A Christmas story that reads like a tale from Charles Dickens. But it happened in a British inner city in 2005

Inside story: A mother of five children is said to have died when she fell getting presents from the loft. But her real story is even more tragic than that. Julia Stuart reports
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The Independent Online

In Britain, the Christmas story of 2005 involves not a birth, but a death. A devoted single mother of five slips from the loft while getting presents down for her children on the Thursday three days before Christmas, and is killed instantly. And no one outside her West Bromwich home in the West Midlands knows until next day, when Eve, a finance collector, knocks on the door and is told by a six-year-old girl: "You can't speak to Mum. She's dead."

Published by newspapers on Boxing Day, the story feels like a bucket of cold water thrown over millions of readers as it is passed round with a shudder at festive hearths.

And it got worse. On Friday, an inquest revealed that she did not die in a fall. The cause of death was asphyxia due to hanging, with police adding, in their ritual euphemism for the lack of third-party involvement, that "there were no suspicious circumstances".

Suspicious or not in police terms, there was no shortage of other circumstances in the life and death of Karen Russon. Hers was a life so full of tragic circumstances that it would not have been out of place in a Dickens novel.

At the age of 24, she had had five children by several men; and, as inquiries have established, she was a young woman under a lot of pressure. Friends suggested she was saddled with considerable debt, and others said she was upset by recent tittle-tattle about her private life. For all that, everyone spoke of Karen as a loving, devoted and thoughtful mother.

A little over a year ago, things looked more hopeful. In November 2004, in the hope of a better life, she moved out of her three-bedroom Victorian terrace in West Bromwich. It is easy to see why. It looked out on to the back of a bicycle tyre factory, concrete paving prevented anything growing in the front garden, and the front door didn't even open on to the street. In an architectural quirk repeated along Cambridge Street, access to the house was down a dark brick passageway.

What she needed most was space for her and the children - Deran, 10, Daniel, seven, Elise, six, Bethany, four, and Jayden, three. After a successful interview with a housing association, Karen got her new beginning.

Turks Head Way wasn't far. All she had to do was walk down Cambridge Street, turn left, pass the post office where she collected her benefits and the boarded-up Rising Sun pub, and turn right at the red-brick church that is now a mosque.

The brand new housing development was a decidedly smart affair, replacing four 1960s tower blocks and maisonettes. You could mistake them for middle-class homes, if you didn't know.

The residents had been selected for their diversity. Some were families, some single parents, some white, others black. Most would not have believed their luck at being selected to be tenants in some of the most pleasant housing around.

With such a large family, Karen was given the biggest house of the lot. Crucially, it had four bedrooms. Instead of concrete, there were luscious plants in her modern front garden. Karen loved the house. She decorated the kitchen and bathroom the way she liked it, and the children's bedrooms were also finished.

The pride she took over her home was typical. Friends and family said she always made the best of every situation she found herself in. After giving birth to her first child at the age of 14, she attended a school run by Sandwell council, which allowed mothers to learn while their children were looked after in an on-site crèche. She did well in her GCSEs.

Her children were born to three different fathers, who were not seen on the new estate. Karen accepted help from her parents, Roy and Lorna Russon, who lived a 10-minute drive away in Tividale, where she grew up. They often took the two older boys for the weekend. She had one older and one younger sister and the family was close.

Otherwise, Karen was fiercely independent, preferring to do things on her own. And, by all accounts, she did a marvellous job. Not only were the children always on time for school, but their uniforms were always washed and pressed. Karen also made sure that she was presentable, taking time to do her make-up and wear nice clothes. She attended every parents' evening. Nobody knew how she coped. But she appeared to do so, and never complained.

Friends described her as devoted to her children and a woman who never needed to shout at them. When told that enough was enough, they listened. They played happily together, as well as with the other children on the estate. Karen sometimes joined them on her roller skates.

With five children to look after, there wasn't much time for herself. But Karen loved the internet and had set up a small business from home selling gifts. While there was never enough money for family holidays, her parents would sometimes take the older two away in their caravan. Very occasionally, she would go to the pub in the evening with friends, all of them bringing their children, babies included. Karen wasn't unusual in having several children at such a young age. They would arrive around seven and be gone by 10pm. Some said she had a new boyfriend; others said she was still on her own.

Her parents said she appeared happy the last time they saw her on the Thursday morning before Christmas. She told them that she would see them on Saturday, when she would bring the presents round.

At just after 10 o'clock the following morning, a postman called at Karen's house with a parcel. There was no sign of the mother and he spoke to her youngest, three-year-old Jayden. Unable to understand what the boy was saying, he pushed a card through the door saying that he had tried to deliver a parcel.

Later that afternoon, two people from a shopping savers' club called at the door. Elise, blond and just six years old, opened the door and said: "You can't speak to Mum. She's dead."

The woman's body was then discovered. Elise had been looking after the two youngest by feeding them cereal and milk. The three had been passing the time in front of the TV in their pyjamas. The older two were away with Lorna, 49, and Roy, who was 52 on Boxing Day.

While the circumstances around her death are not yet known - the full inquest into her death was adjourned - if the young mother did indeed take her own life, it will come as a huge shock to her friends who described her as happy.

Although her parents admitted that she had problems, they wouldn't disclose them. Neighbours said that Karen had complained about malicious rumours going round about her private life, and that she wanted to volunteer in a charity shop to prove to them that she wasn't "that type of woman". Friends were insistent she was "saddled with debt".

When officers knocked at her parents' home, Roy immediately knew that his daughter was dead. As they were breaking the news, carol singers came to the door and started to sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".

The following day, on Christmas Eve, Lorna and Roy returned to their daughter's home with the two boys to pick up the Christmas presents. It was then that the children fully realised that their mother was never coming back and they were never going home again.