PARIS—Shortly before she was murdered, allegedly at the hands of her employers at their home in an upscale London suburb, Sophie Lionnet phoned her mother in northeastern France.
The shy 21-year-old was due to return home after more than a year Britain, and her mother had just sent her a ticket. Like legions of other young Frenchwomen, Lionnet had moved to London to improve her English and work as an au pair for a well-to-do family. But after 14 months away, she was ready to come back.
Something was bothering Sophie—her mother sensed it—but the taciturn young woman kept silent.
“Her mother told her, ‘Sophie, I can tell something is wrong, talk to me!’” Lionnet’s aunt told the French news station RTL. “But she didn’t want to talk.”
It wasn’t the first time the quiet young woman with the pale green eyes had indicated that her life in London was less than ideal.
Back in July, she had sent her father a postcard that hinted at tensions with her employers—a couple raising two young boys—and told him that she would soon return home.
“There was nothing that indicated it was so serious,” Patrick Lionnet told the local French daily L’Est Éclair. “Otherwise, I would have gone to join her.”
Rather than trouble her parents, it seemed that Lionnet had decided to handle the matter herself by leaving London and her unhappy job situation behind. Her return journey to France was scheduled for Monday, September 25. The ticket was never used.
A neighbor who lived upstairs from where Lionnet was staying called the landlord on Tuesday over an “unpleasant smell,” believing it to be a gas leak. However, after inspecting the apartment, the landlord didn’t find anything unusual.
On Wednesday afternoon, residents of the affluent Southfields neighborhood noticed another bad smell—this time from pungent smoke billowing up in a nearby yard. Curious children even wondered if it could be a barbecue.
“I told him [my son], ‘No that’s not a barbecue, that’s a bad smell,’” a neighbor who didn’t want to be identified told The Daily Mail. “I thought they may be burning leaves.”
One little boy finally poked his head over the fence to see if he could identify the source of the smoke. There was a man in the yard, who appeared to be putting sticks on a large bonfire.
Officers arrived at the £900,000 ($1.2 million) property a couple of hours later to discover a grisly scene: a body charred beyond recognition in the back garden. Although the remains have yet to be formally identified, the victim was named locally as Lionnet.
Patrick Lionnet told local journalists that since learning of his daughter’s gruesome death, he has been unable to sleep.
“I don’t have words,” he said. “Those people don’t have any humanity.”
The people in question are 34-year-old Sabrina Kouider, a French woman who reportedly works as a freelance fashion designer and stylist, and her partner, Ouissem Medouni, 40, a French-Algerian. Both have been charged with murder and are scheduled to appear at the Old Bailey on Tuesday.
Little is known about Medouni, but Kouider reportedly craved a party-girl lifestyle, often going out and socializing with friends and “living beyond her means.” Prior to dating Medouni, she was involved with Mark Walton, a billionaire music mogul and founding member of the Irish boy band Boyzone. British tabloids report that Walton, who now lives in Los Angeles, is the father of Kouider's six-year-old son. In photos published by the British press, the dark-haired Kouider sports tight clothes or eveningwear.
While the suspects seemed to have had a charmed life, their nanny came from more modest means. Hailing from the northeastern French city of Troyes, Lionnet reportedly left school at 16, but dreamed of travel and of a possible career in film. A stint in London offered both an opportunity to improve her English and a new adventure. But her days in the British capital appear to have been consumed by hard work with little pay—she reportedly received just £50 ($67) each month—and homesickness. And, possibly, much worse.
Neighbors and friends recall a waifish, polite, and painfully shy woman who longed for France.
“She came here almost every day crying and I would give her food and a drink,” Michael Croner, 43, who owns a local fish and chips shop, told The Times.
“She was very thin,” he said, adding that she told him her mother had been sick and she wanted to return to France to see her.
“Sophie had been unhappy for a long time—so unhappy she left [her employers] to stay with one of her few friends for two nights last month,” a friend of Lionnet’s told The Daily Mail.
Whatever horrors Lionnet may have experienced behind closed doors have not yet come to light. An upstairs neighbor described the suspects as “not the friendliest pair,” adding that “loud arguments” were often heard from below.
Nevertheless, Lionnet remained devoted to caring for Kouider's sons. Speaking to The Express, a fellow nanny described her as “a rock” to her young charges.
“We just feel absolutely heartbroken for those boys,” she said. “We would see her everywhere in south London with the boys. She was at the library with them. Wherever she went, she was with the boys.”
Mélanie Lionnet described her younger cousin Sophie as “kind” and with “unlimited patience.”
“She put an enormous effort into her work and that took it out of her,” she said. “She did everything for [the children]. Coming back to France was a relief for her, but it was also sort of abandoning the children.”
Several months before she was killed, Lionnet briefly appeared in a video shot by one of the little boys she cared for.
“This is the person who is doing the video with me,” a child's voice announces, after the camera unsteadily pans to Lionnet who gives a playful wave.
“I will see you next time,” the boy says before swinging the camera back to Lionnet, who beams at the camera and waves again.