Gang culture: On the streets with no name

The residents of Croxteth think they know who shot 11-year-old Rhys Jones. They've even scrawled the suspect's name on walls. But such is the fear of violent reprisal, no one is telling police. Tony Thompson reports
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The word on the street – literally – is the name of the shooter who killed 11-year-old Rhys Jones. In the parks, the pubs and clubs of Croxteth, few conversations pass without it cropping up. It is sprayed on the walls of the run-down estates. Yet when questioned by detectives, people here are struck dumb by a fear-induced amnesia. They have seen nothing, heard nothing, and are saying very little.

After an emotional appeal by Rhys's mother, Melanie, on the BBC's Crimewatch programme, Merseyside Police did get around 40 calls from members of the public with useful information. One caller gave the whereabouts of the gun used by the killer. And a dozen named the same teenage suspect, confirming what the police had already established. All of the callers, though, insisted on remaining anonymous.

The man leading the police hunt, Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly, confirmed: "We have had 12 people ring in providing the same name. It's all pointing in the same direction."

Despite this, police admit they still have a long way to go. A vow of silence – a scouse version of the Sicilian mafia's omerta – means that no one is prepared to "grass up" the gunman. As a result, The Independent on Sunday understands, the prime suspect has already been questioned by detectives but has not been charged, as the police do not have sufficient evidence to make a watertight case.

He is said to be football mad, just like Rhys, but supports Liverpool, rather than Everton. He is suspected of making deliveries of cannabis for dealers.

One local, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals, felt it was unlikely that any gang member would co-operate with the authorities: "Being labelled a grass is the worst thing that happen to anyone in Croccy. Everyone knows you are a dead man if you talk to the bizzies [police]. Anyone who opens their mouth to the bizzies is going to get a bullet in the head. It's that simple."

Simple, and terrifying. Plainly, most people know much more than they will say about what happened the night Rhys was killed. Some of the graffiti mocks the prime suspect for being a "bad shot", alluding to the widely held view that Rhys was hit by accident when the gunman tried to shoot a member of a rival gang. Police strongly believe that rather than being deliberately targeted, Rhys was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and was caught up in a war between rival gangs from the Croxteth and Strand areas of Liverpool.

Labour MP Bob Wareing has blamed the wall of silence on "a wider feeling of intimidation" in the city, and urged people to band together to help catch Rhys's killer.

He also argued that the only way to combat this culture of silence and intimidation would be to permanently increase the police presence on the streets of Croxteth. "People really are very scared of the gangs and their influence is very pernicious," he said.

The fear is understandable in the light of vivid evidence of the true level of influence the gangs have in the area. This emerged last week when four members of the Croxteth Crew were jailed for a total of 86 years for their part in the murder of 19-year-old rival gang leader Liam Smith.

Ryan Lloyd, 20, who ordered the killing from prison after spotting Smith visiting a jailed friend, was given a life sentence, with a minimum 28-year term. An accomplice, Thomas Forshaw, 18, whom Lloyd called from his cell using a contraband phone, was also jailed for life with a minimum of 20 years. A 16-year-old boy, with an IQ of just 71, was jailed for life and must serve a minimum of 18 years. The fourth, Liam Duffy, 26, was jailed for 20 years for manslaughter; he will serve 10.

During the 10-week trial the court heard from Merseyside Police Superintendent Andrew Ward who said gangs were threatening the resurgence of Liverpool as a city. He said the gangsters – who routinely wear body armour for fear of attack – had caused schools in their patch to receive fewer and fewer applications from pupils and that Cobalt Housing, the housing association in Croxteth and Norris Green, for the first time in four years, had more vacant properties than tenants.

After Smith's murder, cars used by the gangsters to reach the prison where they killed Smith as he left were burned. Their pay-as-you-go mobile phones were destroyed and Lloyd destroyed his own phone in prison.

Police and local politicians face growing demands for 1,000 more officers in the region, a mandatory 10-year sentence for carrying a gun, more witness-protection resources and better firearms controls. This weekend around 150,000 ribbons will be distributed to the people of Merseyside as the first stage in a campaign calling for action against gun crime.

Rhys Jones's father, Stephen, said: "We all have to do what we can, no matter how big or small, to make Liverpool a safer place for everyone, not just the kids, and it has to be bigger than just Liverpool.

"There are too many guns on the streets, too many people who can get guns and too many who are willing to use them right across the country. Every city and town is suffering, not just Liverpool. We all need to show our support and strength against gun crime."

For his son, it is already too late.

Further listening: 'Six Shooter' a tribute to Rhys Jones, is released on Ghost Town Records on 8 October