Lucy McHugh: Stephen Nicholson guilty of murder and rape

Lucy McHughImage copyright Family handout
Image caption Lucy McHugh was found stabbed to death in woodland at Southampton Outdoor Sports Centre

A lodger who killed a 13-year-old girl to stop her from exposing him as a sex abuser has been found guilty of her rape and murder.

Stephen Nicholson, 25, stabbed Lucy McHugh in a “vicious” attack near Southampton Outdoor Sports Centre.

He first raped Lucy, then aged 12, while living at her home, and abused her again before her death last July.

Jurors at Winchester Crown Court found him guilty of three charges of raping Lucy.

He was also convicted of sexual activity with a 14-year-old girl in 2012, who he had taken to the same woodland where Lucy was found dead years later.

Nicholson, who showed no emotion when the verdicts were delivered, will be sentenced on Friday.

Image copyright Hampshire Constabulary
Image caption Nicholson refused to give police his Facebook password after he had deleted messages from Lucy

Jurors heard he moved into the family home in 2017 after being invited by long-time friend Richard Elmes, the partner of Lucy’s mother Stacey White.

Nicholson first raped Lucy in May of that year and on two further occasions over the coming weeks.

The trial heard Lucy would later describe him to friends as her “boyfriend”.

Tensions between the pair rose, culminating in a “big argument” a few days before her death.

Nicholson told police Lucy sent him a message the night before her murder, saying she was pregnant.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionThe jury was shown CCTV footage during the murder trial

She left her home at about 09:00 BST the next day, and jurors saw CCTV footage of her walking to the sports centre where she would meet her death at the hands of Nicholson.

After luring her to woodland nearby, he stabbed her 11 times in the neck in a “vicious” and “calculated” attack. It was later found Lucy was not pregnant.

Nicholson was linked to the murder via DNA evidence found on clothing, described by prosecutors as his “murder kit”, discarded in woodland about a mile from the murder scene.

Det Supt Paul Barton, of Hampshire Police, said Nicholson had “taken full advantage” of Lucy’s family after they “provided a roof over his head”.

“He has targeted Lucy, taken advantage of her and when she wanted a relationship with him, he has taken the decision to silence her once and for all by brutally killing her,” he said.

Image caption Lucy’s father Andy McHugh was in court for the verdicts

Speaking outside court, Lucy’s father Andy McHugh said: “He stole her life away. I’m very happy with the verdict.

“It’s been very tough but it’s a weight off my shoulders and now I can start the grieving process.”

Det Insp Lee Macarthur read a statement on behalf of Lucy’s mother, thanking all those who “helped to get justice for my precious daughter.”

How killer was trapped by his own Facebook password

Image copyright Fixers charity
Image caption Nicholson claimed giving officers access to his Facebook account would expose his activities as a drug dealer

Police said the key evidence to “sink” Nicholson was found in a shopping bag discovered near Tanner’s Brook – about a mile away from the murder scene – four weeks after Lucy’s death.

Inside they found his DNA on a hoodie stained with Lucy’s blood among a number of items, some of which were partially burnt.

However, Nicholson might have been able to go back and dispose of this evidence had he not refused to divulge his Facebook password.

He claimed giving officers access to his account would expose his activities as a drug dealer but police believe he did not want them retrieving deleted messages from Lucy.

Nicholson was later jailed for 14 months for the offence, keeping him in custody while officers investigated Lucy’s murder.

It also started a debate about the time it takes for police to access social media accounts, although detectives in Hampshire said when they did finally access Nicholson’s account, just before the trial, they were not able to find the deleted messages.

Prosecutors believe they may have been able to retrieve them if access had been granted sooner.

Facebook said it had worked closely with Hampshire Constabulary, but “we agree that this legal process can be far too slow.”

“We have actively lobbied for reforms to EU, US and UK laws to allow us, and others, to directly and more quickly provide information to UK law enforcement authorities,” a spokeswoman said.

Two of Lucy’s schools contacted Southampton City Council’s social services after reports from pupils, including a student at Redbridge Community School who said Lucy had told them she was “having sex” with someone called “Stephen”.

Social services later ruled there was “nothing to substantiate” that, jurors heard.

Ms White was visited but was “unconcerned” and was later “confrontational and angry” over the referral, a teacher told the trial.

The head teacher at Redbridge Community School said he believed staff handled the report correctly and passed it on to social services.

Image caption Head teacher Jason Ashley said pupils have helped set up a memorial garden for Lucy

Jason Ashley said: “Although I’m confident in the safeguarding procedures in the school I feel guilty as well, I was her head teacher.

“What I know now there’s obviously more you want to do. I think about Lucy most days and just wish she had the confidence to say something to me directly.”

Southampton City Council declined to comment due to an ongoing serious case review which is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Nicholson was cleared of one count of sexual activity with a child which related to Lucy after she had turned 13.

The judge previously directed the jury to return a not guilty verdict on one count of sexual activity with a child relating to Lucy after the prosecution decided it had insufficient evidence.