A man has been jailed after he battered a homeless mum-of-three to death while she was sleeping on the steps of a church she attended when she was a child.
Kieran Rifat, 22, battered Kelly Stewart, 42, with a rock before he repeatedly ground his foot into her face. He then dragged her body into an alleyway and unleashed a second attack with a gas canister, leaving her lying in a pool of blood..
Rifat knew ‘gentle’ and ‘cheerful’ Ms Stewart through the Bridges Project, a charity providing free breakfast meals to the homeless community at the church.
Rifat had previously had an argument with Ms Stewart’s ex-boyfriend, Henry Donker, and then ‘took out’ the argument on Ms Stewart because Mr Donker is ‘substantially’ bigger in build.
On the night of the murder, Ms Stewart was sleeping outside Barking Memorial Church in Plaistow, east London, which was described as her ‘place of sanctuary’ at the ‘centre of her world’.
On March 26 last year Rifat killed her in a ‘frenzied attack’ and then returned at around 7pm the next day to drag her body out of view, into a church passageway he had access to because he sometimes did ‘odd jobs’ at the place of worship.
In the alleyway, Rifat unleashed another onslaught onto the mum-of-three with a gas canister and then went through his victim’s possessions.
He found Ms Stewart’s swipe card for a mental health centre and threw it in a nearby bush after deeming it ‘useless’ to him.
On the morning after the attack pastor Edwin Mbugua-Kibathi noticed scattered clothing and a blood trail and then called police who found Ms Stewart’s body covered in flies.
Ms Stewart’s injuries were ‘so severe that her skin was sunken into her skull’, said prosecutor Charlotte Newell.
CCTV had captured some of the attack and officers later found out that Rifat had admitted the murder to a friend during a phone call.
‘It was plain she was alive during most if not all of that attack,’ Ms Newell said.
Rifat told Antoine Brooks: ‘I went round the corner, you know what, you know where with me, when I walk off and I want to f**king come back and hit [Donker] with something and he was gone.
‘So I went round, and I went I know, I know where he is, I went straight outside the Church, Boom, just f***ed her up. Done her there and then.’
Rifat, of Grange Road, Plaistow, pleaded guilty and the Old Bailey jailed him for a minimum of 18 years on Thursday, February 4.
Ms Stewart started sleeping outside the church in 2019 when she began ‘falling through the net’ while suffering from mental health problems after successfully raising three children as a single mum.
She had grown up attending Barking Memorial Church and slept outside of it because it was a place of ‘great comfort’, the court heard.
Prosecutor Ms Newell said a church worker ‘noticed Rifat walk past and look over at the steps where Kelly usually slept’ the day before her murder.
The church worker said ‘he looked as though he was looking for someone or something’.
Jennifer Dempster, defending, said Rifat’s early guilty plea to murder was the best mitigation that could be offered for the horrific killing.
Ms Dempster said: ‘He was brought up in the Warwick area. His father was in and out of prison for most of his childhood. He is diagnosed with ADHD.
‘This is a case where it is difficult to mitigate. His best mitigation is his early guilty plea. He should receive full credit for that plea.
‘The attack was at a church, a place of comfort and sanctuary particularly at that time.
‘If not the centre of her world it was certainly close to it and close to a home.
‘It was over an argument with the victim’s ex-boyfriend, the larger gentleman my friend referred to. He accepts he took his anger out on her.’
Judge John Hillen said: Ms Stewart ‘was a much-loved mother to all her children.
‘Her sister describes her many talents as an artist, writer and cook. She sang and she acted.
‘Nothing I can say today can bring her back and no sentence that I pass can compensation for the grief and loss her family and friends will suffer all their lives.’
Speaking directly to Rifat, Judge Hillen said: ‘You took her life. You have your life but much of that life if not all of it will now be spent in confinement in prison.
‘Following successfully bringing up her children as a single mother, Kelly had developed in midlife it would seem mental health difficulties.
‘She was one of those for whom the safety net failed, and she became a street dweller.
‘From 2019 she intermittently used to sleep and keep her belongings on the steps of the Memorial Church in Barking Road in Plaistow.
‘That was a place her sister says she was familiar with. she had attended during her early childhood years, so a place she found great comfort.
‘She used local facilities for the homeless which you also use.
‘As you were later to say, you were a user of class-A drugs.
‘You, although homeless, also had someone’s flat to sleep in from time to time.
‘This was a sustained assault using protracted, extreme violence on a homeless vulnerable mentally ill woman, who was asleep, who did not and could not resist.’
Bridget Fitzpatrick from the CPS said: ‘Although nothing can bring Miss Stewart back, I hope this prosecution goes some way in comforting those who knew and cared for her.’
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