, I was stupid.”
Lucy was last seen on 25 July 2018
Father-of-one Nicholson – branded by police as a “predatory paedophile” – showed no emotion as he was convicted of the murder and rape charges against Lucy.
Detective Superintendent Paul Barton, of Hampshire Police, said: “I would describe him as cold and calculated, I would describe him as a paedophile and I think he is someone who only thinks about himself and has taken full advantage of this family that have looked after him, provided a roof over his head.
“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.”
A horse-drawn hearse carrying the coffin of Lucy after her funeral at Hollybrook cemetery in Shirley, Southampton
:: Killer’s messages were lost due to delay accessing Facebook account
Nicholson was originally arrested in connection with the death of Lucy last August, with police having issued appeals including photos and CCTV footage in the hope of finding the missing girl.
He was later jailed for refusing to give his Facebook password to police, which a judge told him had “caused a very significant delay” to the investigation into Lucy’s death.
Facebook itself was also criticised by prosecutors, who said delays in detectives being given access to Nicholson’s account because of rules set by the social network meant messages between the killer and Lucy were lost.
It has prompted calls for reform from politicians and by Britain’s most senior police officer.
Facebook messages sent to Lucy by Nicholson were lost
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said officers are forced to go through a “very protracted procedure”, and added: “I absolutely think that in certain instances, and it sounds to me like this is one, law enforcement in the UK ought to be able to have vital evidence which might bring somebody to justice.”
A Facebook spokeswoman said: “This is a tragic case and our hearts go out to the family of Lucy McHugh.
“We have worked closely with Hampshire Police throughout this case and have provided information they requested through the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLAT).
“This is one of the legal mechanisms for the police to obtain information in certain circumstances. 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.”
Concerns were raised about Lucy by teachers at two schools she attended
:: Review under way into how abuse claims were handled
A review is now under way into how claims of abuse against Lucy were handled by social services in the months before she was murdered.
Concerns about the schoolgirl had come to the attention of teachers at two schools after she told friends that she was pregnant and had been having a sexual relationship with Nicholson.
Emma Wright, safeguarding lead at St Anne’s Catholic School in Southampton, told the court that year seven pupil Lucy was brought to her for using her phone to Snapchat with her “boyfriend”, Nicholson, during class in June 2017.
She arranged for a meeting with Ms White, who did not turn up.
Lucy's mum Stacey White said last year she was determined to keep her daughter's memory alive
Nicola Franklin-Allen, a teacher at Redbridge Community School, where Lucy moved in September 2017, said that the issue of Lucy having a relationship with Nicholson was also raised with her.
She said Ms White told her that Lucy was not left alone with Nicholson and she had a habit of making up stories.
She added that social services told her the matter had already been investigated and was not of any concern.
The trial heard that Southampton City Council’s multi-agency safeguarding hub decided to take “no further action” after talking to Ms White, who had become “very, very unhappy” at the involvement of social services.
A council spokeswoman declined to comment and said: “Once the trial is completed, the tragic death of Lucy McHugh will be subject to a serious case review.”
Ms White has described her daughter as an “angel – who everyone adored and cherished”, while Mr Elmes – who had known Nicholson since he was six – said she was a “lovely, bubbly, bright, intelligent girl”.