‘The tragedy is that she loved him so dearly’: As mother admits killing her autistic 10-year-old son, friends reveal her agony at life trapped in a flat with the beloved child who ‘howled like a dog in distress’ but was abandoned by local council
- Olga Freeman killed son Dylan, 10, who had special needs, at their Acton home
- Ms Freeman, 40, placed a sponge in Dylan’s mouth to suffocate him last August
- She sought support after his respite care was stopped and Covid shut his school
- Her local council offered no help while she cared for Dylan round-the-clock
The days and weeks leading up to the moment that Olga Freeman took her son Dylan’s life were a heart-breaking mix of devoted maternal love and hellish desperation.
Cut off from all support by the national lockdown imposed in spring, the 40-year-old single mother and ex-wife of celebrity photographer Dean Freeman was struggling to care for her ten-year-old, who had severe disabilities and required round-the-clock care.
The special school he attended had closed its doors because of the restrictions. His respite care had also been cancelled.
Despite seeking help from her council, Olga received none.
Olga Freeman, 40, yesterday admitted to killing her 10-year-old son, Dylan, at their family home in Acton, West London. A lack of support during lockdown left Ms Freeman struggling to cope as she tried to care for Dylan, who had severe disabilities and required round-the-clock care
Stripped of his comfortingly familiar routine – his daily journey to school in a special minibus, classes with his favourite teachers, the swimming and piano lessons he loved – Dylan, who struggled to walk and had a degenerative eye condition, became increasingly agitated and unsettled.
Russian-born former lawyer Olga depended on the school day to catch up on her sleep, as her son rarely slept through the night.
Before long she was experiencing nerve-shattering levels of tiredness. Shut up in the two-bedroom flat they shared in Acton, west London, she was soon struggling to cope.
During the bleak days that followed she tried to occupy Dylan with short walks and time on the trampoline in the garden or to calm him with back-to-back episodes of his favourite cartoon Peppa Pig.
She bought him special pillows in the hope that they would help him sleep.
And yet, despite her best efforts, neighbours reported hearing the boy, who had non-verbal autism and the very rare genetic disorder Cohen syndrome, howling ‘like a dog in distress’ in the night.
Isolated from the rest of the world, the depression from which Olga was suffering spiralled out of control.
Even when she ended Dylan’s life on August 16 last year, by giving him a sleeping tablet and suffocating him with a sponge crudely tied in place with her bra, she lovingly laid out his body surrounded by his favourite toys before calling a close friend to tell her what she had done.
Ms Freeman, the ex-wife of celebrity photographer Dean Freeman, took her son’s life by giving him a sleeping tablet and suffocating him with a sponge crudely tied in place with her bra. She placed some of Dylan’s favourite toys around his body before calling a close friend to tell her what she had done.
While Olga pleaded guilty yesterday at the Old Bailey to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, this is, above all, the story of a much-loved young boy with special needs who died in horrific circumstances after his mother was left alone to cope with the relentless demands of his full-time care.
One of her London friends, Russian freelance journalist Anna Cook, told me yesterday that Olga ‘always put a brave face on things and always took such good care of him. She loved him dearly.’
Mother-of-three Anna has a daughter with autism and has co-launched a charitable initiative called Hand To Hold, to support Russian parents of disabled children and ensure that the tragedy of Dylan’s death is never repeated.
She added: ‘I spoke with Olga in March on her birthday. She was very concerned about the impact of the virus. She just kept trying to do her best.’
It is also a timely reminder of the plight of thousands of families across Britain who are caring for children with severe disabilities and special education needs throughout the pandemic.
Many of them were cut adrift by the Government’s emergency Coronavirus Act last March, which relaxed the legal onus on local authorities to provide care laid out in children’s individual Education, Health and Care plans (EHCs) and instead required them only ‘to do everything they can to continue meeting their existing duties’.
Even senior crown prosecutor Kristen Katsouris, who led the CPS’s case against Olga, recognised yesterday that ‘this was a tragic death of a child at the hands of his mother who was struggling to cope’.
Over the months that have passed since Dylan died, those who know Olga have told me how much she adored her son.
And while his father, Dean Freeman, now lives in Barcelona, Spain, he says he has been left ‘beyond devastated’ by the death of his ‘beautiful, bright, inquisitive and artistic child who loved to travel, visit art galleries and swim.’
Friends of Ms Freeman said lockdown left her isolated from the rest of the world as she cared for her son at their Acton home (pictured). She would eventually suffer a nervous breakdown before taking her son’s life
Dylan used to travel around the world with his father, who has photographed celebrities ranging from Liz Hurley to Harold Pinter and David Beckham.
Freeman even has a tattoo of his son’s name next to a blue feather on his forearm.
Olga’s friends believe that Dylan was as much a victim of Covid-19 as the thousands who have died in this country since the beginning of the pandemic.
As normal life shut down around them, the locked-down world became a very dark place indeed for both mother and son.
According to Anna Cook: ‘Many parents are struggling with children at home at the moment.
‘Can you imagine how difficult it is when it’s a child who can’t sit up properly, who demands constant attention and needs to be changed all the time because they can’t use the toilet? A child who is perhaps in pain or who struggles to sleep?
‘Everyone forgets there are real families behind the diagnosis. Staying at home 24 hours a day with no help, you can’t imagine what it does to your mental health.’
The increasingly bleak existence she faced last year was something that Olga cannot possibly have anticipated when Dylan Valentin was born in west London on January 3, 2010.
Before his birth, she and Dean had enjoyed a jet-setting lifestyle, living and working across the world.
Dean had fallen in love with Brazil while touring with the Spice Girls in the late-90s and built a tropical rainforest hideaway there, overlooking the Atlantic in Arraial d’Ajuda.
By the time Dylan was born, he and Olga were living in a million-pound three-bedroom house in a sought-after street of Edwardian properties in Acton.
While Dean is the son of legendary photographer Robert Freeman, best known for his portraits of The Beatles, Olga was successful in her own right.
Born Olga Voronina in March 1980, she comes from a financially successful Muscovite family, part of the new aspirational middle-class which sprang up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
She studied law at Moscow State Law Academy and at BPP Law School in London and briefly worked for international corporate law firms in the City.
After Dylan’s birth – and his eventual diagnosis with Cohen syndrome – it soon became clear that Olga would need to put her career on the back-burner.
Cohen syndrome is one of the rarest congenital birth disorders with only about 500 known cases throughout the world.
Difficult to diagnose, it is often characterised by developmental delay, muscle weakness, small head size, abnormalities of the feet and visual impairment.
Some children, like Dylan, display behaviour that falls within the autistic spectrum.
In the years that followed his birth, Olga and Dean’s marriage began to break down.
They eventually divorced and sold the family home in September 2017.
According to former neighbour Andrew Wright, an NHS speech and language therapist, the split upset Olga deeply.
‘I had only known her to talk to in the street for about a year or two. She was generally in good spirits. She was very caring and loving towards her son. Dylan would occasionally make a little eye contact and was interested in my dog, but would mostly look down.
‘She was mainly stressed about the breakdown of the marriage towards the end and the fact that they were going to be forced to sell the house in order to split the property.’
Neighbours say Ms Freeman was a ‘great mum,’ but as the country dealt with lockdown, she told friends she couldn’t see an end to the ‘hellish’ situation she’d found herself in
With her share of the proceeds from the sale, Olga bought a small, two-bedroom ground-floor garden flat in Acton for £450,000 in 2018. Neighbours there recall how, before lockdown, Dylan would be collected by minibus each day to take him to his special school.
One neighbour, whose 12-year-old daughter used to visit Dylan, said: ‘Olga was a great mum. I remember watching her trying to feed Dylan some mango and he was struggling to swallow. She never stopped smiling however hard it was.
‘Maybe if she’d had more help, things might have been different. There needs to be empathy and sympathy for her – she was a single mother struggling to cope with a very disabled child entering puberty. She did this awful thing but she’s not an evil person, even if it was an evil act. She is also a victim in all this.’
When the nation was first placed in lockdown in March last year, it rapidly became impossible for Olga to cope. She told friends she couldn’t see an end to the ‘hellish’ situation she’d found herself in.
As another mother of a young severely disabled child put it to me: ‘Parents of SEN [special educational needs] children were quaking in their boots as soon as the Coronavirus Act was passed. All the support we get was taken away overnight.
‘Many of our children have massive behavioural problems. They can be highly aggressive and self-destructive. They are bouncing off the walls, scratching themselves or lashing out at you. It’s like a pressure cooker and there is no break from it. Not for a minute.’
Yesterday at the Old Bailey, Mrs Justice Cheema Grubb QC heard that in the six months leading up to Dylan’s death in August, Olga couldn’t cope.
CPS lawyer Joel Smith told the court that she had turned to her friend and former nanny Edita Surpickaja, who despite offering to help with Dylan for about 12 hours a week, noticed a decline in Olga’s mental health.
According to Mr Smith: ‘The defendant had sought assistance from the local council but, Miss Surpickaja would tell police, had received none.’
A psychological report produced in court yesterday revealed that by the time of Dylan’s death, Olga was suffering from ‘a severe depressive episode with psychotic symptoms’. At about 10pm on the night before Dylan was found, she sent a message to Miss Surpickaja, stating: ‘I am done. Where are u?’
She arrived at about 12.45am and found that Freeman had booked two seats on a flight from Luton aiport to Tel Aviv.
She said she had been receiving messages in her head. Miss Surpickaja was not allowed to go into Dylan’s room.
In the early hours of Sunday, August 16, Olga, along with her friend, attended Acton police station, where she stated that she had given Dylan some pills and pushed a sponge into his mouth.
Olga told officers that she had tried to kill her son ‘softly’ with ‘dignity and kindness’. Police later found Dylan’s body at home and Olga was charged with murder
Olga told officers that she had tried to kill her son ‘softly’ with ‘dignity and kindness’. Police later found Dylan’s body at home and Olga was charged with murder.
Yesterday, Ealing council declined to answer the Mail’s questions about Dylan’s care or to explain why Olga was wasn’t offered the help she so badly needed. A spokesman said that no comment would be made until she had been sentenced.
The spokesman added: ‘The council has been co-operating with the police throughout their investigation and have responded to all requests for information from the court.
‘This is a tragic loss and we offer our sincere condolences to all those who knew Dylan.’
But this is a story that isn’t going to go away quietly.
As the Mail has discovered, there is huge anger among parents who believe that they have been hung out to dry by the authorities at a time when their SEN children are more vulnerable than ever.
Five months after Dylan’s death and in the midst of the UK’s third major lockdown, the level of care available to children with EHCs is still hugely variable.
While all children with such EHC plans are classed as ‘vulnerable’ and therefore should be allowed in school, some establishments are still not open for teaching.
There are fears too about significant delays in diagnosing children and providing crucial early-years intervention. As Anna Cook puts it: ‘Everything is on stand-by but children can’t wait.’
Among the many families who have contacted the Mail, one couple – whose 17-year-old son has Myhre syndrome and autism and requires 24-hour care – said they were ‘surprised we haven’t heard about hundreds of cases like Olga’s in the past year’.
‘We have found ourselves in a similar frame of mind on countless occasions. We hit rock bottom,’ they said. ‘If we didn’t have each other, we would probably not be here now.’
The repercussions of the Government’s decision to allow the relaxation of care provision have yet to be fully understood.
But whatever action is taken will come too late for Dylan – a boy who, despite the terrible manner of his death, was loved right up to the end of his life.
Mum admits killing her autistic son with sponge in lockdown
The ex-wife of a celebrity photographer yesterday admitted killing their disabled son after suffering a mental breakdown during lockdown.
Olga Freeman, 40, placed a sponge in ten-year-old Dylan’s mouth to suffocate him and laid him down to die among his toys.
At the time she was experiencing a psychotic episode that made her believe she was the Messiah.
Freeman pleaded guilty to manslaughter due to diminished responsibility at the Old Bailey, but denied murder. The Crown accepted the plea and she will be sentenced on February 11.
The court was previously told the Russian-born former lawyer had been struggling to care for Dylan, who had severe autism and Cohen syndrome, a genetic disorder, during the final six months of his life.
Before the pandemic, Dylan had spent five days a week at a special school, but lockdown meant he had been unable to attend, and so the burden of his care fell upon his mother and her friend Edita Surpickaja, the court heard.
‘Miss Surpickaja had only been able to offer that assistance for around 12 hours per week and had noticed a decline in the defendant’s mental health,’ Joel Smith, prosecuting, said.
In the week leading up to the killing, Freeman had spoken about saving the world and being the Messiah. In a voice recording she had said: ‘This is my job: To sacrifice my beloved child to create a balance in this world.’
On August 14, she had argued with Dylan’s father, Dean Freeman, 56, who was living in Spain at the time, about her role in the boy’s care.
The following evening, Freeman phoned Miss Surpickaja and asked her to go round to her £544,000 flat in Acton, west London, the court heard. Miss Surpickaja found Freeman had booked two seats on a flight to Tel Aviv and she recorded a conversation on a mobile phone in which her friend said she had no choice but to kill Dylan.
Mr Smith said: ‘At the police station the defendant told the police that she had killed the deceased before midnight and that she had tried to ‘kill him softly’ by giving the deceased ‘a lot’ of the sleeping drug melatonin.
‘She told the police that as this had not worked she had used her bra and then her hands to kill her son and had put a sponge in his mouth to help him go softly.
‘She had then placed his body where he liked to sleep with his toys to allow him to die with ‘dignity and kindness’.’
Three separate psychiatric reports concluded that Freeman was suffering from a severe depression and psychosis at the time of the killing.
She appeared yesterday via videolink from the Orchard Unit, in Ealing, west London, where she has been treated since her arrest.
Gareth Patterson QC, prosecuting, said the Crown would accept the plea of diminished responsibility after reviewing a psychological report from Dr David Bird.
‘The partial defence of diminished responsibility is available on the basis there was a severe depressive episode with psychotic symptoms at the time,’ he said.
‘That is acceptable to the prosecution after careful consideration and extensive further enquiries by the officers conducting this investigation.’
Kristen Katsouris, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: ‘This was a tragic death of a child at the hands of his mother, who was struggling to cope.
‘Olga Freeman had loved and cared for Dylan for many years, but the strain and pressures of her son’s severe and complex special needs had built up and that, combined with her impaired mental health, led to heartbreaking consequences.’
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