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Community shaken by tragedy-turned-horror of Arthur’s death

With boarded-up windows and a messy lawn strewn with dead sympathy flowers, there is one house that stands out on Cranmore Road in Shirley.

Vandals have targeted its prison-like front door and motorists slow to take a look as they drive down the affluent Solihull street.

It is here where six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes sustained a final, fatal injury that would end his short life.

READ MORE:Pair convicted for killing tragic Arthur Labinjo-Hughes

The terrible events that occurred behind that rusting front door have left a community stunned.

Neighbours tell how life on the middle-class avenue was turned upside down as emergency services descended and a sunny June afternoon turned to tragedy.

A year and a half later, visitors on the usually quiet street ask if the house has succumbed to a fire.

The state of the property leaves a visible reminder of the gut-wrenching abuse inflicted on a little boy who became so frail in the hours before his death he struggled to lift a blanket .

Now his tormentors, step-mum Emma Tustin, and his own dad Thomas Hughes have been convicted, of murder and manslaughter respectively, locals are demanding answers as to how something like this could happen.

‘Physical and psychological abuse’

Around 3 pm on June 16 2020, the day after non-essential shops reopened following England’s first lockdown, neighbours on Cranmore Road looked on with intrigue as an ambulance arrived at the now-shuttered house.

Paramedics found Arthur unresponsive and after fighting to get his pulse back he was rushed to Birmingham Children’s Hospital where his life slipped away in the early hours.

The six-year-old bluenose, described by teachers as a “cheeky little chap”, died with fatal brain damage following a campaign of “physical and psychological abuse” that saw him poisoned with salt and forced to stand for up to 14 hours a day.

During a long, harrowing trial, Coventry Crown Court heard in graphic detail the injuries inflicted by Arthur’s dad Thomas Hughes, 29, and girlfriend Emma Tustin, 32..

READ MORE: CCTV, texts and fake tears of a killer: The key evidence in the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes trial

As well as chemical results revealing abnormally high sodium levels, a post mortem showed 130 bruises on Arthur’s body. A CT scan highlighted bleeding on the overlayers of his brain and damage within the brain itself due to a shortage of oxygen and blood supply.

On Thursday, a jury convicted Tustin of murder, Hughes of manslaughter, and both of child cruelty offences committed during a lockdown reign of terror.

And one heartbreaking revelation – that could get lost amid desperate questions of how this happened without further intervention – is that Arthur appeared to end up at Cranmore Road through pure bad luck.

‘We are where we are’

While Hughes was still with Arthur’s paternal mum, Olivia Labonjo-Halcrow, the trio initially moved from one grandparents’ home to another.

In February 2019, after splitting from Hughes, Labinjo-Halcrow stabbed her boyfriend to death in a drunken rage, a crime for which she was later jailed.

Hughes assumed full custody of Arthur and lived in an annexe at the bottom of his mother Joanna Hughes’ garden. He later began a whirlwind romance with Tustin, a relationship described as “volatile and dysfunctional” during the trial.

And it was through little more than misfortune Arthur ended up at Tustin’s cramped Cranmore Road home where he would spend his final weeks.

According to Ms Hughes, the six-year-old and his Dad were spending the night there when the lockdown was called.

“I phoned Tom and said what had been announced,” Ms Hughes told the court as she gave evidence.

“He said ‘Arthur is in bed asleep I guess we are where we are’”.

‘Not the best neighbours’

Hughes and Tustin engaged in “systematic” cruel behaviour toward the six-year-old between the beginning of lockdown and his death three months later, the court heard.

Arthur spent hours alone forcibly standing and would be punished for “unauthorised” movement.

He was confined to a small hallway for 26 hours during a two day period while Hughes and Tustin ate ice cream in a hot tub.

Prosecutor Jonas Hankin remarked that “normal life was just a few feet away from Arthur’s lived existence”.

But according to neighbours even “normal life” at the Cranmore Road house appeared chaotic at times.

Kerry Vines, who lives on the road has spoken of how Tustin once chased Hughes with a shovel.

She said: “They used to fight with each other all the time and one time she (Tustin) chased him (Hughes) down the street with a garden spade.

“I didn’t know them, but I had seen them around a lot. They were not liked.”

Another nearby resident told BirminghamLive they heard shouting through the walls and witnessed police turning up multiple times.

“Normally the area is fine,” he said.

“It was a shock about the child but the family were not the best neighbours.

“They were always arguing amongst themselves and police were there a lot at the time.”

‘A lovely summer day’

The same neighbour told of his limited interaction with the family, apart from on one occasion when Tustin asked him to keep his cat out of her garden.

He said he didn’t hear about Arthur until officers began to make enquiries.

“It was a lovely summer day,” the neighbour explained. “We were in the back garden. My daughter lives just around the corner and they were in our lockdown bubble.

“Because it was a nice day we were in the back garden with the grandkids. We didn’t know anything until later that day when we saw the police van and then the police knocked on our door.”

He said the appalling incident had left a mark not just on the minds of neighbours but one that was visible due to the run-down state of the shuttered house.

“A lot of workmen ask if there has been a fire there,” he said.

“I think most people just want it over and done with and maybe another family move in and it all be forgotten about.

“While it’s there you still have people driving past, slowing down and pointing out the house.”

‘A shock to the community’

Others living on Cranmore Road described it as a pleasant place to live, where neighbours exchange polite greetings and most just want to get on with life.

The new owner of Cranmore Guest House, a bed and breakfast toward the end of the road, said he had moved to the area six months ago and business was good.

He said he heard about what happened to Arthur shortly after he opened his doors.

“I would say it’s quiet,” he explained. “I have never had any trouble.”

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, Thomas Hughes and Emma Tustin (top left to bottom left) and the scene at Cranmore Road, Shirley

Another close neighbour of Tustin, who said he had lived on the avenue most of his life, also described it as an uneventful place.

The neighbour said he hadn’t heard anything untoward and described the strange scene of emergency services descending.

“You would hear the kids playing in the garden and things like that but nothing major,” he said.

“When the ambulances and the police were here it was a bit of a shock.”

People talked about it at first, the neighbour said, but now residents wanted to move on.

“It was a shock to the community,” he added. “Everybody has learnt to live with it now.”

‘Things like that don’t happen here’

While it was Cranmore Road where the unspeakable cruelty towards Arthur took place, it is a case that has gripped people across Solihull with equal parts rage and upset.

In Dickens Heath , the village where Arthur attended school before lockdown, locals described their horror at the distressing details seeping out of the courtroom.

Staff at a local café said they had been following updates from the trial every day but sometimes had to stop reading because it was just too graphic.

At Dickens Heath Community Primary School, parents expressed anger and sadness, questioning how something like this could happen so close to home.

One parent who stopped to chat said she had followed the case but was surprised to hear Arthur had attended the school.

“He would have been in the year above my daughter,” she said. “They would have played together.”

She said the grim details uncovered during the trial were “absolutely terrible” and beyond her comprehension.

“I can’t believe parents could do anything like that. You have got to be f***** up in the head to hurt a child,” she added.

Another mum told how her daughter had been in the same year as Arthur and claimed the school had created a memorial wall for the deceased boy.

The 36-year-old described the situation as “really upsetting”.

“Because the trial has been in the news parents have been talking about how angry they are about the whole situation and the details that have come out about how he was abused,” she said.

The mum said she was personally dismayed by “how many people failed him” and believed parents would “absolutely” ask questions about the services that should have taken notice.

“We want to know why he was missed,” she added.

“Because it’s quite a middle-class area you think things like that don’t happen here or are brushed under the carpet. Maybe that’s what happened.”

A community group based in the north of Solihull told BirminghamLive Arthur’s case had led to a “negative impact” on how people view local services.

It said people felt “let down” by those who had not taken action sooner, leading to “devastating outcomes more and more frequently”.

While nobody we spoke to felt comfortable being named while discussing such a sensitive subject, multiple interviewees linked the case of Arthur to that of other children who have died in the borough in recent years.

Levi-Blu Cassin
Levi-Blu Cassin

These include three-year-old Kaylee-Jayde Priest from Kingshurst who was also killed last year and 22-month-old Levi-Blu Cassin, who suffered “catastrophic” internal injuries in Smith’s Wood in 2013.

A relative of Levi told BirminghamLive it was “heartbreaking” to see Arthur let down in the same way and said “no lessons had been learned”.

“I am a relative of Levi-Blu and live near where Kaylee was killed. It does bring back memories,” they said.

“I’m so sickened to keep seeing little babies die when they are under social services’ radar.”

She spoke of the impact Arthur’s death had on the community and demanded action.

“That little boy put up a fight most adults would have struggled to,” she went on.

“Our so-called system needs stripping right back to the start as it’s not fit for purpose. These babies dying after having contact with social services proves this.

“Every time a child dies they have a case review and say lessons will be learnt but lessons are not learnt as it keeps happening over and over again.”

‘Ensuring this doesn’t happen again is the best tribute we can pay to Arthur’

The end of the trial will kickstart other investigations into the circumstances surrounding Arthur’s death.

A seperate Solihull Council probe was launched in July 2020 and the borough has seen a number of serious case reviews held in the past decade.

In August a change of leadership was made at the top of its children’s services team, which one anonymous authority figure described as “not in a good way”. It will be down to this team to root out where failures may have occurred.

Max McLoughlin, a local councillor representing Shirley , spoke of the difficulty straddling his public role and that of a local resident when hearing of the tragedy.

A picture of Solihull Town Centre

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Cllr McLoughlin, who said he had lived in the area the majority of his life, chose his words carefully when he spoke to BirminghamLive, eager to avoid pre-empting any future investigations while trying to remain as transparent as possible.

“It is something no community wants to be defined by,” he said. “You want to move on from it and coming to the end of the trial process is a really important step.

“This is a very clear stage, first ensuring justice and then building and healing some of the damage that its left and doing work to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

The local representative admitted that, like many, he had forced himself to stop following the trial every day because he found it too upsetting.

As he recalled hearing about the case for the first time, he told how the community had now been scarred by two horrific events in recent years, first a vicious double murder a mile away on Northdown Road and now the killing of little Arthur.

“I can remember because I had an email from the director of children’s services at the council,” he stated emotionally.

“It didn’t register properly. I don’t know if my brain sort of disassociated some of it, almost like I wasn’t reading it right.

“I thought I was misinterpreting something and it took several readings [of the email] to try and piece it together.

“I don’t know if that’s been the same for other people but on a human level it’s really really difficult to accept the death of children.”

Looking ahead, Cllr McLoughlin said more examination was needed to pinpoint failures in the system if they do exist.

“The process hasn’t ended, you know, and I don’t know when the process will end but ensuring this doesn’t happen again is the best tribute we can pay to Arthur,” he added.

“It feels wholly inadequate but I think that’s the truth behind it. My view is you need to know if the services that are there are working or not. And if those services were working properly and this is the outcome then it’s not the right system.”

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