Estate aghast at mob killing of 'lovely man'

Neighbours of Stephen Mills, beaten and left to die in the street, cannot explain his murder. Esther Leach reports
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THE KNOCK on the back door came at about 9.30pm, as darkness was falling. When Stephen Mills opened it, he was faced with a mob of about 15 people, mostly women.

Scared and alone, he made a run for it, but an hour later he was dead, battered with a baseball bat and stabbed several times.

The police say that those who chased him to his death last Wednesday were his neighbours on an inner-city estate on the east side of Manchester. There has been talk of Stephen Mills being involved in drug dealing, of his connections with burglaries. And the inevitable question is being asked: is this the moment many feared would finally happen in Britain, when a group of vigilantes took the law into their own hands, angry about crimes committed in their neighbourhood?

Yesterday the police were continuing to question people about Stephen Mills's murder, but few of his neighbours volunteered any information. Many of them could not believe such a thing had happened on their doorsteps. They were fearful, too, afraid that if they spoke, they might fall prey to attackers as well.

The Monsall estate, where Mr Mills lived, was once one of Manchester's most notorious estates, but in recent years it has changed, with millions spent on its homes and new gardens.

Stephen Mills, who was 35, had lived there for some time, and his family lived nearby. He was schizophrenic, and lived alone after separating from his girlfriend and two children. He was known to the police, but for only minor offences committed a long time ago, and certainly not for burglary or serious assault.

But the final moments of his life indicate that somebody had pinned blame on him - a blame so powerful that it caused him to be chased to his death in his own neighbourhood.

After that first knock on the door, and faced with the mob of between 10 and 15 women, none older than 20, and three men, Stephen Mills escaped to reach the safety of his sister's nearby house. But he ran into the mob again as he made his way back from his sister's house to his own in Queens Road.

Mr Mills wanted to return because he was worried that his house might have been damaged. "At some point on this journey, Stephen came across this mob who were looking for him, and he was attacked," said Det Supt David Brown, who is leading the investigation.

During this attack he received injuries to his head and face and it was probably at this time that he was stabbed twice. He managed to get free and ran into Pitsford Road, where he tried to get help. But the mob again chased him and he ran up the road to where he finally collapsed, and was surrounded.

Det Supt Brown went on: "We know a man punched and kicked Stephen repeatedly to the head and body before driving off in a blue 4 x 4 vehicle. At one time a woman of mixed race, aged 17 or 18, was seen kneeling over Mr Mills, screaming at him. The group, having seen the beating, then walked away, leaving him dying in the street."

"We are all asking ourselves the same question: how could something so terrible happen here?" a slim, grey-haired woman said as she stood outside a corner house overlooking the scene of the attack.

For the first time she was scared in her own home, on an estate where people generally know each other by name and watch out for each other.

"I don't believe the stories about Stephen being involved in crime and being chased to his death by people angry because he burgled their homes. It's not true. Stephen was a law-abiding man, very close to his family."

A young woman, who described herself as a close family friend of the Millses, but who would also not give her name, said his mother, his sister, his twin sister and twin brothers were distraught about his death, too upset even to talk to friends.

"To say they were devastated would be an understatement. We are all devastated by what has happened. Stephen was a lovely man who has lived on the estate all his life. Everyone knew him. He was well liked and never involved in crime."

The killing of Stephen Mills has dismayed many in Manchester, including the council which has spent pounds 25m trying to transform an estate with a soaring crime rate , vandalism, drug dealing and graffiti into a place where people want to live. .

"What's happened has never happened before," said one elderly woman. "I have lived here for years and I keep myself to myself. But the people here are friendly and they work together. Gangs don't roam the streets. Whoever did this terrible thing, they must have been strangers."