A man who tried to hamper the investigation into Ellen Higginbottom’s murder by burning her laptop has been given a suspended sentence.
David Steele, from Billinge, pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice at Manchester Crown Court.
The 47-year-old, of Oakley Avenue, was given 12 months in jail suspended for two years and ordered to do unpaid work by Judge David Stockdale QC.
The court heard Steele was offered the computer belonging to 18-year-old murder student Ellen just hours after she died on Friday, June 16.
Dean Speakman, who was jailed for his part in the offences, then took the laptop back and later set a fire to destroy it in woodland in Billinge.
The court was told that on Sunday, June 18 Steele panicked, thinking his fingerprints would be on the laptop, and returned to the woods to set the blaze going once again.
Although prosecutor Neil Fryman told the court Steele was seen by witnesses next to fires in the area on both Friday and Saturday nights the court accepted Steele’s only attempt to destroy Ellen’s property happened on the Sunday.
The court heard the witness who had seen Steele on Saturday night returned to the fire on Sunday afternoon and discovered what looked like the remains of a calculator.
The hearing at Crown Square also heard of the impact of the loss of the laptop for Ellen’s grieving parents and partner Ryan Warren as it had a large number of personal documents and photographs on it.
Sentencing Steele, Judge Stockdale said the seriousness of the offence meant a custodial sentence had to be given.
Judge Stockdale told him: “I am satisfied you knew that Calland and Speakman were in possession of these goods by Saturday at some point, and you knew that these items were the property of a murder victim.
“Your hands-on involvement in this offending was restricted to the Sunday.
“You returned to the scene of the fire and re-lit it in order to ensure it was destroyed. Yours was a relatively minor role.
“Your motive in doing that was to distance yourself from that piece of equipment.
“You clearly hampered a murder investigation you then knew was in progress.
“You destroyed the valuable possession of a young girl who had been brutally murdered.
“You were assisting in the destruction of irreplaceable material which was a record of her life and the loss of this has added significant distress to the grief already suffered by Ellen’s family.
“This was an extremely wicked act.”
The court heard Steele suffered from depression and anxiety, which may have contributed to his alarm about his potential involvement as news of the appalling murder spread.
Judge Stockdale acknowledged that while hampering a murder investigation “could not be more serious” Steele’s actions had not caused any major hold-ups for the police bringing Ellen’s killer to justice.
The court also heard his offence was a one-off act rather than a series of efforts to pervert the course of justice.
Defending, Kevin McKenna asked for the four months Steele had spent behind bars during the court process to be taken into account.
Judge Stockdale sentenced him to 12 months in prison suspended for two years and ordered him to do 120 hours of unpaid work as well as pay a victim’s surcharge.
Steele is the last of four defendants to be sentenced in connection with Ellen’s murder at Orrell Water Park, a crime which shocked the borough.
Mark Buckley, who had been living in Preston but had long-standing links to the Orrell and BIllinge areas, admitted killing her in a random sexually-motivated attack and was given life in prison with a minimum of almost 31 years.
Speakman received 20 months in jail for perverting the course of justice and handling stolen goods, while Vicky Calland received a 16-month term suspended for two years for the same offence.