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Lauren Howard, Reporter
A MENTALLY ill mother from Southampton has pleaded guilty for killing her son after she set alight the car they were travelling in.
Teresa Sheldon was given a hospital order admitting the manslaughter of Tommy Sheldon, five, who died two weeks after she spread petrol around her car, igniting it with a lighter, while he sat in his child seat.
Health professionals told Crown Court yesterday the 38-year-old, who at the time lived at Kathleen Road, Sholing, had suffered “psychotic symptoms” when she drove to Merdon Castle Lane in near Winchester last year.
She sobbed as she denied her son’s murder but guilty to manslaughter claiming diminished responsibility.
She wore a striped black jumper, a gold chain and her long dark hair held back from her tear-stricken face.
After listening to reports, the judge Mr Justice Dingemans agreed prison would not be in the best interest of her “recurrent mental disorder”. He sentenced her under the Mental Health Act.
He thanked her family for the dignified way they acted in court and thanked Alan and William Beusmans – the father and son who tried to save little Tommy when they discovered the fire. The court heard how on August 11 last year Sheldon took Tommy to McDonald’s in Cosham and bought him toys before driving to Sainsbury’s in Badger Farm to fill up a newly purchased petrol can.
She parked up her Ford Fiesta between 7.45-8.05pm, then climbed into the back seat with Tommy and another child, who cannot be named for legal reasons. Sheldon splashed petrol all over the seats before sparking it with a lighter.
The Beusmans, who were on their way to a fishing trip, saw the car up in flames, with Sheldon screaming having got out of the car – her legs partially on fire – before noticing Tommy was still inside.
The court was told they had difficulty getting him out because of the child lock.
Prosecutor Kerry Maylin said: “Mr Beusmans opened the car and Tommy fell and hit his head before he could catch him.”
She said paramedics who treated him at the scene described his “clothing smoky” – the burns having covered 65 per cent of his small body – before asking Tommy to confirm his name.
They said Sheldon stood there screaming. The other child had escaped the vehicle.
Ms Maylin added: “They could not initially determine his ethnicity due to the extent of the burns. It was only by seeing a small patch of skin they realised he was caucasian.”
Tommy was taken to Southampton General Hospital by air ambulance before he was transferred to a specialist burns unit in Bristol for immediate surgery.
Sheldon was also treated for injuries which resulted in three subsequent skin grafts.
She also pleaded not guilty to one count of attempted murder and one count of arson, being reckless as to whether life was endangered.
Tommy died on August 25, at 9.20am, from broncho pneumonia, the court heard.
Pathology reports showed traces of sertraline in Tommy’s bloody – the same antidepressants Sheldon had been prescribed.
In the months leading to the incident Teresa suffered depressive mood swings and her mental health had “significantly deteriorated” after divorce papers were served and grew worried her husband, Ross, would gain custody.
Ms Maylin told the court: “[Teresa] said she wanted to be dead and didn’t want to be here anymore and didn’t want to be without [Tommy].”
She also told the court how Tommy’s father, Ross, visited his grave “on a daily basis”.
“He speaks of the trauma of seeing how badly burned his son was,” she said. “It’s clear that there was inordinate pressure watching his son going through what must have been a very painful experience.”
She also said Tommy’s grandparents had described their lives as “empty” and “filled with sadness”.
Mitigating was Nigel Lickley QC, who described Sheldon as “an otherwise good, devoted mother” but confirmed doctor reports indicated she may have to receive life-long treatment.
Senior investigating officer, detective inspector Simon Baker, said after the hearing: “This was a truly harrowing case for all involved and our thoughts remain with the family and friends of all those who have been affected by this distressing incident. This was a long and complex investigation which involved months of sensitive enquiries to enable us to bring the case to court in extremely tragic circumstances.
“I would like to commend the bravery and courage of those members of the public and the emergency services who intervened to try and rescue Teresa and the children from the burning car.”
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Major enquiry launched into death of Tommy Sheldon killed by mum Teresa in car inferno — (Hampshire Chronicle)
24 Jul 2015
Lauren Howard, Reporter / @Lauren_Chronicle
Teresa Sheldon (pictured), was handed a hospital order, under the Mental Health Act, for killing her son, Tommy (insert)
A MAJOR enquiry has been launched into the death of a young boy who died in a car inferno started by his mentally ill mum, the Hampshire Chronicle can reveal.
Social workers last night confirmed there will a serious case review into whether anything could have been done to prevent the death of Tommy Sheldon – the five-year-old who died from severe burns after his mum Teresa torched the car he was in.
The tragedy came just a month after social services visited her at home, where the troubled mum told them she believed her ex-husband was trying to kill her.
As reported yesterday, the 38-year-old, then of Kathleen Road, Sholing, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and arson at Winchester Crown Court on Tuesday, following the tragic death of little Tommy at the Bristol burns unit on August 25.
She drove out to Merdon Castle Lane, in Hursley, where she doused her Ford Fiesta in petrol and set it alight.
The court was told she’d also spoken to her GP about her low mood beforehand.
Yet no health officials or social workers took action following her depressive mood swings on the basis there was “no reason for the intervention of medical services” and her “mental state wasn’t picked up”, as the judge, Mr Justice Dingemans concluded.
In the months leading to the incident her mental health had “significantly deteriorated” after it emerged she and her then husband, Ross, were getting divorced and she grew worried Mr Sheldon would gain custody, the court heard.
Social services and health officials have remained tight-lipped about why more wasn’t done, considering Sheldon’s mental state of health, who even went missing three days before the tragic event for several hours, sparking a manhunt by her family, after which she was found and described as behaving “bizarre”.
When asked why more wasn’t done to protect Tommy or Sheldon herself, social services refused to answer, simply saying: “There is nothing to suggest that any agency could have predicted that this would have happened.”
Last night a Southampton City Council spokesman added: “The Southampton Local Safeguarding Children Board is conducting a Serious Case Review following the tragic death of this young child. “We cannot make any further comment at this time.
“This was a tragic and horrific incident, and our thoughts remain with Tommy’s family and friends.”
It was revealed during the hearing her bouts of depression had caused her to have “delusional beliefs” that her phone was being tapped.
She’d previously tried to commit suicide and even claimed her ex-husband was trying to kill her – allegations which resulted in social services paying her a visit on July 15, whereby she showed them her head board believing they were covered in slash marks.
Her allegations were investigated by social services as well as police but were found to have no substance.
Pathology reports showed traces of sertraline in Tommy’s bloody – the same antidepressants Sheldon had been prescribed for a “recurrent mental disorder”.
The judge agreed prison would not be in the best interest due to her “recurrent mental disorder”, which had “warped [her] perspectives on life”, and sentenced her under the Mental Health Act.
“I also note your previous good character,” he said. “On the other hand the harm that you have caused could not have been higher. I’m satisfied you were suffering from a mental disorder and that medical treatment is available because you’re still suffering from an episode and you need to receive treatment.
“It’s apparent you suffered a severe depressive episode with psychotic tendencies at the time of the killing,” he’d said. “You and Mr Sheldon had separated and, although it was initially amicable, you developed depressive symptoms following the serving of divorce papers.
“That affected your ability to know what you were doing.
“You went missing on the eighth of August, some three days before, and you were searched for. When you were found your behaviour was noticed to be bizarre.”