Jailed for 17 years, lover who sent texts from midwife’s phone to cover up her murder
‘Extraordinary web of deception’
A LANDSCAPE gardener ‘brutally’ murdered a midwife he was having an affair with before creating a false trail by sending texts from her phone and laying her wedding dress on her bed. Police last night compared Michael Stirling’s duplicity after he strangled Samantha Eastwood to that of Soham child killer Ian Huntley. Stirling taped his victim’s body up in a duvet cover, binding her eyes and nose with masking tape, then bundled her corpse into the back of his van and drove to his parents’ home for a family meal. Over the next 24 hours, the married father of one told Miss Eastwood’s friends and family that she had been upset about problems at work when he had last seen her. He then sent a series of texts to his victim’s sister Gemma from the midwife’s mobile phone, a court heard yesterday. These gave her family false comfort that she was alive and simply in need of ‘some time for me’. Stirling, 32, also brazenly hugged Gemma just hours after burying Miss Eastwood in a shallow grave. He caused further distress by pretending in a final few texts from the midwife’s phone that she was being ‘driven to the motorway’ by a ‘mad man’ she had met online. The court heard that Stirling went on to send two texts to Miss Eastwood’s phone, begging her to come home. The gardener had been having a threeyear relationship with Miss Eastwood which had already led in part to the end of her engagement to his wife Katie’s brother John Peake, Stafford Crown Court heard. Yesterday, Mr Peake, 34, stared at Stirling during the hearing which ended with the emotionless defendant being handed a life sentence with a minimum of 17 years. Mr Peake described how he had obtained a spare key for Miss Eastwood’s home in Baddeley Green, Stokeon-Trent, from Stirling – who kept his work tools in her garage – after the midwife’s colleagues raised the alarm on July 27 when she failed to report for a night shift. Mr Peake said he had hoped to rekindle his seven-year relationship with her and start a family. He described finding her wedding dress on her bed, surrounded by birthday cards he had sent her and her engagement ring. The railway engineer said he believed the items had been placed there to ‘point the blame in my direction’, adding that the body found in undergrowth at a disused quarry near Caverswall, Staffordshire, eight miles away, was also close to his workplace. Prosecutor Jonas Hankin QC described how, after killing Miss Eastwood at her home and loading her body into his Vauxhall Combo van, Stirling sent a text to his wife Katie, 32, arranging dinner with his parents. After dinner, the couple drove back to their house in Northwood, Stoke-on-Trent. The court heard he received a text from Gemma after 9pm saying Miss Eastwood was missing. Stirling went out to ‘search’ for her, with her body still in his van. He told his wife he was going out to search at local pubs, but his van was caught on CCTV driving to the burial site at 10.30pm, returning 40 minutes later. Stirling went out to ‘search’ again at midnight, but headed to Miss Eastwood’s home, where he feigned concern to Gemma. He told police he had been at the midwife’s home earlier that day – when a neighbour had reported hearing a woman screaming ‘get off me’ from the vicinity of the house. That made him the last person to see her alive. Mr Hankin said: ‘He was composed and callous. He spoke calmly to his wife on the telephone while he was burying Samantha’s body. The killing was undoubtedly brutal.’ Stirling was arrested that weekend on suspicion of kidnap but was released the next day. The killer ended up leading police to the body after he was seen cycling to a lay-by and disappearing into the bushes. The grave was found two days later and Stirling was arrested for murder. Stirling claimed to have bound Miss Eastwood’s eyes and nose because ‘he didn’t want to see her like that’, and he wanted to protect her face during the burial. Defence barrister Charles Miskin QC outlined how Stirling strangled her on the bedroom floor in a ‘fog of anger’ after Stirling claimed she had taunted him over ‘how his daughter would feel that her father loved someone more than the daughter’s mother’. Stirling admitted murder at a previous hearing. Sentencing him yesterday, Mrs Justice Susan Carr accused the defendant of weaving an ‘extraordinary web of deception’ and a ‘sophisticated and mendacious cover-up’. Detective Inspector Dan Ison, of Staffordshire Police, highlighted the ‘callous’ nature in which Stirling buried Miss Eastwood and then hugged her distraught 26year-old sister. ‘I liken his actions to that of Ian Huntley,’ he said.