For all the relentless murdering in London in recent times, you could always tell yourself that things here had not reached the stage of Miami in 1980, when homicides were committed in such quantity and with such hour-by-hour regularity that local mortuaries had to hire a refrigeration truck from Burger King to handle the overspill. But then, a few days ago, came news of a crime that, for sheer exaggerated and revolting ferocity, rivalled anything perpetrated by the drug crazies and psychopaths of Miami-Dade County all those years ago.
Two French graduate students – model, modern Europeans in their studies, their lives and their looks – were tied up in a south-east London flat, probably tortured, and stabbed more than 200 times. The scene where they lay dead, and disfigured beyond recognition, was then set explosively on fire. If George Orwell in his famous essay thought the English murder was declining from the middle-class crime passionnel to Americanised senselessness in 1946, heaven knows what he would make of the killing of Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez in 2008.
What shocked was not that they were admirable young men – high-profile murders very often do involve the loss of a virtuous life – nor that the perpetrator's apparent gain (a couple of paltry electronic gadgets) was so pathetically small. What sent a jolt through even Britain's crime-hardened capital was the number of hacks with a knife rained down on the heads, necks and backs of the two young men as they lay bound beyond any retaliation on the floor of their rented flat: 243. It takes long enough just to count them. To inflict them, with the hand juddering each time at the resistance of the human body, and to keep on and on and on until 243 is reached is to enter a realm beyond even the psychopathic.
That total could suggest these killings were the work of more than one assailant. To try to answer this question – as well as many of the others raised by the nightmarish nature of the attack – we need to go back to Sterling Gardens, New Cross on Sunday evening, the last time its inhabitants knew normality. It was around 10pm, just after the final of Euro 2008 came to a climax, that the residents of this street of new-build flats and homes heard – and felt – a loud, tremulous series of noises. To one, it was "a very strong sound"; to neighbour Sarah MacIntyre, "I thought a bridge on the railway line had collapsed"; and to Henry Chuks, who lived above the murder flat, "two or three loud bangs ... it sounded like a big fridge had fallen down".
Whatever it was, it drew a good number of them into the crescent-like street, and they quickly saw the source of the bangs: flames coming through the shattered living-room window of flat 12, on the ground floor of Admiral Court, a modern, three-storey gabled block in this back-water street. Several neighbours ran over to see if there was anyone trapped inside. They banged on the door, but got no response. A few of them rushed to get water to throw through the windows. Soon afterwards, the fire service arrived. Inside they discovered the bodies of Bonomo and Ferez.
It took a little time to learn their identities, the extraordinary viciousness of their wounds (Bonomo was stabbed no fewer than 196 times, perhaps as many as 100 times after he was already dead; Gabriel Ferez 47 times and badly burned) and that, six days before, a laptop had been stolen from the flat. Bonomo, who rented the place (Ferez lived about 10 miles away in South Norwood), had emerged from the shower at about 6am on the morning of Monday 23 June to find an intruder hurriedly leaving with his computer – a black Packard Bell. The thief had forced open a living-room window. Police later arrived and the room was dusted for fingerprints.
The murder investigation, led by Detective Chief Inspector Mick Duthie, an experienced officer who, like his 40 colleagues on the case, had never seen the like of the injuries inflicted on the students, soon picked up other details. One resident saw two men hammering on the window of the flat just before the fire broke out. Another talked of seeing a white man running from the flat that evening. And, on Friday, police said that both the students' mobile phones had been taken on the Sunday, as well as a pair of Sony PSP handheld videogame consoles. The serial number of one of them: S01-06113169-C.
And, by the end of last week, a full portrait had emerged of the two victims, together with fragments of their last hours before the attack. Both were biochemistry students at Polytech' Clermont-Ferrand who had been selected for a three-month secondment to Imperial College, London, and for whom brilliant futures were predicted. Bonomo, from Velaux near Aix-en-Provence, had been student union president in France and was immensely personable and popular. His cousin, Claude Bonomo, said of him: "He was a fantastic, fun-loving, exuberant guy." His fiancée Mary Bertez, to whom he last spoke on the phone early on Sunday morning, said that Bonomo gave her "10 months of a happiness I had never experienced until then" and added that she would "never stop thinking about him". They had been due to marry later this year.
Gabriel Ferez, from Prouzel near Amiens, was widely travelled, a compulsive reader of history, worked during his holidays at an Amiens hospital, and also attended a Mexican university last year. His father Olivier said: "Gabriel is, was, the most intelligent, affectionate, wonderful son anyone could ever want. He had such a bright future and now that has gone." As the attack came, the pair were playing a computer game together. They were due to return home at the end of July.
Before any suspicious minds could pose the ritual question about Bonomo and Ferez's connections (about whether, for instance, they could have been involved in drug-dealing or something else that placed them in contact with vengeful gangs), DCI Duthie answered it. "We cannot find anything in these two young men's backgrounds," he said, "to suggest they were involved in any criminality, that they had done anything wrong, either in Britain or in France or elsewhere."
What clues then – apart from the thefts or any forensic findings withheld by police for operational reasons – are there? Not many. No weapon has been found, but there are traces of what police call an "accelerant" (petrol, or something similar, to you and me) used to set the fire going. Forensic test results on these – and a container – are awaited. The use of an accelerant suggests some level of pre-meditation by the attacker(s), not a trait usually found in a crack crazy who slaughters two men for a couple of phones and game devices. What it is increasingly associated with is an attempt, often futile, to destroy DNA evidence.
Perhaps most significantly, there is no sign of a forced entry. This suggests a key was used, or that the door was opened by Bonomo. To get inside flat 12 means first ringing the block's outside bell-pushes, and so giving those inside a look at any caller before they open the entrance door with its well-polished brass handle and letter box. Hence, the perpetrators had a key (there is no evidence that one was recently lost or stolen), were known to Bonomo, were sufficiently plausible-looking to be let in, or were already inside.
There have been suggestions that the pair's killing was a case of mistaken identity, that they happened to bear a resemblance to someone with whom a gang had a feud. But the excess of the violence used hardly suggests a "hit".
Police say privately that their strongest line of inquiry is that this attack was a robbery. They arrested a 21-year-old man in a south-east London street at 3.40am yesterday, and he is now being questioned. The key could be Bonomo's still-missing laptop. Maybe its contents gave its thief – or someone to whom he sold it – the idea that the student had money worth returning for. Police say the pair's bank cards may have been taken, and speculate that they were tortured to obtain their PIN numbers. If so, it was by a thief (or thieves) who brought to the scene of the crime a psychotic frenzy that was not sated until their strength to raise the knife was utterly exhausted. They would have left flat 12 looking as if they had just finished a shift at an abattoir.
Last night, at Admiral Court, the flat's three windows were covered. One has been blacked out; another is boarded up, and a third is encased in blue tarpaulin. It could be the scene of a small house fire. But it's not. It was a massacre in there. The French press, doing no more – and probably a great deal less – than the English tabloids would if the victims were British and the location were Paris, have not minced their words. France-Soir said that London was turning into one of the most hazardous cities in Europe. Libération said there had been 17 (now 18) stabbings so far in London this year, and Le Parisien wrote: "These two gifted French students were massacred in a notoriously dangerous area of the British capital."
One French respondent to Le Figaro's website, writing under the name of "Gin", said: "I've lived in London for 10 years and there are many places known for robbery, violence and murder where I don't go. The embassies and consulates won't tell you that, so you have to find it out for yourself. These poor students were in a zone where you should never walk, let alone live."
Maybe they're right. Perhaps London is becoming a feral no-go area, where you're as likely to meet the sharp end of a knife as a smile. Not so much SE14 as Dade County-on-Thames.
Additional reporting by Sophie Clayton-Payne and Ian GriggsReuse content