Isle of Man police hunt for killer of troubled teenagers

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The Independent Online

Security was stepped up at all exit points on the Isle of Man yesterday after police revealed that a killer who strangled two teenagers was probably still on the island.

The perpetrator of the island's first double murder in living memory killed his victims ­ both 16-year-olds in social services care ­ in acts of "extreme violence" before leaving them within a quarter of a mile of each other on the outskirts of the capital, Douglas.

Samantha Barton's body was found just before midnight on Friday inside the bedsit where she lived alone at Leese Lodge, a Thirties farm converted for youngsters in care. Police refused to confirm reports from local sources that she was sexually assaulted.

The body of George Green, with whom she had been seen in the days before her death, was found on Saturday in a nearby copse beside the old Douglas to Peel railway line.

The Isle of Man is accustomed to a more genteel image, born of its tax haven status. The basic rate of income tax here may well fall to 10 per cent in next month's budget and GDP per head of population has just overtaken that of mainland Britain for the first time. The island's multimillionaire set ­ motor racing champion Nigel Mansell and retailer Albert Gubay to name but two ­ may soon be on the increase.

But beneath the wealthy veneer the murders indicate how the island has failed to cope with a darker characteristic for years: bored, dysfunctional children.

As detectives searched for clues at the scene of both murders they made clear the cause of both deaths lies in the "unorthodox lifestyles" the victims had been allowed while in care. The practice of leaving teenagers such as Samantha to themselves by permitting them to live in their own flat with limited supervision has clearly been exasperating the force for months.

"We cannot cope with the number of young people from local authority care who are going missing from homes," said Detective Inspector Gary Roberts. "Sometimes there are more children missing than police officers on duty."

The force has been here before. It incurred stinging criticism in August 2000 when a 16-year-old, Matthew Crosbie, was found in the grounds of a Douglas cemetery, killed by aerosol abuse after absconding from council care. The island coroner said police and social services had failed to address the issue of children missing from care homes.

Police say they are now more vigilant but that a liberal system of confinement is still allowing children to abscond. A hard core of 15 teenagers has recently become prolific criminals, taking cars, committing burglaries and becoming involved in drugs.

Samantha's case had been occupying police for weeks. The officer who found her body had called to interview her for a separate inquiry.

She also became a cause célèbre on the island in 1997 in another case. Samantha was jailed for a week aged 12 after being charged with assaulting a social worker, a sentence that led the United Nations committee on the rights of the child to visit the island, such were its concerns about her age and condition. She was born with spina bifida and had hearing problems. Samantha, who was taken into care at the age of 10 three years after her father left home, was later given a 12-month conditional discharge but court appearances continued, most recently when she was given a 28-day sentence, suspended for a year, after admitting drug possession, assaulting a police officer, burglary and other crimes.

George was also described as a "one-man crime wave" in 1999, when admitting similar charges. He was given a conditional discharge ­ and received another last October.

Manx social services did little to shed light on the police observations yesterday. John Kennedy, director of Nugent Care Society, which managed the home for the Government, only extended condolences.

But for the proprietor of Strang Stores, near the murder scene, firmer management through a proposed £2m secure unit would be the preferred solution. George Green had shouted at her only two weeks ago, she said, when she refused to sell him and Samantha cigarettes. The legal age for buying them has recently been increased from 16 to 18 on the island. "This is what comes of giving the disturbed children here too much freedom," said the proprietor, who would not be named for her own safety.

"There's inadequate control. We've had such trouble with children in care that we are suspicious of any children."

Meanwhile, detectives made clear that other teenagers in the care of the Nugent Care were failing to co-operate with their inquiries. "We need as much information as we can get," Inspector Roberts said.