Teenagers killed and burnt friend

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TWO TEENAGE students who murdered a college friend before burning and burying his body were last night facing life sentences.

Neil Sayers was yesterday found guilty of murdering his close friend Russell Crookes, who was 17 at the time, by attacking him with a knife. His accomplice, Graham Wallis, had previously pleaded guilty to murder and named Sayers as his partner in the killing, which took place last May.

Yesterday at Maidstone Crown Court, Mr Justice Newman suspended sentencing to allow the compilation of reports on the killers, after the jury raised concerns about the supervision of students at Hadlow College, near Tonbridge in Kent, where the three had been studying horticulture. As the jury returned their unanimous verdict, they passed a note to the judge expressing their worries.

Mr Justice Newman adjourned the hearing until 7 May. He said: "All members of the jury expressed their concern about the lack of supervision and adequate pastoral care of the under-18s resident at the college. This brutal murder raises questions of the first importance touching both the defendants, their future lives in society, the interests and plight of Russell Crookes' family, the interests of the defendants' families, and the interests of [the college]."

The court heard that the trio had once been inseparable friends, obsessed with survival techniques and the Army, but Wallis, 18, of Croydon, Surrey, and Sayers, 19, of Gillingham in Kent, decided to kill Russell because he was "getting on their nerves" and they considered him to be a bully.

The pair collected knives from their homes and tried to dig a grave - but the ground was too hard. Instead, they planned to burn his body, buying lighter fuel and gathering wood.

"Neil said we should kill Russ on a Tuesday night when we had no lectures on a Wednesday," Wallis had told the jury. "I just agreed because I didn't think he was being serious."

The court was told that the murder took place while other students were at a disco. Instead of dancing, the trio went to some woods and sat around a fire, drinking beer and cider. As they walked back to college, Wallis and Sayers set about their friend, stabbing him repeatedly in the chest and legs. Wallis told the jury that Crookes pleaded for his help, and instead of helping him he put a hand over his mouth and stabbed him in the neck and head.

"Russ asked him why he'd done it. Neil said nothing and then went back and stabbed Russell again," Wallis said. "I saw the stabs to the chest and to the legs. He again asked why, before asking me to help him. I moved towards Russell and because he had started making a kind of roar, a noise, I put my hand over his mouth and then tried to stab Russell in the neck and head."

Having made sure Crookes was dead, the pair sprayed his body with lighter fuel and set it alight before returning to their room for biscuits and orange juice. The next day they buried the remains in a shallow grave.

A spokesman for Hadlow College said last night: "This is a tragedy for all concerned, particularly the families of the three young men. Our thoughts are with them at this time."

Detective Chief Inspector Dave Stevens of Kent Police, who headed the inquiry, said officers had found several videos in the boys' possession. "We found two or three videos - they were horror survival type videos," he said. "But you might find such videos in many kids' bedrooms. There is nothing to suggest they were acting out fantasies that they had seen on these, but they did contain murders."

He added: "There was a sinister aspect to this, there was the premeditation and then there were the activities after. The most distressing thing of all is how two friends could turn on Russell and brutally murder him in such a way when you consider that shortly before this they were such good friends."

After the case, Crookes's sister, Sarah, said: "How could anybody do that to a fellow human being and a friend? We think it's the right verdict. We are relieved." Her father, Malcolm, added: "Things will never ever, no matter how hard we try, be the same."