When did girls get so brutal?

Two teenagers have been convicted of killing a 71-year-old widow - the latest in a series of vicious crimes committed by young women. ANGELLA JOHNSON investigates a horrifying trend
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Standing outside the grey stone-clad house where 71-year-old widow Lily Lilley lived before she was murdered by two teenage girls last year, 10-year-old Jessica Riley recalls the group of teenagers who used to congregate across the street and intimidate people. "Sometimes they'd push us younger ones around and make it hard for us to stay out and play. If someone was fat or something, they'd tease them. It was horrible."

West Street in Failsworth, near Oldham, is quieter these days. A group of youngsters, under the protective eye of their mothers, are playing on bicycles. No sign of gangs on this warm summer evening. But an aggression seems to simmer below the surface.

One slender young girl, who looks around 13, is having a tussle with a boy. She is about an inch taller and grabs him by the shoulder shaking him violently. "He called me a bad name," she bellows, then flounces off. "I don't want my name in no paper."

Most people are still reluctant to talk to the media. "I don't want to get into trouble," says another teenager, Sally. "I knew them two girls. They were my mates, but we weren't no gang. It's just there's nothing to do after school except hang around the street."

The brutal slaying of Mrs Lilley by two girls (referred to in court last week only as A and B), one of whom lived a few hundred yards away, has left this working-class community shellshocked. Many still wonder if they could have done anything to prevent it. Parents and grandparents are struggling to understand what could have driven the 15-year-old girls ("girls, at that," gasped one elderly man) to kill the frail widow.

In the past, the idea of women torturing, maiming and bullying their victims was almost unheard of, but incidences of brutal attacks by women and girls are increasing with alarming alacrity.

Although the number of females committing violent crime is still well behind men - only 8,600 compared with 49,600 in 1997 - statistics show numbers have doubled since the Seventies and continue to rise. Only last month a 12-year-old, from neighbouring Manchester, became the youngest girl to sign the new sex offender register after she admitted being a serial sex attacker.

Dr Sue Bailey, a child psychiatrist based in Manchester who was an expert witness in the Jamie Bulger trial, argues that the idea that women are capable of aggression has become more acceptable. Controversially, she argues that, combined with the shift in views and expectations of the women's movement, there has been a seismic change in the way women view violence.

She says girls are now less inclined to express their frustrations through self-mutilation, but will lash out in anger. Now, instead of assisting a man in a crime - think of the role Myra Hindley played with Ian Brady - they play a pivotal role. "Where once women tended to lure victims, we find that they are just as likely to be involved in violent attacks themselves," says Dr Bailey.

The onset of this kind of violent behaviour is from the age of nine through 17 and Dr Bailey found the girls were more likely to use a weapon. While boys are more impulsive, girls plan their attacks. They are also more likely to resort to hitting, punching, stabbing, strangulation and kicking.

The courts heard this week how Mrs Lilley was a prime target for bullying. She was considered by the girls and boys on the street to be an eccentric old lady, known for wearing a shiny red raincoat on hot sunny days and muttering to herself. But no one thought it would lead to murder.

During the eight-week trial, the court heard how the girls beat Mrs Lilley in her home and attacked her with a knife before tying a bandage around her mouth so tightly she suffocated. They then rammed her frail body into a large wheelie rubbish bin. Then, laughing, they pushed the bin through the street and dumped her in the nearby canal. One was heard to whisper, "I don't believe we're doing this".

Doctor's receptionist Linda Tagger recalls chasing off the kids who terrorised Mrs Lilley and having to call the police on several occasions. "Contrary to the media reports that Lily took in young kids, she was plagued by them. They hammered on her door, threw stones through her windows and shouted at her even in the house. She only gave them money and food to stop the bullying."

Linda, who has lived in the street for 11 years, is in no doubt that lack of parental control is the root cause of the problem. "Most of these kids come from one-parent families and seem to have very little discipline at home." Linda describes Girl B, who was 14 at the time of the attack and lived with her mother and brother, describes her as "a manipulative bully" who tormented her grandchild." I don't know what's going on any more. Girls are becoming so rough and ready. They act just like boys and call it girl power, but it's taking away their softness."

Sitting in her living room, pensioner Mary Hale has just finished bathing her handicapped adult son and settled him into bed. The court case this week reminded her of those awful events last year. "We've had to re-live the whole ghastly murder all over again."

Mary, 75, and her husband Alfred, 85, are two of the few remaining "old- timers" still living in the neat cluster of red-brick houses around West Street. The oldest resident, a 94-year-old woman, died of natural causes about two months ago.

Mary shakes her head in bewilderment when she thinks about the murder of Mrs Lilley. Any sociological explanations mean little in her world, but as she talks it's clear she has her own theory. "This used to be such a nice peaceful place, where everyone knew everyone and we helped each other out."

She harks back to a time when Failsworth was a sought-after suburb for upwardly mobile working people - families with mother, father and well- behaved children. Then, she says, the Housing Associations took over some terraced houses and moved in a load of single mums. "Now these kids - boys and girls - have grown-up and are running wild."

By this Mary means wholesale truancy, gangs of bored youths on street corners, the occasional smashing of windows, smoking, swigging beer and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

She is quick to distinguish between those living in the privately owned semi-detached two-bedroom homes with their well-kept front gardens and windowboxes bursting with summer flowers, and the inhabitants of some half-dozen streets of flat-fronted terraced houses with rear cobbled alleys.

"I blame the legal system for making it an offence for adults to physically discipline youngsters who openly taunt them with `you can't touch me or the law will have you' when we threaten them with a clip around the ear."

It seems no one in Failsworth has remained unmoved by Mrs Lilley's murder. Even the officials dealing with the case. The policeman in charge of the case, Detective Superintendent Roy Rainford, spoke of his shock at finding girls had been capable of mounting such a "calculatedly wicked attack on a vulnerable and defenceless old lady".

The judge, who ordered that they be detained `at Her Majesty's pleasure', described them as "hard young women" who had carried out "an act of unspeakable cruelty" and had not shown "the slightest remorse or regret".

Society still does not seem ready to believe that girls or women are capable of such violent acts, but research - and the death of Lily Lilley - show it's time to absorb the unpalatable reality. Girls and young women will become an increasing feature of the crime statistics.