Ben Butler jailed for life for murdering six-year-old daughter Ellie

Girl’s grandfather demands full inquiry into why high court judge reunited her with Butler less than a year before she died

A man with a history of violence has been sentenced to life in prison after he beat his six-year-old daughter to death 11 months after she was returned to his custody by the family court.

Ben Butler was found guilty at the Old Bailey of a “brutal assault” on his daughter Ellie in October 2013 while minding her at home in south London.

Mr Justice Wilkie said he had “wickedly” involved Ellie’s younger sibling in the “fiction” of his innocence, allowing the other child to “discover” the body lying on the floor two hours after she had been murdered.

Wilkie said the “bad-tempered assault” was borne from Butler’s “evil temper” and his utter disregard for his children and the child’s mother Jennie Gray, who he also enlisted in his “cynical cover-up”.

Speaking after the trial, the child’s grandfather, Neal Gray, who brought up Ellie, said he wanted a full inquiry into what went wrong and why family court judge Mrs Justice Hogg reunited Butler with his daughter less than a year before she died.

He said that Ellie was “terrified” of Butler and did not want to live with him, yet she was not allowed to give evidence to Hogg. Gray said that he had warned Hogg she and court lawyers would have “blood on your hands” if they reunited his granddaughter with Butler. “My words have come true,” Gray said in an exclusive interview with the Guardian during the trial.

Jennie Gray was sentenced to 42 months in jail for child cruelty and for her part in the cover-up, while Butler was also handed a five-year sentence for child cruelty over a series of untreated injuries in the weeks and months before her death.

Butler told jurors he had found Ellie unconscious in her bedroom at about 12.45pm on 28 October 2013, but that he had gone into shock and needed to lie on the floor to recover. He summoned Gray, his partner, home from work and she agreed not to phone 999 because, they claimed, they feared they would be blamed because of his 2009 conviction, later overturned, for assaulting Ellie as a seven-week-old.

Over a 10-week trial, jurors heard how the couple’s “toxic and dysfunctional” relationship had descended into extreme verbal, and probably physical, abuse before culminating in the brutal murder of the six-year-old girl.

Her parents then staged an elaborate cover-up, putting potentially contaminated clothes in the wash and dumping Gray’s torn-up diary, which exposed the “toxic” atmosphere in the house and their abusive relationship. Butler took the dog for a walk, trying to appear normal and smiling at neighbours, while Gray texted her employers to say she was too ill to work.

In a unanimous decision, the jurors sided with the prosecution, who said Butler “consistently teetered on the edge of a violent loss of temper” and had killed Ellie in a fit of rage when minding her alone at home.

Butler, who is unemployed, mumbled angrily as the verdicts were returned. Gray said: “Big mistake, big mistake, big mistake.”

Butler had been jailed for 19 months in 2009 for assaulting Ellie, but the conviction was overturned in 2010 following a judge’s assessment of new scientific research on shaken baby syndrome.

In a reverse of past tragedies, such as the death of Baby P, the local authority, the London borough of Sutton, fought all the way to the high court to stop Ellie being returned to Butler and Gray despite his quashed conviction.

But Ellie was ultimately returned following a ruling in November 2012, when Mrs Justice Hogg declared Butler “exonerated” and said it was “a joy” to see such a “happy ending”. She retired six days before the murder trial began, seven months earlier than expected, and has not contributed to the serious case review that followed Ellie’s death.

Butler’s efforts to regain custody of Ellie had included a press campaign by the former PR manager Max Clifford and was successful in spite of warnings from the child’s grandfather and the local council.

Neal Gray, 70, and his wife, Linda, who had cared for Ellie since she was 10 weeks old, spent all of their £70,000 savings fighting Butler in the courts.

Ellie Butler’s grandfather Neal Gray: ‘It’s hard to accept’

The serious case review into Ellie’s death, commissioned by the local safeguarding children board, found that “despite a significant range of concerns and worrying incidents”, Hogg’s ruling, “combined with the parents’ refusal of any voluntary engagement with support services, meant no intervention that might have made a difference was possible”.

It said Hogg “went much further” than the court of appeal, which had quashed Butler’s conviction for assaulting his daughter at seven weeks old and ruled that her injuries were “purely accidental”.

“Ben Butler’s exoneration and the judge’s statement about him being a victim of a miscarriage of justice had the effect of handing all the power to the parents,” the review said. School, medical and social workers were “effectively prevented” from having a role in Ellie’s welfare.

Neal Gray said Tuesday’s verdicts were fantastic news. “The tragedy is that none of this will bring our beloved granddaughter Ellie back to us.”

His wife died on the first day of the murder trial and Neal Gray was understood to be too ill to give evidence. But a joint statement written before the trial recorded their pain at losing Ellie: “Our lives have changed so dramatically due to the impact and shock and horror of this event that we struggle every day to deal with the reality of the death of our dear granddaughter Ellie. She was our shining light.

“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.”

The couple did not directly refer to their daughter or Butler but said: “We did not realise that some people could be so wicked in life.”

Butler was also sentenced on Tuesday to five years for child cruelty in relation to a series of untreated injuries Ellie sustained in the weeks before her death, including a broken shoulder.

The judge told Gray that her dependence on Butler was so deep that she was prepared to do anything for him, including participating in the “grotesque charade” of a 999 call two hours after Ellie was murdered.

It emerged during the sentencing hearing that the family rift caused by Ellie’s death was so profound that Gray was not told of her mother’s death.

In an interview with the Guardian, her father said: “It is hard to accept that your offspring has helped cover up the murder of her own child. It’s indescribable. It’s the most heinous crime in the world.

“We’ve had no contact with the mother or the father since the incident and we do not ever want any more contact ever again,” said Gray, speaking for himself and his two other children.

“I haven’t even told them that my wife had died and that was my wife’s dying wish,” he said. “She’s not our family any more, Jennie.”

Social workers failed to respond to six phone calls from Ellie’s grandparents expressing concern about her safety and welfare after she was returned to her parents, Neal Gray said.

During Services For Children’s (S4C) assessment of Ellie after the 2012 ruling it was made clear to the social workers by both Ellie and her grandparents that the girl did not want to return to her parents.

“When they came round she used to hide under the table or behind the curtains,” Neal Gray said. “She started bed-wetting, which she had never done before, and told us she was having nightmares that they would come and take her away from us and back to her parents while she was sleeping.”

When Ellie asked her grandparents if she could speak to the judge, the independent social workers said this was not necessary.

On 28 October 2012, Ellie had a visit with her parents. When she returned she had a large bruise on her forehead. Her grandparents reported the bruise to both the GP and Ellie’s school.

On 5 May 2013, the grandparents met Ellie, her sibling and their parents at a local pub. Ellie’s face was painted but Neal Gray said he could see bruising underneath, as well as various other bruises and scratches on Ellie’s body. When he questioned Butler about it, he started shouting.

In the last 11 months of her life, Ellie’s grandparents were denied contact with her more than 20 times. On six occasions they left messages with S4C expressing concern about Ellie.

S4C declined to comment.


Lisa O'Carroll and Diane Taylor

The GuardianTramp