Last summer, I filed a story a story about a 12-year-old girl from London who'd failed to return home one Friday afternoon. People of all ages go missing in London all the time, so – although obviously sad – it was nothing that remarkable – yet. In the days that followed, the story of Tia Sharp's disappearance became the country's most reported upon news story. And last week, Stuart Hazell – Tia's step-grandfather – was sentenced to a minimum of 38 years in prison for her murder.
Hazell shocked the packed courtroom at the Old Bailey on Monday when he changed his plea to guilty mid-trial. He refused to explain how or why he'd killed the girl and, in doing so, denied Tia's grieving family the chance to ever know what really happened in that house in Croydon's The Lindens estate. What we do know is that, by the time Hazell had fabricated the story of her disappearance, he had already killed her and her body had been hidden in the loft of the house he shared with her grandmother, Christine Bicknell.
New Addington – where Hazell and his partner lived – was described in the media as a "benighted ghetto" in the worst part of Croydon, full of undesirable people. I guess it's easier to rationalise the murder of a child if it's us and them – "them" being a uniform mass of miscreants who apparently spend their days building trophy cases for their ASBOs, breeding attack dogs and killing children.
However, the people of New Addington proved the media wrong the weekend that Tia disappeared, volunteering their time and banding together to search for the missing girl. Unfortunately, neither the search party nor CCTV turned up any sightings of Tia, though her face was everywhere – missing posters plastered over lampposts and trams, flyers littering public transport and pictures stuck to the bus stop closest to Tia's house, where girls Tia's age held a vigil for her safe return.
Stuart Hazell next to a missing poster for Tia Sharp.
Despite the fact the Olympics had just kicked off and should have been dominating the news, the story of Tia's disappearance didn't go away. The UK press cohort moved into The Lindens and kept a round-the-clock watch on the house. Huge "outside broadcast" vans blocked the road, cameras were basically cemented to the pavement and neighbours, who had initially been keen to offer their opinions to any reporter who would listen, began to tire of the intrusion.
I camped out in New Addington for a few days during the height of the search. I met the tabloid crime hacks and googled their Leveson evidence to pass the time. It was hard not to draw parallels between what we were doing and the phone hacking case that sparked the inquiry; we weren't hacking phones, but it certainly felt like we were hacking into and capitalising on a family's grief.
Ultimately, though, it was this goldfish bowl that became Hazell's undoing. Four searches of the property failed to uncover anything. But with his every move scrutinised by the press, Hazell was unable to move Tia's body from his loft undetected, and eventually the summer heat reached the dead girl's body. On the fifth search, when the police finally found Tia's decomposing body, she had to be identified by her dental records. The PC involved has since removed himself for search duties, and you can understand why.
The botched search effort meant that Tia's family had to agonise through a full week of Hazell's charade. They made TV pleas for her return and waged a battle against the rumours and speculation about their involvement in Tia's disappearance on social media.
Six days after Tia was reported missing, Hazell gave a news interview. Wearing a T-shirt bearing Tia's face, he stared into the camera and protested his innocence, spoke of his love for Tia and begged for her to return. The following day, after the body was found, a man-hunt was launched for Hazell, who had left a note for his partner and fled. He was found, drunk, a few hours later and kept lying, claiming that Tia's death was an accident – that she had fallen down the stairs and he'd hidden her body in a panic.
I was sickened when Tia’s body was found in the loft, just metres from where we’d watch police hold press conferences in the family's front garden. Of course, considering the thought of it being there the whole time had made me feel horrible, I could only begin to imagine how god-awful the feeling would be for her family who'd actually been living in the house the entire time. For days afterwards, Hazell's face appeared whenever I closed my eyes.
During the search, the news of Hazell's previous convictions – drug offences and possession of a machete – had become public knowledge. So too had the news that he'd previously dated Tia's mother before moving on to her grandmother. An unspeakable question was raised. In court, that question was answered when it was revealed that Hazell had kept memory sticks containing images of Tia sleeping and rubbing cream into her legs, as well as searching the internet for pictures of young girls. An image was shown to the court of a naked young girl posed in a sexual position, which was believed to be Tia after she had died.
In his closing address, Hazell's lawyer said that the change of plea was possibly the only brave decision Hazell had ever made, claiming he had done so because Tia's family had already "suffered enough". The obvious issue with that is that it was Hazell who was responsible both for the initial suffering and prolonging the suffering, rendering his belated "compassion" utterly defunct.
In case you're still finding it hard to grasp the level of insincerity and apathy Hazell operates under, the letter he wrote to his father shortly after his arrest should clear it up. In it, he asked for forgiveness, before complaining that he had "no fags" and expressing his remorse for the crime by drawing a picture of a sad face.
On the day of the sentencing, I stood outside the public gallery waiting for Tia's father – who had previously called for Hazell to be hanged for the killing – and the rest of the family to arrive. I readied my camera to get a photo of them entering the court, but when they arrived – dressed in black and visibly upset – it became clear how manipulated and scrutinised the family had been from the moment that Tia had gone missing. I couldn't bring myself to take the photo and put my camera away.
Judge Justice Nichol called the aggravating circumstances in this case "notable and serious" before sentencing Hazell to his lengthy minimum term. As he was removed from the court to begin his sentence, the press pack crowded around each of the court's exits trying to get one last shot of the family.
I’m motivated to not just bear witness to events and report on them, but to tell stories that matter somehow. Standing outside the court, I couldn’t see what there was to learn from Tia’s death and Hazell’s sentencing, apart from the fact that throwing every beam of media attention on a devastated, grieving family isn't something any decent human being should do. Airing every detail of the case in the public forum does little but expose Tia's family to speculation, criticism and extra pressure in a time when they could have really done without it. And, after all that, we're not really any wiser for knowing that a young girl is dead and a man did something depraved.
The only people whose lives could benefit from the knowledge are Tia’s family, but the sentencing doesn't change much for them. It only allows them to start to unravel the work of fiction spun by the girl's murderer since last August. Tia's mother, Natalie Sharp, said: “I can't say what will happen after the trial. It's my last hurdle. I haven't allowed myself to grieve yet – I need to finish this first. When the trial is done, everything is over for everyone else, but it won't be for us.”
Follow Emma on Twitter: @ejbeals
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