Child killer sentenced to minimum of 23 years
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 for a minimum of 23 years
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Ben Butler found guilty of murdering six-year-old daughter
An abusive father with a criminal past has been found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter 11 months after he convinced the high court to return her to his care.
Ben Butler was convicted on Tuesday of murdering Ellie, who was found dead in October 2013 in the family home in Sutton, south London, after suffering fatal injuries similar to those inflicted in a high-speed car accident.
Jennie Gray, the girl’s mother and Butler’s partner, was convicted of child cruelty in relation to an untreated broken shoulder their daughter suffered weeks before she died.
She had already pleaded guilty to covering up her daughter’s death and perverting the course of justice to “save the skin” of her violent and aggressive partner.
In a unanimous decision, the jurors sided with the prosecution, who said unemployed 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 mumbled angrily as the verdicts were returned. Gray said: “Big mistake, big mistake, big mistake.”
The pair, both 36, face lengthy jail sentences. Butler, who was holding a bible that Gray has brought to court every day, did not stand up when the verdicts were returned.
After the verdicts, Butler’s lawyer Di Middleton asked for sentencing at the Old Bailey to be adjourned. But Butler shouted out: “Di, I want to be sentenced now. There is no need – you can sentence me now so I can fight in the appeal court and prove this wrong. I will fight forever to prove this wrong.”
Butler’s effort to regain custody of Ellie had included an extraordinary press campaign by the former PR guru Max Clifford and was successful in spite of warnings from the child’s grandfather and the local council.
Neal Gray, 70, who had cared for Ellie since she was 10 weeks old, spent all of his £70,000 savings fighting Butler in the courts. It can be reported for the first time that he warned Mrs Justice Hogg, the high court judge who ruled on returning Ellie to her father in 2012, that she would have “blood on her hands” if she did so.
“My words have come true,” Gray said in an exclusive interview with the Guardian during the trial.
Following a high court application by the media for the release of family court judgments related to the case, it emerged that the high court judge Mrs Justice King concluded in 2014 that “Ellie died as a result of the father either hitting her on the back of the head with the leg of a child’s table, or swinging her with such violence that her head came so forcefully into contact with the table leg … and she sustained the skull fracture”.
Ellie was killed by Butler in what the prosecution described as a “truly disturbing” case. With the help of his partner, he then attempted to hide his crime. Staging an elaborate and calculated cover-up, the pair put potentially contaminated clothes in the wash and dumped Gray’s torn-up diary, which exposed the “toxic” atmosphere in the house and their abusive relationship. He took the dog for a walk, trying to appear normal and smiling at neighbours while she texted work to say she would not return to the office because she was ill.
It can now be reported for the first time that as part of their “cynical” cover-up, the couple set up a younger sibling who was in the house at the time of the murder to “discover” her body in her bedroom before calling an ambulance two hours after Ellie had been found unconscious.
Butler was jailed for 19 months for assaulting Ellie in 2007, when she was seven weeks old, 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.
Court documents and local authority assessments obtained by the Guardian reveal that the council continued to believe Butler posed a danger to his children.
But Ellie was ultimately returned following a ruling in November 2012, when the then Mrs Justice Hogg declared Butler “exonerated”, adding it was “a joy” to see such a “happy ending”. She retired six days before the murder trial started, seven months earlier than expected.
Responding to the verdicts, Neal Gray said: “Today’s verdict is fantastic news … the tragedy is that none of this will bring our beloved granddaughter Ellie back to us.”
The investigating officer, Det Insp Dave Reid, said: “Butler and Gray set about orchestrating a set of lies to blame everyone but themselves for Ellie’s murder and the events leading up to it. They lied throughout the investigation and continued making outlandish accusations against a variety of people and organisations throughout their trial at the Old Bailey. However, investigating Ellie’s murder and tragic story meant detectives gathered a huge amount of harrowing evidence that proved Butler did indeed kill Ellie and Gray helped him cover it up.
“Whilst their convictions today will bring little comfort to Ellie’s beloved grandparents with whom she lived for the majority of her short life, or to all those who loved her, I hope they will go some little way to assuring them justice has now been achieved.”
Based on pathologists’ evidence, prosecutors said Ellie was possibly thrown into a wall or to the ground by Butler, suffering multiple fractures to the head along with thoracic bleeding. Butler, then an unemployed removals man, who has a string of convictions – including assault on a former girlfriend – denied throughout the trial that he was responsible for Ellie’s 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 went downstairs to lie on the floor to recover. He summoned his on-off girlfriend home from work and she agreed not to phone 999 because, they claimed, they feared they would be blamed because of his 2007 conviction.
But over 10 weeks, jurors heard how the “toxic and dysfunctional” relationship had descended into extreme verbal, and probably physical, abuse before culminating in the brutal murder of a six-year-old girl.
The jury was shown examples from three months of abusive texts, in which Butler called Gray a “stupid useless cunt” a “fat, disg[usting] dog bitch cunt” and a “dog whore”. He told her he was “disgusted” when she got pregnant and frequently told her he “hated” her or that she was “finished”.
She would respond by telling him she loved him and would put him before everyone, including the children. In one, she said she would “rather jump off a skyscraper” than disturb his sleep. Throughout the trial and police investigation, Gray denied she was a victim of domestic violence, despite diary entries in which she prayed for a “magic spell” to make Butler love her and texts begging him not to beat her.
But in the end the jury sided with the prosecution, who accused her of being a “skilful and prolific liar” who would do or say anything to protect Butler.
A serious case review is expected to be released later on Tuesday.