When Fri Martin was convicted of murder, Heather Savage was one of the few people who knew about the years of abuse she had suffered. Here, Heather explains why she’s hoping for justice for her friend, and the children she’s raising on her behalf
Your best friend is being beaten by her boyfriend but she’s made you promise not to tell anyone – ‘Please, Heather, I’m begging you to keep quiet,’ Fri had pleaded. So what do you do? You could call the police, but it’s your word against hers. You could tell her family, but she’d stop talking to them and be even more alone. All you can do is be there, tell her she needs to get away from him and hope that one day she’ll be ready to listen. There were times when Fri didn’t answer my calls, so I’d go round to her flat and knock on the door to check she was OK. Maybe part of me was scared her boyfriend would kill her. I never imagined it would be the other way round.
I can’t remember a time when Fri (short for Farieissia) and I weren’t joined at the hip. We went to the same nursery and same primary school, and she lived near my nan’s house. We felt like sisters more than friends. Fri was the outgoing one; she liked the limelight and I was happier in the background. At the school nativity play, she was the Angel Gabriel while I sat in the corner, jingling bells. But when it was just the two of us, we were always laughing. We grew up in a part of Liverpool where everyone knows everyone. Fri was well loved – she lived with her mum and three older brothers. They were a close family and I’d spend loads of time at her house. Her mum would cook us amazing Caribbean food. Fri was independent, outspoken and hated asking for help. She was also petite and immaculately turned out, with a mass of long, brown hair. Dancing was her thing and she dreamed of becoming a dancer, taking classes and, as we got older, teaching too. We used to talk about the flat we’d share one day, looking through catalogues to pick out our furniture.
Kyle Farrell, Fri’s partner, was local too. He went to our primary school, but he was quiet and kept himself to himself. He played football for a local team, so he was quite athletic, but he wasn’t someone who stood out. Fri thought he was gorgeous, though. They got together when she was 16 and you could tell she really liked him. She used to write me little notes saying ‘Heather Loves…? I Love… Kyle (obvs!)’.
We were young and I didn’t know much about their relationship, but I did notice certain things. In that first year, they were always splitting up and getting back together. Fri and I bumped into him in town after one break-up and Kyle started shouting at her, calling her a ‘slag’, then he pushed her – she had heels on and fell. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I began shouting and Kyle tried to go for me too. Afterwards, I told Fri she couldn’t go back to someone who put his hands on her like that. Her response was always the same: ‘But when you love someone…’ Fri dreamed of the happy ending. She’d even picked out her perfect wedding dress – shorter at the front and long at the back. When they got back together, she made Kyle apologise to me. It was the most unapologetic apology I’ve ever had. He and I never liked each other after that. I couldn’t just ‘un-see’ what he’d done.
‘Fri would show up with bruises on her face, black eyes or finger marks on her arms’
Kyle was jealous and controlling. When Fri started studying at a performing arts school, he would wait outside for her so that she didn’t walk past any lads on the way home. When we were out shopping together, his texts would flood in. ‘Where are you?’, ‘When are you coming back?’ Eventually, Fri stopped going into town and the furthest we were able to go was the local pub. Even then‚ Kyle would come and join us. Her mum was worried too, but Fri made me promise I wouldn’t tell her about the violence. Her mum told me she didn’t like Kyle and I admitted that I didn’t either. We were both trying to be there for her.
When Fri was 19, she stopped going to college and fell pregnant. I witnessed another horrible incident while we were walking down the street together. I can’t remember what Kyle was angry about, but he started accusing Fri of being with someone else, which she never was because she loved Kyle. Right in front of me, he kicked her in the stomach. She fell into the road in front of oncoming cars, and a big scene kicked off with me shouting at Kyle. I took Fri to hospital, but she didn’t tell doctors the truth – only that she’d fallen. In no time, Kyle was calling, saying how sorry he was and wanting to know if the baby was OK. From the outside, it made no sense. I kept telling Fri she needed to leave him, but we ended up arguing every time. She’d say that he’d promised to change. Fri had stood up for herself our whole lives, but it wasn’t my relationship. You’ll never know how somebody feels unless you’ve been through it.
Having two daughters with Kyle, born less than a year apart, and moving into a flat with him made things worse very quickly. They were living there for a year when Fri’s appearance started changing dramatically. She no longer made an effort, wore joggers, her hair back and no make-up. For the first time, she’d show up with bruises on her face, black eyes or finger marks on her arms, with always the same excuses. ‘I hit myself on the oven door,’ she said once. And I replied, ‘Do you think I don’t know you better than that?’ During that time, Fri also stopped using her phone so much. I’d call or text her asking, ‘Are you OK?’ And when she didn’t reply, I’d go round there afraid of what I might find. When Fri opened the door, Kyle was always in the background and she’d say something dismissive like, ‘Sorry, my phone was on silent.’ I felt like I was losing my best friend. And that strong, dance-loving, outgoing girl was losing herself. By now, her mum was as concerned as I was. She’d seen the bruises and the changes in Fri. She even took her and the girls away for a few days to the Lake District after Fri and Kyle briefly spit up, and Fri did begin to imagine a life without him. But when they returned, he wanted to see the girls, and soon they were back together.
At this stage, I was still living with my mum, training to be a dental nurse, but I worried about my best friend 24/7, lying in bed, thinking is she OK? Then, at 5am on 21 November 2014, Fri’s mum phoned me hysterical, saying, ‘She’s killed him, she’s killed him.’ I couldn’t make sense of it, but headed to the family friend’s house where they’d gathered. Fri’s two daughters, aged just one and two, were there with her mum, three brothers and other family members. I was told Fri had killed Kyle and been arrested. I’d never seen her brothers, grown men, crying like that before. Nobody could make sense of it and I remember saying, ‘What did he do to her?’ Fri would never kill Kyle for no reason. I didn’t cry, or ask any questions; I was in shock. I offered to look after the girls at Mum’s house, where they stayed for a week before being taken into care. Thankfully, they were oblivious.
That was four years ago and I still haven’t asked Fri what happened that night. I’ve imagined it and I know enough; I don’t want the details. The short story is that Fri had been out with a friend, and when she got home she hadn’t bought Kyle the cigarettes he’d asked for. That’s how the row started, apparently. They were in the kitchen shouting – the girls were asleep – and Kyle had his hands tightly around Fri’s throat. She grabbed a kitchen knife from the counter and shouted at him to get off. He was taller, stronger, and leaning into her. It was a single stab to his heart. Fri called 999 and Kyle was taken away by ambulance but died in hospital.
‘She looked so helpless sitting in the dock, like a child, her feet not even reaching the floor’
The trial was in June 2015. Until then, I wasn’t allowed to visit Fri in custody because I’d been asked to give evidence for the defence. I’ll never forget being called into the courtroom and seeing her for the first time. She looked so helpless sitting in the dock, like a child, her feet not even reaching the floor. We both started crying as soon as we saw each other. I needed a minute to compose myself, and then I answered questions about what I’d seen. Both Fri’s and Kyle’s families were watching and you could feel the tension. Each time Kyle’s name was mentioned, Fri sobbed. The trial lasted two weeks and the jury took less than two hours to find Fri guilty of murder. Kyle’s family were there, wearing T-shirts with pictures of him on, and when they heard the word ‘guilty’, they cheered. I was with Fri’s family – we just hugged and cried. Fri sobbed in the dock as she was sentenced to 13 years.
Now her case has been taken up by the campaign group Justice for Women, an organisation that supports women who have killed violent partners. It has submitted grounds to appeal because Kyle’s long history of violence wasn’t explored in the trial by her all-male defence team. For the first time in three years, we’re feeling hopeful. I’ve since fostered Fri’s daughters. For the first year, they were with a foster family. The next step was for them to be given up for adoption. When I told Fri I’d do that, she said, ‘Are you sure?’ It’s a massive commitment – they’re with me until they’re 18 – but I’ve known them since they were born, so they’re like my nieces. Those girls are my life now – I’m not in a relationship and I don’t have children of my own.
They’re five and six, amazing girls, doing really well at school – the same one Fri and I went to. Watching them together reminds me of how we used to be, so carefree. They know their daddy is in heaven and that he’s not coming back. His body stopped working because mummy hurt it by accident and that’s why she’s in prison, or ‘the castle’ as they like to call it. They keep me focused and give me hope when it all feels hopeless. We visit Fri once a month. We’re all in the same room, but she has to stay seated. The girls sit on her lap, and we draw and read books. It’s the funny things that break your heart. The other day, Fri asked to see their feet because she hadn’t seen them since they were tiny. Every time we say goodbye, the children cry and that makes Fri cry, too.
Neither of us talks about what happened. You could go over it forever – ‘Why didn’t you listen?’ ‘Why didn’t you help?’ – but it wouldn’t change anything. Fri still loves Kyle, and she has said, ‘His life’s been taken and I need to be punished. But I’m not a murderer.’ And I know she isn’t. That’s why I’m speaking out now, even though this is way out of my comfort zone. But while she’s gone, a part of me has gone, too. I want my friend back, and it feels like, with a bit of support, it might just happen.
How to stay safe
1. Make an escape plan
What’s the quickest, safest way to leave the house? Rehearse your escape plan (if you have children, make sure they know it too and teach them how to dial 999). Have a bag packed with overnight essentials hidden in the house or car. Arrange with a friend or neighbour to take you in if need be.
2. Have your own money
If possible, have a separate, secret account and avoid joint ones if you can. Keep change on you for emergency bus or train fares, or a phone box. If your partner has access to your online banking, change the passwords regularly.
3. Monitor your digital footprint
Store the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (0808 2000 247) on your phone, but save it under a name your partner won’t be suspicious of. Always delete your browser history. Women’s Aid (womensaid.org.uk) has advice on how to do this, as well as a Survivor’s Handbook. The safest way to access information online is at a friend’s house, a library or work.
4. Download this app… …if it feels safe to.
Bright Sky (hestia.org/brightsky) provides contact details for local services and advice, plus a ‘My Journal’ feature where you can keep a record of incidents in the form of photos, text, audio or video without any of it being saved to your device.
5. Identify lower risk areas of the house
These include doors to the outside, large windows and a telephone. Go to them if you think your partner is about to attack you. Avoid kitchens or garages where there are potential ‘weapons’, or small rooms or cupboards you could be locked in.
6. Know your legal rights
You can get help with temporary accommodation, an injunction, or protection for your children. Rights of Women is a free service by women for women. Call 020 7251 6577.
The forgotten women
Justice for Women was founded in 1990 to support women who had been convicted of murder after killing violent men in self-defence. Women killing their partners is rare. And studies of women who do so suggest it usually occurs after a long history of being abused by them – something that is often missed in court. Justice for Women has successfully overturned a number of convictions for women, including Sara Thornton, Emma Humphreys and Stacey Hyde. They’re now campaigning to free three more: Fri Martin, 25, Emma-Jayne Magson, 25, and Sally Challen, 64.
For more information, visit justiceforwomen.org.uk. For advice on supporting a friend who is experiencing domestic violence, visit refuge.org.uk/get-help-now/help-someone-you-care-about-2/