Hunting through dense woodland, Sergeant Richard Vernon stumbled upon the scene of what he now describes as “the most distressing thing I’ve ever dealt with”.
The two victims had been left for dead by their attackers and while the younger one had managed to escape and raise the alarm, the older was missing.
Sgt Vernon, a 41-year-old policeman of 22-years, was the first officer from the search party looking for the to happen upon the child. He saw the boy lying face-down on the river-bank, wearing just a T-shirt.
“He was covered in blood,” Sgt Vernon recalled. “You couldn’t see his face and he was drifting in and out of consciousness. I tried to keep him conscious, speaking to him, pinching his ear to keep him awake, basically.
“It hit home and I was in tears. I don’t mind admitting that. I’ve got children of my own and you don’t expect to come across a situation like that”
As the boy was loaded into the Air Ambulance, Sgt Vernon, his colleagues and the rest of the south Yorkshire village of Edlington was already wondering who could have carried out such a brutal assault.
An assault in which two boys, aged 11 and nine, enjoying an innocent Saturday morning on their BMX bikes were lured to secluded woodland and subjected to an hour and a half of torture and sexual abuse, which nearly ended in their death.
The suggestion that the attacks were meted out by two tiny children, aged just 10 and 11, shocked the nation. But to those who knew the boys and their family, it was depressingly unsurprising.
The attacks happened in April 2009 when the boys had lived in the former mining village for less than a month.
They had been placed with a foster family on 10 March after their mother made a phone call to a family intervention programme to say that she could no longer cope with them.
Her call came after she was assaulted by a neighbour who claimed to have been “pushed over the edge” by the boys’ behaviour, which included throwing stones at passing buses and learner drivers.
By that time both boys had already been immersed in what was described in court as a “toxic” homelife.
Their earliest childhood memories were of sitting in the front garden of their home in Doncaster so they could not hear their father beat their mother. A jealous drunk, he would not allow the boys’ mother to have male friends or to speak to other men. Her seven sons would know it was safe to return to the house only when they saw their father leave.
They too were victims of his temper. Their father would hit them with a slipper and throw ashtrays at them. The eldest defendant recalled his father punching him in the stomach. “Hard punches, really hard punches,” he described them as.
The elder defendant also admitted he had watched his father’s pornographic DVDs and horror films such as Child’s Play and Saw. By the age of nine he also had a 10-cigarette-a-day habit and drank cider and vodka. He also used to smoke cannabis grown on his father’s allotment and was allowed to use his father’s gun.
He was, his barrister Peter Kelson QC, explained: “Subjected to gross physical and emotional abuse and neglect.” He added: “His family experience was characterised by routine aggression, violence and chaos.”
The family was well known, not just to social services, but to the police too. Their older brother is currently in prison and, despite their tender ages, both boys have been in trouble with the law previously. They had both been the subject of anti-social behaviour contracts since January 2008, when aged 10 and nine.
The older brother’s offending began in August 2007 when he was reprimanded for assaulting an 11-year-old boy at a park. The younger brother, who was just eight at the time, was also involved in the assault, but appears not to have been dealt with by the police.
In November 2007, the older boy was given a formal police warning for attempted theft, when he tried to steal a 65-year-old woman’s handbag from her in the street.
His first conviction was in February 2008 when he was charged with common assault when he attacked the same 11-year-old boy who had been targeted in August 2007. This time he punched the boy twice in the face.
In October 2008 he was convicted of battery when he punched and kicked a 52-year-old teacher.
In January 2009 he was convicted again of battery. In this incident he had shouted at an eight-year-old boy “I will kill you, you fucking bastard. I’m going to bray you.” He tried to punch the boy, but his mother stepped in. she was then punched twice and had to flee to a shop to call the police.
And, again in January 2009, he punched a 50-year-old teacher who had tried to split up a fight with another pupil.
The younger boy has one previous offence. He was reprimanded in March 2009, just days after arriving in Edlington, when he punched a 50-year-old female teacher in the abdomen. He ran away, but was restrained by a 53-year-old male teacher. When the man let the boy go, he was headbutted.
The attacks on the two boys, the older of whom was the uncle of the younger boy, were preceded the previous weekend by a near-identical attack on another 11-year-old boy.
On that occasion they lured the boy to a secluded pond telling him they would show him a “massive toad”. When they arrived they punched and kicked the boy and forced him to hand over his grandmother’s address, telling him they were going to kill her.
That ordeal, on 28 March, only ended when a member of the public saw what was happening and intervened. The boys were quickly identified and were due to be interviewed by the police on the very day they carried out the second, more serious attacks.
During the trial the older boy was described as intellectually weak. At one point, when trying to convince the judge of his client’s remorse, the boy’s own barrister said: “He does not have the intellect to try and dream up a happy story for you, the judge, to hear and perhaps go lightly on him. It is a genuine expression of sorrow for what he did.”
The younger boy was portrayed as more sinister. Dr Eileen Vizard, a child psychiatrist who examined him described his behaviour as sadistic and said he was showing signs of becoming a psychopathic offender.
She said that during the examination she explained to the boy that there were CCTV cameras filming him. She said he gave her a “scornful look” and tried to pull the cameras off the wall. And, at one point, while being questioned he rose from his chair and prowled around her. She said that for “a little 10-year-old boy” he was “surprisingly intimidating”.
His behaviour in court was surprisingly intense. While his older brother often struggled to follow proceedings and would leave court if the discussions were not relevant to him and his offences, the younger boy would sit listening to everything.
And, when the discussion turned to the versions of events he and his brother had given the police, he intently followed the prosecutor’s opening, reading from his social worker’s copy of the transcript.
It was in contrast to his solicitor’s expectations of his courtroom behaviour. After barely an hour gone on the first day of proceedings the solicitor asked if there could be a break. The judge asked why, to which he was told: “It is because his ability to behave himself in a proper way might deteriorate.”
The only time he betrayed any emotion was when he broke down in tears when reminded of his troubled homelife.
It was a homelife the judge acknowledged had played a part in their offending and bad behaviour. He told them: “You never had any guidance at home about the way you should behave. You come from a dysfunctional family where the environment has been described as ‘toxic’ and the adults were hardly role models. You were never taught what the proper boundaries were, your bad behaviour was never confronted in the family.”
It is a cruel irony and certainly one that will vex their victims’ family, that, now in a secure unit and forced to spend at least the next five years away from each other and their family, the two Edlington boys will perhaps have a better life than ever before.