Horror in Room 101: A family on the run

David Randall pieces together the terrible chain of events that culminated in the suffocation of two young children in a hotel on Spain's Costa Brava
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lives on the run tend to end badly, but they rarely conclude with such senseless loss of life as the Smith family's fugitive years did last week. Starting in January 2008, they could run; for those 28 months they could hide; but looking over their shoulders all that time meant that, sooner or later, they were going to stumble. And, three weeks ago, in Barcelona, stumble they did. It was only a small moment of carelessness, but it was enough.

Their life in exile unravelled. He – one of Britain's most wanted men – was arrested, jailed, and extradited. And she took off to the resort of Lloret de Mar, and apparently lost her mind. Today, Martin Smith is on suicide watch in prison, his wife Lianne faces double child murder charges, and the two young children she brought into this world (and then decided she had the right to usher out of it) are lying in a Spanish mortuary.

The mechanism behind these events – the thing which prompted the couple to take flight – was the accusation of rape, attempted rape, and gross indecency made against Martin Smith in 2007. Said to have been committed over a 10-year period up to 2005 on a girl who was seven when they allegedly began, they provoked a series of responses by the Smiths that led, error by panicky error, to the pitiful discovery on Tuesday of the two suffocated bodies in Room 101 of the Hotel Miramar.

There is much that is still not known, and may never be known – not least what kind of phantoms were chasing through Mrs Smith's head in recent days. But to have any chance of understanding what made a woman murder her daughter and son, we need to go back to when the couple first met.

It was 1992, and they were both in their mid-twenties. She had been married before; he had not. Raised as one of four children in a Catholic family in North Shields, he had wanted to be a musician, but it was a world he could only become part of at one remove, touring North America as a roadie for a band called Venom in the 1980s. Her early life is not yet publicly known, but by 2003, she was working as an education officer at Lancashire County Council, the competent professional, giving satisfaction as a reliable employee. She later moved to a similar job with Cumbria County Council.

But Martin Smith could not settle to a career. He worked, in turn, as a recording studio engineer, in a pantomime company, and at a holiday camp. Then he told Lianne that he was psychic, and signed up for courses to become a medium. He had a website offering tarot and spiritualist readings, and, in 2007, the year of his first arrest, he appeared in a cable TV channel's ghost-hunting programme.

Their domestic arrangements took on a certain restlessness, too, in whatseems in retrospect a strange kind of rehearsal for their life on the run. They regularly moved homes – from Brampton, Cumbria, to Carlisle, to Blackpool, and Carlisle again – doing what neighbours said were "flits", allegedly leaving behind unpaid rent and debris. They were at their last home, in Lichfield, for no more than six months. And, more even than this inability to stay in one place, neighbours saw about them a secretiveness, a striking reluctance to talk.

If his accuser (now 22) is to be believed – and her evidence is yet to be tested in court – the abuse started three years after the Smiths met, and continued for a decade. Since the police investigation of her claims began in 2007, we must assume it was not until then – when his accuser was 19, and two years after the alleged offences ceased – that she reported them. After his arrest, Lianne Smith said: "Never once did I question Martin as to whether any of it was true or not. If I had had only one small doubt, I would have ended our relationship." She said the couple immediately began to write down their recollections of his movements relevant to the case.

But other official wheels were turning. In August 2007, Cumbria social services began child protection procedures for Rebecca in the light of allegations against her father. Two months later, after Lianne moved to Lichfield, the case was passed to Staffordshire. Lianne assumed her daughter would be taken from her. She said: "They arranged a child protection conference for Becky, where a group of people, none of whom had ever met Becky... were preparing to take her into care." With Martin Smith charged in December 2007, they made a decision. They would abandon their home, her career and life as they had known it, and go on the run.

On 14 December, they drove their car on to the Dover ferry, and headed south, to a destination and future unknown. They motored with Rebecca (then aged two) through France, into Spain, and came to a prolonged stop in Lloret de Mar. It was, and is, a place of comings and goings, of holidaymakers and temporary hotel staff, of people rubbing shoulders with people they don't know. You can be anybody you want for a few weeks in Lloret. They would not have been the only Mr and Mrs Smith in town.

But they needed somewhere to settle, and, with him being a marked man and therefore unable to work, a way for Lianne to earn a living. They went to Barcelona, adopted the names Tony Ross and Lianne Ross-Smith, rented a flat in the historic centre, and, in the shade of its tall buildings and narrow streets, put down nervous, tentative roots. She worked at a language school, and appears to have done well enough for the Smiths to move to a £750-a-month flat in the Horta-Guinardo district, and to employ a live-in babysitter. Lianne explained the couple's reticence by telling colleagues that her family were looking for her but that she did not want to be found.

Latterly, she started a nursery school, advertising for recruits. It was a risk, a big risk, but they had to eat, and, one supposes, time bred a certain confidence, even over-confidence. Spain, after all, is no longer the safe haven for Britain's most wanted that it once was. Extradition for fugitives is now a relatively swift formality. And yet, with Mrs Smith leading a fairly public working life, the couple could be excused for assuming the Catalan authorities were not actively looking for a Mr Smith and his wife with a background in education. Last year, things seemed secure enough to have another child, Daniel – the completion, as Lianne put it, of their family. And she felt sufficiently anonymous, too – when their apartment was burgled at the beginning of May – to do something positively reckless: she reported the matter to police.

Within days, on 7 May, Martin Smith was arrested outside their apartment block. As he waited for the now inevitable return to Britain and trial, Lianne fretted, and she turned, via a name she had found on the web, to that most modern of therapists, a publicist, a person who gets stories into the mass-market press. She told him (and all the quotes attributed to her come from that source): "Martin's gone now and I've been left looking after both of the children. I really don't know how I'll cope." She declined offers of help from Staffordshire Police.

Whatever passed between her and the still-unidentified publicist, on Saturday 15 May she left home and drove to Lloret, the first place she and Martin had paused when they took flight two and a half years ago. For a few days at the Hotel Miramar, she, Rebecca and baby Daniel would have seemed like any other holidaying mum and kids. Fellow guests would hardly have noticed them had not Rebecca had a habit of waving to people. Martin Smith, meanwhile, was in custody. He wrote a letter to Lianne, which was later found, unopened, at the couple's Barcelona flat, and on Tuesday was told he was about to be flown to Britain and into the hands of Cumbria Police.

Around 2pm that afternoon, Lianne went to the reception desk at the Miramar. Staff thought she seemed befuddled, and she requested an ambulance for her children. When asked why, she replied: "You will see." Upstairs, the bodies of Rebecca and Daniel were found on the bed, their faces white and peaceful. They had been sedated, then suffocated with polythene bags on Monday night. At some stage, Mrs Smith made some sort of attempt to slash her wrists. She left a note at the scene reading: "I hope you can forgive me."

As police and paramedics buzzed about the place, Lianne sat, for part of the time, in what appeared to be a daze on a sofa in the hotel lobby. Then she was led away. She appeared in a Spanish court on Friday, and, having confessed, was charged with the children's murder. Psychological tests on her concluded she was "aware of the situation" and was "normal".

The day before, Martin Smith had been led into Carlisle magistrates' court. He faces six counts of rape, six of gross indecency and one of attempted rape, all on a girl aged under 16. He made no plea, and will appear again on 7 June. He had been told, shortly after he landed in Britain, of the deaths of his children. He indicated that he would harm himself, and is on the closest of suicide watches, as is she. If only Spanish and British authorities had applied the same attentiveness to their children.