A great found her “floppy and lifeless” toddler grandson lying on the toilet floor after the child’s mum had held him underwater in the bath, a court heard.
Natalie Steele, 32, told her mother and stepfather: “You’d better come upstairs” after plunging her two-year-old son Reid underwater during bath time at the family home.
Michael Jones QC said at Cardiff Crown Court that it was “quite clear the defendant had been mentally unwell for a number of months prior to the death of Reid”.
Steele, from Bridgend, who sat in the dock wearing a dark sweatshirt, admitted a manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility which was accepted by the Crown, according to Wales Online.
Mr Jones said at the time of Reid’s death he and his mother lived in a five-bedroom house in the Broadlands area of Bridgend with grandmother Amanda Prescott, step-grandfather Eric Prescott, and uncle Callum Prescott.
He said: “She always tended to Reid and was always devoted to Reid. She did counting with him and teaching him colours. He was so intelligent because of all the things she did with him.
“They were always together and inseparable. We have never had to worry about Reid, that’s why we’re in shock. Since day one she was devoted to him and he would want for nothing’.”
The prosecutor told the court that last summer the defendant struck up a friendship with a woman named Heidi Ackland and subsequently joined her church in Bridgend.
“Ms Prescott said Natalie started sleeping again and described her as the Natalie before her relationship with Reid’s father,” said Mr Jones.
“She started going to church and met with people in church and socialized with them.
“They would make picnics and go to the beach. Ms Prescott said Natalie was having a wonderful time and so was Reid.
“Ms Prescott described how there came a point when the defendant was seeing lights when she was tired and mentioned demons.
She was quoted as saying: ‘The demons are dark and real’. She also said: ‘The rooms were feeling different’ but Ms Prescott tried to reassure her.”
The court heard Steele and her son joined a church camping trip to New Quay which began on August 9 last year but on August 11 Ms Ackland went to pick her up following concerns about the defendant’s behaviour.
Mr Jones said Ms Ackland “said the defendant was speaking gibberish, telling lies, and had a changed facial expression and her voice changed”.
He told the court: “She was talking about scapegoats and had to have a sacrifice, that she was the sacrifice but everyone else would be all right.
“Ms Ackland believed the defendant’s behavior was caused by a demon so Ms Ackland calmed her down and said ‘We cast you out in Jesus’ name’.
She said this didn’t work and they started to pray with her. The decision was made to take the defendant home. They put Reid in his car seat and they left at 3pm.”
Ms Ackland dropped Steele and her son back to the family home but at 7.41pm Ms Ackland received a message from the defendant which read: ‘I have done something terrible, I felt like I had to protect Reid from my family’.
Mr Jones told the court: “Ms Ackland tried to call her but there was no answer. She drove straight to the defendant’s home with a friend and as they got closer to the estate they could see an ambulance and police cars and she spoke to a police officer.”
Mr Jones said Steele’s family could see the defendant “wasn’t herself” after returning from the trip but they “just shrugged it off”.
He added: “Mrs Prescott spoke with Reid and he told her he had had a lovely time on the beach, played with diggers, there had been a birthday and he had had fun. He was talking in full sentences and appeared really happy and was eating lots of Jelly Babies.”
The court heard Steele spoke to Reid and said: “Reidy-Roo, let’s eat our toast and go for a bath.”
Mr Jones told the court: “The defendant took Reid upstairs and Mrs Prescott said it was nothing out of the ordinary for the defendant and Reid to be in the bath for a long time and had been in there for an hour or more.
“Sometimes she would jump in the bath with him or sit by him and play or sing together.
“Mrs Prescott and her husband were having food downstairs when the defendant came downstairs and said: ‘You’d better come upstairs, I think, I think, I have done…’. Mrs Prescott described going into panic mode because Reid was not with her. She said: ‘What have you done?’ and the defendant said: ‘Reid, the bath’.
“She ran upstairs and saw Reid lying in the middle of the bathroom floor with his eyes wide open. Mrs Prescott began CPR and asked her husband to call 999. Reid was described as floppy and lifeless. Mrs Prescott and Mr Prescott took it in turns to administer CPR as the defendant stared vacantly, ran her hands through her hair, was shaking while walking up and down.
“Mrs Prescott said Reid had food in his mouth so pulled it out. They pulled him to the side and water came out from his nose and mouth. At 7.41pm the 999 call was made and Callum told the operator Reid was not breathing. CPR continued on Reid with the emergency operator counting them through chest compressions.”
When police arrived Steele was seen sitting at the top of the stairs and was described as “seemingly staring into space”. Mr Jones said: “They went into the bathroom and paramedics were attending Reid who was lying across the bathroom floor with his feet facing the door. Officers left the bathroom to speak to family members. The defendant was sat with her knees folded up to her chest and her hands on her head. Mrs Prescott was visibly upset and crying and had her head in her hands. ”
The officers, the defendant, and her mother went downstairs to speak to the emergency response officer. The defendant said she was in the bathroom playing cups of tea and said she had been really worried about her family and had creeping eyes. She told officers she had problems with spirits who had been touching her.
Mrs Prescott said to her daughter: ‘You did it?’ and Steele said: “I felt like I had to protect him from you.” Mrs Prescott became distressed but Steele showed little emotion.
Mrs Prescott shouted: “You drowned him” and Steele said she had been in the bath with Reid but was so worried about him and needed to protect him. She said: “I then held him under the water” and put her hands one on top of the other in illustration. She said she took Reid out of the bath and wrapped him in a towel and held him.
Steele was arrested on suspicion of the attempted murder of Reid, who was taken to the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff by air ambulance. He was found to be suffering from symptoms of drowning and hypothermia. His condition deteriorated and despite the best efforts of medical personnel he was pronounced dead at 3.35pm on August 12.
In the custody suite at Bridgend Steele said she did not want to live anymore and that she could not live without her son, also saying: “I was supposed to look after him forever.”
She also said: “I felt the family wanted to kill Reid, I felt like I needed to protect him and I felt like they were going to kill him. I don’t know how I did it.” Another comment she made, the court heard, was: “He’s gone because of me, I did it.”
She described her family as having “demons in them” and their behavior and voices were “strange”. She said she was “frightened and scared” and took Reid outside to get away from them after returning from the camping trip.
During her second police interview Steele said she thought she may have been protecting Reid by “sending him to heaven for protection from God”. She denied she was trying to baptize Reid when she held him under the water.
A post-mortem examination was carried out on Reid at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff on August 13. The court heard that due to the prolonged resuscitation and the time between the incident and Reid’s death any sign of drowning would have been lost. The official cause of death was given as hypoxic ischemic brain injury due to cardiac arrest.
Steele was assessed by consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr Philip Huckle on November 3 and January 10. He said at the time of Reid’s death Steele thought her family were “acting weird, had big eyes” and interpreted it as “being demonic”. In his report from him Dr Huckle said: “I am of the view this mother described as devoted to Reid was so psychotic at the time she was deluded her family from her were demonic and some harm would fall to Reid and put him underwater to protect him.”
He said Steele was suffering psychotic depression which meant she could not understand the nature of her conduct and was unable to form rational judgment or exercise self-control. Dr Huckle added: “In my view she had diminished responsibility at the time of killing Reid. Being so mentally unwell does provide an explanation for her actions by her.
Another consultant forensic psychiatrist, Dr Tom Wynne, came to a similar conclusion. He said he believed the defendant “had been laboring under a mental disorder for a number of months” prior to Reid’s death and said she had an “unrecognized, undiagnosed and untreated serious mental illness and was so deluded she drowned her son to protect him from demons and send him to heaven” which suggests her guilt was low.
Judge Michael Fitton QC made Steele the subject of orders under the Mental Health Act, sections 37 and 41, rather than handing her a prison sentence. He said: “This was always, on that evidence, a case of classic diminished responsibility…. You were trying to protect your son from demons you had seen and to send him to heaven. You would not otherwise have harmed him in any way. You were described as a devoted and wonderful mother.”
He said Steele would receive treatment focusing on her mental health needs and it was not appropriate for her to be dealt with by an order of a hybrid nature. The judge also formally found Steele not guilty of murder. As the defendant left the court she briefly waved to her family members.
Addressing Steele’s family, Judge Fitton said: “I have seen or read nothing to allow me to conclude anyone, either here or not here today, is at fault or carries any blame for her illness, not being treated or events of what took place… .
“Not one of you present in the house carries any blame or responsibility whatsoever…. Please remember those words. You are in no way to blame.”
Following the case Reid Steele’s family said in a statement: “Our lives have changed forever. We will always have a piece missing from our family. Reid was the most loved, beautiful, funny, intelligent and loving little boy who touched the hearts of everyone he met. Natalie really was a wonderful mother.
“He had a wonderful life which was filled with holidays and fun adventures collecting shells and pebbles on the beach with Natalie. I have spent so much time with his family who loved him so very much. The pain we feel at Reid’s loss can never be properly expressed with words.
“As a family we unanimously agree that the judge’s decision today was the right one. Natalie will continue to receive the treatment she needs to hopefully, in time, get better.
“Mental health conditions can sometimes be frightening, complicated, and, most importantly, not always visible until it is too late. But there is help out there. Please don’t be afraid to reach out.”
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.