Mum returns from night out to find son, 4, dead inside tumble dryer

A WOMAN broke down in tears today as she described the moment she found her four-year-old son dead inside a tumble dryer.

Sonny Gibson was discovered inside the machine by his mother, Anne, at the family home in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, on July 26 last year.

At an inquest into his death at Derby Coroner’s Court today, Mrs Gibson said she returned home that morning after spending the night at a friend’s house.

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She had not intended to stay over, she said, but had had a few too many drinks.

Sonny had been left in the care of teenage family members, which was a common arrangement, but was not in his room when she went upstairs that morning.

She told the court: “I said ‘Who’s got Sonny up?’ and they just grunted at me.

“Then I ran downstairs and checked where he was and I could not find him.”

Mrs Gibson said she checked the usual places Sonny liked to hide, such as behind the settee, under beds and in wardrobes, and other family members went to search for him outside.

She rang the police after around 30 minutes of searching and it was when she was checking the house again with a police officer that she made the terrible discovery.

Mrs Gibson fought back sobs as she told the inquest: “I checked all the house again, then I looked in the washing machine.

“I don’t know what made me look in the washing machine, and then I opened the tumble dryer door and he was there.

“I opened the door and he was just curled up.”

She said Sonny, who was “very independent for a four-year-old” had been caught by another family member trying to climb into the tumble dryer five or six months before his death.

“He was bending into it,” she said. “He was told if you want anything out of the tumble dryer you’ve got to come and ask but Sonny had no concept of danger whatsoever, he was not afraid of anything.”

Mrs Gibson, a care assistant, was arrested on suspicion of child neglect not long after Sonny’s death.

Referring to this, Deputy Coroner Louise Pinder asked her why she was not entirely honest with police in the aftermath of Sonny’s death, telling them that she had been with Sonny that morning.

Mrs Gibson said: “I told them that I had been at home and I had nipped out to get some cigarettes.

“I did not want my family getting into trouble or anything coming back on them so I thought that if I could direct it all on me then I could leave them out of it.”

All charges against Mrs Gibson were later dropped.

She told the court that Sonny’s father, Stewart, who was also present in court and from whom she is separated, shared custody of the youngster.

She also said Sonny had been a naughty child at times, managing to get out of his room and into the kitchen from where he once stole a knife and food from the fridge which he then threw at a family member while they were in bed.

To try to stop such incidents, the family installed a baby gate and chain on his bedroom door but Sonny learned how to use his toys to stop the gate shutting, Mrs Gibson said.

She also said Sonny learned how to operate the tumble dryer from watching other family members and liked to put his favourite blanket in there to warm it up.

The court also heard from Home Office pathologist Professor Guy Rutty, who told the court that a post-mortem examination carried out on Sonny revealed that he died from injuries which were consistent with the tumble dryer being “active” while he was inside it.

He told the court Sonny had suffered a blunt head trauma, he had inhaled hot gases and had various burns to his body.

Prof Rutty said his injuries showed he died “as a consequence of being inside an active tumble dryer”.

Professor Rutty also said it was not possible to know exactly when Sonny died because his body was still warm when it was removed from the tumble dryer, meaning usual tests to establish time of death could not be carried out.

He told the inquest there was no evidence to suggest Sonny had been forced into the machine or that his injuries were caused prior to him getting into it.

Anthony Coombs, a scenes of crime officer, said tests were carried out to establish if the tumble dryer door could have shut and the appliance switched on with the youngster inside.

He told the inquest tests were done where an officer pushed the door open so it bounced on its hinge and swung shut, with the door hook latching into place.

He said that, with the timer set, “five out of six times, the door latch closed and the machine activated.”

Another test using a sandbag mannequin the same size and shape as Sonny’s body inside the machine delivered similar results.

Mr Coombs said: “Five out of six times the machine actively tumbled and it was possible to see that the sand bag physically tumbled round in the machine.”

After one minute and 14 seconds, the belt burned out, he said.

In her evidence to the inquest, Mrs Gibson said she thought she used the dryer the day before Sonny’s death but could not remember if she set the timer to zero as she usually would.

She said she thought her son may have climbed into the dryer and the family’s two pet dogs may have knocked the door shut.

“I think, it’s only in my head, it would have been easy for one of the dogs to have knocked it and it could have shut, but Sonny could have kicked it and it swung shut.”

A teenage family member said he made Sonny an evening meal before putting him to bed around 8.30pm on the night before his body was found.

He put a DVD on in Sonny’s room for him, which happened most nights to help him fall asleep, and stayed in until another family member came home around 10.30pm.

He then went to the local park and did not return home until around 12.30am, when he then checked on Sonny one last time at around 1.30am before going to bed.

Asked by the coroner if he remembered locking Sonny’s door he said: “I can’t recall locking it when I left him.”

Ms Pinder asked him: “Do you think it’s possible that you didn’t, that that’s the most likely explanation as to how he got out?”

He answered: “Yes.”

Pc Wendy Foxon was at the house when Mrs Gibson found Sonny.

She said she arrived at the house around 10.45am and carried out two searches of the house.

Other officers and the police helicopter were searching the area outside, she said.

It was when she pressed a “frantic” Mrs Gibson for a description of what Sonny was wearing, who was unable to give one because she had not seen him that day, that she began looking around the kitchen area.

“She went through piles of clothes and still had no idea what he was wearing so went into the washing machine to try and work out what was there and what was missing,” PC Foxon said.

She fought back tears as she continued: “It was at this point that she shouted that she could see him in the dryer.

“We both went over and I could see...you could not see what it was, it was just something against the door.

“It was a horrible thought that he he might be in there but to think that he might not be alive as well.”

She said she and Mrs Gibson pulled Sonny out of the dryer, which was difficult because he was quite stiff.

Mrs Gibson sat on the floor cradling the youngster and rocking backwards and forwards, Pc Foxon said.

His body, Pc Foxon said, was “warmer than warm. It was not the warmth of a human being, it was hot but not too hot to touch”.

Detective Inspector Gary Cathcart told the inquest a piece of cloth found in the tumble dryer with Sonny was part of his blanket.

He said he believed Sonny’s death may have occurred between 7am, when a neighbour heard a DVD playing in his room, and 10.20am when Mrs Gibson returned home, but he believed it was probably closer to 7am.

Delivering her verdict, Ms Pinder said she was satisfied that all measures had been taken by the Gibson family in ensuring Sonny’s safety, even if locking him in his room at night was “an uncomfortable concept” to some.

In light of that, she said: “Not locking the door proved, in the end, to be a catastrophic concept but it’s difficult to see how anyone could be critical of the fact of not locking the door.”

Ms Pinder also said she was satisfied that care arrangements, in the form of various family members looking after Sonny, were “traditional but, I think, fairly haphazard”.

Of Mrs Gibson staying out all night, she said evidence had shown that she believed Sonny would be cared for competently, but she added: “It’s not relevant that you, Mrs Gibson, decided to stay out but I’ve no doubt that the decision to do so will haunt you for a long time to come.”

Ms Pinder said it was impossible to know why Sonny climbed inside the tumble dryer, a Proline TDV60, but she believed he had set the timer himself and then the door either bounced shut as he got in or one of the two dogs knocked it shut.

She recorded a verdict of accidental death and added: “Sonny was a very lively little boy and could, on occasion, be quite mischievous.

“He loved to hide and hide and seek was a game he was fond of. He had demonstrated an attraction to the tumble dryer in the past.”

She also said she had heard that many tumble dryers had improved safety designs and because Sonny’s death was so rare she would not be making any formal recommendations.

She added: “I hope that manufacturers will continue to look at the safety designs of tumble dryers.”