London

Ben Butler jailed for murdering daughter Ellie after custody battle

Ellie and Ben Butler Image copyright Met Police
Image caption Ben Butler had a conviction for shaking Ellie when she was a baby quashed

A father who murdered his six-year-old daughter just 11 months after she was returned to his care following a custody battle has been jailed.

Ben Butler, 36, inflicted catastrophic head injuries upon Ellie while looking after her at their home in Sutton, south-west London, in October 2013.

He was also found guilty of child cruelty over a shoulder injury, as was Ellie's mother Jennie Gray.

He was jailed for a minimum of 23 years. Gray was jailed for 42 months.

Gray, a graphic designer, had admitted perverting the course of justice.

The exonerated father who went on to kill

More on this story on BBC London Live

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionEllie Butler was murdered a year after being returned to her father

Following the guilty verdict at the Old Bailey, Butler shouted out: "I'll fight for the rest of my life - unbelievable," before adding: "I want to be sentenced now so I can fight in the Appeal Court."

He added: "I will fight forever to prove this wrong. My daughter was jumping in the house. I'm 100% not guilty."

Gray said: "Big mistake. Spend another 10 years proving you wrong."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionBen Butler and Jennie Gray staged a 999 call ... but Ellie had been dead for two hours

Butler was convicted in 2009 for shaking Ellie as a baby, although this was later quashed on appeal.

The couple then won a High Court judgement to have Ellie returned to their care in 2012.

Mrs Justice Hogg had sided with Butler despite objections from police, social services and Ellie's maternal grandfather, Neal Gray.

At the time, Mr Gray - who had cared for Ellie since she was a baby - had allegedly warned the judge she would have "blood on your hands".

A serious case review found Sutton Children Services felt "powerless to act" following the High Court's ruling.

It found Mrs Justice Hogg's ruling in the Family Court went much further than simply quashing Butler's previous conviction and had exonerated him, as, in her eyes, he was a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

That had the effect of telling social services to "back off" - despite social workers' concerns about returning Ellie to her parents, the review concluded.

A spokesman for the Judiciary said: "If a judge errs in law or on the facts, the remedy is to appeal."

To refer a judge's decision to an extra-judicial body would be incompatible with the principle of judicial independence."

Alex Clark, headteacher of Avenue Primary Academy in Sutton which Ellie attended for 10 months before she died, said school staff had concerns about the family and had offered the parents help which they did not accept.

He said Butler and Gray would not meet teachers to discuss why Ellie had missed periods from school.

"Generally, they were very difficult to work with. When we asked questions they sometimes became angry and defensive and on two occasions Jennie Gray made reference to her solicitor.

'Infantile and sentimentalised fantasy'

In sentencing Butler, Judge Mr Justice Wilkie told him: "You are a self-absorbed, ill-tempered, violent and domineering man who... regarded your children and your partner as trophies, having no role other than to fit in with your infantile and sentimentalised fantasy of family life with you as the patriarch whose every whim was to be responded to."

Image copyright Met Police
Image caption Ellie Butler had been living with grandparents before she was returned to Butler and Gray

Jurors were told Butler battered his daughter to death in a volcanic loss of temper.

He did not call 999 for two hours and instead called Jennie Gray back from work in the City of London.

They then concocted an elaborate plot to destroy evidence and stage the scene of an accidental fall before alerting the ambulance service.

'Grotesque charade'

The couple even involved Ellie's younger sibling by sending the child into a room on the pretext of fetching Ellie for cake, jurors were told.

The child can be heard on the 999 call saying Ellie "won't wake up".

Mr Justice Wilkie told a sobbing Gray that she may have been "exceptionally naive and stupid" to believe Butler and take part in the cover-up.

He added: "You played your full part in the grotesque charade that was the 999 call whilst subjecting your dead daughter to the indignity of pointless CPR when you knew full well she had been dead for two hours."

Image copyright Met Police

Ellie's grandmother Linda Gray died on 19 April - the first day of the murder trial - but the news was kept from Jennie Gray until sentencing at her father's request.

In a joint statement, written ahead of the trial, Ellie's grandparents said they had struggled to come to terms with the "shock and horror" of her death.

"Ellie was a very beautiful, bubbly and intelligent little girl who always had a smile on her face and even at such a young age she was nobody's fool. She was our life and she gave so much pleasure to us and our family too. How we all miss her."

Without referring directly to their daughter or Butler throughout the statement, they said: "We did not realise that some people could be so wicked."

Image copyright Met Police
Image caption Gray had admitted perverting the course of justice
Image copyright Met Police
Image caption The couple had tried to cover up the death by lying to police

The court heard harrowing evidence of a toxic family life dominated by a man described in court as "angry, overbearing and manipulative".

Butler had a "volatile temper" which could "explode at any time".

In the months leading up to Ellie's death he sent hundreds of abusive and threatening texts to Gray containing the most obscene and vile language, often directed at Ellie and a younger sibling.

Jurors heard how he frequently beat Gray up and threw her out onto the streets.

A video clip played in court also showed him swearing aggressively on a phone call in the family kitchen in front of Ellie.

Image copyright Met Police
Image caption In a home video played to jurors, Ellie is seen with a bruised eye standing in the kitchen while Butler is swearing down the phone

Malcolm McHaffie, deputy chief crown prosecutor for CPS London, said: "Ellie Butler was murdered in her home, where she should have felt safe, by her violent father who should have loved and protected her.

"We may never know exactly what happened in the last few hours of Ellie's life, but the CPS built a strong case to show that her death was the result of deliberate violence by Butler."


Timeline

  • February 2007: At six weeks old and in the sole care of her father, Ellie was found to be "suddenly soft and limp". Scans showed she had serious injuries.
  • June 2007: Ellie was placed in the care of her grandparents.
  • January 2008: The Family Court found that, on the balance of probability, Butler caused Ellie's injuries and Gray failed to protect her.
  • March 2009: Butler was convicted of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He had a history of offending and violence.
  • June 2010: His criminal conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal on the basis of new medical evidence.
  • July 2012: The Family Court overturned an order which protected Ellie from her parents. It exonerated Butler and said that any injury caused to Ellie was "purely accidental".
  • An independent social work agency was appointed to replace Sutton Council's social workers to oversee the children being returned to their parents.
  • The children were not subject to any court orders which had an effect of preventing agencies (social workers, child protection, schools etc) from having any further involvement.
  • November 2012: Ellie was returned to her parents' care.
  • October 2013: Ellie was murdered.

Related Topics

More on this story