VIRTUE'S REWARD

When 15-year-old Kelly Turner helped police track down the perpetrator of a brutal racist attack, she might have expected applause. Instead, she was ostracised, and had to grow up - fast
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HOLLYWOOD'S night-club - "in the celebrated style of the silver screen" - is behind Romford station, next to the bus garage. It's a hangar of a place, built in the sports centre style of architecture, brick and moulded metal. You can tell it isn't a swimming pool by the pink and purple neon lights over the door and the Busby Berkeley steps up from the entrance to the dance floor.

Every Tuesday night, children from south-west Essex and east London come here clubbing. They arrive in small groups, boys in trainers and back- to-front baseball caps, hands shoved moodily in pockets, girls teetering along in mini-skirts and high heels, their flesh-coloured tights exposing pale, plump legs. Some look as young as 10, others as old as 20. Most are aged around 15. This is estuarine youth culture: sharp- featured, trying to look old, mean and sexy before its time.

It was at Hollywood's night-club in December 1993 that Kelly Turner, then just turned 15, met Nicky Fuller. She was pretty, blonde and vital; he was 17, tall, dark-haired and dark-eyed: she thought he was Italian, although in fact his father was part Afro-Caribbean. He travelled out to Romford on Tuesday nights from Bow, in London's East End, with a gang of youths who called themselves the Bow Massive. She came from Barking, in Essex, from the sprawling council estate that once served Ford and its satellite factories but now is as likely to serve the dole office.

They swapped phone numbers; he started hanging around her house and, in late January, invited her out. It was not to be a relationship of any longevity, or much affection. Three days into it, they were in McDonald's when Kelly had a coughing fit. "I spat some milkshake on the floor," she recalls, "and he called me a dirty slag and a slut - and I weren't standing for that, and I said, 'Sorry mate, you're dumped,' and I walked out."

As you would. A couple of weeks later, Nicky (who hadn't given up hanging around) boasted to Kelly that he had "beaten up a Paki". Kelly thought he was only trying to impress her. But then she saw television pictures of the bloodied, swollen face of Muktar Ahmed, who had been attacked by a gang of white youths in the East End, one Tuesday night after Hollywood's had closed, and was critically ill in the London Hospital (and whose face, two years on, is still a mess). The details seemed to fit and Kelly told the police. As you would.

What Kelly Turner did was not so extraordinary. She told the truth about an attack whose only motivations were a quick, vicious thrill and the glorification of a stupid gang. She did not have to make a morally complex choice. Nicky Fuller was not her son, or the man she planned to marry; he was a white boy she happened to have kissed. And even if he'd been someone for whom she cared, the rights and wrongs of the case were perfectly plain. Fuller had been party to an attack of heedless, celebratory violence, and then he had boasted about it. He had called her the following day to say, "We got some Paki and we was kicking him in the head and between the legs and he died and had to be brought back to life."

What is extraordinary about Kelly Turner's story - bewildering even - is other people's reactions to what she did. Even now, when Nicky Fuller has been convicted and has served his sentence, when racist gang violence has not let up, when other boys, Asian and white, have died, opinions are divided on the pavement outside Kelly's old school as to whether she did the right thing. A girl called Elizabeth, who was a year below Kelly and is now doing GCSEs, said: "It was completely out of order what she done. I wouldn't shop my boyfriend." An overgrown boy of the same age, spotty in his West Ham scarf, was keen to find reasons to exonerate Fuller. "It depends why he did it. If his sister had been the victim of a race attack..."

"She hadn't."

"No, but if she had. It would have been wrong to go to the police."

This is morality as mutable, depending on whether it's your boyfriend that committed the crime or whether some vague extenuating circumstances can be imagined to account for wanting to kick a stranger's head in on a street corner one Tuesday night. It would be nice to be able to dismiss it as adolescent moral muddle. Unfortunately, you can't. One of Kelly's middle-aged neighbours has refused to speak to her since she went to the police. She has been beaten up, threatened, abused. The family's dog was fed meat spiked with glass.

Kelly was bullied. Her school never held an assembly to celebrate her courage in going to the police - and so, Kelly's mother believes, failed to establish the proper response to her stand against racism. Today, Eastbury School gives the impression of considering the whole subject best forgotten. The messages I left there every day for a week went unanswered. Even the teacher who did take an interest in Kelly - attending a couple of ceremonies at which she has been presented with bravery awards in the past two years - failed to return my calls. The reasons for this reticence can only be guessed at; they may be connected with the fact that Kelly's family have suggested that there might be grounds for legal action against the school for failing to protect her from bullying. Whatever, the consequences of this attitude from the local community - hostility at worst, not wanting to get involved at best -- are clear. "I was not made to feel proud of what I'd done," Kelly says. Even the police suggested it might be easier, less troublesome, for her to say that they had approached her, rather than she them.

ON A Saturday morning after a late night, slopping around the house in a long denim skirt and Arran sweater, Kelly Turner is startlingly pretty, with a blonde bob and minimal make-up. She has been engaged for a year to Paul Gentry, a 19-year-old computer operator, a friend of the family who her mother encouraged to take her out when, months after the attack, she was refusing to leave the house. By turns uncertain and confident, sometimes she's the kid who got engaged at 16 and whose conversation revolves around whether or not she's getting on with her mates; sometimes the person who's had death threats issued against her and has met Princess Anne on account of her bravery. Pert and emphatic, she can give the impression of being pretty sure of herself, secure about what she stands for. But she's not very old, and her ambitions to be or do anything had, before all this, never been seriously exercised. The events of the past two years have often left her feeling way out of her depth.

Kelly no longer goes to Hollywood's. Her social circle now extends beyond Barking and other 17-year-olds. This pleases her: she is not unambitious. But it doesn't appear to have turned her head: though she has a teenage sense of drama, and though her habit of repeating conversations word-for- word ("so I said... then he said... then I said...") can make her seem unreflective, the overwhelming impression is of someone clear-sighted, who did not think it was right to kick someone's head in and could never have been persuaded that it was, and who has not acquired an exaggerated sense of her own importance. Someone rather astute, in fact.

On the night of Tuesday 8 February 1994, the night Muktar was attacked, Kelly left Hollywood's early. She and her friend had both recently finished with members of the Bow Massive, and didn't like the way their ex-boyfriends were behaving. Though Nicky was 17, and Tony, her friend's ex, was 19, the two boys clearly had few resources - self-esteem or dignity - to enable them to deal maturely with the rejection. "They started pushing people," Kelly remembers. "They was acting really strange, starting trouble. There was about four fights in the toilets. Tony kept saying he's gonna kill himself."

Nicky somehow ended that night on a street corner in Bethnal Green - just off Vallance Road, where the Krays grew up. A railway line and a row of garages border the junction on one side; on the other stands a derelict bath-house, boarded up, with broken window panes; across from that is a block of maisonettes, six storeys high. The nearest dwellings are well back from the road or up in the air. At night the place is desolate.

Muktar Ahmed was walking home with five friends when the gang came at him from two directions; he was less than 100 yards from his flat when they got him on the ground and started kicking. All the blows were rained at his head. He needed a maze of stitches on his scalp and the swelling was so dreadful that it made his skull look as though it had developed an elephantine growth.

The following afternoon, Tony called Kelly on the thin pretext of wanting Nicky's phone number, although he and Nicky had been friends for years. "He said, 'So what you been doing?', and I said, 'What d'you mean, what've I been doing? I've been at school: it's Wednesday,' and he said, 'Oh, I've been in nick all day' - 'cause that's how they talk, real common - 'me and Nicky and these others got arrested last night.' And I went, 'What for?', and he went, 'Attempted murder.' "

Kelly and her friend telephoned Nicky the following morning, Thursday. He boasted; she didn't believe him. She thought he had some warped idea of trying to worm his way back into her affections by pretending to be a thug. But by the time she got home from school he'd called her eight more times; the phone was ringing as she walked through the door. He told her: "There was 20 of us, 10 waited in one corner and 10 in the other corner and we like chased 'em and we got one on the ground and we either wanted to kill him or cripple him."

An hour later Kelly saw the pictures of Muktar Ahmed on the television news. "You couldn't even see he was Asian: his face was black and blue. It was disgusting. I felt sick. They said it was 20 youths, the time it happened and so on, and I thought: 'No: Nicky's heard it's happened, and the time, and he's just repeating it - bragging. It can't be him.' You know when you get a deja vu and you think I've been here before? I'd already known what was on the telly because I'd already been told it. And just as it was ending and they was appealing for witnesses, I quickly wrote the name and number down, and then Nicky phoned me back. Him and his mates in a phone box and they were really, really laughing, and they said: 'Did you see that Paki on the telly? It was us what done that.' "

An hour or so later, after talking it over with her mother, Kelly called the police, who came round within the hour, took details, and promised to return the following day for more detailed questioning. Kelly was still struggling to assimilate Nicky's apparent complicity in the attack with his behaviour at her house. "If you'd actually met these boys..." her mother says. "Well, I've never come across such polite boys. I didn't want Kelly going up Bethnal Green and Bow, but I didn't mind them coming here, and they were always well- mannered, and before they left, 'Thank you for letting me come in', and when they rang up, 'Sorry to disturb you, Gill, is Kelly there?' "

The Bow boys were already on the suspect list. The police had stopped them for rowdy behaviour on their way home from the attack; it was while they were speaking to them that the police got the call to go to Muktar's assistance. On the morning afterwards (Wednesday), officers had been to the gang's addresses and seized clothes and shoes; five of the youths, including Nicky and Tony, were questioned and released on bail. Nicky handed over the wrong shoes, a pair he hadn't been wearing. A week later, when the police went back for his trainers on a tip-off from Kelly, he claimed the substance clotting the laces was barbecue sauce. "And I thought, what a prat. I bet he's put that barbecue sauce on and said it's blood to wind me up. I thought, you silly cow, you fell for it."

But it was blood. And Nicky was proud of it: he had worn the trainers to Hollywood's on the Tuesday night a week after the attack. "Reebok Classic trainers they was, white and grey, but they had like a green in-lining, and I'll never ever forget this: on the left foot, between the laces and down the side, there was blood and it was all thick and congealed where they'd kicked Muktar. And d'you know, Nicky didn't even attempt to wash that off. Because it was like a trophy. He wouldn't shut up about the attack. He lifted his foot up to show me and it was like a black dye. And then I come home and I made notes." Nicky was arrested within 48 hours.

KELLY TURNER lives in a cul-de-sac of small council houses on the vast estate built in the Twenties and Thirties along the marshy flatlands beside the Thames. The development was one of the first attempts at East End slum clearance; then, people who moved there were inclined to give themselves airs. It's different now.

Today, there are not many cars parked in Kelly's street, even early on a Saturday morning. A woman in an overall and support stockings, who has probably lived here since the days when the factories gave the men importance and industrial muscle, stands by her front gate, watching.

There is something bleak and unregarded about this area - a combination of topography, poverty and ill-use. The A13, shunting traffic out of the City along the river, may well be the ugliest trunk route in England. But Kelly's house is comfortable and immaculately tidy, the sitting-room furnished in blue and pink, with flounced and fringed lampshades and pink velvet cushions.

Kelly lives here with her mum, Gill, a hairdresser by training, "but houseperson at the moment", and her two-year-old sister, Alex. She has an older sister, Sarah, 19, who is also a hairdresser - unemployed - who lives between her mum's place and her dad's in Southend. Gill was divorced from Kelly's father years back; Alex is the result of "a new love in my life" - Phil, who doesn't live with them, though he comes every day to see the baby. They will live together, Gill says, when they get married next year.

Gill sits in on Kelly's interview with me. Slim, 41, with cropped blonde hair and Kelly's trenchant energy, she is the quiet driving force in Kelly's story, its moving spirit. She was recovering from biopsies for a cancer scare when Nicky Fuller started boasting about the Bethnal Green attack. "I could see by Kelly's face - I've got quite a close relationship with the girls and they don't hide anything from me, though sometimes I wish they would - that there was something wrong. She pretended there wasn't because I was ill, but I said, 'Don't worry; I want to know what's wrong.' " Gill hadn't seen a newspaper for days, but after Kelly had told her about Nicky, she went out and bought one and sat Kelly down in front of the television, which was now showing the story on the local news. "And I said, if it's disturbing you that much, make a note of what he's saying whenever he calls."

They both insist that Gill didn't advise Kelly to go to the police. But the moral relativism and cowardice which affected so many other people touched by the case clearly wasn't given much house-room at the Turners'. "I said to Kelly, 'As a mum I feel for his mum. How would you feel if that boy dies? At the end of the day you won't be wasting police time. You've nothing to lose. And whatever decision you make, I will support you.' "

This promise turned out to require more commitment than anyone would have thought. In the eight months between the attack and Nicky's trial, Kelly was subjected to a venomous campaign of abuse. Asian people as well as white apparently thought her guilty of some appalling act of near miscegenation: there was a series of silent and heavy-breathing telephone calls which were traced to an Asian man; at school, Kelly says she was called "slag, bitch, wolf's meat, paki-lover, whore. People would say: 'Are you going up Barking to see some monkeys?' I got beaten up in the toilets twice. A girl threatened to get petrol and set light to me.' "

There were death threats over the telephone, sometimes from a man, sometimes a woman. There was a series of calls through the night until Gill explained to the caller that she was up with the baby anyway, so it was quite convenient. Kelly was followed in Romford by one of the boys who hung around with Nicky, who told her he knew where she went and who she was with. A boy at school - a black boy, oddly enough - beat her up in the classroom after telling her that she shouldn't have grassed on her boyfriend. Other pupils had to drag him off. His girlfriend later pulled out a knife, stabbed it into the paintwork, and said that if Kelly had been there she would have stuck it in her.

The strain began to tell on Kelly - and, as her behaviour began to deteriorate, on Gill. Kelly didn't want to leave the house; she was having recurrent nightmares.; on two occasions she wet the bed. "It got to the point where I couldn't go to the toilet on my own," Gill says. "I couldn't turn round in the kitchen without her being there. It was very frightening for me. I mean, I couldn't show my feelings. Twice I phoned the police and said I don't think Kelly's going to be available for this because I'm going to do her in.

"She changed from a happy-go-lucky girl to a very aggressive, nasty person. I could never understand how people could hurt their children, but Kelly got me to the point where I couldn't take it any more. One minute she'd be OK, the next she'd be shouting, 'Why did you bring me up to be this sort of person?' I started having doubts about the way I'd brought her up. She made me ill in the end. I had to ask my sister to have her for a while because although I could understand what she was going through, I couldn't allow her to get away with the way she was speaking to me. She was horrible, horrible; it got to the point where I dreaded getting up in the morning because I didn't know what mood she'd be in. She became violent to her boyfriend; she was lashing out."

Gill didn't do Kelly in, although she says she might have done without the support of policewoman Denise Hughes, who gave up her days off, rang every day, sent cards and flowers when Gill and Kelly were feeling low, and insisted that Kelly should return to school because she hadn't done anything wrong. Slowly, Gill was able to start rebuilding Kelly's confidence. When Kelly left school last September, the Commission for Racial Equality offered her voluntary work and said they'd send a cab to collect her. "I rang up and said, 'I appreciate what you're doing but she's got to have faith in herself. I told Kelly I'd only allow her to do it on condition she went by public transport. The first couple of days she was very nervous. What she didn't know - hasn't known until now - was that I organised to have someone on the train, a policeman, travelling with her."

Towards the end of our interview, a tired-looking, abstracted woman arrives, with two boys in tow. She is Maxine Handley, who achieved notoriety of her own in October 1994 when her nine-year-old son Daniel was abducted from east London. His body was found near Bristol last March. Two men are currently awaiting trial for his murder. Gill had known Maxine for years - she was at school with her ex-husband - and went with her to the police to learn "the details of what led up to Daniel's death. She wanted me there." Maxine is taking prescribed drugs, but their sedative effect has made it difficult for her to take care of her four other children, who have had to be taken into care. They come to their mother at weekends, and Maxine brings them round to see Gill. "I keep my eye on her. I talk to social services on her behalf sometimes. All I want now is to see her back with her family." The boys evidently adore Gill, who turns their attention gently towards their shattered-looking mother. "My boyfriend," she says, "tells me I'm a bloody Marjorie Proops."

NICKY FULLER pleaded guilty to his part in the attack on Muktar Ahmed and was given a year's imprisonment. The charges against him were reduced from attempted murder to aggravated grievous bodily harm and then to violent disorder. No one else was convicted, although Fuller was probably the youngest of the 20 men involved. The police claimed that their inquiries were thwarted by a "conspiracy of silence" among the white community.

Kelly Turner completed her GCSEs last summer and went back for the start of the sixth form at Eastbury School in September. But she felt uncomfortable and left after a few weeks. She then became a full-time volunteer at the Commission for Racial Equality, for which she is working on the "all different, all equal" project and teaches PSE (personal and social education) at a school in Victoria once a week. She visited Muktar Ahmed after he came home from hospital and still sees him occasionally; he is back at college. "I'm like really good friends with him. I don't see him all the time. He's quite disfigured still, but he's getting by." He wants to put the incident behind him.

Kelly's life has changed. She is still only 17, but "I feel like I'm about 22. I've had to grow up so much. I see my two best friends still but I've got a new circle of friends now. People I work with, the police who helped me, people I met at my awards. I mix with older people." She got home at 5am on the day of our interview: she'd been at a party at Chelsea barracks with a soldier, a hero of the war in Bosnia whom she'd met at the People of Courage awards.

Although she has learnt to speak in public, and considers herself old enough to have been engaged for a year and to be thinking of buying a flat with her fiance, she sometimes seems very young. She was, she admits, knocked sideways by the loathing directed against her. She wants to join the police force, but not until she's 21. She will probably go to college before that. "My self-confidence has been knocked so much, I need a year out of school and college to get back to my own state of mind."

Confidence, and lack of it, is a theme of Kelly's story. Lack of social confidence lies at the heart of the discrepancy between Nicky Fuller's private behaviour (Kelly remembers how he used to sit and stare fascinatedly at baby Alex) and his arrogant, random violence in public. "He was mild and meek," says Kelly, "like his dad, but he wanted to be accepted by his friends. To be accepted, he done the attack. Now in his community he's someone really hard."

Nicky came from a large family, some of whom had been in trouble with the police. He is alleged to have said he wanted to thank Kelly, because no one had ever listened to him as much as the official who had dealt with him when he'd been on remand. "From a mum's point of view, and knowing what I'd seen of him, he wanted help," Gill says. "He was crying for help. It was unfortunate he was the only one got done, because he wasn't the ringleader. But it was a case where if one kicks, you all kick."

And there was a lack of confidence among people around her about the wisdom or seemliness of sticking your head above the parapet. The police have subsequently encouraged Kelly to speak publicly in the hope that this will encourage others to come forward in similar cases. But among the people who knew her, there was a feeling that she was asking for trouble, almost as if she were getting above herself. The black boy who attacked her taunted her first by shouting: "Here's the slag off the telly." She claims to have overheard despairing conversations among staff at school: "She's been on television again." And the other girls from Kelly's year seem resentful of her celebrity. Perhaps they are jealous. As much as anything, though, they seem to think that the media attention was improper. "It was brave what she did," said one of them, "but she went too far." Her friend agreed. "She was over the top. She got too much publicity." !

Comments