Police were yesterday investigating the theory that Rhys Jones, the 11-year-old boy shot dead on Wednesday, may have been the victim of an initiation or blooding ritual where rival gangs fire guns across each other's territory in lethal shows of strength.
The theory suggests that Rhys's killer could have been firing randomly rather than targeting the boy who had no obvious links to the local gang culture.
Police arrested a further six teenagers yesterday, including two girls, bringing the total number arrested to nine. Two have been released on police bail; seven remain in custody. But detectives are still battling against the public's fear of the gunmen, and pleaded for witnesses to come forward.
The pleas, in the main, fell on deaf ears. Few of the local youth, potential witnesses to the killing, had much to offer when Chief Superintendent Chris Armitt said residents of Croxteth must examine their consciences and take a stand against the killer of the 11-year-old and against gang culture.
His plea came as Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, yesterday announced plans to allow people who knew where firearms were hidden, or who were holding them for a relative or friend, to come forward without revealing their identity.
Although the death of Rhys Jones has shocked the nation, for locals it was simply the latest in a series of escalating incidents involving two gangs known locally as the Nogzy and the Crocky. In the words of one prosecutor, it is another example of the "mindless indiscriminate violence that is a feature of the rivalry between the Croxteth Crew and the Strand Gang".
Police confirmed that they were investigating possible connections between the killing and the murder of a leading member of the Strand Gang, called Smigger. Liam "Smigger" Smith, from the Norris Green area of Liverpool, was laid to rest last summer. Almost all the shops and pubs along the processional route closed down for the day and children at a local primary school were kept inside during playtime. Youths paraded along the pavements wearing ski caps and T-shirts with "Smigger, Nogzy Soldier" printed on them. One supermarket that elected to remain open during the procession took the precaution of hiring four security guards to stand outside during the event.
Smigger was killed by a member of a rival gang in the same district that Rhys died last week. Rhys had been playing football with friends in the car park of the Fir Tree pub and was making his way home when a teenage gunman on a BMX bike opened fire. As Rhys bled to death he was cradled by his mother, Melanie, 41, who rushed to the scene from the family home just a few hundred yards away.
Like many of the self-styled gangs in towns and cities around the UK, the Nogzy and the Crocky have a presence on the internet site YouTube, using videos to show off their collections of guns, vicious dogs and their ability to race and wreck stolen cars. One film begins with a shot of the street sign, identifying the gang's turf, then moves to show a teenager brandishing a heavy weapon, sawn-off shotgun and a quantity of ammunition. Police confirm that some of the weapons they have recovered in raids are those that have been featured in the videos.
A dispute between the gangs erupted for reasons unknown in the summer of 2004. Since then there have been at least 17 incidents in which gang members have fired guns at one another, as well as a further 70 incidents of criminal damage, many involving cars or motorbikes being shot to pieces or windows being blown out.
Police fear that the legacy of this tit-for-tat violence claimed Rhys Jones. Detective Superintendent David Kelly, the senior investigating officer, said that the bike-riding teenage killer emerged at the back of the Fir Tree pub from a nearby estate. The boy, thought to be between 13 and 15, cycled at the back of the pub for a few minutes before firing three bullets in Rhys's direction – one of which passed through his neck.
Despite extensive searches and the existence of CCTV footage, the detective said officers have not yet established the killer's exact position in the car park when he fired the three bullets. He would not confirm the suggestion that some CCTV cameras weren't working on the night of the murder. In a direct appeal to the killer's family and friends, Det Supt Kelly added: "Somebody out there is very close to the killer. Somebody knows him and knows what he's done."
And, referring to another potential witness, a woman pushing a pram, he added: "I ask for this woman to come forward to speak to us, and provide any information, however trivial she might think it is. We need as much detail about this killer as possible and she may be a key witness. She is described as wearing white wide-legged trousers with a dark tunic-style top, almost like a smock. She had dark hair, possibly tied back, and was pushing a dark-coloured pram at about 7.25pm."
Raids on the homes of those linked to the gangs have led to the police recovering handguns, shotguns and large quantities of ammunition. Several gang members are said to have taken to routinely wearing body armour. For locals the only real surprise is that there have not been more killings.
Liverpool is no stranger to gun crime but in years gone by deaths and shootings have been linked to adults involved in the drug trade, rather than teenagers in territorial disputes.
Merseyside Police's specialist Matrix squad focuses exclusively on gun crime among teenage gangs. Although the squad has seen many successes and taken large numbers of weapons off the street, the widespread availability of guns means that gang members who want them are always able to lay their hands on lethal weapons.
Many of the guns that are used are believed to have been shared or sold between other towns and cities. A recent report on firearms by the Association of Chief Police Officers found several incidences of this. In one case a gun was used in Manchester, turning up 12 months later in Birmingham before being used six months on by a different gang in Manchester. Police forensic reports on seized weapons often show they are linked to several incidents.
The shooting of Rhys Jones means that every new incident in the city receives higher than usual levels of coverage. Two days after he was shot two doormen were shot outside the Alma de Santiago nightclub in Penny Lane. One remains in critical condition.
Despite the latest series of incidents, gun crime in Liverpool is notably lower than in other major cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and London. In London alone, 17 murders of young men and women, involving shootings and stabbings, are thought to be gang-related.
With little to look forward to, it seems that some teenagers feel that supremacy, respect and reputation are worth fighting and dying for. In Manchester, the Benchill Man Dem gang is prominent. Ryan Florence, the teenager who pretended to shoot Tory leader David Cameron during a visit to a Manchester council estate, is part of this. He and his gang dress identically in hooded black designer clothes or imitation labels, and carry guns and knives without any fear of police action.
In Brixton, south London, one can see the initials PDC scribbled on walls, underpasses and on the side of houses. PDC stands for Poverty Driven Children, one of London's most notorious gangs. Hailing from Brixton, they are considered enemies of another gang known as the Gypset. Both consider Brixton "their territory".
The capital's current teenage gang hotspot is Peckham in south London, however, where two rival gangs have fuelled a surge in violence. The most notorious is the Peckham Boys. Some of the group's members were involved in the murder of Damilola Taylor in 2000.
Additional reporting Emily Dugan
Inside Britain's teen gangs
Gangs' clips of their activities on the video-sharing website YouTube offer an insight into street youth culture. Rap music is in the background as boys pose with cars, motorbikes, pit-bull terriers and guns. It is impossible to know if the guns are real or replicas.
Boys from Norris Green in Liverpool ride motorbikes and pose with pit-bull terriers and guns.
A gang of hooded youths wield meat cleavers for the BBC cameras in a clip viewed more than 100,000 times.
A three-minute clip in which the Bootle Boys wheel-spin cars, and show off guns and pit-bull dogs.
42 v 43 Yungahz
Young teenage boys in a park watch a fight.
More posing to a rap song with guns, cars and pit-bulls.
Gang members from Croxteth in Liverpool ride motorbikes, pose with guns and show off pit-bull terriers.
A clip called Pakiz Rule contains still shots of guns and pit-bulls. Gang members with airsoft
'You are now watching a member of a gang describe the firearms that gangs around the world use.'
The Poverty Driven Crew rap to camera in a clip viewed 74,000 times.
Masked members of Soi Crew in Birmingham pose in still photos with bottles and marijuana.Reuse content