Police 'missed chances to save murdered schoolgirl Lucy McHugh'

Police and social workers missed catalogue of chances to save murdered schoolgirl Lucy McHugh, 13, before she was raped and stabbed to death by family’s 25-year-old lodger, damning report finds

  • Police did not ‘delve deep into background of Lucy McHugh’s killer’, says report
  • Stephen Nicholson, 26, had past convictions for battery and domestic violence
  • Social workers ‘did not act on information about her involvement with Nicholson’
  • Lucy was stabbed to death 27 times by Nicholson in Southampton in July 2018
  • Paedophile was convicted of murdering Lucy and three counts of raping her

Police and social workers missed several opportunities to save tragic schoolgirl Lucy McHugh before she was raped and stabbed to death 27 times by a paedophile lodger, a damning report has said.

The investigation criticises officers for not delving deeper into the background of her murderer Stephen Nicholson when he was arrested before her death for crimes including battery and domestic violence.

The report also says social services did not act on information from 13-year-old Lucy’s school about her ‘involvement’ with Nicholson, who began having sex with her after moving into her family’s home.

Report author Moira Murray says if these processes were followed, they may have unearthed details of Nicholson’s relationship with the teenager whose body was found dumped in woodland in Southampton, Hampshire, in 2018.

The head of children’s wellbeing at Southampton City Council’s today apologised for its ‘shortcomings’ while police said they were ‘working to identify improvements’ as a result.

Last year Nicholson, now 26, was convicted of murdering Lucy and three counts of raping her when she was just 12. He was also found guilty of one count of sexual with activity with another girl, who was 14.

Police and social workers missed several opportunities to save tragic schoolgirl Lucy McHugh before she was raped and stabbed to death 27 times by a lodger, a damning report has said 


Last year Stephen Nicholson, now 26, was convicted of murdering Lucy and three counts of raping her when she was just 12. The tattoo artist was jailed for life for the brutal ‘execution’ of tragic Lucy after she threatened to reveal his abuse of her. He stabbed her 27 times

Tattoo artist Nicholson was jailed for life for the brutal ‘execution’ of tragic Lucy after she threatened to reveal his abuse of her. He stabbed her 27 times.

Nicholson had been living in Lucy’s mother’s home in Southampton as a lodger where he was exploiting the vulnerable teenager.

In her report, Ms Murray of the Southampton Safeguarding Children Partnership says Lucy’s mother Stacey White claims she was unaware of her lodger’s history of violence and if she had been ‘she would never have allowed him into her home’.

In her report she also criticised the council’s Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub for not taking steps after information reported by the school. She described the failing as a ‘missed opportunity’.

The service, which ‘protects the most vulnerable children from harm, neglect and abuse’, say that upon receipt of a referral ‘the needs will be identified, and the child or family will be referred or signposted to the relevant contact or information’.

However, the report says this did not happen, and Redbridge Community School’s concerns, which were raised by teachers, did not pass the first stages of the referral.

It was also revealed that the city council’s Children’s Social Care team was aware of Nicholson’s convictions, but this information was neither acted on, nor shared.

Speaking about the report, Hampshire Police’s Supt Kelly Whiting, district commander for Southampton, said the force was ‘identifying improvements following this tragic death’.

Lucy’s murder sparked ‘one of the biggest searches in criminal history’ with 200 officers poring over more than 15,000 hours of CCTV 

The inquiry into Lucy’s death became one of the largest murder inquiries that Hampshire Police has seen over the years. 

Some 200 officers were working at the height of the investigation, alongside a search team using additional resources from other police forces.

Additional investigators were also brought in from other police forces.

Detectives pored over more than 15,000 hours of CCTV footage to try to identify Lucy, also Nicholson and any other witnesses.

The evidence collected against Nicholson was gained from ‘one of the biggest searches in criminal history’. 

He added: ‘The training of officers reflects the need to understand the complex impact of adverse childhood experiences. As part of this, we are already developing a trauma informed approach to dealing with all incidents involving children.

‘We will continue to work with our safeguarding partners to further improve the way we protect vulnerable children.’

The report states that ‘as a result of this review a number of partner agencies who have been involved in the process have changed procedures to enhance the way in which children are safeguarded’, indicating changes are already being made.

Responding to the report, the city council’s executive director of children’s wellbeing, Rob Henderson, said the authority ‘remains deeply saddened by this tragic case’.

He added: ‘On behalf of the council I would like to apologise to the victim’s family, friends, and all who knew her, for the council’s shortcomings identified in the report.

‘We accept the findings and its recommendations. We have already made changes in a number of the areas highlighted.

‘Independent reviews of the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) and the Public Law Outline process have already taken place and their recommendations have been implemented.

‘We are determined to keep improving, with the new senior leadership team overseeing the delivery of a comprehensive Improvement Plan for our Children and Learning service.

‘Although progress is being made, we accept that there is still more to be done and we will continue to work hard to address the areas of improvement highlighted in the Learning Report. 

‘The murder of this young person has been a tragedy for our city.’

He added that it was ‘important that the recommendations set out in the report are heeded’ and ‘lessons are learned’ for all the organisations involved.

Southampton Test MP Alan Whitehead today said: ‘The murder of this young person has been a tragedy for our city.

‘It’s important that the recommendations set out in the report are heeded and lessons are learned for all the organisations involved.’

MP Royston Smith added: ‘This was an incredibly tragic case which shocked all of Southampton. The report makes for concerning reading and appears to suggest not enough was done to protect this child.

‘We need to know that the recommendations go far enough to ensure that incidents like this do not happen again. This is a terrible loss of a young life and we need to have confidence that things will improve.’

Before abusing Lucy, Nicholson was sentenced to a total of three years behind bars as a teenager for two separate incidents which illustrated his alarming early obsession with knives.

CCTV footage issued by Hampshire Constabulary from July 25, 2018 of Lucy McHugh

Aged 15, he took amphetamines and armed himself with knives before holding staff and residents at a children’s home hostage.

He then stole £1,000 while holding a blade to a female resident’s throat and made off in a staff member’s car, before being caught by police.

While serving two years in a youth detention centre for that incident, he and two fellow inmates barricaded themselves in a canteen before he again armed himself with a knife and tried to stab a prison guard.

During his trial, it was heard he lured Lucy to secluded woodland on July 25, 2018 before launching his vicious attack on her, inflicting 27 knife wounds, including three ‘very dangerous’ cuts to the carotid artery in her neck.

He then fled the scene at Southampton sports centre, with her body found by a dog walker almost 24 hours later.

In the hours after the killing, Nicholson dumped the clothes he was wearing, described as his ‘murder kit’, in a small stream, burned his trainers on a bonfire, claiming he had split them, and changed his mobile phone.

He also confessed to deleting messages from his phone, which prosecutors said included correspondence with Lucy, but told police he had done it because he was hiding evidence of drug dealing.

Jailing him for life at Winchester Crown Court, Hampshire, High Court judge Mrs Justice May questioned just how thorough social services investigations were into the Lucy’s tragic death. 

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