The short life and gangland death of a child of the drug culture

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THERE can be few more poignant symbols of the futility of the drugs trade than five-year-old Dillon Hill, shot dead on a cobbled street yards from his home, recipient of a bullet intended for his stepfather.

Dillon's killer, Paul Seddon, 27, was jailed for life yesterday at Preston Crown Court with a recommendation that he serve at least 25 years. He had committed, Mr Justice Forbes told him, "a truly appalling crime".

But to relatives and neighbours of a little boy described as "bursting with love", Seddon was not the only man with blood on his hands. It was his stepfather, John Bates, who had brought the gunman to the family's doorstep in Bolton, Greater Manchester.

Seddon, a contract killer, had been sent to "execute" Bates, a small- time heroin dealer, after he fell out with a local drugs gang.

It was Dillon's fatal misfortune to be walking home hand-in-hand with their target on the summer afternoon when Seddon struck. Minutes earlier, he had been playing on a computer at a friend's house.

The jury took nearly 11 hours to find Seddon, a convicted drug dealer, guilty of killing the boy and of attempting to murder Mr Bates, 30, in August last year. Mr Bates was wounded in the attack.

The judge told Seddon: "You brought sudden terror and violence to the residential streets of Bolton. You also brought death. But not to your intended victim. You only wounded him. You brought death to an innocent little boy."

Two other members of the gang who planned to murder Mr Bates, David Hargreaves, 24, and Craig Hollinrake, 25, were given sentences of 18 and 16 years respectively for conspiracy to murder.

The court heard that an attempt had been made on Mr Bates's life just 17 hours earlier. As he sat in an armchair in the front room of his home, a bullet ripped through the window, narrowly missing his head.

It was a warning to him that he had fallen foul of the people who controlled the local drug trade. But he persuaded Dillon's mother, Jane Hull, not to call the police.

He told the court: "It was a stupid thing to do. I was confused, I was scared. I should have phoned the police. If I had, Dillon would still be alive."

Mrs Hull had ignored her own wake-up call a year earlier. Charged at Burnley Crown Court with allowing Bates to sell heroin at the house, she was spared jail by a judge who warned her to protect her son from the evils of drugs.

A simple plaque marks the spot where Dillon collapsed and died. The plaque, left by residents of the quiet residential street, reads: "In memory of Dillon Hull. A small flower picked and placed in God's heavenly garden. Born 27-11-91, shot and killed on this spot 6-8-97. An innocent victim."

There were emotional scenes in the packed public gallery yesterday. Relatives of Dillon cried "yes" as the unanimous guilty verdict was announced.

Dillon's aunt, Nicola, said she had spoken to Jane Hull to tell her the verdict. "She's just glad it's over," she said. "Life has been put on hold for everybody. Now my nephew can rest in peace. Justice has been done for Dillon."

Dillon's grandfather, Robert Hull, said: "I am pleased with the verdict. It's been an appalling time and today has been an ordeal. It was the right decision. We've got to try to get back to normality now, but I still think about Dillon very much."

Detective Superintendent Peter Ellis, who led the murder investigation, said that the crime had sent shockwaves through the nation.

"There has been no doubt in my mind as to who was responsible for the murder of Dillon Hull," he said. "What we should not lose sight of is the fact that a five-year-old boy has lost his life and everything he had to look forward to."

The court heard that it was never in doubt that Dillon had been loved and well cared for by both his mother and step- father. Mr Bates had accepted him as his own son. The family had moved from Blackburn to make a new start while Jane Hull was pregnant with Dillon's half-brother, Codie.

Det Supt Ellis said: "It is clear that Jane Hull has had problems in her life. But we have always known that Dillon was a happy child - loved and well cared for."

Codie was born three weeks before the tragedy, but remained in hospital, where he was weaned off the heroin substitute methadone. He remained in hospital, drastically underweight, and never entered the family home while Dillon was alive.

Social services in the area admitted that the family was known to them because of Codie's condition, but said they had never been concerned about Dillon's welfare.

The Area Child Protection Committee held an inquiry into his death, but its chairman, Dr John Ellis, ruled that there was nothing that the authorities could have done to avert the tragedy. Robert Hull, though, said he had known that the little boy was at risk. "Time and again I pleaded with Jane to change her lifestyle for Dillon's sake," he said.

The court had heard that the drug gang decided to kill Mr Bates because he had refused to work for them after moving from Blackburn, where he could buy drugs more cheaply. It had been intended as a warning to others that the gang intended to hang on to its territory.

Seddon was given a concurrent 20-year sentence for attempting to murder Mr Bates. The judge told him: "I realise that we may never know precisely who or on whose behalf you were acting when you attacked Mr Bates.

"I have no doubt, however, your attack on him was carried out in order to further the interests of those dealing in illegal drugs in the Bolton area. You were their hired killer."

A bright, loving child, Dillon touched many people, including Bill Handforth, head teacher at Pikes Lane School, where he had been a pupil for four months.

"He was a lovely lad, unusual for his age because he had such a personality," Mr Handforth said.

"He would come up to me and chat about things that were going on. He was very good at general knowledge. When I start to talk about him I can picture his face again."