A van driver who stopped to help a wealthy aristocrat and her partner after their car burst into flames believes their baby would still be alive if he had stayed with the family.
Ken Hudson was behind a Peugeot 206 carrying Constance Marten, 36, Mark Gordon, 49, and their newborn daughter Victoria when it caught fire on the M61 motorway in Greater Manchester. The eyewitness called the police and fire brigade and stayed at the scene for 10 minutes before leaving the family at the side of the road, a court heard.
But the couple fled with the child before police arrived, travelling the country by taxi before ending up living off-grid in a tent on the South Downs after weeks on the run.
Victoria’s remains were eventually found in a disused shed, hidden in a Lidl plastic bag and covered in rubbish “as if she was refuse”, the court was told.
The prosecution alleges the newborn died from neglect as a result of exposure or hypothermia or as a result of co-sleeping – during parental negligence that was “truly exceptionally bad” and conditions in the tent which were “inhuman”.
Giving evidence, Mr Hudson told the Old Bailey he started flashing his lights when he saw flames and black smoke coming from the car on his way home from work on 5 January last year.
He said Marten ran out of the burning vehicle on the hard shoulder, while Gordon opened the boot and started pulling out their possessions.
When he realised she was carrying a baby, he asked if the child was OK – to which she replied: “She’s fine.”
“I put my hand on the baby’s head and said something like, God bless, stay safe,” he told the court, noting that the infant’s head felt cold and she was not moving.
“Throughout the year I have been cut up myself because I believe that if I would have stayed with that vehicle and the people, that the baby may be still alive,” he added.
The trial heard on Friday that the couple’s “beloved baby” was “well cared for”.
John Femi-Ola KC, defending Gordon, told the Old Bailey: “The defence contends that the baby was warm and dry and always fed so that she was well nourished.
“The baby didn’t require medical assistance and died in circumstances so heartbreakingly described by her mother in an interview with the police.”
The court previously heard that Marten initially refused to reveal where she had left her baby when she was arrested on 27 February last year. But after the child’s remains were discovered a few days later, she told officers she had fallen asleep with the baby zipped inside her jacket and awoke to find her dead.
The parents did not call 999 and kept the child’s remains in a reusable plastic bag for some time, the court heard, before disposing of it in an allotment shed.
At one point, the parents discussed telling the police it had been a case of “cot death”, the prosecution told jurors.
Mr Femi-Ola said that the parents had attempted to preserve the remains in the hope of finding out how she died.
“It is our contention that the body wasn’t disposed of but rather that there was an attempt to preserve the body … She wanted to find out why her beloved baby died – yes, her beloved baby. She wanted there to be a post-mortem,” he told jurors.
“The crown says they went off-grid. As you listen to evidence, you must ask yourself, were they driven off the grid?”
Their defence comes after prosecutor Tom Little KC previously told the court how the couple’s “reckless, utterly selfish and callous” conduct – carried out to avoid the child being taken into care like her four siblings – led to the “entirely avoidable” death of the little girl.
In evidence from DC Martha Bourne, the court heard Marten received two payments from trust funds shortly before going on the run, one of £15,590 on 22 December last year and a separate payment of £3,400 on 3 January.
She had reserved a two-bed holiday cottage in Northumberland for £367.20 on Booking.com, where she and Gordon spent Christmas.
However, the owners found the cottage in disarray after their six-night stay – with candle wax and cat litter on the floors and carpets, the bed throw stained with curry, and the bathroom littered with urine stains, the court heard.
A breakdown recovery driver who collected them after a previous car – a Suzuki Ignis – broke down on the M18 on 28 December, noted it looked like they had been living out of the vehicle which was stuffed with clothes.
“I remember this couple clearly as it was one of the weirdest pick-ups I have ever had. They both had bad attitudes even though I was there to help them,” he said in a statement read to the court by prosecutor Mr Little. The breakdown worker did not see or hear a baby at any point.
They were next spotted at an Ibis hotel at services in Warrington, Cheshire, where Marten checked in under the name Caroline Marten – telling the receptionist she was a freelance journalist and needed to pay in cash because she had lost her bank card.
A day later, they checked in to the four-star AC Hotel in Salford, Greater Manchester, where staff said she looked “very tired” before she was joined by Gordon, who was carrying large numbers of carrier bags. No staff at either hotel saw or heard a baby during their brief stays.
The parents both deny manslaughter by gross negligence of their daughter between 4 January and 27 February last year.
The pair also deny charges of perverting the course of justice by concealing the body, concealing the birth of a child, child cruelty and allowing the death of a child.
The infant’s remains were found in a plastic bag in a locked shed at an overgrown allotment in the Hollingbury area of Brighton on 1 March. The discovery came after Marten and Gordon were arrested in nearby Stanmer Villas.
The trial, scheduled to last until 8 March, continues.