folie à mur- deux
A rare case of shared psychosis led to the sensational murder of an innocent Au Pa ir: why didn’t Sophie Lionnet escape the clutches of her crazed employers?
Why didn’t au pair Sophie Lionnet escape the clutches of her crazy employees before it was too late?
On the afternoon of 20 September 2017, emergency services were called to a southwest London home after receiving a concerned call from a neighbour reporting a vast plume of smoke and a foul odour emitting from a nearby garden. At the Wimbledon Park Road property, firefighters found Ouissem Medouni poking at chicken thighs on a small barbecue on the patio, while a charred mass burned on a bonfire nearby. When asked what he was burning, Medouni claimed he was “cooking a sheep”, but after the blaze was put out, something in the ashes caught the fireman’s eye: first it was some clothing, then a glint of jewellery, then a nose, and then what appeared to be fingers. Asked why he was burning a body, Medouni simply answered, “It’s a sheep”, his eyes cast down. Firefighters noticed Medouni’s demeanour shift as he watched them eyeing up the suspicious charcoaled lump beside him.
Their disbelief at his answer was obvious: “Bollocks” the firefighter exclaimed. Police were called, and they arrested Medouni and his partner Sabrina Kouider on suspicion
of murder. As suspected, it wasn’t a sheep Medouni was cremating. What detectives found to be causing the foul odour was the body of 21- year- old French national Sophie Lionnet, a nanny hired by the couple 18 months earlier.
As British and French tabloids devoured the sensational details of the slaying, the chilling account of what occurred inside the Southfields property formed a bizarre tapestry of a murder plot hatched by Kouider and Medouni, which was dubbed “stranger than fiction”.
The remains in the couple’s garden were so badly burned, investigators were initially unable to determine the age or gender of the victim.
Although it was Medouni who had been at the crime scene, investigators were eager to find out what his partner knew
– perhaps she could provide valuable information about
Metropolitan Police interrogation rooms, Kouider, unaware that police elsewhere would soon learn the identity of the body in their back garden, tried to convince investigators that her au pair of 18 months had recently run off with Kouider’s former boyfriend, a founding member of Irish boy band Boyzone, who was now living in the US and working as a music mogul. Messages in Kouider’s phone from barely a week before showed her discussing with a friend how the au pair had gone back to France. Something didn’t add up.
When presented with the evidence that Sophie wasn’t hundreds of kilometres away across the English Channel and had in fact been the centerpiece of a macabre bonfire burning just metres away from their back door, the narrative to Kouider’s defence changed. Kouider now blamed Medouni for her death. However, inside a separate interrogation room, Medouni was pointing the finger at Kouider. The balding, middle- aged financial analyst revealed that Kouider had become obsessed with the idea that their nanny was conspiring with her ex- boyfriend against her, and that he was led to believe that the Troyes native they had hired back in 2016 was a spy for her former lover. What’s more, Medouni told investigators the shy au pair had been seduced into gathering damning information on Kouider, and was also sent to drug and sexually assault young girls in the couple’s family home.
It was an odd set of accusations, and when investigators looked into the couple they slowly built a picture of the dysfunctional, volatile and potentially deadly relationship – and discovered some clues as to why a job looking after their children went so wrong for Sophie.
Images of Kouider show a beautiful young woman with soft skin, an even sweeter smile and luscious locks of cascading ebony hair. She was a fashion designer, something she clearly had a passion for based on her taste in fine clothes, rich fabrics and bold colours that hung from her lithe frame. However, her good looks were deceiving. Details of Kouider’s life alluded to psychological instability.
She had been born in Algeria but had moved to Paris with her mother as a young girl. It was there, in 2001, while working on a sweet stall at the age of 18 that she first caught the eye of fellow French Algerian ‘ Sam’ Medouni. Although he was five years her senior, he keenly pursued the beautiful young woman. It was the beginning of a turbulent and bizarre 17- year, on- off relationship.
Despite the fact that an Islamic marriage certificate certified their union as husband and wife, they outwardly lacked the typical relationship dynamics that a husband and wife would share. Prosecutors would later summarise that the relationship was one of ‘ convenience’ for Kouider, who as well as being jealous, highly temperamental and violent, only dated Medouni until something better came along – he was simply a meal ticket for her when she was lonely, in need or had exhausted the goodwill of her lovers. When she strayed to other men, as she did often, Medouni feverishly waited for her to return. On the flip- side, Medouni was deemed as ‘ punching above his weight’ when it came to the beautiful but ultimately deadly Kouider, but it appeared that he desperately loved her. Did this desperation to hold onto her mean he had been sucked in by her delusions, and had ultimately killed Sophie out of loyalty to Kouider?
When Kouider announced that she was moving to
London to pursue a career as a nanny, Medouni followed. In England’s capital, she became part of a selling scheme for a telecommunications company while he eventually earned a degree in economics and found a job with a French bank.
In 2011, while visiting a Notting Hill bank, she crossed paths with charismatic Irishman Mark Walton, a founding member of the popular 1990s Irish group Boyzone. Mark instantly fell in love with Kouider. However, it wasn’t long before the outwardly “gentle, sweet, loving” Kouider became, as he described, “crazy”. He recalled how Kouider had an unstable and unpredictable streak to her character that would appear in an instant. Her temper was triggered at the slightest provocation, and within seconds she could become “quite scary”. During their two- year relationship, Kouider had been “abusive” and “exhibited a manipulative and controlling nature” with a “calculating streak”, according to Mark, who split with Kouider in 2013. On 16 July 2012, she reported a “crazy argument” to police and accused him of cheating. They resumed their relationship days later, but by
Medouni told investigators the shy au pair had been seduced into gathering damning information on Kouider
the end of October, after they had split up again, she claimed he had been violent three times during their two- year relationship. None of the allegations against him were ever found to be true. Mark admitted he knew of her unstable mental health, an issue that had previously resulted in at least one attempted suicide.
Although their relationship was over, Mark still had some residual feelings towards Kouider, and as an act of kindness continued to pay her rent, gave her an allowance and paid for nannies for her children. But Kouider continued her slanderous campaign against her ex. In total, Kouider reported him to the police as many as 30 times between
2012 and 2017. After they split up, she complained about 60 voicemails he had left her, but none of them contained threatening language. A few months later, in March 2014, she claimed she had been “hacked” by her ex- partner, but “nasty” emails instead were apologies and full of sweet, loving words. The following month, Kouider was found “very agitated, kicking and screaming” outside her Wimbledon Park Road home. She claimed her former lover had been “using black magic to control her and there was nothing she could do about it”.
No charges against Mark were filed, although Kouider repeatedly complained to police that they were not taking her allegations seriously. In July she told police he had hacked her Facebook account and breached a non- molestation order. Claims against him in September 2015 included accusations that he was a paedophile. Kouider was given a warning by police about the false allegations she was making against her former partner. In March 2016 she reported he had sexually molested her cat. She didn’t have a cat.
This wasn’t just a case of one toxic relationship – another of Kouider’s ex- boyfriends described her as a “lunatic, fickle and unstable”. Every time her relationships ceased, Medouni was there to slot back into the picture. Describing the couple in the aftermath of their crime, one neighbour reportedly said, “They seemed quite normal, but they always do.”
Stranger Than Fiction
It was in 2015 that Sophie had first been introduced to her employers and, ultimately, her killers. Kouider’s brother, who knew Sophie back in her hometown in France where she lived with her family, had introduced her to the pair and put her forward as a potential nanny for the couple, who were seeking an au pair for their three- year- old daughter and sixyear- old son. In January 2016, only a few days after her 20th birthday, Sophie had flown to the neighbouring country’s capital to live with Medouni and Kouider.
For Sophie, taking care of the pair’s children was the first job she had ever taken on. The couple paid her £ 50 a week and provided her with a room in their home. Sophie’s employment with the French nationals had begun without a hitch, but after working for the pair for a few months, residents in the neighborhood began to notice Sophie’s attitude change, and she became increasingly withdrawn.
Behind closed doors she was criticised for being ‘ lazy’. Already a shy individual who was still learning English, she became almost timid as the temperament of her employers changed for the worse. Speaking to British tabloid
The Daily Mail after her murder, one of Sophie’s friends described how the young woman “found it very difficult” living in London. Over a series of months people saw her less and less, and when they did they realised how skinny she was becoming. A fish and chip shop owner found it odd that she commented how she was not being fed by the couple and seemed to wolf down the fatty flakes of fish and potato she sometimes ordered. This was only weeks before she was discovered dead. She expressed to people that she wanted to return to
France, even asking her mother to send her £ 40 so she could afford the fare back across the channel.
But she never made it home.
What was never realised by any of the neighbours until after Sophie’s death was that Kouider’s obsession with her former partner had begun to spiral out of control once again. At some stage in 2017, Kouider had begun to suffer delusions that Sophie was conspiring with her former lover. Although her au pair had never met the man who lived thousands of kilometres away, this didn’t satisfy Kouider. Sharing her suspicions with Medouni, he too became an ardent believer in Kouider’s delusions.
This shared belief in a delusion is what psychologists have come to know as ‘ folie à deux’, or ‘ madness of two’. Coined in the 19th century by French psychiatrists Charles Lasègue and Jean- Pierre Falret, it is now a recognised disorder and a part of the DSM- 5 ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition).
Together, Medouni and Kouider became obsessed with interrogating Sophie, and confiscated her identity card, passport and suitcase. The couple stopped paying her and even stopped feeding her, subjecting her to brutal and demeaning interrogations over her ‘ spy’ status. Kouider’s irrational behaviour refused to subside. Three months before Sophie’s death, Mark’s financial support for Kouider stopped, and she again launched a vicious attack against him. She marched Sophie down to Lavender Hill Police Station so that she could ‘ confess’ to plotting with her ex to shoot her family. Instead Sophie told officers the allegations were untrue and that she had never met the person Medouni and Kouider were accusing her of co- conspiring with.
This incident was only weeks before Sophie’s charred remains were discovered. Why didn’t she run? Young, inexperienced and in a strange country, it seems as though
Over the months people saw her less and less, and when they did they realised how skinny she was becoming
Resembling a prisoner of war, Sophie quietly spoke to confirm she conspired with Kouider’s former partner
Sophie was unable to escape the clutches of her employers. One neighbour later testified that the au pair fled to her house when one incident at the Wimbledon Park Road residence became particularly hostile. Kouider had stormed round to the house and demanded that the young woman return, flying off the handle and scaring everyone in the house into submission. This glimpse at the domineering power Kouider had over the young Frenchwoman is perhaps why Sophie felt she could never escape.
The most damning piece of evidence against the couple came in video format, filmed on 18 September 2017. It shows an emaciated Sophie with her eyes cast downward, hands folded in her lap, which was covered by a woollen blanket, attempting to warm her fragile, skeletal frame. The video filmed her ‘ confessing’ to the allegations made against her by her employers. Resembling a prisoner of war, Sophie quietly spoke only to confirm that she had been conspiring with Kouider’s former partner. It is clear that the frightened woman didn’t quite understand what she was confessing to, but went along with it perhaps in the hope that if she agreed then they would let her go. Within hours she was dead.
Charged with Sophie’s murder at London’s Old Bailey on 12 January 2018, both Kouider and Medouni pleaded not guilty. They admitted to perverting the course of justice by attempting to “dispose of the body of Sophie Lionnet by burning”. Each blamed Sophie’s death on the other. It would be down to a jury to decide who was lying and who, if either, was telling the truth. Throughout their two- month trial, which commenced in March, jurors were privy to every sickening detail about Sophie’s last few hours alive. They were shown a still image of Sophie just two days before below- left Sophie’s body was so badly burned that a cause of death could not officially be established. However, police suspect that Sophie was drowned in the bathroom of the couple’s home before her body was set alight in the back garden
below- right After listening to the horrifying details of her daughter’s murder, Sophie’s mother Catherine Devallonne said that her killers had refused to see her worth and should be sentenced to death for the treatment they inflicted on her she was found burning at the property, taken from the ‘ confessional’ tape her employers said they had intended to serve to police as ‘ evidence’ of the sabotage she had plotted with Mark. With her hair tied back into a gentle braid, the au pair’s gaunt frame is evidence of the starvation she had been subjected to. Her blank eyes were the result of the lengthy mental and physical torture she had endured. She was just hours from death and just days from being discovered burning in the back garden.
Eight hours of interrogation between Sophie, Medouni and Kouider were recorded by the pair. The five- man and seven- woman panel listened as the often- incoherent and angry ramblings of the couple press Sophie for information about her attempt to infiltrate the couple’s home and relationship. Afraid and barely able to comprehend the questions being posed to her, Sophie only speaks a handful of times, mostly to say “No”. She doesn’t understand why Medouni and Kouider want her to confess, and maybe even what exactly it is she is supposed to be confessing to, but they threaten her, saying that she will be raped, trapped in England away from her family in France and beaten if she doesn’t comply. She still doesn’t understand exactly what she is supposed to be complying with and who she is supposed to have conspired with. She is tired, broken and afraid – all she wants to do is leave. She doesn’t know she will never be allowed to go free.
Medouni claimed that he had been asleep when Sophie was killed and that he had been woken in the night by Kouider, who was panic- stricken having killed Sophie. It was a plausible argument, but on the stand a distraught Kouider blamed Medouni for Sophie’s murder. In detail, she described how her partner had water- boarded Sophie in their bathroom and she had drowned. Once he had killed Sophie, Medouni had become aroused, and as Sophie’s lifeless body lay nearby he had forced himself on Kouider and satisfied himself. He
then adjusted himself before instructing her on what they would do next. “Everything I done, I did it for him” she cried. “He wanted to have sex with me. I’m even shocked to talk about it, it’s embarrassing,” she told the court.
Under cross- examination by Medouni’s lawyer Orlando Pownall, Kouider’s claims that Medouni had sex with her were branded “nonsense” and a “figment of your imagination”. Kouider replied, “It’s not my imagination, it’s the truth.” The lawyer said to Kouider, “You say Mr Medouni had never shown any violence towards her [ Sophie] prior to September 18, and on that evening he was violent.” He went on to challenge her further: “His defence is almost the mirror image of yours. He says you were the one that had been violent and were violent in the early hours of the 19th.” Kouider, however, denied that she had been the violent one, although she later admitted she had whipped Sophie with an electric cable. The victim’s charred body, which was so badly burned that it could not show a clear cause of death, did reveal that she had five broken ribs and a cracked breastbone from the beatings she was being subjected to in the lead- up to her death.
When Medouni’s lawyer pointed out her past of falsely accusing her partners of wrongdoing, Kouider insisted she had “never made a false accusation” against anyone, but the lawyer continued to point out, “You always blame somebody else for your problems.”
After closing arguments were delivered, jurors were instructed to retire and discuss their verdict, and the judge directed them that he would accept a majority vote in this instance so long as at least 10 of the 12 members agreed. After weeks of deliberations, the decisions had been finalised. As a unanimous guilty verdict against Kouider was delivered she cried hysterically, while Medouni, convicted on a ten to two majority, silently wept and stared down at the floor as the judge announced that he too had been found guilty of murder. The judge commented that the case was a rare instance of “folie à deux” and that the pair had acted without mercy for the victim. Before handing down a sentence, the judge listened to the defendants’ lawyers and took into account the psychiatric conditions of the couple. Doctors concluded that Kouider was suffering from mental disorders and obsessions, including depression and borderline personality disorder.
In an attempt to demonstrate remorse, Kouider stood in the court and addressed Sophie’s family and the victim herself with a letter titled, “Dear Sophie”. Kouider said,
“First of all I wish everyone, including Sophie, especially her parents and family who are suffering badly, to know how deeply sorry I am for what happened to Sophie.” She went on to insist that, “We shared many good times together as well as pains until things went terribly wrong and it ended up in this horrendous tragedy. I think of you every day and I am shocked and sad that you are not part of this world anymore. It feels like a horrible dream to me that I wish I could just wake up from. Every day I live with sadness and sorrow. I am suffering every day thinking of you and what happened to you that dreadful night. I only wish I could turn the clock back so that it never happened and you would still be alive with us today.”
The presiding judge, Nicholas Hilliard, told the pair that they would serve at least 30 years of a life sentence. Kouider was ordered to “return immediately to the hospital” – namely the Bracton Centre, near Dartford, Kent, where she had been held since she was charged with murder. The judge assured Sophie’s mother that there was no truth to the allegations made against her daughter. Addressing Medouni and
Kouider, Sophie’s mother, who had sat listening to the final sobs and pleas of her daughter throughout the trial, told the pair, “No god will ever forgive you both for what you have done to our daughter.”
Lawyers acting on Kouider’s behalf plan to appeal against her sentence, claiming that it is too long for someone with mental health issues to serve. Meanwhile, debates continue to question which of the two was the real ringleader at the time of Sophie’s death, and the nature of a shared psychosis that drove them to kill an innocent, vulnerable young woman.
above Firefighters found Medouni barbecuing on the patio after a neighbour called emergency services, concerned about the smoke and “weird smell” coming from the garden. Sophie’s body was being burned just next to himabove- right Kouider made dozens of allegations against her famous ex- boyfriend Mark Walton, none of which were ever found to have any basis for a charge to be filed against him. She insisted police weren’t taking her seriously enoughright Sabrina Kouider ( left) and Ouissem Medouni ( right) met in 2001 in Paris. Their relationship was volatile and temperamental but Kouider’s delusions sparked a murder plot that would see them both convicted
above Sophie’s charred body was barely identifiable. Only traces of her existence still existed in the fire, including her burnt spectacles
left At the age of 23, Medouni ( right) met Kouider ( left) in Paris. She was five years his junior. While he was smitten, she only saw him as a meal ticketbelow- left As well as confiscating Sophie’s passport and identity card, Kouider and Medouni also stashed her suitcase in their shed in the hopes of removing any trace of her after her deathbelow- right A still image, taken from the ‘ confessional’ tape Kouider and Medouni had made on 18 September 2017, shows Sophie’s gaunt and fragile frame. Within hours she was dead
top- left Among evidence found in Medouni and Kouider’s home, a drug testing kit was discovered in the garden, alluding to the intensity of the interrogations conducted by the pairtop- right One witness testified during the trial that she heard Sophie screaming and splashing in the bathroom the morning of her death, as Kouider and Medouni told her to “breathe”above A bottle of patio cleaner was discovered in the vicinity of Sophie’s charred remains. Her killers had intended to cover their tracks and destroy any evidence of her existence