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Amber Peat's disappearance tugged hearts across Britain. Then, after three agonizing days, she was found hanged. A Mail investigation reveals the troubling story behind the death of a 'modern Cinderella'
Amber was not only unusually pretty, she was also bright. ‘Academically gifted’ are the words her headmaster used to describe her. More often than not, she could be found with her head in a book.
She wasn't an angel. Of course she wasn't. What 13-year-old is?
Behind those big, brown eyes, she could be full of impish mischief (and, yes, prone to the occasional teenage tantrum and bad behavior in school).
But anyone who really got to know her found it impossible not to warm to her.
She was one of the kindest, nicest, funniest people I've ever met,’ one of her friends told us.
Her friend is speaking in the past tense because Amber is dead. Some of you might remember her face, if not her name, staring out from the newsstands and TV news bulletins after she went missing from her home in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, on May 30 following a family holiday in Cornwall. There was a row when they got back home. Words were exchanged. Then the front door slammed and Amber was gone.
She never came back. Some time later, her body was found hanged in a hedgerow in the middle of a housing estate less than a mile away.
For three days, no one had known she was there. She wasn't spotted by the hundreds of police officers and local residents who’d been searching for her. There were no ‘suspicious circumstances’, police announced after making the tragic discovery — a stock phrase which meant that Amber’s death was not the subject of a murder investigation.
A few days before, in a televised press conference after she’d disappeared, her mother Kelly, 34, and stepfather Danny Peat, 31, talked about the holiday in Cornwall where Amber ‘had a fantastic time . . . we never stopped laughing, all of us together’.
Amber had been asked to clean out a cool box on their return, they said. She took umbrage, apparently, and stormed out of the house. It was completely out of character, said Mr Peat. She wasn't ‘the kind of girl that would wander off’.
Amber’s death has now faded from the headlines. Life outside Mansfield has moved on.
But one question, the only one that really matters, still remains. Why?
It is a question that still haunts the community in Amber’s hometown, where she was buried last month. Her pink casket — with her name spelt out on the side — was mounted on a horse-drawn carriage; there couldn't have been a more pitiful sight.
Yet, despite the blanket media coverage after she vanished, all we know about Amber is what we were told at that televised press conference and in a subsequent statement released after she was found.
‘We will always remember Amber for her love of singing and dancing,’ her mother and stepfather said. ‘She was never happier than when reading to her younger sisters and being surrounded by her family. We . . .will miss her always.’
Today, following our own inquiries over the past few months, a much fuller picture of Amber’s final months has emerged. It is a story this newspaper has now been asked to tell by members of Amber’s extended family because, they say, ‘Amber’s voice deserves to be heard’.
The story, as so often in such cases, begins at home.
Amber’s stepfather, the man who spoke so lovingly about her in front of the cameras, has, for the time being, been removed from the family home by social services and is not allowed unsupervised contact with Amber’s younger sister, 12-year-old Riley.
The decision was taken after concerns were raised — in the aftermath of Amber’s death — that she had been exposed to severe and inappropriate punishments and incessant ridicule.
Those concerns were reinforced by our investigation.
Perhaps the best way of putting it is that Amber, according to neighbors and relatives we spoke to, led a Cinderella type of existence, carrying the burden of more than her fair share of the domestic chores, then being chastised if those jobs were not completed ‘satisfactorily’.
It was a row over the cleaning of the cool box, remember, that triggered her disappearance.
A serious case review is believed to have started into Amber’s death by the local Safeguarding Children Board, an organization made up of groups such as councils, the police and the NHS, whose responsibilities include protecting young people. Such reviews are undertaken ‘when a child dies or is seriously injured, and abuse or neglect are known or suspected to be factors in the death’, says its website.
Suicides among children in their early teens are extremely rare. The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2013, just ten youngsters in the UK aged 14 or under were suspected of taking their own lives. Only two of those victims were girls.
For the moment, at least, Amber’s death has not been classed as suicide. Instead, it remains one of ‘undetermined intent’ — a phrase often used when there is no note left behind, because ‘suicide’ is a label that parents, naturally, find particularly distressing. The coroner is awaiting reports from social services and other agencies before holding the full inquest hearing; no date has yet been set.
Amber’s story is one that will surely resonate with countless other children in Britain from similar backgrounds.
Nothing in it, taken in isolation, would make the front pages. Amber wasn't physically or sexually abused. The wretchedness of her daily existence, such that it was, slipped beneath the radar and passed for normal life. It is perhaps that which makes her plight so heartbreaking, so poignant.
Amber’s parents, who never married, split up in 2012. Her mother married Mr Peat not long afterwards, in 2013. The couple’s daughter, Lily Rose —half-sister to Amber and Riley — was born in May 2014.
This domestic upheaval would unsettle any child, but over the past two years alone Amber and her new family moved homes at least four times, veering between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and she is understood to have attended at least three different schools.
One traumatic consequence was that Amber lost contact with her biological father, Adrian Cook, and her paternal grandmother — the ‘Nanna’ she used to visit every weekend, and at whose home she spent so many happy hours innocently painting her nails and pretending to be a model.
Until about a year ago, the Peat family were living in Peveril Road, Tibshelf, Derbyshire, about seven miles from Mansfield.
Enquiries there provide a glimpse into what life actually entailed for Amber. A number of residents on the street recall her having run away twice previously. On one occasion, they say, a police helicopter was dispatched to find her.
‘On those occasions she would be missing for a few hours and return home either late at night or in the morning,’ a spokesman for the Nottinghamshire force confirmed.
Neighbours in Peveril Road couldn’t help but notice how often Amber used to put out the bins or clear up rubbish from the garden.
One small incident stands out — the time, it is alleged, Amber was spotted standing outside with her hands above her head. ‘We heard him [Mr Peat] shouting at her and telling her to go outside with her hands above her head as a punishment for looking at his laptop,’ said someone who lived opposite the family.
On another occasion, a relative told us how Amber had to clean out the kitchen cupboards before bed, only they ‘weren’t done properly so he made her get up and clean them again.’
And there is one more thing you should know about Peveril Road: when Amber’s family moved to their most recent address in Mansfield, they left behind a painfully thin cat.
‘It was really skinny,’ said a neighbour. ‘We fed it for a few days before they came back and picked it up.’
In 2011, Danny Peat was fined £1,000 and given a six-month suspended sentence for animal cruelty after a pet rabbit was found starved to death in its hutch at the house where he was then staying.
His recent history has been marked by broken relationships (he has at least two more children by other women) and trouble of one kind or another.
In one foul-mouthed online rant he denounced the Pubwatch scheme, in which landlords share intelligence on troublemakers, as ‘a power trip for f****** retards,’ adding, ‘I f****** hate coppers’.
Last year, unemployed Mr Peat was jailed for 16 months over a £120,000 tax fraud. He and an accomplice admitted attempting to falsely claim more than £200,000 in tax rebates. Derby Crown Court heard Mr Peat was the instigator and received £78,000 from the scam. He did not serve his full sentence.
It would be difficult to think of a worse role model for Amber.
One of the reasons the family moved so often, locals have suggested, was to try to escape the stigma of Mr Peat’s troublesome past. Amber’s home life continued to be problematic after moving to Mansfield.
The sound of shouting and raised voices could sometimes be heard coming from her house, we have been told. On at least one occasion, Amber is said to have been discovered hiding in a neighbour’s shed.
A few miles away in the village of Codnor, Amber’s Nanna — Jennifer Lancaster — invited us into her bungalow. The love she had for Amber, and Amber for her, is evident the moment you walk through the door.
There are photographs of Amber on the walls and in cherished albums. Amber at the fairground during holidays with her Nanna in Skegness. Amber in a fairy dress. Amber in a sun hat. The contrast between that happy little girl and the sad one in the photograph released after she went missing is striking.
But Mrs Lancaster hadn’t been part of Amber’s life for the past two years. The last time the 66-year-old saw her (and her sister Riley) was on Mother’s Day 2013.
‘They rushed in and said they couldn’t stay for long as their mum was waiting in the car outside,’ she said. ‘I’d made them two little bracelets with pink stones for Amber and purple ones for Riley. They were just thrilled with them.
‘They hugged me and told me I was the best Nanna in the world.’
A few weeks later, their mother married Danny Peat. Mrs Lancaster never saw or spoke to Amber again.
When she went to their house soon afterwards, they had moved. There was no explanation, she says, no warning, and no way of getting in touch with Amber.
Her 39-year-old son Adrian was also cut out of his children’s lives.
To her credit, Mrs Lancaster, who is a broken woman today, does not try to paint her son as the perfect dad.
‘It must have been very difficult for the kids when he was with Kelly. It was a tempestuous relationship.’ Even so, you would have to have a heart of stone not to feel sympathy for Mr Cook in his attempts to re-establish contact with his daughters.
Following criticism on social media that he had effectively abandoned Amber, Mr Cook, who now lives in Scotland, told a newspaper he’d been ‘thrown out’ on Christmas Eve three years ago and only saw his daughters twice over the next few months until they moved.
By the time he found their new address, they’d moved again. Somewhere, caught up in the middle of all this, was Amber.
By now, she was living in a council house in Mansfield. Her day began much earlier than some of the other children because she attended the breakfast club at Queen Elizabeth’s Academy (where the first meal of the day is provided free of charge), which began at 7.45am.
Amber always walked to school, a two-mile journey through two housing estates that would have taken her about 30 minutes.
She was in the academy choir and loved dancing. One of her best friends was 12-year-old Brandon Stubbs. His mother allowed him to speak to us.
‘There was a group of about seven of us who would always sit at the same table for dinner,’ he said.
‘She was always kicking my chair or jumping on my back to get my attention. But when our group of friends arranged to meet up in town on a Saturday or go to the cinema, Amber would always sound like she wanted to come but she never, ever came out.’
Brandon, a highly intelligent, softly spoken boy, says he had ‘absolutely no inkling’ of what she was about to do.
He found out that she had run away when her family posted her photograph on Facebook next to the word: ‘Missing.’
After her body was found, Brandon, displaying wisdom beyond his years, posted his own tribute to Amber online. ‘If I could reverse anything in life, it would be to go back to you and tell you everything gets better.
‘You were so beautiful and pretty, you could have achieved anything you wanted, but you let go.
‘What the world has come to, the issues that made you feel this way, made you feel depressed and alone, it disgusts me.
‘It was just too soon: you had your whole life ahead of you.’
There were no ‘suspicious circumstances’ in Amber’s death, the police said. But that does not necessarily mean no one was to blame for what happened to her.
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