A man who murdered his brother-in-law’s ex-fiancée following an "intense affair" put her wedding dress and engagement ring on her bed to lay a "false trail", a court heard.
Michael Stirling, 32, is due to be sentenced on Monday for smothering NHS midwife Samantha Eastwood, 28, to death with his bare hands at her home in Baddeley Green, Staffs.
He tried to make it seem like she had "gone away" on her own because she was "depressed" just months after her wedding was called off, but the court heard he had been "hounding" her and she apparently was trying to reject him.
Stirling had laid out her wedding dress and engagement ring on her bed to lay a "false trail" after killing her, and hid her body in his van the "fine and cheerful" killer spent the evening with his wife, child and parents.
"Composed and callous" Stirling then buried her body in a shallow grave after telling his wife he was going out to look for her, and sent text messages from Miss Eastwood’s phone to her sister claiming she was having a breakdown, StokeonTrentLive reports.
Miss Eastwood’s dress – which had been put up for sale on Facebook – and ring were discovered by her former fiancé, John Peake, when he went to check on her after she had been reported missing, Stafford Crown Court heard.
The court heard that it appeared Stirling was "hounding" Miss Eastwood – calling her 128 times in the month before her death – while she was trying to put some distance between them.
On the day of the murder, 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.
The NHS worker’s body was found wrapped in a duvet with masking tape over the face and eyes eight days later in a rural area near Caverswall.
Miss Eastwood and Stirling – who was married to Mr Peake’s sister – had been involved in a "long-standing" affair before he killed her.
Her colleagues at Royal Stoke University Hospital told how she was "fine and bubbly" during her last shift, and her disappearance was "completely out of character" – countering Stirling’s claims that she was unhappy.
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.
It is believed 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 drawyer 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 began flirting with each other in 2013, around the time that Stirling and his wife had a child.
They maintained a close relationship for years, but the status of their relationship at the time of her murder remains unclear.
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.
The court heard that she was "fine and bubbly" during her last shift and she was in good spirits and "her normal self" when she left on the morning of July 27.
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 the night 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 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.
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 again 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.
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