Kelly Oyebola: 'I can't let my brother James die in vain'

Rather than holding a grudge against the man who shot his brother dead, Kelly Oyebola is trying to change a culture in which pulling a gun is an answer to being asked to put out a cigarette
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The Independent Online

My brother James wasn't one to bear grudges," says Kelly Oyebola. "He would be pleased I'm helping the same kind of people who ended his life."

Not everyone would have such a generous response. James, 46, was shot on the patio of a Fulham club in July this year when he asked three men to put out their cigarettes on behalf of his friend who owned the club. He was hit by four bullets, one of which caused such severe damage to his brain that doctors said there was no point keeping him alive on a life-support machine.

The loss devastated his family and friends but he was mourned by the wider public too. Oyebola was a former British heavyweight boxing champion and winner of a Commonwealth Games medal. People often remarked on his height he was 6ft 9in tall and the epithet "gentle giant" can rarely have applied more keenly.

Kelly, 44, a former probation officer, has considerable insight into the kind of men involved in his brother's killing. He runs a mentoring service for young people, among them those at risk of custody, offending and exclusion. Some of those he offers support to come from similar backgrounds and have similar sensibilities to the three men who took exception to being asked to put out their cigarettes by his brother.

"This shooting happened because of a breakdown in society and a breakdown in family values. It wasn't personal, it just happened," he says. "My brother and I were close very close and I know exactly what he would have said. He was very conscious of his height and the fact that his sheer size could be intimidating. It made him gentle. He was gentle in his speech and his manner. He would have told those guys that they couldn't smoke firmly but politely. 'If you don't put out your cigarettes you'll be asked to leave' something like that."

He can also imagine what was going through the mind of the man who pulled the trigger, prematurely ending his brother's life. "There's a guy with a gun. He probably has it because some cowboy on the other side of the estate has a beef with him. Anyway, with the gun he has no fear. He's probably thinking: 'Who is this giant telling me I can't smoke.' He decided he's been disrespected. Before he even realises it, he's pulled the trigger. It's all over."

For Kelly, the loss of his brother is still raw and painful. The two were extremely close and had been through many highs and lows together. Kelly acted as manager to his brother during his career as a professional boxer. They hadn't always got along, though. Kelly's Nigerian parents placed him with a foster family when he was three months old, while James was looked after by grandparents in Nigeria. Their parents were both studying by day and working by night and found it too difficult to look after a small baby and a toddler as well. It was never explained to Kelly as a child why his day-to-day mother was a white woman he called "Gran" while his real parents were shadowy figures in the background visiting occasionally.

Kelly had a blissfully happy childhood with Gran. He, along with every child who had the good fortune to be looked after by her, adored her. At one time she fostered 14 children, all of them black, in the village of Codford St Mary in Wiltshire. He grew up in blissful ignorance of racism even if there were white people in the area who harboured such prejudices, they wouldn't have dared voice them for fear of what Gran might do if she heard such things uttered.

James arrived at Gran's when Kelly was four. He spoke little English and at first Kelly did not believe he was his brother. But things soon settled down and James became universally adored. "James was everybody's hero. He ran the fastest and the longest," says Kelly.

They later returned to their parents, who were living in London, but felt less close to them than they had to the devoted Gran.

When Kelly was 10 and James 12, their parents tricked the boys into going to Nigeria, telling them that they were going on a two-week holiday. Their stay turned into a nine-year stretch and both of them desperately missed Gran.

James discovered a talent for boxing and focused on honing his skills during his teenage years in Nigeria. At the age of 11 he had discovered racism for the first time; a group of white boys beat him up so badly in Codford St Mary that he needed to spend several days in hospital. James vowed that after that he would make sure he could always defend himself he saw boxing as a way to do that.

Kelly rebelled against his enforced stay in Nigeria and became involved with various gangs. He was thrown out of three schools in Lagos for bad behaviour and was eventually sent to boarding school. As young adults, the brothers found their way back to London and had a joyful reunion with Gran. They lived in the house their parents owned in north-west London but visited Gran often. While James continued to focus on his boxing, Kelly was "lost" for a few years until he made a life-changing decision to become a probation officer in the late-1980s.

As he watched young men like the ones who shot his brother file into his office day after day, he began to think that by the time the probation service got involved it was too late for effective interventions, and that work needed to be done much earlier with the young men who end up in gangs, handling guns and pulling triggers without a second thought. He understands well the concepts of "respect" and "disrespect" which permeate gang and gun culture.

"You start with 10-year-olds. These are kids who are in trouble at school. They can't communicate, they have no interpersonal skills, no self-esteem, they are disobedient, probably violent and they can't manage their anger. Theirs is a generation which is out of control. For some it's probably too late but we can work with the others. These young people need support and guidance and most of all they need to be challenged about the direction in which they are heading. They are lacking information, discipline and respect. We should bring back youth centres, not just where people can play pool but where there are computers and staff to help young people put together CVs." Kelly also believes that input from both parents is vital. Too many young people believe the gang is their family. They will die for their family."

The news that his brother had been shot left Kelly in a horrified daze. "I never dreamt that my own family would be affected by the issues I was working with," he says.

He gave a powerful address at James's funeral. "James was a big character yes, he was a big man, with a big voice, a big laugh and a big heart to match. He would always try to make every person he met feel special... and above all he was a modest, loving, sincere, generous and patient man."

James's untimely death has made Kelly even more determined to continue with his work. "My brother gave people respect and support. It's difficult to understand why anyone would want to shoot such a big life. I really believe in the work I'm doing and there's no way I'll let James die in vain." *

Young guns: A deadly new trend

Violent crime has scarcely been out of this year's news; over the past 12 months more than 50 teenagers have been killed by knife or gun crime nationally, many of these in London where gang membership is flying through the roof.

James Andre Smartt-Ford, 16, from New Malden, Surrey, was shot at a busy ice rink in south London in February. Three days later, Michael Dosunmu, of Peckham, south London, was shot dead by gunmen who broke into his home just days after he had celebrated his 15th birthday. Less than 10 days later, Billy Cox, purportedly the victim of a drugs war, was shot dead in his bedroom in Clapham, London. Adam Regis, 15, the nephew of the former Olympic athlete John Regis, was stabbed after a night out with his girlfriend in Plaistow, east London, in March. Outrage followed the killing of Rhys Jones, 11, who was shot in the neck as he walked home from playing football in Liverpool in August.

While government statistics vary widely and have recently shown an overall fall in murders, what is clear is that young people are carrying guns and knives in increasing numbers. Rob Sharp