Jailed: Man who bludgeoned homeless woman to death at church in Plaistow

Kieran Rifat

Kieran Rifat has been sentenced to life for the murder of Kelly Stewart in Plaistow. - Credit: MPS

A man has been jailed for life after bludgeoning a "vulnerable" homeless woman to death as she slept on the steps of a church.

Kieran Rifat, of Grange Road, Plaistow, was sentenced at the Old Bailey today (Thursday, February 4) after pleading guilty to murder.

Rifat battered Kelly Stewart with a rock without warning as she lay sleeping in the doorway of Memorial Community Church, Barking Road in the early hours of March 26 last year.

Judge John Hillen, sentencing, said: “This was a sustained assault involving protracted, extreme and gratuitous violence on a homeless, mentally ill and vulnerable woman who was asleep.

“The church where this took place was as close to a home as she had, a place which ought to have been of safety for her.

Rifat, now 22, repeatedly stamped with his heel on Kelly’s head before dragging her down steps into an alleyway where he set upon her with a large gas canister. CCTV showed Kelly was alive during part of the attack.

After Rifat rifled through Kelly’s belongings, he covered her body with a sleeping bag, cardboard and a door off its hinges then left her for dead. Police later found a bloody footprint on the door.

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Kelly’s body was discovered the next day after a pastor followed a trail of blood.

She was pronounced dead at the scene. The cause of death was given as head and facial injuries.

Rifat and Kelly knew each other through their attendance at the community centre next door to the church. Rifat was also known to do odd jobs at the church.

Kelly Stewart

Kelly was described as a "gentle" and "unassuming" woman by the judge. - Credit: MPS

The court heard how 41-year old Kelly was a feisty woman, gentle, unassuming and cheerful but often found alone.

She was described in court as having many talents as an artist, designer, singer and actor.

Judge Hillen said: “Kelly Stewart was a much loved mother to all her children. Nothing I can say today can bring her back. No sentence I impose can compensate for the grief and loss her family and friends will suffer all their lives.”

The court heard Kelly developed mental health difficulties later in life but the court was not the right place to discuss what support she did or did not receive from health and social services.

Kelly discharged herself from Newham Centre for Mental Health six days before her death.

From 2019, Kelly had started sleeping on the steps of the church which she had attended as a child.

It was a place where she found “great comfort”, the judge said.

It emerged in court that the night Kelly died Lorraine Tabone from organisation Lola’s Homeless had warned her to get off the streets because of the coronavirus.

Rifat was arrested six days after the attack, following a police chase. The clothes he wore during the murder were found at an acquaintance's flat by police.

He told police on arrest: “Murder? What murder? I haven’t murdered anyone.”

He even told officers he had attended a memorial service for Kelly and left flowers for her at the church.

However, he pleaded guilty to Kelly's murder on December 23 following publication of a psychiatric report.

The killer has given no explanation for the attack, but the judge ruled out a sexual motive or attempt to take Kelly’s things.

However, in a phone call made from prison, Rifat told a friend: “I went around. Straight outside the church. Boom. Done her there and then.”

Judge Hillen said it was a “vicious, angry” attack on an innocent, vulnerable woman.

He agreed the likeliest motive was that Rifat took out his frustration against Kelly after an argument he had with her ex-boyfriend earlier that night.

Jennifer Dempster QC, representing Rifat, said her client had a difficult early life with his mother and him being beaten by her partner. He had also been excluded from school and has a diagnosis of ADHD. Rifat had also experienced bouts of homelessness.

Ms Dempster added drug and alcohol user Rifat had shown remorse and did not target Kelly because of her mental health.

Rifat was sentenced to life. Judge Hillen ordered him to serve a minimum of 17 years and 88 days before he can be considered for release on licence.

Det Insp Darren Jones, commenting after the verdict, said: “I have been a detective for years and investigated many violent cases, but Rifat’s attack truly did shock myself and the team with his mindless, wilful cruelty.

“Kelly was peacefully sleeping on church steps when she was attacked, and had done nothing to provoke Rifat’s terrible actions. I do not know what went through his mind when he targeted her and, to this day, he has still not explained why he did what he did.

“Our thoughts remain with Kelly’s family throughout this very painful time.”

A man who was arrested on suspicion of assisting an offender has been released under investigation.