Betrayed by her daddy

With her little girl living on borrowed time, how would Phoebe tell her the heartbreaking news?
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Phoebe Smith, 29, West Sussex, UK

‘Mummy, when are we going there?’ My girl Ashanti, then eight, turned her face towards me.

We’d been snuggled up on the couch watching a Disney movie when the advert for Florida had come on the TV.

It had been Ashanti’s dream to swim with dolphins since she was two. If only I could make her wish come true…

My girl hadn’t had the easiest start in life.

Her dad Albi and I had only been dating a month when we discovered I was expecting.

But as one of six children, I knew the importance of family and as my belly grew so did my excitement.

‘I can tell you’re going to be a little fighter,’ I’d grin.

When Ashanti was born, I’d never felt a love like it. But something wasn’t right.

Ashanti’s skin wasn’t soft like other babies, it was wrinkled.

At first I thought it was a condition that would clear up.

But in 2003 Ashanti was sent to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for tests.

She was diagnosed with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome (HGP), just before her first birthday.

‘It’s a rare genetic condition that causes the appearance of premature ageing,’ the doctor explained.

It meant Ashanti would spend her life trapped inside a body that looked 80 years old.

She’d face painful joint abnormalities too. But that wasn’t the worst of it doctors explained she’d be unlikely to survive beyond her 15th birthday.

Ashanti as a newborn (Credit: Supplied)

How can I outlive my baby girl? I thought, heartbroken. We just had to find a way.

As Ashanti got older, she lost her hair and her skin aged rapidly. But she’s always been beautiful to me.

I dedicated every day to making her life as happy as possible.

It wasn’t always easy, as my relationship with Albi had deteriorated.

For a long time, I tried to make things work.

Yet after giving birth to another little girl, Brandilouise, two years later, things quickly went from bad to worse.

By 2010, it was over. I kicked Albi out. Our relationship was beyond repair.

I had to do what was best for my girls. But as a single mum, I didn’t have the money to allow them to fulfil the things they dreamt of.

So when Ashanti turned to me that day, asking when we could go to Florida, my heart sank.

‘Darling, we can’t afford it,’ I told her regretfully.

Then I remembered something.

A local club, the Sussex British Motorcycle Owners Club, had heard about Ashanti’s dream trip and kindly promised to fundraise for it.

With everything going on with Albi, it had slipped my mind.

Ashanti might get her wish after all! But, getting in touch with the club boss, I was in for a rude shock.

‘We raised 3500 pounds,’ he told me. That’s equivalent to over $6800. ‘Albi collected it a few months ago.’

Ashanti with her mum, Phoebe (Credit: Getty Images)

But we split up last year!’ I protested.

He’d never mentioned the money to me…

Albi still saw the girls on the weekends, though. Maybe he’d spent the money on them another way. I had to find out.

‘Has Daddy ever taken you away, baby?’ I asked Ashanti.

She shook her head. The awful truth sank in – he must have spent it on himself!

Furious, I marched to the police station, where I explained what had happened and soon Albi was arrested.

He admitted receiving the cheque but told police it was in his mum’s safe.

Later he changed his story, saying he’d buried the money in his backyard.

‘Don’t do this to Ashanti,’ he pleaded, begging me to drop the charges.

I wasn’t going to let him guilt trip me. I was doing this for Ashanti.

But how could I tell my girl that her father had stolen from her?

‘Daddy has spent the money for your special trip, baby,’ I admitted.

‘He can have it if he needs it,’ she said thoughtfully.

My caring daughter always saw the good in everyone. Even the man who’d betrayed her…

Albi outside court

As the police continued to investigate, we tried to get on with life as best we could.

I reconnected with an old friend, Shaine, 26, and soon we were an item.

He brought so much happiness into all of our lives, and in time, we had a son, Shaine, now three, and baby girl Bella-May, now one.

Our family was complete.

Finally, in June last year, Albi Elliott, 44, of Heathfield, appeared at Chichester Crown Court accused of fraud.

The court heard Albi had taken Ashanti to the cheque presentation at the motorcycle club in December 2010.

Our girl had gone on stage and accepted the generous, giant cheque for her dream trip.

But after that, Albi had whittled the money away in two months, spending it on insurance and food shopping at the supermarket.

He was convicted after a four-day trial and jailed for three years.

I was glad to see him locked up. He’d stolen my baby’s final wish, but I vowed to make her dream come true.

Imagine my shock when my phone rang just 24 hours later. It was a reporter at a national newspaper.

They’d done a story about Ashanti’s condition and wanted to send her to Florida to swim with dolphins.

Wow! Ashanti would finally get the dream she deserved!

Within days, we were flying to America while the other kids stayed with relatives.

The first night we danced around our hotel room in our pyjamas. We hadn’t giggled like that in years! And the next day, Ashanti put on a wetsuit and got ready to fulfil her wish.

Watching her swim with dolphins, my heart swelled with happiness.

I’d never seen her smile so widely! It’s been a very difficult journey but we’re focusing on the future now.

What Albi did disgusts me, but life’s too short to be angry – my baby has shown that.

Ashanti swimming with the dolphins (Credit: Supplied)

‘A betrayal of trust’

Following his conviction and sentencing, Albi Elliott launched an appeal against his three year jail term.

Elliott’s appeal was rejected in February this year with judge Mr Justice Walker concluding, ‘Betrayal of the trust of his own young daughter called for a severe sentence. So did the betrayal of the trust of other family members and friends. So did the betrayal of the trust of the motorcycle association. The consequences of his offending damaging public confidence in those who seek money for charitable causes called for a severe sentence.’

Originally published in that’s life! issue 36 – September 10, 2015

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