Suspects who still swagger in the shadows

The Crown Prosecution Service has ruled that no one will now stand trial for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. But what about the five men at the heart of the investigation? Jonathan Brown reports
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The smile slipped from her face at the mention of the name. "I can't tell you anything, it's too dicey round here." The pensioner apologised again, her face creased in a frown, and she hurried up the hill. The name I'd mentioned was Acourt - as in the brothers Neil and Jamie who reside, on and off, behind the iron gate of their mother Patricia's council house on Dutton Street, a pleasant lane rising to the brim of a hill overlooking the domes of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Moments earlier, Jamie, the younger brother, had climbed into a car and driven away. Another neighbour was more openly scornful. Swinging her arms in a mock swagger, she confirmed the brothers were still very much on the local scene. "They think they're the cat's whiskers."

The Acourts, along with Luke Knight, Gary Dobson and David Norris, are the chief suspects in the murder of Stephen Lawrence. They were described by Sir William Macpherson in his report into the police investigation as "infected and invaded by gross and revolting racism".

This week, the five men learnt that, despite an 11-year battle by the Lawrence family and their supporters, the Crown Prosecution Service has decided that no one is to stand trial over Stephen's murder at the hands of a gang of white youths at a bus stop in Eltham.

But the Lawrence suspects continue to live - if not thrive - among the council estates of this very part of south-east London where unemployed David Norris, often seen driving a new car, is said to be a regular visitor from his drug dealer father's home in neighbouring Chislehurst.

It was Norris and the Acourt brothers who formed the hardcore of the cocksure teenage gang that roamed the streets around Kidbrooke and Eltham in the early 1990s. According to the magazine Searchlight, which monitors the activities of the far right, none of the gang were ever members of a fascist organisation, although they did associate with those that were.

And while none has ever been convicted of Stephen's murder, and their chances of receiving a fair hearing are now probably zero - a mantra repeated on the ill-fated occasions the men have spoken publicly - they continue to live with the consequences of the racist killing.

In their most recent public outing, Norris and Neil Acourt claim they were the victims of a "fit up" when they were jailed for 18 months for racially harassing a black policeman. To the distress of the Lawrence family, the assault took place on Well Hall Road - the busy A road where Stephen was killed. A laughing Acourt threw a drink at off-duty Detective Constable Gareth Reid, calling him "nigger". During the police surveillance operation into the Lawrence murder Acourt had also been caught on camera using the words: "Every nigger should be chopped up, mate, and they should be left with nothing but fucking stumps..."

Sentencing the men for the attack on the policeman, Judge Carroll acknowledged that both continued to operate on their old patch carrying out a racist attack almost without concern for the consequences. "I think it is relevant in that you both complain of that persecution and isolation, resulting from that matter which led to such notoriety and you commit this present offence about half a mile away from where that murder took place in the same road in Eltham," he said. Racist attacks in Greenwich have been on the increase in recent years - a phenomenon police put down to a growing willingness to report incidents.

But, to the Lawrence family, the men's performance during their 2002 trial bore the swaggering hallmarks of the gang's early years. Their lawyer said they would not show contrition because they did not accept that they were guilty. So they smirked and yawned their way through the proceedings - blowing kisses at their loyal families as they were sentenced. Acourt's mother and brother called out: "We love you, boys," as they were led away.

It was during the course of this trial that the men revealed how they survived amid the national opprobrium heaped on them after the murder. Norris, now a father of four - the youngest of whom is disabled - claimed during evidence that he suffered from depression and had been suicidal in the wake of "years of abuse and persecution". Both he and Acourt were unemployed and had, they said, in effect withdrawn from the world at large, relying on a small group of trusted friends. Neil Acourt had been unable to maintain a relationship since 1993 and lived as a virtual recluse, he said. But such claims may be questionable. Yesterday, Jamie Acourt left the house at Dutton Street as usual. And Barry Nugent, who witnessed a group of young men running away on the night of Stephen's murder, said he had seen members of the gang within the past two months.

"They still hang around here, they are seen but couldn't give a crap - nobody could," he said. "They class this place as racist but we are no more racist than anyone else. It was never as bad as people made out. People round here get fed up with hearing the name of Stephen Lawrence.

"Time moves on. They weren't done then and they never will be as public opinion is so much against them. They are just living their lives going from place to place doing just as other young men do."

Paul Robinson, who represented Luke Knight during the original police investigation and Neil Acourt at his recent trial, also said the men wanted to return to normal. "They lead their own lives - I'm sure they would like it all to go away," he said.

But according to Brian Cathcart, author of The Case of Stephen Lawrence, moving on is exactly what has not happened. "At least four of them are still in the area. They have moved a little further to the east but they are keeping in touch with each other."

The men's social network spreads wider than the five charged with Stephen's murder. The gang includes Charlie Martin and Danny Caetano, who were jailed for the attempted murder of a rival, as well as the Acourts' half brothers Scott and Bradley - and numbers upwards of 10. Add to this the various members of loyal and extended families and a large support network emerges. Observers say they now live in a society within a society. Unable to work openly for fear of retribution, they are supported economically by the friends they made in the early years and the family that has stuck with them throughout.

But the five remain locked in time - the day of Stephen's murder in 1993, Mr Cathcart says. "One third of all males have a criminal record but most move on. In a normal life they may have been expected to get a job and marry and be straight. But they have blown that.

"The Acourts and Norris came from families with histories of crime and violence. They always thought that their prospects lay in that world but [Stephen Lawrence] spoilt that world for them as well as the normal world because they are subject to constant police surveillance." And it is not just the gaze of the law under which the men live out their lives. The Daily Mail, the newspaper which has been their most prominent accuser, has had photographers stationed at each of the men's homes since news of the CPS's decision broke this week. And in the minds of the men, the media has become part of the "conspiracy" against them.

They have made two concerted attempts to put their side of the story. In 1999, a television interview with Martin Bashir backfired disastrously. Bashir allowed the men to hang themselves on the evidence and swept away their claims that they were merely, as Gary Dobson claimed, "rascals, lovable rogues".

In one now notorious exchange, Bashir challenged Norris: "Would you call me a Paki?" Norris replied: "Some people would call you a Paki, Martin." The interview eventually revealed contradictions in the suspects' evidence on the night of the murder and prompted calls from the Lawrences' barrister, Michael Mansfield, for the new lines of inquiry to be investigated by the police.

In another interview in the same year, the men's mothers put their side of the story, claiming they had been the subject of death threats, and that their daughters were suffering from anorexia and "nerves" as a result of the investigation. In one bizarre exchange, they claimed their sons had been "sacrificial lambs" to stop the Government appearing embarrassed during a visit to Britain by Nelson Mandela.

Also in 1999, Gary Dobson appeared on a national radio phone-in, during which he was questioned for two hours by presenters and the public. Dobson told Talk Radio listeners that he swore "on his mother's life" that he was innocent of Stephen's murder. The claims jar badly with reality. As Bashir pointed out to them during the disastrous TV interview, 26 different people named them as responsible for the murder within the first 48 hours.

According to Brian Cathcart, the gang was feared and hated in equal measure in south-east London. "They had gone off the rails by the time of the murder. They had left or were playing truant from school, getting into trouble with the law. There was talk around the neighbourhood that they were throwing their weight around, intimidating people and involved in feuds with local families. The Acourts had parted company with their father and around this time their mother moved in with another man. They were forced to move house on the estate because they were problem tenants. They were literally running wild, cut free."

According to community sources there have been recent problems thrown up by these associations with the past, says Brian Cathcart. "They are still around but not very long ago Jamie Acourt was asking to get out of the borough. He said he was badly influenced by other people and this didn't help him. It was discussed in a [Greenwich social services] panel meeting but it was decided he should stay here."

So there they stay, locked between the South Circular and the Thames in the midst of the community which still bears the scar of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. Most have made up their minds about the Lawrence five and polite society considers them beyond the pale.

In the wake of this week's decision by the CPS it seems they may now be beyond the law as well. But they continue to maintain their innocence. As Brian Cathcart concludes: "There are no other viable suspects for the murder but this is not the same thing as saying they did it. They have been telling people they didn't do it for so long that they probably believe it themselves."