Rhys murder: The killer, his crew, and a wall of silence
Wednesday 17 December 2008
The Killer: Sean Mercer, 18 (Life, to serve a minimum of 22 years)
Cocky and imposing, he was only 16 when he pulled the trigger and killed Rhys Jones, but by then Sean Mercer had been out of control for years. Known by the nickname Beaver, he left the local De La Salle school aged just 14 (to the relief of his teachers), and went on to commit a string of offences.
Like many others on the Norris Green estate where he grew up with his mother, brother and sister – his father was a well-known bouncer – Mercer was given an Asbo for terrorising staff at a sports centre, where he threatened to set a security guard on fire, and another with a knife. He was convicted of possessing cannabis and on another occasion a CS canister.
While Mercer was a habitual anti-social criminal by his early teens, police insisted no one could have predicted he would kill. But what the jury was not told is that just two months before Rhys's death, in an apparent dress rehearsal for the forthcoming tragedy, the teenager had driven into Norris Green on a motorcycle brandishing a gun at pedestrians. The incident was never reported.
Come August 2007, Mercer arrived at the Fir Tree pub determined to shoot a rival. His intended victim was Strand Gang member Wayne Brady. The reason for the animosity between the two has never been fully explained. Brady recalls they had argued once but relations were stable, if not cordial. One theory is that Mercer was enraged by Brady's defiance of his crew's turf laws by coming into Croxteth to see Vicki Smart, a former Miss England finalist. He vowed in front of witnesses, "Brady is going to get it".
Wearing a hooded top to conceal his identity, Mercer steadied himself astride his bicycle, taking deliberate and careful aim, tracking his intended victims as he unleashed three shots, the second of which killed Rhys Jones who had strayed into the line of fire. As the child's tiny body crumpled to the ground, Mercer said, "A kid's gone down"; but he fired again. He grew increasingly arrogant, desperately trying to cover his tracks while getting others to lie. By the time of his final arrest, some eight months later, he had been stopped 80 times by police.
Mercer worshipped weapons; prison officers found childish sketches of pump-action shotguns, an Uzi 9mm and a grenade in his prison cell. He was a known associate of at least two of the youths convicted of the murder of a Strand Green rival, Liam "Smigger" Smith.
Throughout, he refused to answer police questions, and along with all but two of his fellow defendants, declined to enter the witness stand. Sitting in the dock at Liverpool Crown Court, he smirked and laughed in the presence of Rhys's shattered family. His mother Janette, 49, supported him through the trial, arriving each day smartly dressed and wearing designer sunglasses to avoid photographers. As the guilty verdict was read out, his father, Joseph McCormick, mouthed "I love you", and only then did Mercer start to weep.
The first tip-off: Melvin Coy, 25 (Seven years)
Coy had a young child but shirked his parental duties and his welding job to sit around smoking cannabis at the homes of teenage friends, talking motorbikes and football.
He was the first person to alert Mercer to the presence of rival Strand Gang teenagers in Croxteth. After the shooting he drove Mercer to Knowsley industrial estate in his well-recognised green Ford Galaxy to burn clothes.
In evidence, Coy admitted speaking to Mercer 50 minutes before the shooting, contradicting Mercer's claim that he had lost his mobile phone the weekend before. Coy conceded he was on the industrial estate but said he had forgotten what he did there.
The Scout: Gary Kays, 26 (Seven years)
after hearing that rivals were on "his" turf, Kays called Mercer and told him Wayne Brady was at the Fir Tree pub. Kays was well known around Croxteth Park, cruising in his leased £45,000 Audi Q7 car. Though a joiner, his money came from selling drugs.
After the killing, he and Coy took Mercer and the others to an industrial estate in Kirkby where Mercer's bike was dumped and forensic evidence removed. He denied being in the Croxteth Crew and insisted they were friends because of their love of off-road biking. He has convictions for possessing cannabis, dangerous driving, and driving without insurance and a licence.
The Armourer: James Yates, 20 (Awaiting sentencing)
Known as Yatzy, he bought the gun that killed Rhys, a modified First World War Smith & Wesson revolver, three years earlier, and gave it to Mercer on the day of the shooting.
Slightly built and profoundly insecure, the habitual dope-smoker's obsession with firearms was tangible from the childish drawings and graffiti glorifying weaponry which police found in his bedroom. After Rhys was shot, Mercer summoned Yates. Despite his leg being in a plaster cast, Yates swung straight behind the scheme to hide the weapon, dump Mercer's bike and douse him in petrol at a nearby industrial estate to remove forensic evidence. He later jumped from a first-floor window to try to escape police.
He refused to answer police but largely admitted his part in the cover-up in prison. While on remand, he proposed to his girlfriend of two years, Leanne Morrey, 19. On the third day of the trial, she arrived at court wearing a diamond engagement ring.
The Alibi: Dean Kelly, 17 (Awaiting sentencing)
On his way to confront the rival gang, Mercer called on his close friend Kelly and asked for help. Kelly refused but after Rhys was killed, he followed Mercer and met the other defendants.
Kelly removed the murder weapon from its hiding place in a dog kennel and placed it in the loft.
Kelly and Mercer shared a criminal history – they were both given Asbos in September 2007 for terrorising staff at Croxteth's sports centre – and he gave Mercer an alibi, claiming they had been watching a DVD about the rapper 50 Cent when Rhys was killed.
The cover-up: Boy M, 16 (Awaiting sentencing)
The boy aged 16, who still cannot be named for legal reasons, was described by his own barrister as "damaged and horrible". It was at Boy M's home in Delabole Road where all the defendants met as the cover-up began.
Boy M suffered from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and had a pathological hatred of inhabitants of the neighbouring Norris Green estate, driven by the memory of being viciously beaten by a masked gang in 2006 after he gave the police names of people who stole a van then shot the owner in the face.
Since then, he had lived in fear of further reprisals and had not left his home for 15 months, spending days playing X-Box and terrorising his mother and grandmother.
As Mercer sought refuge immediately after killing Rhys Jones, Boy M helped his friend dispose of the weapon, destroying a hat, gloves and other evidence linking Mercer to the killing. He was arrested with the other defendants on 29 August 2007.
He admitted his part in the cover-up, insisting he was acting out of fear of Mercer, and pleaded with officers to send him to the US in exchange for information. He never took the stand, too fearful of being labelled a "grass", but his mother and grandmother gave evidence for the prosecution.
The Thug: Nathan Quinn, 18 (Awaiting sentencing)
A burly thug, Quinn was with Yates when the latter got a phone call asking him to go to Boy M's house. Quinn helped dump the pistol and Mercer's clothes. He was the only defendant to admit membership of the Croxteth Crew. Quinn was hit in the back, buttocks and leg in a drive-by shooting in 2004. In April, Quinn, listed as primary carer for his mother who has stomach cancer, began a five-year sentence for separate firearms offences.
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