Samantha Eastwood’s killer has been jailed for at least 16 years for smothering her after she apparently began to reject him following an "intense affair".
"Composed and callous" Michael Stirling – the brother-in-law of Miss Eastwood’s ex-fiancé – murdered the NHS midwife with his bare hands, buried her body in a shallow grave and tried to lay a "false trail" to cover up his involvement.
After killing her, he put her wedding dress and engagement ring on her bed, pretended to search for her and – in an act of "breath-taking cruelty" – sent texts from her phone to her worried sister to make it look like she was still alive.
Stirling, 32, initially hid her body in his work van while he spent the evening with his wife, child and his parents, appearing "fine and cheerful" despite his brutal act at Miss Eastwood’s home in Baddeley Green, Staffs, just hours earlier.
But his lies soon unravelled and police followed him to a secluded site where he had buried the 28-year-old’s body, StokeonTrentLive reports.
Stirling was handed a life sentence with no chance of parole for at least 16 years and 299 days once time already served is factored in.
Sentencing, Mrs Justice Carr told Stirling: “In the agonising hours and days following her death you lied and lied, over and over again, in an attempt to cover up what you had done.”
Describing the text messages Stirling sent from Miss Eastwood’s phone to her sister Gemma the day after the murder, the judge said: “You took your actions to a new level, with breath-taking cruelty. It is difficult to imagine the further appalling distress and confusion this caused to Samantha’s family and friends.”
The judge added: “You weaved an extraordinary web of deception."
Gemma said after the hearing: "Justice has been served today. No matter the outcome nothing can bring my sister back. I have lost my best friend and sister, my mum has lost a kind caring and loving daughter. Our lives will never be the same."
Miss Eastwood and Stirling – who was married to the sister of John Peake, the midwife’s former partner – had been involved in a "long-standing" affair before he killed her on July 27 in an alleged row over the future of their relationship.
Stafford Crown Court heard Stirling had been "hounding" her – bombarding her with 128 phone calls in the month before the murder – and it appeared she may have been trying to reject him.
On the day of the murder, Mr Peake found Miss Eastwood’s engagement ring and wedding dress – which had been put up for sale on Facebook after their wedding was called off – on her bed after she was reported missing and he went to look for her.
He had called Stirling to get a key for the property.
Earlier that day, a neighbour had heard a woman something like "get off me" and noises that sounded as if she was being attacked and fighting back, the court heard.
Jonas Hankin QC, prosecuting, told the court: “The killing was undoubtedly brutal. She was aware she was being strangled and smothered and would have been distressed when it was happening.”
After smothering her, Stirling – who claims it was a "spontaneous assault" – put tape over Miss Eastwood’s face and eyes, wrapped her body in a duvet and buried her in a rural area near Caverswall, where her remains were found eight days later.
He disposed of the body after telling his wife he was going out to look for her, and he sent text messages from Miss Eastwood’s phone to her sister Gemma during the initial stages of the search.
He went to the midwife’s home and hugged Gemma, who was wrought with worry and had no idea she was being embraced by her sister’s killer. The act continues to haunt Miss Eastwood’s devastated sister.
Two days before the murder, Stirling researched online the effects of anti-freeze, carbon monoxide poisoning and how long it takes someone to suffocate to death, the court heard as new details about the murder were revealed.
He claimed he was researching possible methods of suicide.
On the day of the murder, CCTV showed Stirling arriving at Miss Eastwood’s home in his van before she returned a few minutes later.
He left about an hour later and went to work, but sent a text message to a client at 9.26am saying he wouldn’t be finishing his work that day because he had a cough.
The court heard that neighbour heard a woman screaming for about 15 to 20 seconds at about 3pm, and it sounded as if she was being attacked and fighting back.
Neighbour Nigel Jones heard the woman scream something like "get off me" before the shouting stopped, and he did not hear a man’s voice, the court heard.
Just after 5pm, CCTV showed Stirling walking out of Miss Eastwood’s driveway and then reversing his van onto the drive.
He then put Miss Eastwood’s body into the van.
He sent a text to his wife at 5.15pm saying he would meet her at his mum and dad’s home.
He drove to his parents’ house in Bucknall and parked the van, with Samantha’s body inside.
He met with his wife and daughter there and the family spent the evening together. His wife described him as "fine and cheerful", the court heard.
Stirling then went home, where he had a shower and got changed.
That night, he told his wife he was going out to look for Stirling, but instead went and buried her body between 10.39pm and 11.09pm.
He texted his wife saying "Nothing at The Orange Tree", a bar and grill where he claimed he had gone and shown a photo of Miss Eastwood.
He then claimed he was going to the Ego restaurant to continue the search.
CCTV showed his van travelling to the burial site, and it appears he spent 40 minutes there.
He had dug a shallow grave, removed Miss Eastwood’s body from the van and put it in the ground, and then covered her body with soil and headed back to his wife, texting her: "It’s closed, I’m coming home.”
Stirling went to bed at 2.30am on July 28 and later that morning he went to the house opposite Miss Eastwood’s home to ask if they had reviewed their CCTV footage.
He was anxious to know what evidence they had, the court heard.
He then went to Miss Eastwood’s house, spoke to her friends and told them he had been out since 5am looking for her.
He claimed she told him she was upset about work, and he told them was going to carry on looking for her.
At 9.50am on July 28, Miss Eastwood’s sister Gemma sent a text to the midwife’s home asking her to call her.
She received a reply saying "Please leave me alone x" and further messages that were sent by Stirling, who posed as Miss Eastwood, claiming that she had had a breakdown and needed time alone.
A report from a forensic linguist concluded that Miss Eastwood did not write the messages and the author was likely to be Stirling.
Gemma received another message from Miss Eastwood’s phone saying a man was taking her to a motorway, adding "He’s mad", in another attempt by Stirling to deceive her family.
But mobile phone evidence and CCTV showed he was in possession of the midwife’s phone when the messages were sent.
After his initial arrest on July 29, Stirling told police that he had been to Miss Eastwood’s home and she was upset and "depressed".
He denied having an affair or knowing anything about her disappearance, adding: "I genuinely have love for that girl and I wouldn’t harm a hair on her head."
Stirling was released but police continued to watch him. His movements led to his arrest on suspicion of murder.
On August 2, police followed him to the rural area near Caverswall, where he had buried the body. He was out of the officers’ view at one point as he visited the burial site, the court heard.
He then spoke to police, claiming he was trying to walk to a friend’s house and asked directions, and then rode away on his bike.
Two days later, on August 4, police began a search of the area. They found Miss Eastwood’s body – clad in pyjama bottoms and a white vest top – at 11.05am in a grave about 6ins deep, the court heard.
She was wrapped in a duvet and bound with duct tape.
Tape found in the back of Stirling’s van matched the tape found on the body. Brown parcel tape found wrapped around Miss Eastwood’s head matched tape found in a drawer at her home.
Jonas Hankin QC, prosecuting, said: “When Stirling was arrested for a second time, he showed no surprise and asked nothing about Samantha.”
Mr Hankin said Stirling’s behaviour following the murder showed he was acting deliberately.
The prosecutor said: “In the hours after her death he was composed, he was callous. While he was burying Samantha’s body, he spoke calmly to his wife on the telephone.”
The court heard that Miss Eastwood and Stirling met in 2010 and began flirting with each other in 2013, around the time that Stirling and his wife had a child.
Their close friendship developed into "something else" in 2014, the court heard.
Miss Eastwood and Mr Peake got engaged in 2015 and bought a house together, but they separated in early 2018.
After they split up, Mr Peake confronted Stirling about the relationship, but Stirling denied anything was happening between them.
After Miss Eastwood vanished, Stirling told police that she was unhappy – a lie – and tried to make out that she had "gone away" on her own, said Mr Hankin.
In the month before the murder, Stirling had called Miss Eastwood 128 times, while she had called him 25 times and often didn’t respond to his calls or text messages in the days before she was killed.
Mr Hankin said: “The pattern might suggest that Samantha was seeking to put some distance between herself and Mr Stirling. There is some suggestion he was hounding her.”
On the day of the murder, Stirling flew into an "intense rage" during a row, and covered her throat, nose and mouth with his hands on July 27 as she lay on the floor, the court was told.
Miss Eastwood was reported missing to police after she failed to show up for a night shift at Royal Stoke University Hospital later that day.
Her colleagues had told how she was "fine and bubbly", in good spirits and "her normal self" during her last shift, and her disappearance was "completely out of character" – countering Stirling’s claims that she was unhappy.
Her disappearance sparked a massive search which came to a tragic end on August 4 when her body was found miles from her home.
Stirling, a former gardener from the Stoke suburb of Northwood, pleaded guilty to murder at Northampton Crown Court on October 22.
He claims the murder wasn’t planned, but he killed Miss Eastwood when he became "very angry" during an argument.
Mr Hankin told the court on Monday: “It’s difficult to understand why Mr Stirling sought to cover her airways with brown parcel tape were it not to prevent her breathing.
"The basis of plea remains silent on this. There’s no evidence that Mr Stirling applied the tape to Samantha’s face before he had strangled and smothered her.”
The prosecution said he did so to ensure that, were Miss Eastwood not already dead by then, that she would not survive.
The court heard statements from Mr Peake and Miss Eastwood’s mother, Carole, and sister Gemma, who told how Stirling had hugged her hours after the murder.
Overcome with emotion, Gemma described her sister as her "best friend" and "mentor", while referring to Stirling as "the murderer".
She described how he had "the audacity" to show up at Miss Eastwood’s house on the day she disappeared to try to throw people "off the scent".
Gemma – who made a tearful plea while her sister was missing – added: “That night he hugged me after he killed my sister. That will haunt me.
"When he killed my sister, he might as well have killed me and mum.”
Stirling remained emotionless, looking straight ahead or at the floor.
Mr Hankin read a statement from Mrs Eastwood, who said: “I keep thinking it should be the other way around.
"Samantha should be burying me. I was so excited when Samantha asked me to give her away when she was due to get married.
"I will never get the chance to do this. I will never get the chance to have a grandchild.”
The statement said Mrs Eastwood was rushed to hospital after she was told her daughter had died, and described how her health has declined.
Mrs Eastwood said: “I feel lost without Samantha. I visit her grave daily.
"I just don’t understand why someone would want to do this to my daughter. What did she do to deserve it?”
Mr Hankin read a statement from Mr Peake, who said: “I always thought we would have got back together. Because of what has happened, I will never know and I will always wonder what could have been.”
He added that Samantha’s favourite time of year was Christmas, and he will struggle to enjoy another festive season.
Mr Peake said he has been struggling to eat and sleep, and he has been wracked by feelings of guilt.
He adds that his relationship with his sister – Stirling’s wife – has been damaged.
“It has torn our family apart,” he said.
During her sentencing remarks, Mrs Justice Carr described the statements as "moving", and hailed Gemma for her bravery in giving her statement to the court in person.
The court heard that Stirling claims he killed Miss Eastwood "in a fog of anger" when he "lost all his self-control" during an argument.
His barrister, Mr Miskin, mitigating, claimed Miss Eastwood’s wedding dress was already laid out on the bed when Stirling returned to her home and went into her room, where they argued.
He suggested Miss Eastwood had provoked Stirling, claiming she "knew how to push his buttons" and "laughed" at him moments before he killed her.
Mr Miskin said: “This developed into a full-scale row with various things said and threats made. They concerned his family. The argumentative stakes rose.
"He should have stepped away from all this. Miss Eastwood was feisty and spirited and knew how to push his buttons.
"He pushed her and she fell onto the floor knocking her head on a table.
"He got down and straddled her.
"With his left hand he was pointing at her face as he talked to her. He was threatening. She laughed at him.
"She wasn’t scared of him.
"He put his left hand on her throat, he was still trying to scare her.
"She continued to shout and scream. He lost all his self-control and in a fog of anger, as a result of which, she died.”
Mr Miskin said Stirling put the tape around Miss Eastwood’s face because "he didn’t want to see her like that" and to "protect" her face when he buried her.
He said Stirling used more tape to secure the duvet.
Mr Hankin has told the judge that the prosecution does not accept Stirling’s account of why the tape was applied to Samantha’s face.
Mr Miskin said because Stirling had been "living a double life" for so long, it was not difficult for him to keep up the pretence with her friends and family, and Stirling apologises to Samantha’s family for that.
After Miss Eastwood was reported missing, Stirling was initially arrested on suspicion of kidnapping her.
He was released pending further investigation.
Days later, he was arrested on suspicion of murder and Miss Eastwood’s body was found.
Miss Eastwood and Mr Peake, who began their relationship in 2010, had been due to marry in June this year.
The wedding was called off in January and she put her wedding dress up for sale on Facebook.
In a statement released by Staffordshire Police after the sentencing hearing, Gemma: "Justice has been served today. No matter the outcome nothing can bring my sister back. I have lost my best friend and sister, my mum has lost a kind caring and loving daughter. Our lives will never be the same.
"We would like to thank our close friends and family for all the love and support through this tragic time. We would like to thank Staffordshire Police for putting such a strong case together in such a small space of time. We would like to thank our family liaison officers for the constant support and guidance.
"We ask that everyone respects our privacy throughout this difficult time. Samantha has gone but she will never be forgotten."
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