A coroner at the inquest of a nine-year-old girl strangled by her mother’s lorry driver fiance said she should have been “safely tucked up in her bed at home”, not in a lorry cab.

The body of Stacey Lawrence, from West Bromwich, was found in the cab of a white Spar lorry parked in a lay-by in Warmington, Northants, on August 29 last year.

She had been on a delivery run with her mother’s fiance Darren Walker, 40, whose body was found hanging from a tree in nearby woodland.

Recording a verdict of unlawful killing at her inquest at Kettering Magistrates’ Court, Northamptonshire coroner Anne Pember apologised to Stacey’s family for their loss.

Ms Pember said: “Miss Lawrence, I am deeply sorry for the loss of you and your family of your daughter Stacey who was only nine-years-old.

“You entrusted her to the man you loved and who was your fiance. I make no criticism of you, you could not have contemplated that such a tragedy could befall her.

“Any parent should be aware that sleeping in a lorry cab is not an appropriate place for a nine-year-old girl who in my view should be safely tucked up in her bed at home.”

Stacey was found in the cab of the lorry after concerns were raised when she and Walker did not return home after a delivery run.

Police called to the lorry, which was parked in a lay-by off the A605, found the schoolgirl lying under a duvet in the bed of the cab with a piece of black strapping round her neck.

Home Office pathologist Prof Guy Rutty said the cause of death was ligature strangulation.

He said there were no marks to suggest Stacey had struggled or had been the victim of a violent assault.

But when asked by her older sister, Emma Hammond, who accompanied their mother, Roxanne Lawrence, to the inquest, if she was awake when she was strangled, he said he could not tell.

The pathologist said it was possible Stacey had been restrained by the duvet, which would have left no marks.

The inquest heard that there were traces of semen matching Walker’s DNA on her body.

A statement from Stacey’s mother said she had never had any reasons for concern over her fiance’s relationship with her daughter.

In the statement, read out by the coroner, she said the pair had been on four or five trips in the lorry together.

She said: “I never saw any incident between he and Stacey that caused me any concern."

She said Stacey had showed an interest in Walker’s lorry driving and asked to go with him, first going in February 2009. She added: “I had no concerns about this as she told me how much she enjoyed it.

“She said she and Darren would chat a lot about being a family. She loved the picnics and the food treats she would have.”

She said Walker would always sleep in the front passenger seat with his trousers on, while Stacey slept in the cab.

In the early hours of Friday, August 28, Ms Lawrence said she woke Stacey and helped get her ready for the trip.

The last thing she said to her was to have a nice time. Ms Lawrence said she spoke to her daughter and Walker several times during Friday morning and last heard Stacey’s voice in the background during a conversation with Walker just after 7pm that evening.

“Stacey sounded happy and gave me no cause for concern.”

The inquest heard that she became concerned on Saturday when she did not hear from her fiance and daughter.

She contacted police and the AF Blakemore depot where Walker worked.

The lorry was then located using its GPS tracking system, and the police visited the scene and made the grim discovery.

Ms Lawrence said: “I can’t believe on that Friday morning Darren left our home address as the man I loved and by Saturday he was the man responsible for my daughter’s death.

“Darren was always so kind, not only to Stacey but to my whole family.

“I’m so shocked. I could never have seen anything like this ever happening. I hate Darren for what he has done to me and my family.”

Ms Lawrence did not attend the inquest of Darren Walker, at the same court last week, where a verdict of suicide was recorded.

In the same statement as was read to the court during her daughter’s inquest, Ms Lawrence said Walker had previously said he would rather kill himself than go to prison.

His body was found hanging in nearby woodland from a tree, tied with a ligature made from the same strapping he used to strangle Stacey.

In an additional statement at the inquest, Ms Lawrence said she was shown the strapping used in both deaths, and confirmed it was a rope Walker kept in the boot of his car.

She said: “He used to say he kept it there in case he needed to tow a car.”