Like many parents, Claire Throssell carries her sons’ sports gear in the back of her car. Paul’s running trainers and Jack’s PE kit sit in the boot – but they have been there for a long time. For three and a half years, in fact: ever since the two boys were murdered by their father.
“It took just 15 minutes for my life to end and my existence to begin,” she says as she recalls the events of 22 October 2014.
On that day, Darren Sykes, to whom she was married for 16 years, committed the most atrocious of crimes. In a pre-planned act, he lured Jack, 12, and Paul, nine, up to the attic of the family home with the promise of a new train set.
“That in itself makes me feel sick,” Claire says, rubbing the ring on her wedding finger, created from her son’s combined ashes. “My lovely boys thought, for once, their dad was showing them affection and trying to make an effort.”
But Sykes, along with Jack and Paul, only came out of the house in the arms of firefighters – who themselves were left severely traumatised by the scene they faced.
Sykes had used five canisters of petrol, bought two days earlier, to turn the three-bedroom house into a blazing inferno. Although, it emerged later, Jack fought to save his younger brother, neither boy stood a chance. “What haunts me the most is that, as their mum, I wasn’t there for my sons when they needed me the most,” says Claire, 45, who works as a teaching assistant in Penistone, South Yorkshire.
She was first wooed by Sykes, a carpet fitter, in 1995. “He sent me a single red rose every day for a fortnight until I finally agreed to go on a date. I was too young and naive to realise this was indicative of an obsessive and controlling personality that would dominate me for years.”
The couple married a year later, and although they were happy enough initially, Claire can pinpoint the exact moment her husband changed.
“While I felt absolute joy at becoming pregnant, he became moody and needy, because I wasn’t giving him the attention he wanted,” she says. “He saw his son as competition.
“Any affection for me disappeared; he would put me down, insult me for being overweight and tell me no man would find me attractive. He was physically abusive, and sexually I was no more than a means to an end for him.”
After Paul was born, Claire focused on being a mum. “That was the fundamental difference. I loved our children more than life itself. He saw them as possessions. There were many times he would scream at Paul because he wanted him to finish the soggy remains of his breakfast cereal. I would stand between them, letting him yell at me, rather than take out his anger on our little boy.”
Claire did try to walk away, taking the boys to live with her mum for days at a time. “But stupidly, I always fell for his apologies and told myself it was better for the boys that they didn’t come from a broken home.”
But the final straw came when Sykes mocked his wife for her weight in front of her sons and ordered her to stand on the bathroom scales. “It hit me that if I didn’t take my sons away from this, they may come to think this was normal behaviour and begin to replicate it,” she says. “I couldn’t bear the thought of their innocent personalities being dirtied by that monster. Already Jack had stood between me and his dad to defend me and bear the brunt of his anger.”
Claire took her children and moved in with her mum, Pamela, in nearby Thurlstone. She began divorce proceedings and a bitter custody battle through the family courts commenced.
“Initially, I encouraged the boys to spend time with their dad – again, something that now eats away at me – but after months of hearings, they said they didn’t want to see him.”
Their visits were reduced to twice a week, one evening after school for two hours and on Sunday afternoon. Claire says, “I gave them a phone so if they needed me while they were with their dad they could contact me.”
But that Wednesday, Claire got back from work to discover the boys had gone with Sykes without their mobile. “Instantly, my heart raced,” she says. The final custody hearing was two weeks away and Sykes was furious his sons had stated they wanted their visits reduced, if not stopped.
“I was worried he would be nasty to them or threaten them if they didn’t change their minds. I could barely eat. I was counting down the minutes until Jack and Paul would be home.”
But her boys never did come running through the door. Instead, a police officer rushed Claire to Sheffield Children’s Hospital, where her youngest son, Paul, died in her arms from smoke inhalation.
“I’d brought Paul into the world, but could never have envisaged I would have to see him leave, too,” she says. “My little boy who could sprint around a running track with the wind in his sails couldn’t escape what his own father had done to him.
“I wanted to hold him for ever, keep him close to me but – horrendously – he was classed as police evidence, and I was ordered to stop touching him.”
Claire was then taken to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, where Jack clung to life for five days. Sykes had been declared dead an hour after Paul.
“I sat by Jack’s bedside reading him his favourite David Walliams books, willing him to make it, praying I wouldn’t lose both my children.”
But Jack died after suffering third-degree burns to 56% of his body.
“In that moment, I wanted to be dead, too, so I could be with my boys.” But it was Jack himself who inadvertently helped his mum carry on. “He had fought so hard to live,” Claire says. “I still had a choice to live. My children didn’t.” Jack’s final words to the firefighters who pulled him out of the house were: “My dad did this and he did it deliberately.”
“I couldn’t allow their deaths to be in vain. I had to stop another mum suffering like I had, stop another child dying needlessly at the hands of a controlling father.”
The months that followed, though, tested Claire’s strength. Not only had she lost her sons, but her house was destroyed and Sykes had written to the bank stating he was no longer responsible for the mortgage, and had not renewed the home insurance. It was only the incredible generosity of the local community that meant the house could be rebuilt and sold.
On those long, harrowing days, when Claire wasn’t sitting wrapped in her son’s “snuggle” blankets, she would go to their graves. “When it rained, I literally clawed at the soil, wanting to pull their ashes out. They hated the dark, and they hated wet weather – the thought of them being underground still tears me apart.”
The simplest things would leave her heartbroken. “I froze to the spot in the shampoo aisle in Tesco when I saw the brand the boys used. When I could move again, I dropped my basket and left, still able to smell their wet hair as they cuddled in to me for a bedtime story.”
She can’t bring herself to speak of their death, preferring to refer to the time they began sleeping.
Claire questioned how a father could do this to his children. She says, “In most domestic childhood murder cases, the father is the perpetrator. The attackers see the children as something they created and therefore have a right to take away.”
She has become an ambassador for Women’s Aid and campaigns to have the process in the family courts changed. A forthcoming domestic abuse bill is likely to prevent abusers being allowed to cross-examine their victims. The next stage is to petition for judges to be held accountable for decisions they make in relation to a custody hearing. “If I can prevent one other mum going through the pain I’ve suffered, stop them having to question whether they could have prevented their child’s death, hopefully my sons didn’t die in vain.”
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