Tuesday 16 June 2020 started the same as any other for six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes: in misery and in pain.
Barely able to stand, he folded away his bedding in the living room where his father and new stepmother had been making him sleep on the floor, all the while monitored by CCTV set up to catch him “misbehaving”.
For three months, his life was dictated by a cruel punishment regime enforced by Emma Tustin and Thomas Hughes.
That day would be his last alive.
Warning – this article contains distressing content.
Arthur’s short life had been difficult. He lived with his mother, Olivia Labinjo-Halcrow, after she and Hughes split not long before his second birthday. After she was arrested for killing her abusive partner in 2019, Arthur was left in the sole care of his father.
Despite the challenges, he was a happy and cheeky child who was adored by his extended family. He loved school, football and superheroes.
Not long after taking responsibility for Arthur, Hughes, 29, met Tustin on an online dating site. When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, the new couple made the decision to merge their families at Tustin’s home on Cranmore Road in Solihull, where she lived with her own children, aged four and five.
It didn’t take long for things to deteriorate for Arthur. By April, social services and police had paid a visit after referrals from his concerned grandmother, Joanne Hughes, and an anonymous tip off from Tustin’s own parents. The 32-year-old was said to have “bristled with hostility” towards Arthur.
Mrs Hughes spotted extensive bruising on her grandson’s back and he’d told her Tustin had slammed him into the stairs, calling him an “ugly, horrible brat”.
The authorities found no cause for concern.
Tustin and Hughes manipulated visitors, told them his bruises were down to play. Hughes would even call Arthur’s school and tell teachers he’d been playing out in the garden. It was a lie.
What they concealed was a campaign of violence, cruelty and abuse, designed to terrorise, debase and dehumanise the boy who depended on them.
Prosecutors noted how the day Arthur was fatally injured, there was barely an indication that he even lived at number 39 Cranmore Road, such was his isolation from the rest of the family.
He was monitored on CCTV set up around the home, cameras that would eventually capture Tustin callously trying to administer Calpol to the boy she had murdered just out of view in the hallway.
The hallway where Arthur’s heart stopped beating is where he had spent most of his time during lockdown. For up to 14 hours a day, he would stand facing the door, deprived of food, drink and affection. He would stand there alone while his father enjoyed chocolates and other treats in the kitchen with Tustin and her own children.
His treasured possessions, including a favourite blanket, teddy bear and his beloved Birmingham City football shirts, were torn up and destroyed before his eyes by an enraged Hughes as another twisted punishment.
As he grew weaker and struggled to stand, Arthur would be punished further if he tried to move or sit down in the hallway.
While alone, Arthur would often cry to himself. Tustin would record more than 200 clips of him in distress, including two particularly harrowing recordings where Arthur is heard begging in tears, “I want you to feed me, no one’s going to feed me” and crying “no one loves me”.
Tustin sent these recordings to Hughes who would respond with violent threats, encouraging his partner to harm his son. “Just end him,” one message read. “I’ll sort him out when I’m home,” said another.
Tustin complied, and by the time he died experts said the extent of Arthur’s injuries met the medical definition of child torture. His tiny body bore more than 130 bruises.
All the while, Arthur was cut off from those who loved him and could help him. Tustin and Hughes simply kept him out of view.
His maternal grandmother, Madeleine Halcrow, said Hughes had stopped her from seeing Arthur since 2019. She was not to see him again until he was fighting for his life in intensive care.
Tustin’s hairdresser Catherine Milhench, known as ‘Affy’, and her husband Tobias Jarman were among the last people to see Arthur alive. Not long after weakly putting away his bedding on 16 June, Tustin took Arthur to her appointment at Ms Milhench’s home.
The couple were struck by the state of the boy they had last seen in February. Then, he was really quite healthy looking, they told the court. Just a few months later, he was gaunt, malnourished and too weak to hold a glass of water Mr Jarman had smuggled him.
In his eyes was fear, they would say, and it soon became apparent why. Like at home, he was forced to stand in the hallway and when he failed to stand up straight, Hughes was heard bellowing at his son, threatening to put him six feet under and to rip his head off and use it as a football.
Shortly after 13:00 that day, the family was back home. Hughes took Tustin’s children to the supermarket, leaving his own son in mortal danger.
It’s thought as soon as they were alone in the house, Tustin forced him to drink a salt slurry in the upstairs bathroom. Poisoned, Arthur would have deteriorated within about 45 minutes.
Tustin bombarded Hughes with messages complaining of the child’s behaviour as his condition worsened. In a three-minute phone call, Hughes pretended they spoke about balloons for a birthday party but more likely, prosecutors suggest, he acted as he routinely did when Tustin reported Arthur’s behaviour to him: in a rage, with threats, and encouraging violence.
Minutes later, Arthur was unconscious. Tustin had inflicted a catastrophic brain injury by shaking him and repeatedly slamming his head into a hard surface.
As he died, she did nothing save take a photo and send it to Hughes. The camera in the living room captured Arthur slumped on the floor.
She carried him around the house, plotting how best to arrange him to fit her deception that she was blameless. Eventually, she would call an ambulance but it was too late, and Arthur died in hospital shortly after 01:00 the following morning.
Since that moment, Tustin has sought to deflect blame. In differing accounts, she would variously blame Arthur for his own injuries.
“Whatever has happened, it has been done by his own actions,” Tustin told jurors. Medical experts disagreed. There was no way the six-year-old boy could inflict these “unsurvivable” injuries on himself.
She presented herself as a victim. She claimed it was in fact Arthur who was the aggressor in the house, that he had treated the couple badly, causing them “daily stress”.
Tests after his death revealed something else sinister – salt poisoning had been routine for him.
He had consumed at least six-and-a-half teaspoons of salt the day he was fatally injured. Tustin and Hughes had been repeatedly lacing his food and drink with it. Severely underweight at the time of his murder, he was a hungry boy who would not eat because the food he was given was inedible.
For police investigating the case, nothing short of evil suffices to describe Tustin. Arthur’s grandmother, Mrs Halcrow, agrees. She branded the couple cold, calculating and wicked.
Hughes was described as weak by the senior investigating officer, Det Insp Laura Harrison. Far from being a loving father, he completely let down his vulnerable son. Although he was not present for the final attack on Arthur, he was found equally culpable for his death for the months of abuse he enforced himself and encouraged from Tustin.
Serious questions are now being asked of authorities which could have intervened to save Arthur. A review by social services is currently under way and the Independent Office for Police Conduct is also examining whether opportunities were missed by police.
The Child Safeguarding Partnership said it would be “inappropriate” to comment ahead of its findings, but said the “terrible tragedy has had a shocking impact on Arthur’s family and across the whole community”. Their report is likely to be published next year.
While what happened to Arthur is rare, the NSPCC has raised concerns about the risks to children during lockdown.
“We know that the Department for Education reported more serious injuries and deaths of children during the last year with a higher percentage in the first six months – so we do know that lockdown had a significant impact on children and families,” Helen Westermen, from the NSPCC, said.
She said children were “the hidden victims of this pandemic” and that the charity had seen an increase of 23% in calls from adults concerned about a child’s welfare.
Arthur’s case was “horrendous, horrific and heart-breaking,” the NSPCC said and the charity called for the serious case review to “establish the lessons that need to be learned to prevent this awful case from happening again”.
From prison, Arthur’s mother said the memory of her young son she would treasure the most was his smile. Arthur wasn’t just her only son, Labinjo-Halcrow said, but her best friend with a gentle and caring nature.
She wants the world to remember her son, not for the harrowing end to his short life, but for his superpower – his smile.