A MENTALLY ill mother from Southampton has pleaded guilty for killing her son after she set alight the car they were travelling in.

Teresa Sheldon was given a hospital order admitting the manslaughter of Tommy Sheldon, five, who died two weeks after she spread petrol around her car, igniting it with a lighter, while he sat in his child seat.

Health professionals told Winchester Crown Court yesterday the 38-year-old, who at the time lived at Kathleen Road, Sholing, had suffered “psychotic symptoms” when she drove to Merdon Castle Lane in Hursley near Winchester last year.

She sobbed as she denied her son's murder but guilty to manslaughter claiming diminished responsibility.

She wore a striped black jumper, a gold chain and her long dark hair held back from her tear-stricken face.

After listening to reports, the judge Mr Justice Dingemans agreed prison would not be in the best interest of her “recurrent mental disorder”. He sentenced her under the Mental Health Act.

He thanked her family for the dignified way they acted in court and thanked Alan and William Beusmans – the father and son who tried to save little Tommy when they discovered the fire. The court heard how on August 11 last year Sheldon took Tommy to McDonald’s in Cosham and bought him toys before driving to Sainsbury’s in Badger Farm to fill up a newly purchased petrol can.

Hampshire Chronicle:

She parked up her Ford Fiesta between 7.45-8.05pm, then climbed into the back seat with Tommy and another child, who cannot be named for legal reasons. Sheldon splashed petrol all over the seats before sparking it with a lighter.

The Beusmans, who were on their way to a fishing trip, saw the car up in flames, with Sheldon screaming having got out of the car – her legs partially on fire – before noticing Tommy was still inside.

The court was told they had difficulty getting him out because of the child lock.

Prosecutor Kerry Maylin said: “Mr Beusmans opened the car and Tommy fell and hit his head before he could catch him.”

She said paramedics who treated him at the scene described his “clothing smoky” – the burns having covered 65 per cent of his small body – before asking Tommy confirm his name.

They said Sheldon stood there screaming. The other child had escaped the vehicle.

Ms Maylin added: “They could not initially determine his ethnicity due to the extent of the burns. It was only by seeing a small patch of skin they realised he was caucasian.”

Tommy was taken to Southampton General Hospital by air ambulance before he was transferred to a specialist burns unit in Bristol for immediate surgery.

Sheldon was also treated for injuries which resulted in three subsequent skin grafts.

She also pleaded not guilty to one count of attempted murder and one count of arson, being reckless as to whether life was endangered.

Tommy died on August 25, at 9.20am, from broncho pneumonia, the court heard.

Pathology reports showed traces of sertraline in Tommy’s bloody – the same antidepressants Sheldon had been prescribed.

In the months leading to the incident Teresa suffered depressive mood swings and her mental health had “significantly deteriorated” after divorce papers were served and grew worried her husband, Ross, would gain custody.

Ms Maylin told the court: “[Teresa] said she wanted to be dead and didn’t want to be here anymore and didn’t want to be without [Tommy].”

She also told the court how Tommy’s father, Ross, visited his grave “on a daily basis”.

“He speaks of the trauma of seeing how badly burned his son was,” she said. “It’s clear that there was inordinate pressure watching his son going through what must have been a very painful experience.”

She also said Tommy’s grandparents had described their lives as “empty” and “filled with sadness”.

Mitigating was Nigel Lickley QC, who described Sheldon as “an otherwise good, devoted mother” but confirmed doctor reports indicated she may have to receive life-long treatment.

Senior investigating officer, detective inspector Simon Baker, said after the hearing: “This was a truly harrowing case for all involved and our thoughts remain with the family and friends of all those who have been affected by this distressing incident. This was a long and complex investigation which involved months of sensitive enquiries to enable us to bring the case to court in extremely tragic circumstances.

“I would like to commend the bravery and courage of those members of the public and the emergency services who intervened to try and rescue Teresa and the children from the burning car.”