Twenty-five years ago, Simon Smith killed his three-month-old daughter – sparking an investigation into the deaths of his two other children. As he is moved to an open prison after serving decades behind bars, his ex-partner Rachel Playfair tells the story of how he murdered their baby.
On Thursday 17 November 1994, Smith was looking after three-month-old Lauren on his own for the first time.
At lunchtime, Rachel called home to check in, having returned to work as a physiotherapist. When there was no answer, she knew something was wrong.
“Then I got the call to say that Lauren had been taken to hospital with breathing difficulties, but she was actually dead at that time. When I walked into Stafford Hospital there were a lot of police around which I couldn’t understand, and they said she had died. My first words to Simon were ‘what have you done to her?’
“There was just something that didn’t ring true. How my healthy, bouncy, smiling little girl that I left that morning could suddenly be dead.”
Mrs Playfair was 22 when she met Smith in 1993, and by her own admission, she was vulnerable.
She had been admitted to St George’s Hospital in Stafford with an eating disorder, while he was being treated for depression following the death of his baby, and the pair developed a friendship.
“He was incredibly charming and seemed very sensitive,” she remembers. “My self-esteem at the time was pretty low, I had just come out of a long-term relationship and I suppose in a way he groomed me.
“He said all the right things and did all the right things and it wasn’t until after I was discharged from hospital that we formed a relationship, but during that time I became aware of his issues.”
Smith was violent and an alcoholic, said Mrs Playfair, and shortly before Christmas of that year she made the decision to end things.
But before she had the chance, the couple was involved in a car crash and a test at hospital revealed she was pregnant.
“In the space of about three hours I had gone from someone who was going to end the relationship to somebody who was absolutely stuck.”
Lauren was born on 27 August 1994. Mrs Playfair was besotted, but Smith was only “playing the part” of a doting father. And as the family returned home to Stone, in Staffordshire, it became clear things were not right.
“There were times he made it quite clear that Lauren was quite an inconvenience,” said Mrs Playfair. “There were times during the 12 weeks of her life when he was physically abusive [to me],” she said, but added there “was never a time I thought he would harm Lauren”.
Her threats to leave would be countered by threats by Smith that she would never be able to keep her daughter due to her previous eating disorder. And at the time “domestic violence was not something that was talked about”, so she “stayed put”, she said.
When Lauren was 11 weeks old, Mrs Playfair returned to work and her daughter was looked after by a childminder during the day. On a few occasions she came home and found Smith had left their daughter in her cot with the heating on high and wrapped in blankets.
“If you know anything about cot deaths, you know the risks of overheating the baby,” she said. “He knew all these risks of allowing her to get too hot.”
That same week, Smith was to look after Lauren on his own for the first time. She would not survive the day.
Her death prompted police to investigate the deaths of his other children – Eleisha in 1989 and Jamie, who died in 1993.
Smith, a trainee assistant in a care home, admitted to police he had suffocated Lauren but insisted his two other babies had suffered cot deaths. But police led an inquiry and brought expert witnesses to court, who said the infants could have been suffocated.
He was convicted of all three murders and jailed in 1996.
During her pregnancy Mrs Playfair and Smith had been in contact with social services under the “next infant scheme”, due to the previous deaths of his children.
While Lauren’s family praised the police work, they say they were failed by authorities at the time and more should have been done to prevent her death.
Mrs Playfair, who was not able to have any more children, said she believed “Lauren was here to get justice for Jamie and Eleisha”.
They felt it had been served when the judge recommended Smith’s life sentence should mean life.
However, at the time decisions on the minimum length of a life sentence were made by the home secretary.
The responsibility was handed to judges when the Criminal Justice Act was implemented in 2003 and Smith was told he would serve at least 24 years.
In October it was confirmed he had been moved to an open prison and his release on temporary licence would happen in the following weeks.
“The goalposts have been moved,” said Mrs Playfair, who now lives in Shropshire with her husband, Paul.
Her father, Patrick, has since met the minister of state for justice to discuss the case and the Parole Board decision. He said he had been encouraged by the emphasis on public protection following the meeting.
But the family said they have been told the Parole Board’s decision is unlikely to be overturned, so they will continue fighting to keep Smith in a secure prison.
“We just want somebody to say this is wrong, it’s inconceivable that a man that killed three children should be released from prison and back into the community, regardless of what protections are put in place,” said Mr Playfair.
The Ministry of Justice says public protection is its priority and offenders are returned to closed prison “at the first sign of concern”.
A further parole hearing is expected to take place in the new year and Mrs Playfair aims to attend in person and read her victim impact statement. She says she fears for her own life and that of her family if Smith is released. They would also like to see laws around the sentencing of child killers looked at in the future.
There is a “great disparity” between the fixed sentence given to convicted child killers and “the life sentence that’s left with the victims”, Mrs Playfair said.
As she reflects on the anniversary of her daughter’s death, she added: “This time of year for me is very difficult because the sight of the leaves changing, the smell of the autumn is so evocative.
“One of my last memories I have of Lauren is of Remembrance Sunday, I took her to church and I walked down this footpath and the leaves were beautiful.
“It was a bright, crisp, cold, sunny day and all the smells of autumn, and just having Lauren in her pram – it’s such a vivid picture and it doesn’t take a lot for that image, the smells, the feeling to come back. And it just catches you.
“So for us there isn’t any parole, there isn’t any release, even on temporary licence. This is our reality.”