How police builty a rock-steady case

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The Independent Online

To everyone, apart from those in the know, it seemed the detectives investigating Rhys Jones's death were struggling to crack the schoolboy's murder.

Eight long months passed between the football-loving youngster losing his life and the announcement of charges.



But during Sean Mercer's first appearance before magistrates, it quickly became clear Merseyside Police had built a rock-steady case.



News of sophisticated bugging devices harvesting damning evidence, a star witness with immunity from prosecution, and recovery of the murder weapon caused impressive gasps from the assembled press and public.



To get that far had taken thousands of man-hours.



In the days after Rhys was killed, officers were already breaking force records in their hunt for clues near the murder scene at the Fir Tree pub in Croxteth.



Superintendent John Roy, in charge of the searches, said: "It was the biggest and most significant linked-searches operation by the force in years."



The initial crime scene search lasted five days, 15 hours a day, with 60 specialised search officers.



Mr Roy said: "Eight hundred metres of undergrowth were cut down, with every branch examined for potential evidence."



More than 200 officers scoured Croxteth for clues.



They wore out 40 pairs of protective boots but found several handguns, ammunition, broken-down shotguns and an ammunition factory.



The pressure was on, according to Assistant Chief Constable Patricia Gallan, to solve a crime that had shocked the nation.



She said: "People were concerned to see the investigation progressing as quickly as possible and people brought to justice."



Throughout the investigation, officers were determined that prime suspect Sean Mercer would go before a jury and not be the target of vigilante action - so he was protected, said Ms Gallan.



Helen Morris, the Crown Prosecution Service's chief lawyer on the case, said there were several eureka moments in the investigation.



She said: "The case captured the imagination of people around the world.



"We were faced with the tragic circumstance of a young 11-year-old being murdered by another child of 16.



"Very early on in the investigation I met Mr and Mrs Jones and would like to put on record my admiration for the fortitude and dignity they have shown throughout the proceedings.



"We built up a strong circumstantial case and there were a number of breakthroughs.



"The most significant, I think, was finding the gun, the identification of Boy X as potentially an important witness and the finding of Sean Mercer's bike.



"At each stage I assessed the implications of these breakthroughs until we reached a tipping point."



She added: "To prove motive in the case we had to prove that they were gang members and set about gathering as much information as possible about the activities of the individuals we thought were involved.



"In the end we had around 3,000 pages of bad character evidence.



"Such was the overwhelming evidence of it, it resulted in the defence making admissions about the gangs."



After establishing a catalogue of key evidence, it was crucial that witnesses would be protected and not change their mind about giving evidence.



Despite evidence of people pressuring witnesses, the police had 190 people willing to give evidence.



Just one teenage witness was too scared to give a full account in court.



Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly said a key responsibility was liaising with the Jones family.



He said: "Throughout the investigation I kept in touch with the family, kept them updated as to progress and various situations that occurred.



"No doubt we had a mountain to climb but we were determined that nothing was going to get in our way.



"We recognised the significant concern of both the public and the media which was not surprising when you have an innocent 11-year-old boy shot dead on a pub car park making his way home from football practice.



"Rhys was an innocent 11-year-old boy doing what he was entitled to do, travel home alone having just played football."