Mina Smallman’s home is idyllic. Overlooking Ramsgate harbour, in Kent, it is bathed in natural light. A sign in the kitchen says: “Welcome to Party Palace”. Tiny speakers are embedded in the ceiling from the party days. A gorgeous family photograph is framed on the wall, with her husband, Chris, towering over Mina and her three daughters. “We’ve got lovely memories here with the girls,” Mina, 65, tells me.
On 6 June it will be two years since her life was ripped apart. Two of the daughters were murdered by a stranger at Fryent country park in Wembley, north London. Bibaa Henry was a 46-year-old senior social worker, Nicole Smallman a 27-year-old photographer. A group of 10 friends had been celebrating Bibaa’s birthday with a socially distanced picnic in the park – Britain was in lockdown and indoor gatherings were banned. By 12.30am the friends had left, but Bibaa and Nicole stayed on, dancing to music, draped in fairy lights, taking joyous selfies. At 1.05am Nicole sent a text to her boyfriend, Adam Stone, saying she and Bibaa were dancing in a field by themselves.
Soon afterwards they were killed. Danyal Hussein was a 19-year-old satanist who had pledged to “perform a minimum of six sacrifices every six months for as long as I am free and physically capable” in exchange for winning the Mega Millions Super Jackpot. He stabbed Bibaa eight times, Nicole 28 times.
Although the women were reported missing at around 5am, the police did not search the park. Instead, the family were left to look themselves. That afternoon, Adam discovered the bodies. Horror soon piled upon horror. Mina was informed that the two police officers designated to guard the crime scene, Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis, had taken photographs of the dead women’s corpses and posted them on WhatsApp groups, referring to the women as “dead birds”. One of the WhatsApp groups, called “the A team”, contained 41 police officers. The other, containing friends of Jaffer, was called “Covid cunts”.
With all her remaining strength, Mina took on the Metropolitan police. She was convinced that, had her daughters been white, the police would have searched the park, and Jaffer and Lewis would not have taken the photographs of her daughters. Hearing how the officers violated Bibaa and Nicole, she felt she had lost them for a second time. “I hadn’t even imagined what they looked like until we were told the officers had taken photographs. I began to have flashes of what I thought they looked like. Your kids are murdered and then you hear this. In the natural order of things, you would say the kids being murdered is the worst thing. However, when you are hanging on to a life raft, trying to keep yourself together to function, get up, dress, do what you’ve got to do … when that happened, any reserves that we had were stripped away.”
Throughout it all, she showed an astonishing dignity and capacity for forgiveness. She forgave the killer because he was obviously sick. And when the two officers were eventually sentenced, last December, to 33 months in jail after pleading guilty to misconduct in public office, she said she was prepared to meet them as part of a restorative justice process.
Yet the horror has not abated. Two weeks ago, she and Chris were in court again to hear the officers unsuccessfully appeal against their sentence. Mina thought the stress would kill her. “I had palpitations and my head was pounding. I thought to myself: ‘Am I going to have a heart attack or a stroke here and now?’” She was disgusted by the arguments used by their defence: that the photographs were shared only with close friends and would have gone no further; that taking selfies is just what people do nowadays to show what they have been up to. Jaffer’s barrister asked how his two teenage daughters would cope when he was in prison, oblivious to the casual cruelty of his question.
She had been prepared to give the officers the benefit of the doubt. Now, she tells me, she has withdrawn her offer to meet them. “If they’d served their time without complaining, I would understand that they had repented. But when they challenged the sentence I thought that was bullshit.” Why had she agreed to meet them originally? “I’ve said all along I don’t need to meet with them to bring me peace. I wanted to be a mirror so they can look at the mother of the two girls they took photos of. I froze the request because I don’t want them to use it as part of their defence – ‘The mother has reached out and we’ve said yeah we’re going to meet her.’”
Mina Smallman is as tough as she is warm. She says she had to be to progress as a working-class woman of dual heritage (her mother was Scottish, her father Nigerian). She left school with two CSEs, then returned to do O-levels as a mature student, graduated with a bachelor of education in her early 30s, then taught drama for 15 years. After gaining a degree in contextual theology she was ordained into the Church of England at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2006. In 2013, she became Britain’s first black female archdeacon. Throughout her career she says she experienced misogyny and racism, mainly from privileged white men who questioned her right to a place at the table.
She became part of the establishment, but never stopped challenging it. When she was asked to mentor students from ethnic minorities, she agreed only if she could also mentor the white working-class boys she felt were equally disadvantaged. Later, she introduced unconscious bias training for vicars. She says she has always been able to sniff out institutional bigotry, and never more so than now.
Bibaa (Mina’s daughter from her first marriage, along with her surviving daughter, Monique) was black while Nicole (Mina’s daughter with Chris) was of dual heritage. Smallman believes that they were victims of racial profiling and classism; that the police were not interested in searching for them because Bibaa lived on a notorious estate in Wembley. The former Met chief superintendent Dal Babu supported her, saying: “If this was a 40-year-old professional white woman, I question whether we would have had the delay and difficulties we have had.”
Mina was furious when the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) concluded that although the level of service provided to family and friends of the women after their disappearance was “unacceptable” (the duty inspector closed the police logs after receiving information about the sisters’ possible whereabouts, while a call handler referred to one of the sisters as a “suspect”), it was not a result of bias. “I call the IOPC the three blind monkeys – hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Independent? They can’t even investigate the Met without the Met agreeing they can investigate.”
Chris, a former English teacher, arrives home. He has an Everton shirt on. “As soon as he knows you love footy, you’ve got your old bromance thing going,” Mina says. He takes off his trainers. “Chris, your shoes stink.”
“The other guys say that, too.”
They laugh. She asks him to leave the trainers outside.
Chris and Mina have very different coping methods. He keeps himself active with sport and tutoring. She has her faith and activism. So many couples separate after suffering such extreme trauma. How has it affected their relationship? “It’s made us closer. Chris and I were good friends before we were a couple.” She smiles. We’re brother/sister, husband/wife, we squabble, we’re real. He doesn’t judge me for the way I grieve and I don’t judge him for the way he grieves. He needs to be out there playing tennis, walking football – he talks to everyone in the street. I retreat. My challenge now is to be out there more.”
She has just made Two Daughters, a BBC documentary about her life since the girls were murdered. I ask why she has stayed in the public eye. She quotes Emmeline Pankhurst on fighting for women’s suffrage: “You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else.” She says there are two Mina Smallmans: one is the activist, the other is the mother. In the documentary, we see a lot of the activist, campaigning about women’s safety and Black Lives Matter. But in the most devastating scene she howls with grief, inconsolable. This is Mina the mother.
Today, I get to see plenty of the latter. She talks lovingly about her daughters. Bibaa, the oldest, was a pocket-sized dynamo – barely 5ft, stylish, streetwise and a devoted social worker. She had an adult daughter and was about to become a grandmother. Nicole had gone to a performing arts school, was a talented musician and a natural-born hippy. Despite their age difference, Bibaa and Nicole were exceptionally close.
Monique is a personal trainer who lives in Holland. I ask how she is coping. “It’s been hard,” Mina says. “The first few times she came here, we never talked about it. We couldn’t. The girls used to share a room if they came at the same time. Just by habit, I said: ‘Your room’s ready.’ The next day I asked how she slept and she said: ‘I just kept thinking of the times I’d stayed in this room with Nikki.” When Monique visits now, she sleeps in a different room.
The longer I spend with Mina, the more I realise the number of lives devastated by the murders. Mina’s sister, Anne, died soon after her nieces were killed. “I think Bibaa’s murder finished her. She was fighting with cancer for five years and she was particularly close to Bibaa. She wanted to talk about her, and I couldn’t do it. I was broken. I couldn’t even go to her funeral because it was only few months after the girls’. I couldn’t go back there.”
I ask what life used to be like before the murders. “It wasn’t great. I have battled with my physical and mental health.” She was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, and in 2016 took early retirement. But in the months before the girls were killed, she was feeling more positive. “I was beginning to come out of the darkness …” She trails off, disconsolate.
Once she knew the girls had not been sexually assaulted or tortured, she told the police she did not want to know the details. But they came out at the trials of Hussein and the police officers. “When your child has been murdered and you have to listen to their last moments …” Again, words fail her. “Horrific. Horrific.”
Hussein’s legal team argued that because the officers entered the crime scene to take the photographs, they could have contaminated it. “That sick monster had said he was going to kill six women every six months, so another four women were going to be murdered, and he could have got off because of what those officers did. From my perspective, I’m thinking we have spared potentially another four families.” She pauses. “No thanks to those police officers.”
The photographer arrives and suddenly the house is busy. As Mina has her photo taken, Chris and I chat. Chris says his daily routine hasn’t changed much since losing Bibaa and Nicole. He tries to keep himself active. “I’ve got a good friendship group through walking football. That’s been a saviour. I’m pretty matter of fact as to the way I handle it. I’m not going into a spiral of emotional despair, which can easily happen. The way I look at it is the girls wouldn’t want me to go into a hole and give up. They’d they want me to keep going.” Has it been tempting to go in to a hole? “Not for me, no. I’m not a very emotional person. If Everton lose, I get upset!”
For about five years, he was both father and schoolteacher to Nicole. Was that difficult for her? “No, she loved it!” Did she ever call him Dad in class? “She did a couple of times.” He smiles at the memory.
Although he is trying his best to get on with life, he says that there are thoughts he can’t get out of his head. “It’s all the ifs and buts. Why the fuck did they stay there when everybody else went? Why wasn’t the weather the same as it was the night before, because it had been raining then? It was the one night that was lovely. It’s all whys and ifs. The thing is it wouldn’t have happened, but Boris said get out, don’t have parties in your house. All those little things you think …”
Mina returns and he leaves the room to make us a drink. I tell her what Chris said to me about being unemotional and ask if it’s true, or whether he was saying it because he didn’t want to go there. “The second,” she says quietly. “If you speak to him about Nikki and Bibaa and what he loved about them, he can’t get through that without crying.”
I mention that one of the what-ifs he spoke about was lockdown. Mina had earlier told me she can go from nought to 90 in a nanosecond, and now she proves it. Last month the government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the Partygate scandal as “fluff” and “fundamentally trivial”, and she’s still apoplectic. Not least because she keeps thinking how the police would have reacted if his children had gone missing. “The truth is if Bibaa hadn’t had the picnic outside, if she had decided to break the rules, she and Nikki would still be alive. It’s like how dare you, Rees-Mogg?”
Without a breath she turns her attention back to the Metropolitan police, which announced last October that it would apologise to the family because its response after Bibaa and Nicole went missing “fell short” and “compounded the distress felt by their loved ones”. “Say sorry?” she fumes. “You know sorry is what you say when you bump into someone in the street.”
Mina finds it difficult to forgive the government hypocrisy or the police officers, but none of her anger is directed at the killer. She pities him. She mentions Gee Walker, the mother of Anthony Walker, who was brutally murdered in an unprovoked racist attack 17 years ago. “After his murder, she said: ‘I forgive the killers because my faith tells me I should.’ I preached on that, saying this woman is amazing because I’m not sure I could do it.”
And has she done? She pauses. “Yeah, I’ve forgiven Hussein.” Would she meet him? “No, because he clearly isn’t well. Maybe with some therapy support, years later that might be possible.”
What advice would she give to other people looking to forgive? “I would say to someone who has lost their child in extreme circumstances, try to let the anger go. You’re not letting your loved one down by letting go. If you imagine them looking down, they would be so upset that you have punctuated your life, so the aggressor, the murderer, wins. Let the anger go.”
Yet still the grief remains overwhelming, and there are times she simply doesn’t want to be here. Has she come close to giving up? “Absolutely,” she says. “Only now I can’t take the escape route because I have personally felt how heartbreaking it is. I couldn’t do it to Chris and Monique. I’ve experienced the loss of my girls, and I would never want to inflict that on Chris and Mon.”
We’ve been talking for hours. Mina is exhausted. Chris offers me a lift to the station.
I ask if she has reached a stage where she can wake up and think it’s a lovely day. She has recently been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “No. No. No, I can’t. I don’t go outside. I recently went shopping, and I tried to get back in the house before anybody saw me. I don’t know why – our neighbours are amazing.”
She is finding it easier to get on with her public life as an activist than her private life as a mother. “I talk to my counsellor about the mum and the activist, and she said: ‘They’re both you, Mina, you don’t need to separate them.’” Is she trying to reconcile the two? “Yeah,” she says. But it seems more a question than a statement. “As the activist, I feel totally empowered. But as the mum …” She comes to a painful stop. “I think I’m moving forward, but there’s a lot of work still to be done.”
Two Daughters will air on BBC Two at 9pm on Sunday and be available on iPlayer shortly after broadcast.