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Tyne and Wear deaths: 'We gave her a pep talk, she was to go and be remarkable'

The Guardian logo The Guardian 01/12/2020 Amy Walker

When Nicola and Stefan Sillifant dropped their 18-year-old daughter off at Newcastle University two months ago, they were bursting with pride to see her dreams to study medicine materialise. On Friday 2 October, alongside Stephanie, they bundled into the car – along with bedding, kitchen utensils and decorations – to make the two-and-a-half hour trip up from Nottinghamshire.

That night, the couple stayed in a hotel close to the Park View student halls where Stephanie would be living, ready to bring back a big food shop in the morning. As they parted ways on Saturday “there were a few tears”, said Nicola. “We just gave her a pep talk that she was to go and be remarkable like we knew that she would be.”

What the couple could never have imagined was that little more than a day later they would be making the journey back to Newcastle to identify their daughter.

Stephanie Sillifant was one of four young people to die in Tyne and Wear, north-east England, between 3 and 4 October, sparking an ongoing police investigation in which 11 people have been arrested on suspicion of possession with intent to supply class A drugs.

Over a 48-hour period, Jeni Larmour, an 18-year-old architecture and urban planning student from County Armagh who had moved into the same block of flats as Stephanie, Mark Johnston, an 18-year-old from Washington, and Nathaniel Pavlovic, 21, a third-year student at Northumbria University from Halifax, also died.

Jeni, a former deputy head girl at the Royal school in Armagh, is believed to have taken ketamine before she died on 3 October. Her former headteacher, Graham Montgomery, described her as a model pupil.

“Jeni was a spirited and independently minded girl with clear views which she was happy to articulate in a respectful manner and she was possessed of a well developed sense of justice,” he said. “[She] had a bright future ahead of her and we are saddened that has been so suddenly cut short.”

Mark, who had been with friends at a flat on the Coach Road estate in Washington, Tyne and Wear, on the same day, is reported to have taken a quantity of MDMA before falling seriously ill in the afternoon. An online tribute page to him read: “He is much loved and will be remembered always. Rest in peace Mark.”

Nathaniel’s death was described by a spokesperson for Northumbria University as “a tragic event”. “Our thoughts are with Nathaniel’s family and friends, to whom we continue to offer any support we can, at this difficult time,” they said.

The deaths provoked a media frenzy surrounding the issue of drug use on British campuses, with reports of drug dealers slipping calling cards under doors at Newcastle’s residential halls. At the time, Northumbria police issued an urgent statement urging against taking recreational drugs, while Newcastle University warned its students that “batches of drugs can vary in purity and strength and are potentially lethal”.

On a chilly November morning at the six buildings that make up Park View, it was clear that freshers who were witness to the aftermath in their first days of university and inundated with phone calls from their own worried parents, had been scarred by the events.

a person sitting on a sidewalk: Robert Featherstone, 20, a first-year student at Newcastle University, said nobody wanted to go out after the deaths. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian Robert Featherstone, 20, a first-year student at Newcastle University, said nobody wanted to go out after the deaths. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Robert Featherstone, a 20-year-old electrical engineering student who lives in the block, known as Pont, where both Jeni and Stephanie died, said his room had been searched by police sniffer dogs that weekend. “It wasn’t very nice,” he said.

He added that there had been a party in halls on the Friday, with many students ready to see out the weekend at LooseCrawl, a pub crawl around the town’s socially distanced bars. But by Sunday, “everybody was scared and nobody wanted to go out”.

Chloe Davis, 19, who lives a short walk away in Castle Leazes, another of the university’s student halls, said she was one of more than 3,500 students who had since signed a petition asking Newcastle to provide drug testing kits at its Students Union. “It was horrible,” she said. “They looked like lovely girls. It could’ve been anyone.”

a woman wearing a hat: Chloe Davies, 19, a first-year geography student at Newcastle University. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian Chloe Davies, 19, a first-year geography student at Newcastle University. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Stephanie’s family said the furore the deaths provoked stood in contrast to their daughter’s studious, home-loving nature.

Back home in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Stephanie had a tight network of friends from Quarrydale academy, who saw her as the group’s agony aunt, and a close bond with both Nicola – often relaying her friends’ issues to her mum for a second opinion – and her sister, Jordan Sillifant, 21. On the weekends, she loved trips to the local pub to put the world to rights and watching funny cat videos on YouTube with her dad.

Having been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, epilepsy and scoliosis as a child, Stephanie had long had ambitions to become a doctor. “Because of how her health turned out she wanted to be able to help other people,” said Nicola.

In August, she received A*AA results in her A-levels and was accepted on to Newcastle University’s renowned medical course. “Her favourite place was home,” said Nicola. “But she was so excited to go to Newcastle and study medicine.”

a large building: The Park View campus at Newcastle University. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian The Park View campus at Newcastle University. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Before her death on Sunday 4 October, Stephanie sent texts to her parents in the early hours to tell them she was happily settling in. It wasn’t until 4pm that afternoon, when she had failed to reply to several further messages, that the family started to worry that she might not have been using her phone to check her blood sugar levels through a sensor fitted to her arm.

“I phoned the university and asked them to do a welfare check,” said Nicola. “About half an hour after that the police turned up at the door to inform us that she’d already passed away.”

While their first thoughts were that Stephanie’s epilepsy had played a role, as her seizures were always in her sleep, the family were later informed by police that the class B drug ketamine had been found in the flat. Nicola said speculation over what caused Stephanie’s death, while it remains unconfirmed by scientific evidence, had been “really hard” for the family. They do not believe that their daughter, who had disliked the fentanyl and ketamine she was given following a spinal surgery years before, would have taken recreational drugs.

“But we’re also not naive,” she added. “Even if she [had] it wouldn’t change how we feel about her. She was 18, she was human and she was allowed to have errors in judgment.”

An inquest into the deaths of Stephanie, Jeni and Nathaniel was opened at Newcastle coroner’s court last month, and subsequently adjourned in light of the police investigation. In the opening statements, no reference to drug-taking was made in relation to Stephanie. An inquest into Mark’s death will be opened separately in Sunderland.

In connection with the deaths, Northumbria police have arrested four men, aged between 18 and 30, and released them on bail. Seven other individuals were arrested and released under investigation.

The Sillifants are dealing with the “cruel” way in which Stephanie was taken from them, just as she was embarking on adult life, but, said Nicola, “we also know that she got to be exactly where she wanted to be, to go and do exactly what it was she wanted to do”.


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