Echoes of Bulger case as police retrace child's steps

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The Independent Online

The tortuous path from the little boy's home to the copse where he was allegedly attacked is a mixture of dirty alleyways and uneven paths. It passes through a no man's land of discarded tyres, broken bicycles and strips of barbed wire.

Anthony Hinchliffe would then have been led through a narrow alleyway lined by high metal fences and submerged in the eerie darkness of overhanging trees. Over common land frequented by drug addicts, the five-year-old was apparently taken to overgrown woodland.

There, within easy shouting distance of a main road and medical centre, a gang of 11- or 12-year-olds were said to have inflicted "horrific injuries" on the boy. Yesterday the severity of the attack on this "happy little chap" remained unclear. As detectives continued to question a number of children in a case being treated as attempted murder, locals were asking whether Anthony was subjected to a sadistic beating by a group of children or whether it was a prank which went awry.

As the media seized on the suspected "hanging" or "lynching" in an copse which locals insisted had been inaccurately dubbed "Devil's Ditch", the case was inevitably likened to the murder of the toddler James Bulger.

Such disturbing comparisons were yesterday beginning to fuel a growing atmosphere of fear and recrimination within the hilltop estates of Chickenley and Earlsheaton, an area packed with young families. With the media and public feeding off each other in a symbiotic frenzy, different versions of exactly what happened on Tuesday evening were being embellished in the shops and pubs of Dewsbury. Angry inhabitants bandied the names of possible perpetrators, mostly local children known for being bullies.

The shocking details of the attack and repeated talk of the Bulger killing prompted parents to pull their youngsters in from the streets yesterday, ensuring that they did not stray out of sight despite the very obvious police presence.

"People are really shocked. People are not allowing their kids to play out on their own. It really has worried everyone," said Laura William, mother of a nine-year-old girl. Nearby a group of teenage girls, who were hanging around the local shop, could be heard discussing in dramatic terms how it was "just like Jamie Bulger".

"Everyone is panicked. I won't allow my two in the front garden," said Vickie Cocker, 20.

Anthony was playing in the garden of the family home on Tuesday evening when he was said to have wandered off with a girl. His mother, Terri Brown, who friends said was still getting over the break-up from his father, Mark Hinchliffe, was washing up inside. The mother of five children, who are aged from 18 months to 12, looked out the window to find her son gone.

"He is a smashing five-year-old, a cheeky little chap. She is a brilliant mum, she doesn't let him wander off," said Ms Brown's friend Joanne Kemp, 25. "He knew them. He is like any kid, he will speak to anybody."

Neighbours said his mother frantically searched the area until Anthony's cousin, Tracey Jones, 22, found the dazedboy wandering outside a nearby fish and chip shop.

"I asked him, 'What the hell happened?' and he said, 'Some boys and girls tied a rope around my neck and tried to tie me to a tree.' I asked 'Why did you go with them?' and he said 'They wouldn't let me go'," she explained.

Next-door neighbour Edna Gray, 79, said that a mark was clearly visible across his neck, while police described the little boy as having horrific injuries and bruises. "His mother said that they tried to strangle him. The little lad said nothing. He looked like he had been crying. It will be a long time before he gets over it. Ten years ago this was a lovely estate but now there are a lot of rough 'uns," said Mrs Gray.

Anthony was kept overnight at Dewsbury District Hospital before being discharged. Yesterday specially trained officers were gently trying to coax him into revealing exactly what happened during those missing hours.

As police cautioned against speculation, the residents of Chickenley were left to deal with the shock.

In the words of neighbour Amy Grove, 19: "When you see something on the news, you don't expect to see pictures of something outside your front door."