Gang war returns to streets where Damilola died

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The Independent Online

Ten years ago Jason Gale-Bent had a life-altering experience - he was stabbed and had to be airlifted to hospital for emergency treatment.

According to his family, this brush with death made him turn his back on the culture of gang violence that many of his young south London neighbours had been sucked into. But last Sunday his past appeared to catch up with him. At about 9pm the 29-year-old was sitting with his brother and another friend on a wall in the New Cross area.

A gang of about 30 young men on mountain bikes appeared, one of whom pulled out a gun and started firing. A fight followed in which Mr Gale-Bent was stabbed in the heart. He managed to stagger about 30 metres to his home where he collapsed and died.

Detectives investigating the murder believe he was probably mistaken for a member of one of the local gangs - the Ghetto Boys - by a rival outfit, the Peckham Boys. The killing is seen by many as the latest incident in an outbreak of gang warfare, in an area made notorious by the fatal stabbing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor on a Peckham estate in 2000. Police stressed there was no evidence to suggest Mr Gale-Bent was an active member of any gang. At the time of his death he was working as a labourer and looking for a flat with his girlfriend.

Eileen Gate, the mother of the dead man, issued a statement for the family, saying: "Jason was a friendly person who did not associate himself with any particular group and was not a member of any gang. There is nothing that can be done to bring him back to me. I abhor violence and ask that as a community we work towards bringing Jason's killers to justice. No other mother should have to suffer like I am."

Officers from the Operation Trident team, which investigates "black-on-black" violence, are examing a series of recent attacks to establish whether the stabbing is linked to a wider gang problem. Shortly after Mr Gale-Bent's murder a large group of youths on bicycles gathered outside the Community Action Centre in Deptford. A gun was fired and a man on a moped was chased by the youths, before crashing and trying to make off on foot. He was caught and stabbed in a doorway.

The following day, on Monday evening, a 16-year-old youth and two men, aged 21 and 28, were playing football on a basketball court in Peckham when a car pulled up. Three men in hooded tops got out and are reported to have shouted "Peckham Boys are Pussies" before pointing a gun through the railings and firing three shots. No one was injured. Hours later police raided a property in Peckham and arrested a man and a 17-year-old girl, and seized a handgun, a Mac 10 submachine gun, and drugs.

Last month, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed opposite a bookmakers in New Cross. Another 16-year-old has been charged with attempted murder.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Valentine, who is investigating the murder of Mr Gale-Bent, said: "I think this was an unprovoked attack in which Jason was targeted because there was an assumption that he was a member of the Ghetto Boys - I believe this is wrong and that he was not an active gang member."

The police say much of the rivalry centres on drugs, money, territory, or seemingly minor slights. Many of the gangs have fluid membership and some are created as breakaway groups. The Young Peckham Boys, whose members included the Preddie brothers, Danny and Ricky, who were convicted in August of killing Damilola Taylor, were thought to be an offshoot of the Peckham Boys. Other south London gangs include the Peel Dem Crew (Brixton), the South Man Syndicate (Tooting, Streatham and Thornton Heath) and the Muslim Boys (Brixton).

Michelle Forbes, vice-chairwoman of the Mothers Against Guns pressure group, said: "The current situation has got out of control. It seems to be going through a period at the moment where it is important for certain youths to be part of a gang ... The gangs have certain initiations to become gang members - these can include shooting stabbing, or kidnapping someone."