Crime: What went wrong?

Last month, Neil Sayers and Graham Wallis were convicted of the brutal murder of their friend, Russell Crookes. The judge accused Sayers of being the unrepentant instigator, 'fuelled by violent slasher films'. But, as he begins a life sentence, his parents - to whom he protests his innocence - struggle to balance their revulsion at the crime with their love for their son. Here, for the first time, they speak exclusively to Rebecca Fowler

A fidgety silence descends on the packed courtroom in Maidstone as two ashen-faced teenagers are brought back into the dock. It is a little after 11am and the spring rain has started to fall gently outside, where the television cameras are waiting. Neil Sayers, 19, with a mop of fair hair, stares grimly ahead. Graham Wallis, 18, dark haired and sallow, is simply expressionless. Both have already been found guilty of stabbing their college friend, Russell Crookes, to death, in a brutal, shocking, murder.

For weeks, barristers struggled to discover how the world of three well- brought-up middle-class boys descended into violent mutiny. Now Sayers and Wallis must hear their sentences. A pretty girl takes the last free seat just as the judge begins his summing up. "I was a friend of all three of them," she whispers. "And I've still got no idea at all what went wrong."

The families of all three boys sit beside us on separate rows of the public gallery. They share the same broken and bewildered expressions. Wallis's mother, Rosalind, fiddles with a tissue. Across the aisle Angela Sayers, in a lilac elasticated jacket, holds out a trembling hand to her daughter. On the chair in front, Russell Crookes' father, Malcolm, fixes his gaze on the Honorable Mr Justice Newman's chair - his face a rictus of heartbreak and fury. Crookes' grandfather is also present, a white-haired man with a hearing aid and walking stick who, for one last time, has come to hear how his grandson died.

We are taken back by Justice Newman once again to Hadlow College, near Tonbridge, in Kent. It was here the three quiet teenagers - Crookes, Sayers and Wallis - met for the first time two years ago. The residential college, which specialises in gardening and farming courses, seemed the perfect place for the boys' first taste of life away from home. They enjoyed long walks across the fields and woods together. They went on overnight camping expeditions, making fires, chatting under the stars, savouring the outdoor life. The trio were soon known as firm friends at the college, where they attended the same lectures. They even set up their own society with some other students which started as a sort of friendly joke. Russell named the fraternity the Brotherhood after a computer game.

The first signs that a more sinister shadow might be falling over the allegiance came at the beginning of their second and final year of study. The Brotherhood had allegedly become their own personal sect. The three remaining members had become isolated from the rest of the college. They were accused by other students of airing racist and homophobic views. They pinned up Union Jacks in their rooms. They had given each other curious titles: Crookes was "the Prime Minister", Sayers was "the Emperor" and Wallis, the most junior, was "the Tea Boy". While other students went to the bar, the trio preferred roaming out into the countryside or watching SAS survival documentaries and grisly horror videos including Evil Dead and Scream, in which high- school pupils are stabbed to death by a mystery killer.

Crookes had also grown more assertive, according to Wallis's testimony. Sometimes Crookes would tease Sayers, calling him "Fruit Bowl" because of the way he walked and he referred to Wallis as "Wallis and Gromit". To an outsider there was little to suggest their brooding power struggle was anything more than a teenage game. But Crookes' taunts infuriated Sayers. He told Wallis that Crookes was "getting on his nerves". He suggested, darkly, that it could not go on, that Crookes must stop and that if he didn't, he would be made to stop. Then they started discussing how he might be "stopped" forever. Against the charms of a fresh Kent spring, Sayers and Wallis crossed over the line between fantasy and reality.

The pair began contemplating murder methods. Strangulation was considered and then they moved on to the possibility of poisoning. Finally, according to Wallis, Sayers decided on stabbing. Sayers allegedly suggested to Wallis that they should take Crookes out on a walk into the woods, turn on him with knives when he was least expecting it, douse his body in barbecue fuel, burn it over a fire and bury the remains in a shallow grave. They tested a pickaxe on the ground near the woods to ensure that the earth would be soft enough.

At 9.30pm on 14 May last year, the moment to strike came. Most other students were at a college disco and the Brotherhood decided to take one of their late-night walks. They talked about girls and cars and eventually they reached a copse where they stopped to build a fire. Crookes helped collect the wood. Just after midnight, the music from the disco stopped and Crookes urged Sayers and Wallis to go back with him. Under a full moon, Sayers stabbed Crookes as he climbed over a barbed-wire fence. Crookes cried out in pain and twice asked "Why?" Wallis joined the attack. They stabbed him 20 times. They then dragged the body back to the copse, doused it in barbecue fuel and set fire to it. The following day they returned to the same spot with a college shovel and buried Crookes' remains as planned. The shallow grave was discovered two weeks later by a local villager out walking his dog.

In the crammed courtroom one year later Sayers - who has maintained his innocence throughout the trial - is sentenced to life imprisonment. In Judge Newman's view he was the clear leader of the plot to murder Crookes. He was also 18 when it took place, an adult, and he showed no remorse. Wallis, who at 17 was not an adult, is portrayed as the weaker of the two and ordered to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Finally Judge Newman asks the hardest questions of all. Why? How did two teenagers, who grew up in normal, loving homes come to kill their friend? Why did no one notice how divorced from reality they had become? And what legacy will this crime leave parents and teachers? The only reasons he can find are that they had become irredeemably removed from everyday life; that the make-believe world of the Brotherhood in which Sayers wanted to reign supreme took over; and that their darkest impulses were fuelled by the violent slasher films the three boys allegedly watched together.

"They have served to fuel your fantasies and isolated you from conventional counter-balancing," he says. "They carried a potency that could not be readily predicted and served to desensitise you and remove you from the enormity of killing another person by stabbing them."

After the sentencing, the three families form separate clusters. The Wallis's are comforted by a Baptist minister from their church. Richard Sayers, a tall, striking man with a thick moustache, smokes a cigarette. His tearful wife clutches their eldest daughter. Malcolm Crookes does not linger inside. He is barely able to speak at first. Then, standing on the steps of Maidstone Crown Court in the rain, he allows some of his anger to spill over.

"When somebody tears something away from you, something as special as Russell was to us, then it's not easy," he says. "You are looking at a life sentence here as a family. That's why I feel so strongly about murder of this calibre - pre-planned, vicious, outrageous."

It is still raining 10 days later outside the Sayers' modest terraced house in Gillingham, Kent. There is a golf course down the road, a train station around the corner and a stack of local papers outside their front door (Neil Sayers' younger sister does a paper round). Ben, a friendly spaniel, barks excitedly at the sound of the doorbell. Inside, the hall is lined with pictures of pretty country scenes. Mugs of tea are passed around and they draw the curtains in the front room when it starts to get dark. This feels like an ordinary home and, at first glance, Angela and Richard Sayers and their two daughters look like any other family.

A week ago, they admit, they were in pieces. The strain still shows across their eyes and the shock has not lifted. They can barely bring themselves to talk about Neil's crime, let alone believe that he has committed it. Angela Sayers is a tall woman with a pale, intelligent face. Richard, her husband of 20 years, looks strained but he is determined that the family will not crack up. They have stood by their son throughout his arrest; they have visited him in prison as often as they can. They have told him at every stage that even if he confesses to the murder they will support him. He is their son after all. They will love him whatever.

"I still can't accept it," says Angela Sayers. "I still can't believe it's true. But that's the whole point. No one who knew Neil can believe he did this. The way he was portrayed in court was not the Neil we knew. He enjoyed family life, he enjoyed spending time with us and his pet dog. He was on the quiet side but he was not isolated by any means. It was as if they were talking about someone else."

When Crookes first went missing, the Sayers were naturally shocked. He was their son's friend, he had been to their house, Richard Sayers had given him lifts back to Hadlow College with Neil after weekend breaks. It was unthinkable that something terrible might have happened. They were devastated when Russell's charred and dismembered body was discovered a couple of weeks later. But never, for one moment, did they expect their son to be implicated. The police came round to Sayers' house the same day and said that they wanted to talk to Neil. He had been working on a farm to earn some half-term money. Angela Sayers gave the police the address, assuming they just wanted her son to help with their inquiries. Later that afternoon she received the call to say that he had been arrested.

"It was terrible when Russell went missing," Angela says. "But not for one moment did we ever imagine Neil was involved. Nothing in the world could have prepared us for that. When they arrested him I went into total shock. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't think about anything else, I certainly couldn't believe it. I kept thinking 'This is going to end. It isn't true. They've made some terrible mistake. Neil will come home'."

In the weeks that followed, the Sayers spent their time between Tonbridge police station - where Sayers was on remand - and their home, where the search teams sifted scrupulously through their son's belongings. Angela Sayers went to the prison two or three times a week and, on Saturdays, the whole family visited. Sayers professed his innocence. They believed him. They waited for some revelation, some overwhelming proof that he was not involved. Instead the police continued to find evidence against him. By Christmas, the enormity of what had happened became almost unbearable. Crookes was dead and his two friends had been accused of his murder.

"It was like a bereavement at first," recalls Angela Sayers. "It was as if he was taken away from us. Gone. Then you begin to get used to it. You start to cope with missing him. But I couldn't help thinking of Russell's parents at Christmas. How much worse it was for them. We knew that we would see our son again. They don't have that, do they? I couldn't stop thinking about that."

The Sayers still don't truly know what happened on the night that Crookes was murdered. If Neil admits to the murder, they will somehow have to come to terms with it. But as he has repeatedly denied any involvement, his parents still cling to the possibility that there has been a terrible mistake.

"They say every crime has to have a motive, so where's the motive?" asks Richard Sayers. "They've used the Brotherhood and the films because they couldn't find anything else. They've set up this whole scenario around that and everyone has leapt on it. It seemed so exaggerated."

None of the families have spoken to each other since the initial arrests. But they have sat in close proximity during the trial, listening to their children's lives being scrutinised in the most painstaking detail. Even the Crookes family struggled to come to terms with the court's depiction of their own son, Russell. Malcolm Crookes describes him as a gentle boy "who wouldn't hurt a fly". He recounts how he hoped to set up his own landscape gardening business, own a Land Rover and a Labrador dog. And although he loved history he never harboured an unnatural preoccupation with war or violence. "During the trial our son had no voice," says Malcolm Crookes.

Back in the Sayers' front room, they occasionally remember something from before the trial, before their son was labelled a remorseless killer. They become momentarily animated, but then return to the bleak reality, a reality they are still plainly a long way from accepting. It is as if they are returning to another world. But it is momentary.

Sitting with them, the dog at your feet and the kettle boiling, you enter into their disbelief. You so want it to never have happened, for it not to be true, however damning the evidence, for it all to be a dreadful mistake.

"Of course we will have to accept what has happened," acknowledges Angela Sayers. "But the hardest thing is not knowing exactly what did happen. Our lives are in limbo really. In a way I'd rather know one way or the other. That would be easier. It might be terrible, but it would be easier. We could begin to accept it. We've told Neil so many times that we would still support him, we would still love him. But as it is, he's maintained his innocence and he's our son. If he is guilty he must have totally blocked it from his mind."

Russell Crookes now lies in a peaceful cemetery, overlooking the countryside he loved. The village of Hadlow feels as far away from the evils of modern life as you might hope to get with its pretty rows of cottages and gardens filled with forget-me-nots. There is a tea-shop, a hair stylist and a post office. The local noticeboard offers news from the Hadlow Historical Society and the sewing club. The Women's Institute advertises an anniversary dinner and the 17th-century stone church set back from the high street still has a thriving congregation.

At Hadlow College, just outside the village, students are going about their fresh-faced duties. Young men in combat trousers wonder whether they should go the Chelsea Flower Show. Rosy-cheeked girls in riding hats giggle their way across the lawns from the stables. The college gardens are at their spring-time best, filled with flowers and soft smelling lavender. Pop music drifts out of the students' residential rooms, where handwashing and wind chimes hang precariously from windows. It is the sort of place you might dream of studying at if you were a teenager and the outdoor type.

The college, however, is reluctant to discuss the tragedy that took place a year ago. The principal, Carol Woodhatch, declines to comment although she is keen to stress that Hadlow College had been totally exonerated by Judge Newman following concerns about student supervision. The staff, the judge said, could in no way be held responsible for what happened. Woodhatch believes it is time the college and the village were allowed to get on with their lives.

Outside the parish church, a courteous pensioner is finishing his concise crossword. He enthusiastically offers a guided tour of the building and describes how civilised life in Hadlow is. He moved here from London nearly 40 years ago and could not imagine living in the city now. Too fast, too unfriendly, too dangerous. I cannot help asking him about the tragedy that happened on his doorstep and he shakes his head sadly.

"I don't envy young people today," he says with a sigh. "I'm glad I grew up in the time I did. I think we had more of a sense of what are responsibilities are. That isn't the case now. I wouldn't want to be a young person now. It's all so different.'

Ninety years ago a news item appeared in a French newspaper, in Rouen, carrying the story of a 15-year-old boy given to "assiduous and uncontrolled reading of the German philosophers". In the middle of a class at his local school he shot himself through the head with a revolver. It later emerged he belonged to a secret sect of morbid and alienated classmates, "an evil society of youngsters". This article inspired Andre Gide to write his The Counterfeiters some 16 years later. The protagonist in his story dreaded being laughed at and would do anything, no matter how dangerous, "for the sake of a little consideration". He called his fictional society The Brotherhood.

The idea that young people are somehow more alienated and out of control today has obsessed US commentators in the last month, following the high- school massacre in Colorado by the so-called Trench Coat Mafia. But these crimes frequently echo incidents from the past. Society's stimuli may have changed: today it might be suggestive horror movies rather than depressed philosophers fuelling teenagers' darkest fantasies. But the distorted sense of "outsiderdom" remains the same.

Peter Staley, the Baptist minister who has supported the Wallis family throughout the murder trial, has struggled hard to make some sense this. "In each of us there's this potential for some kind of evil," he says. "Most people overcome that. They are given the tools to overcome it. But there are no guarantees that what you instill into your children will bear the right kind of fruit. I do think there are more pressures than there ever were, whether it is films, adverts or videos. But maybe anything could have tipped them over the edge. The fact is, for these kids there was no anchor. There didn't seem any way of bringing them back to reality."

The last image I have of Neil Sayers is a photograph his sister, Clare, gave me. It was taken before he was arrested for the murder of Russell Crookes. He is cuddling his dog and smiling. That is how she still thinks of him. For the Sayers it is still not possible to make the leap from the image of their quiet, cheerful 18-year-old son to that of a young man who would cold-bloodedly kill his close friend.

As he begins his life sentence, their nightmare has only just begun. It may be 25 years before he comes home again, but the Crookes family do not even have that hope. "We still get the feeling Russell's going to walk back in the door at any moment," says Malcolm Crookes. "It is the worst thing to lose your son at such an age when he's got everything to live for. Our worst feeling when he died was that we wouldn't be able to remember his face, that it might fade. But it has never gone from our minds and will always be there with us"

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