Fight for justice: My girls mattered
Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman were stabbed to death in a park by a stranger, yet their deaths went almost unrecorded
They were heading home after a fun night with friends. One of them called her boyfriend to tell him they’d be back soon. But neither of them were seen again.
In June 2020, photographer Nicole Smallman, 27, and her sister Bibaa Henry, 46 – a social worker – were stabbed to death in the early hours in Fryent Park, Wembley, northwest London. They’d been celebrating Bibaa’s birthday with friends, enjoying a picnic, dancing to music. When the sisters didn’t arrive home, concerned family and friends called the police.
The story sounds so familiar. This March, Sarah Everard, 33, disappeared in Clapham, south London. Just like Nicole and Bibaa, Sarah had been with a friend and, just as Nicole had done, Sarah had called her boyfriend to tell him that she was on her way home.
The police issued countless appeals for information, Sarah’s face was on the front page of national newspapers and, when her body was discovered almost a week later in woodland in Kent, there was an outpouring of grief.
But we might not be as familiar with Bibaa and Nicole. It would have been easy to miss the details of their story in national newspaper coverage, and their family believes that when they made the reports about the two missing women, officers didn’t take their concerns seriously. The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has confirmed that one officer is now under investigation.
So, given there are more similarities than differences between the cases of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry and that of Sarah Everard, why were they treated so differently?
‘My girls mattered’
Mina Smallman, 63, is the mother of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. She lives in Ramsgate, Kent. The last message I sent to Bibaa, 46, was ‘How did it go?’. She’d celebrated her birthday in a park the evening before, with her sister Nicole, 27, and some friends, and I’d hoped she’d had a lovely time. Bibaa didn’t reply, but that wasn’t unusual. She was a grown woman with a job and a social life of her own. ‘She must be busy,’ I thought.
But when Nicole’s boyfriend, Adam, called me later that afternoon, on 6 June 2020, to say he hadn’t heard from Nicole, either, I started to worry. Adam had called the police, but I said I would, too, thinking that they might take a concerned mother more seriously.
I told myself that the girls probably just hadn’t charged their phones but, as the hours ticked by – nothing. I didn’t get a visit from the police, Adam hadn’t been contacted, either. More family members and friends called the police, too, but still there was no active search launched, no enquiries made. The next day, 7 June, early in the morning, I phoned Adam. He still hadn’t heard anything. We couldn’t bear it any longer, I called a friend, a former CID officer, and he helped us coordinate a search. A friend of Bibaa’s took Adam back to where the girls were last seen. She said that she and a few others had left the gathering earlier in the evening, but Nicole and Bibaa had stayed on.
I was on the phone with Adam as he searched in the grass. I wasn’t prepared for what he said next, ‘Mina, I’ve found Bibaa’s glasses.’ Bibaa loved her glasses, she had been so proud of them, there’s no way she’d have left them behind. Something was very wrong. ‘Mina, I’ve found a knife,’ Adam said. And I just knew. ‘Mina, are you sitting down?’ he said quietly a few moments later. ‘I’ve found them, Mina. They’ve gone.’
Adam later told me he heard me let out a guttural, animal-like scream of pain. I was distraught, and heartbroken for Adam, too, who’d had to discover his soulmate, lying there in the park. He’d stumbled across the crime scene and the police still hadn’t turned up.
I asked myself over and over again why the girls had stayed on later than their friends, then I realised I was asking the wrong question. Why hadn’t the police looked for them? Why had our concerns not been taken seriously?
When Sarah Everard’s death hit the headlines in March 2021, less than a year later, it all came hurtling back. The police didn’t launch an appeal for my girls’ whereabouts. After their deaths, news coverage was scant. Sarah went missing in almost identical circumstances, but was treated so differently. I believe it was because of the colour of her skin. What else could it be? I’m certain when I gave officers Bibaa’s address and they saw it was a council estate in a black community, she was dismissed. I know people will have questioned why two black women were on their own in a park at night, assuming they’d be up to no good. They weren’t, but that’s irrelevant, and even if they had been, does that mean they deserved to die?
I spoke to the tabloids after their deaths, but I felt it was only when they found out that Bibaa was a senior social worker, and Nicole a talented photographer who had held management roles in hospitality, as well as the fact that they were the
STILL FACING ISSUES
Racism is embedded in our systems, but I hope that by drawing attention to the issues we still face – racism, sexism, classism – that my girls did not die in vain. This isn’t a competition. My girls mattered. Sarah Everard mattered, too. Both our families have been through unspeakable tragedies, and my heart goes out to Sarah’s parents. I know exactly what they are going through.
I miss my girls so much. I miss their energy, their passion. I think about how they’d have been booking theatre trips together now lockdown restrictions are easing, or planning a weekend at a festival. They were opinionated, strong, and acutely aware of what was going on in the world around them.
Like so many others, they would have been at Sarah’s vigil, campaigning for women’s safety. They were going to make a difference, they still can, as long as their deaths are not forgotten.
‘NO ACTIVE SEARCH, NO ENQUIRIES’