Anthony Walker murder carries chilling echoes of the death of Stephen Lawrence

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Yesterday, though, the net was gone and so was Anthony. The 18-year-old, who had planned a career in law, was murdered in what police described as a racist attack, during which his head was split open with an axe. While waiting for a bus at Huyton, Liverpool, with his white girlfriend and a cousin on Friday night, he was subjected to a "torrent of racial abuse", according to police. He took a short cut across a park to avoid confrontation but was followed there by his assailants and hit with such force that the axe embedded itself into his forehead. He died in hospital early on Saturday morning.

The murder carries chilling echoes of the death of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993. Both were 18-year-old black students killed while waiting with friends at a bus stop. Stephen's death was marked by a catalogue of police failings that changed the way that British police forces deal with race-hate crime.

Merseyside Police have evidently learned from past mistakes. Within 12 hours of the murder, Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Lawson was leading appeals for help. A 17-year-old from Huyton was arrested last night. Meanwhile an 18-year-old man arrested yesterday morning on suspicion of murder was released on police bail last night, pending further inquiries.

The devastation caused by both deaths was the same though. The Walker family's sense of loss was graphically communicated by Anthony's sister, Dominique, 20, who shook with anger as she pleaded for help in catching the individual responsible for killing "my brother, my 18-year-old brother, two years younger than me".

In a gazebo that had been hastily erected to accommodate the scores of family and friends who flocked to the family's small three-bedroomed house in Huyton's Mellor Close, Miss Walker detailed how Anthony had sacrificed his basketball career to concentrate on his life as a youth leader at the Grace Family Church in south Liverpool.

"He is a devoted Christian. He danced, he sang, he played in the band and gave much of his life to others," she said.

Outside in the garden were reminders of Anthony's 18 years at this unprepossessing house: a rusting yellow swing, a mountain bike and a football. Miss Walker clutched handwritten notes which her mother, Gee Verona, 49, a gospel choir singer and teacher of children with learning difficulties, had intended to read but, in the final reckoning, just could not summon the strength. Gee Verona made her feeling towards her son's killer evident four hours earlier, describing it as "on a level" with that of Stephen Lawrence.

By late afternoon, the sound of gospel hymns was issuing from the Walkers' tiny kitchen and members of the Grace church joined the family for an informal service of thanksgiving in the gazebo. Their prayers were for a young man who was one year into A-level courses in law, IT and media at the Carmel College in St Helens and awaiting the results of his AS levels. He was anoutstanding sportsman, playing football as well as basketball, and an avid Arsenal fan. His great ambition was to attend law school. By virtue of his height and his huge smile, Anthony was also an unmistakable figure on the Barratt estate in Huyton's Tarbock district.

Though the colour of his skin confined him to a "statistically insignificant" minority - to quote his family's local MP, Eddie O'Hara - it never affected the way he lived. A longstanding previous local girlfriend, Genna, had also been white and they had evidently only separated at Christmas because their intense relationship had run its course. " They just spent too much time together," said a friend.

Anthony spent most of Friday evening at home in Mellor Close with his girlfriend and cousin, both 17, before leaving at 11pm to walk three quarters of a mile to a bus stop near the Huyton Park pub on St John's Road, from which his girlfriend was to take a bus home to Kirkby. The council estate is rough but Anthony would have known many of the youths who circulated it. He attended primary and secondary schools on the estate.

But at about 11.20pm, his group was approached by a group of white men, who verbally abused them. They did not retaliate and instead sought a short cut to a different bus stop through the local McGoldrick Park - where Anthony played much of his basketball. The attack took place after the men appeared out of some bushes. The girlfriend and cousin ran around local houses, apparently banging on doors for help, but when they returned to the park they found Anthony lying on ground with the axe in his head. He was taken to Whiston Hospital, then transferred to Walton neurological centre where he died at 5.25am on Saturday.

Mr O'Hara, the Knowsley South MP, said that recent racist incidents in Huyton had been "low level" and limited to youths of school age. But evidence of endemic racism in the district came from a former Liberal Democrat borough councillor, Fred Fricker, who said that during elections to the council in May 2004, the decision to field candidate Mahmood Surti had prompted racist hate mail. Mr Fricker produced an anonymous letter sent to Mr Surti which stated: "Listen Paki, you and the other Paki women are taking the piss now trying to get elected. You are lucky to still have a shop and home around this area so [we] are giving you a chance for once."

Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Currie, who is leading the investigation, said Anthony had not reported any racial attack to police in the past.

His other siblings - Donna, 28; Stephanie, 26; Angella, 16, and Daniel, 14 - have also made a strong contribution to the community. Stephanie is a talented hurdler who reached the 100m final of England's AAA athletics championships. Anthony's father, Steve, 55, an electrician, was a boxer who won amateur competitions and Gee Verona, 49, is believed to have studied computing at Liverpool Hope University.

But as the investigation continued, the people of Huyton remained palpably stunned. Ann Fall, 43, a neighbour, was close to tears as her daughter described how Anthony had taught her how to play basketball. "He rigged up that net and anyone was welcome from around the estate. He had more white friends than black."