Josi Mbombo, 28, from north London explains how she begged her mum to leave her bullying husband...
As I burst out laughing with my mum Maria, 52, I was struck again by a thought I’d had countless times before.
She’s not just my parent, she’s my best friend.
It was last May, and we were online shopping. Earlier that day, she’d admired the dress I was wearing and insisted I order her the same one.
‘You want people to mistake us for sisters,’ I teased, and it’d set us off giggling.
Meanwhile, my stepfather Jose Leonardo, 56, sat stony-faced in an armchair.
‘Ignore him,’ I whispered to Mum, nudging her.
But, glancing at Jose, Mum fell silent abruptly.
I rolled my eyes. Truthfully, I thought my mother could do a thousand times better than Jose.
They’d been together since I was just 3 months old, and had gone on to have two sons together, Jacque and Carl.
I grew up believing Jose, a taxi driver, was my biological father, but I’d never felt close to him.
Where Mum was fun and caring, he was snappy and stroppy. I felt like I was walking on eggshells when he was around.
I was 18 when Mum admitted he wasn’t my biological father. If anything, I was relieved.
As I got older, I became more aware of the way Jose treated my mum. Insecure and paranoid, he hated it if a man even looked at her.
Mum was petite, with a lovely smile – the kind of woman that got attention without trying.
Jose couldn’t stand it, even accusing her of cheating.
As if! Mum loved Jose to bits, even if I couldn’t get my head round why.
It was while I was living at home, studying to be a nurse, that I noticed things between Mum and Jose becoming increasingly strained.
There were times when he grabbed her, pushed her about and yelled at her. Naturally, I’d step in to defend her, but there was only so much I could say.
‘He’s a bully,’ I’d tell Mum when we were alone.
‘He’s just tired from working nights,’ she’d say, defending him.
She was the only one who had the power to end it.
Back in 2014, she’d broken things off after seeing a picture of twin children on Jose’s phone. When she’d asked him who they were, he’d broken down and admitted they were his – the result of an affair he’d had in 2007.
Mum kicked Jose out, but she was in pieces.
‘He’s been lying to me for years,’ she sobbed.
‘You don’t need him,’ I told her, hugging her close.
But, even after that, Jose begged for forgiveness – and, by mid-2015, Mum’d taken him back.
‘He’s really sorry,’ she told me.
I was so disappointed and upset, I even moved out for a few months.
When Mum asked me to come home, I agreed, but refused to speak to Jose. The tension between us created a frosty atmosphere.
When me and Mum tried to have a laugh, Jose would put a dampener on it. He’d even got rid of our dog Hugo without asking.
I wished Mum would kick him out for good, but feared it’d never happen.
A few days after me and Mum had been online shopping, on 18 May, I went to university and stayed late to study in the library. With my head buried in my books, all my thoughts were on my work.
Then, at 10pm, I received a horrifying WhatsApp message from my brother Carl.
Mum is dead.
I felt my insides freeze. Surely this was a mistake.
Trying to stay calm, I gathered my books and left the library.
Outside, I called both my brothers.
Panicking, I raced to the car and drove home.
Every so often, the face of my mother came into my mind, the image of Jose not far behind…
Outside my home, police cars were everywhere.
I staggered from the car, heard myself screaming in the chaos. It couldn’t be true!
Neighbours approached me, but I pushed past them, running towards the policeman blocking the house.
‘How did she die? Let me in!’ I begged, praying he’d tell me I’d got it wrong and that Mum was actually fine.
But the officer replied, ‘I’m not allowed to let you see the body.’
So it was true. My dear mum had really gone.
Jose had killed her, I knew it.
I collapsed, sobbing…
Officers came to help me and my brothers into a police car.
As we made our way to the station, a shaken Carl and Jacque told me how they’d come home and passed Jose leaving the flat.
He was covered in blood and ignored them as he walked past.
‘We broke the door down. That’s when we saw Mum,’ Carl said.
They’d tried to save her, called for help, but it was too late.
At the police station, we were told Jose had been arrested. He was charged with murder and held on remand.
The next week or so passed in a blur. I stayed with friends, but hardly slept. Over and over, I’d replay the events leading up to that night. Now, I realised why Jose had wanted rid of the dog – he hadn’t wanted Mum to have any protection when he attacked her.
Now, his stony silence that last night I spent with Mum, when we were laughing at our online shopping, made my blood run cold.
Was he plotting it, even then?
Inside, I was crumbling, but I held it together to plan the funeral.
For my mum, only the perfect service would do. But when I chose an outfit for her to wear – a long white dress – the undertaker said, ‘We will lay it over her.’
Mum’s body was so damaged, they couldn’t dress her.
On the day we said goodbye to Mum, I tried to keep dark thoughts from my head and focus on our happy times.
More than anything, I wanted to have her back with me, hear her laugh again. Now, getting justice would have to do.
In November last year, Jose Leonardo, 56, appeared at the Old Bailey.
Incredibly, he denied murder but admitted manslaughter.
In court, it emerged that, on the day Leonardo killed my mother, he’d Googled two separate things.
The first was, Can I survive stab in the eye? The second was, Most painful place to stab someone.
There are no words to describe my feelings on hearing those words.
After making these grotesque searches, he’d gone on to stab my mother more than 50 times, using three knives and a meat cleaver.
Yet she was still alive after, so he’d removed the batteries from the landline phone so she couldn’t call for help.
She died slowly from fatal punctures to the bladder and liver while Leonardo went to the newsagent’s to try to buy beer.
The image of Mum begging for help while he let her die will haunt me forever.
Leonardo’s actions were clearly premeditated. Yet he claimed his grounds for killing her were a ‘loss of control’.
The jury rejected his lies and he was convicted of murder.
At sentencing, my brothers and I read out our victim-impact statements to the court.
My mother was my sister, my best friend, my comforter, my right hand, my motivation, my reason, my purpose, my life, my everything, I read.
I welled up as the judge paid tribute to Mum and us, saying, ‘The devastation that you have caused this family is, in my view, impossible to imagine and incapable of being repaired.’
He then sentenced Leonardo to life with a minimum of 22 years.
I’m relieved to finally have some closure.
Now I’m trying to live my life as Mum would’ve wanted me to.
I plan to donate to the charities she donated to, and I’ll qualify as a nurse, like she hoped I would.
I’ll spend the rest of my life making her proud.