It was only a few months after Star Hobson’s birth on 21 May 2019 that her mother, Frankie Smith, seemed to lose interest in her daughter.
She took a holiday that September and got a friend to look after Star as soon as she boarded the coach to Bridlington, leaving the friend to babysit in the evenings so she could go out drinking.
That friend became the first person to call Bradford’s social services expressing concerns about Star, in January 2020. Others followed, including Smith’s sister and grandmother, and Star’s dad, Jordan Hobson.
Smith turned 18 a month after Star was born, and her family said she was very immature for her age. She was still playing with dolls when she was 16, favouring lifelike models that she would wrap up when it got cold. She grew up in a chaotic house with her single-parent mum and various siblings.
After her arrest a psychologist assessed her as being in the bottom 2% of intelligence. The psychologist said she was “abnormally compliant” and “abnormally prone to going along with what an authority figure is telling her to do”.
Savannah Brockhill, who became her on-off girlfriend, was one such figure, the prosecution argued. Eight years older, she left school at 10 and had hidden her bisexuality from most of her family until she discussed it in the witness box. A keen amateur boxer, she hoped to compete in the Olympics but got injured and worked as a carer and later a security guard.
The couple met in the Sun pub in Keighley, where Brockhill worked as a bouncer. Their tempestuous relationship began in November 2019, around the time Smith split up with Hobson.
Before long, Smith’s friends noticed her further losing interest in Star and becoming “obsessed” with Brockhill, spending hours and hours on the phone to her.
It was Brockhill’s phone that ultimately secured her conviction: every time she assaulted Star she would Google for tips to cover her tracks, querying “can you die from getting winded?”, “‘sickening after head trauma?”, “how to get bruising down” and “signs of an abused baby”.
When, on 22 September 2020, she punched Star so hard she caused the injuries that ultimately caused the girl’s death, Brockhill again went online, Googling “shock in babies” and “how to bring a baby out of shock”, 11 minutes before she or Smith texted 999.
The signs that Brockhill had a problem with violence had been there since at least February 2020 when she posted a video online calling herself the “number one psycho”.
Each half of the couple was jealous of the other. In February 2020, Brockhill was paranoid that Smith was cheating on her, sending a message to one of Smith’s sisters saying: “I’m broken, I’ll stab someone tonight I swear.” She threatened to confront Smith: “I don’t care about kids in the house I will rage. Fuck it, they’re going to need police in the house to take me away.”
Family members started to suspect the relationship was violent after seeing Smith with bruises and black eyes. In mid-March 2020, Brockhill hit Smith in the Sun pub – she said accidentally, but Smith’s mum, Yvonne Spedley, said Brockhill punched her in the face. The couple then sped off in Brockhill’s car.
The next day Brockhill texted her boxing sparring partner to say she had tried to kill herself and Smith by driving off a cliff but ended up just giving Smith “a hiding”. She said she needed help “mentally” and that “I’m out of control.”
In May 2020, Star’s wider family say, they were told they could no longer see her, on Brockhill’s orders. The catalyst was Smith’s grandmother calling social services after learning Brockhill had been holding Star in a “slam choke”. This wrestling move involved Star being “lifted up by her neck or throat and then thrust on the bed”, the court heard. Challenged by her grandma, Smith said it was to toughen Star up.
But some family members still managed to see Star. In June, they noticed she had bruises and had changed from being a happy, healthy child to a withdrawn, fearful one who often seemed to be in pain and had lost weight. Late that month, Hobson called social services after seeing pictures of bruises on his daughter’s face, which resulted in a police visit and Star being checked over at the local hospital.
When friends and family were allowed near the couple, they were alarmed to see the strict regime Brockhill seemed to have instigated for Star. She was deliberately deprived of sleep and was barely a year old when she was forced to spend five minutes or more standing alone facing a wall for the most minor of transgressions – transgressions that she was in any case far too young to understand.
It was again the couple’s phones that proved beyond reasonable doubt that they had been abusing Star for their own amusement.
In June 2020, they both filmed Star wobbling in a daze of exhaustion before falling head first off her chair. They found the video hilarious, sending a version to friends edited by Brockhill with a soundtrack and captions added for dramatic effect. Brockhill later told the jury she was inspired by You’ve Been Framed when editing the videos.
Smith told the jury she did not understand at the time that what she was doing amounted to child abuse. “I loved my Star,” she said, despite them having heard she had previously referred to her daughter as “cunt” and “it”.
Partway through the trial she said she had seen the light, and pleaded guilty to neglecting Star on at least eight separate occasions in the month up to her death. This included one incident caught on CCTV in Bradford city centre, where she was seen dragging Star along the pavement using her reins.
She said she did not know that day that Star’s leg was already broken. That fracture was the result of one of 21 blows inflicted on Star by Brockhill a few days earlier when she took her to work at a recycling centre in Doncaster so Smith could go out drinking.
CCTV captured the relentless abuse, which also resulted in a fractured skull. Brockhill tried to persuade the jury the cameras lied, admitting to slapping Star once on the cheek but nothing worse. She suggested that the fatal blow to Star’s abdomen on 22 September was inflicted not by her, an 11-stone amateur boxer, but one of the other children in the room at a time when she had her back turned. Alternatively, she suggested, perhaps Star simply fell off the sofa.
Throughout the seven-week trial, Brockhill insisted she too loved Star and was just trying to get her into a “routine”. She told paramedics that Star was “my little girl as well, I brought her up”, and then casually put her coffee cup down on the hospital trolley where Star lay dead. At times during the evidence she cried, wiping away tears with a disposable face mask.
The day Star was murdered, social services were due to visit Smith – numerous visits were made throughout 2020 as files were opened and shut into Star’s care – but Smith had successfully “fobbed off” the social worker, the court heard, and postponed the meeting.
Bradford council said a local child safeguarding practice review was ongoing and would be finalised after the trial’s conclusion. Star’s family said they hoped it would explain why social workers did not take steps to keep Star safe despite numerous warnings.
Smith and Brockhill may have managed to pull the wool over a social worker’s eyes but the jury was not convinced.