Standing just 5ft 1in tall and slightly built – ‘like a fairy’, as one friend put it – Zara Aleena never stood a chance.
Stalked and then ambushed as she walked home in the early hours of the morning, she was punched in the back of the head, then strangled. As she lay on the floor, her assailant stamped on her and kicked her and then attempted to rape her.
The extent of the 35-year-old’s injuries and the level of violence inflicted shocked even hardened detectives.
What sort of a person would beat a defenceless woman to death with his bare hands?
Step forward Jordan McSweeney, a cowardly, pathetic thug with a history of bullying and beating any woman unfortunate enough to cross his path.
The unprovoked attack on Zara was not the first time he had punched someone in the back of the skull. And, incredibly, nor was it the first time he had stamped on a woman’s head.
Because, as The Daily Mail can reveal, Zara’s murder in June was the culmination of a string of attacks on women by a man for whom dishing out daily beatings was so normal he would publicly boast about ‘boxing my girl’ on Facebook.
Today, two of the 29-year-old’s former girlfriends recall how they were manipulated, abused and regularly beaten up by McSweeney during their relationships with him.
Zara Aleena (pictured), 35, who had recently started work at the Royal Courts of Justice, died after she was ambushed as she walked home in the early hours of the morning, she was punched in the back of the head, then strangled
As she lay on the floor, her assailant James McSweeney (pictured), 29, stamped on her and kicked her and then attempted to rape her
McSweeney’s former partner Stella Lowe (pictured) believes she might have suffered the same tragic fate as Zara had she not refused to meet him little more than 24 hours before he savagely beat his victim to death
Samantha Bryan dated McSweeney for four years as a teenager, being subjected to outbursts of violence throughout
Samantha Bryan dated McSweeney for four years as a teenager, being subjected to outbursts of violence throughout. Their relationship ended when he stamped on her head in a rage, splitting her eyeball.
Although she complained to police, no charges were brought after she decided not to pursue the matter, terrified of her attacker’s reaction. To that background, questions as to whether more could or should have been done to stop him sooner are inevitably now being asked.
‘This disgusting, vile human has always been a predator,’ Miss Bryan posted on social media following McSweeney’s arrest. ‘There will never be enough justice for Zara and she did not deserve to die at his hands! I am, as are many other girls, very lucky to be here! I’m so sorry.’
Stella Lowe, another of his former partners, also claims to have suffered horrific abuse. Terrifyingly, she believes she might have suffered the same tragic fate as Zara had she not refused to meet him little more than 24 hours before he savagely beat his victim to death.
McSweeney, who has a string of almost 30 convictions for crimes including burglary and assault, was only released on licence from prison on June 17th.
Jordan McSweeney ambushed Zara Aleena and punched her in the back of the head before dragging the 35-year-old into a driveway and kicking her as she lay on the ground
A court sketch showing McSweeney in court today, where he has pleaded guilty to the murder and sexual assault of law graduate Zara Aleena
Zara, pictured left, was murdered as she walked home. She had told her best friend Lisa Hodgson, right, ‘that won’t happen to us’ after Sarah Everard’s murder
‘This disgusting, vile human has always been a predator,’ Miss Bryan (right) posted on social media following McSweeney’s (left) arrest
On June 24th, he called Miss Lowe from the pub to say that he was out – and suggested she come and join him.
Miss Lowe refused, hung up the phone and pushed McSweeney from her mind, only to see him named on television as the man charged with murdering Miss Aleena on June 26.
‘Part of me was contemplating seeing him, but I thought better of it,’ she told this newspaper from her family home in Dagenham, east London. ‘I don’t know, but this attack could have been for me. Or maybe he got angry because I wouldn’t meet him, and then he later went on to do this?’
And she added: ‘I would never have thought he was capable of killing someone, but if he was going to do it, it would have always been a woman. He was a coward and spent his life attacking people weaker than him.’
Of course the terrible tragedy is that Zara Aleena should ever have had the misfortune to cross paths with McSweeney.
A law graduate, she had everything to live for. She was loved by her family and friends, a carer for her grandmother and mother, and was on the cusp of a career she had long dreamed of.
McSweeney, by contrast, had chosen a life of crime. His social media feeds are littered with pictures of drugs, knives and images of himself working out bare-chested in the gym.
Raised in Rochester, Kent, he was the product of a broken family, a ‘mummy’s boy’ who by his early teens was already in trouble with the police.
‘Burgling people, robbing people in the street, stealing cars, that was all he did,’ said a family friend. ‘He was an absolute toe-rag. His mother had no control over him. He even trashed his own home – there were holes in all the walls, all the bedrooms were graffitied. He had no respect for anything.’
Neighbours recall police being called repeatedly to his house as he burgled houses on his own street.
McSweeney’s petty crime spree culminated in the mother and son having to flee to be near family in Dagenham, Essex, after he stole a neighbour’s car and they threatened retribution.
Miss Bryan, who is now 30, met McSweeney when he was aged 15. By then he had already been excluded from multiple schools.
Attracted by his ‘cheeky charm’ it quickly became clear that he had a problem with women.
‘Part of me was contemplating seeing him, but I thought better of it,’ Miss Lowe told this newspaper from her family home in Dagenham, east London
‘I would never have thought he was capable of killing someone, but if he was going to do it, it would have always been a woman,’ Miss Lowe said
‘He was a coward and spent his life attacking people weaker than him’
‘Gradually he isolated me from everyone,’ Miss Bryan said, speaking exclusively to the Mail, the violence starting within six months of them meeting. Despite this, they would stay together for four years, her falling pregnant with his baby in 2010, the year he was first imprisoned for theft. Although released in time for the birth, there was a complication and Miss Bryan lost their son, Kaden.
Rather than stop the abuse, the beatings got worse.
‘He was completely different when he came out of prison,’ she said. ‘He thought he was Mr Big Man because he’d been inside. I used to come home and I had literal bite marks where he had drawn blood. He was extremely violent.’
Matters deteriorated further in May 2011 after McSweeney moved to his aunt’s home in Hornchurch.
There he ‘flipped out’ and attacked his girlfriend, allegedly leaving a footprint on her face where he had stamped on her head.
Miss Bryan said: ‘His auntie was downstairs and he was upstairs jumping all over me. He jumped all over my face. He was just swinging and jumping on me, whatever he could do. Bouncing my head off the floor.’
McSweeney did his best to cover up what he had done, refusing to let his concussed girlfriend leave the bedroom. But when she managed to alert her family, she was taken to hospital. This time the police were involved.
But in the end Miss Bryan withdrew her complaint out of fear of McSweeney, with police taking no further action.
She said: ‘There were photographs taken at the police station, statements given.
‘He split my eyeball. If it was a few millimetres over I’d have been blinded. But I didn’t proceed with the charges.’
At the time Miss Bryan’s mother, Nicola West, posted a photo of her daughter’s battered face on social media as a warning to other parents.
‘Attention all parents keep your daughters away from Jordan McSweeney or this is how she will come home,’ she wrote next to the picture.
As the years passed McSweeney was in regular trouble with the law. And his relationships followed a similar pattern as before.
Miss Bryan (pictured), who is now 30, met McSweeney when he was aged 15. By then he had already been excluded from multiple schools
‘Gradually he isolated me from everyone,’ Miss Bryan (pictured) said, speaking exclusively to the Mail, the violence starting within six months of them meeting
In 2018, McSweeney met Miss Lowe at a party in east London. She was just 18 and he was 25. The lies and controlling behaviour began almost immediately.
‘When we first met he told me he had leukaemia and was dying,’ she said. ‘We had this incredibly emotional conversation about it and I was crying, asking him about death, then later that same night he asked me to be his girlfriend.’
Except it was all lies – ‘the first of thousands of lies he told me’, as she explains.
‘He kept this story up and used it to manipulate me,’ Miss Lowe said. ‘He would later go off and say he was at these medical appointments. But who knows what he was really doing – probably sleeping with someone else or thieving somewhere. Then when we would argue or if I ever tried to leave him he would say he would refuse [cancer] surgery and would let himself die and it was all my fault.’
After just a week together, Miss Lowe moved into McSweeney’s caravan attached to a travelling fair which would spend most of the summer in Valentines Park, Ilford, east London. He worked there operating the rides.
‘Sometimes he would be lovely company and he was very good at presenting himself as a nice man – but there was a darker side in private,’ she recalled.
Shortly after moving in McSweeney snatched her mobile phone and smashed it to pieces.
Once he had cut her off from her family, the violence began.
‘It was nine months before I could speak with my mum and my family again,’ she said.
‘I started working with him and things were fine for about a week and then he hit me for the first time. The beatings then became more and more frequent.
‘If I was putting make-up on in the morning he would hit me and say I was doing it for someone else at the fair that day.
‘If I spoke to anyone else there, any man at the fair I knew, I would be beaten up that night.’
McSweeney, meanwhile, would flirt with other women, texting one to tell her she was beautiful.
‘When I confronted him about it he beat me up for about three hours straight in the caravan,’ said Miss Lowe.
McSweeney was always careful to only inflict injuries that others would not see.
Miss Lowe said: ‘He would hit me in the back of the head and I would have bumps there. He would punch and pinch my legs, spiteful stuff. He once kicked me out of the caravan in the middle of the night and I was knocking to get back in, so he came out and smashed the door on my head then just left me out there.’
Why didn’t she leave him? Miss Lowe says McSweeney was her first proper boyfriend, and having herself had a troubled background lacked perspective about how a healthy relationship should function. On top of which were threats to ‘petrol bomb’ her family if she told anyone of the abuse.
When the fair closed for the winter of 2018, Miss Lowe felt forced to welcome McSweeney into her family home in Dagenham to live alongside her mother and younger brother.
The arrangement didn’t last long, however, as McSweeney burgled a string of houses on the same street and headbutted the family’s next door neighbour.
He was sent back to prison for the offences shortly before Christmas 2018.
While in jail, McSweeney started smoking spice – synthetic cannabis – and his mood swings and irrational behaviour became even worse.
‘I visited him in Pentonville for about three months,’ she said. ‘I was still scared of him but eventually I realised he couldn’t hurt me while he was in there.’
Miss Lowe decided to end the relationship, and McSweeney began a campaign of abusive and threatening letters sent to her home from his prison cell.
‘He went from writing me nice notes and sending me drawings to just awful abuse,’ she said.’I don’t understand why the letters weren’t checked by prison officers. I ended up burning every last one of them. I wanted nothing more to do with him.’
Zara’s family outside the Old Bailey today, where they watched McSweeney give his pleas
The crime scene in Cranbrook Road, Ilford, is shown where Aleena was murdered in June
But her hopes of putting it all behind her came to a crashing end when, out of the blue in June, she received the FaceTime call and a voice message from McSweeney, which saved on her phone.
‘What are you telling me and where are you?’ was the chilling last message McSweeney left Stella on June 24 after she ended the call.
She chose not to respond.
A day later the horrifying news broke of Zara’s brutal killing, with McSweeney named soon after as the man charged with her murder.
‘She was just a stranger to him and had no warning, how could she know?’ Stella said.
‘And he’s always been a coward, attacking those weaker than him, and maybe his life has just been building up to this because he was never stopped. Twice in our relationship I stood up for myself and hit him back when he was hitting me and both times he grabbed me, hugged me and said ‘I’m sorry, can we stop fighting?’ And I wish I had fought back every time. Maybe things would have been different.’
She adds: ‘Every girl I saw him with on social media after me I tried to warn about him. But no one could have warned Aleena. She could never have known what a monster was coming for her that night.’