Vigilante violence: Death by gossip

His assailants believed Paul Cooper was a paedophile, so they beat him to death. But he was innocent, a victim of vigilante violence
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The Independent Online

Paul Cooper never found himself short of friends in the area of north Manchester where he grew up. He was known for his devotion to his dog, Blue, an interest in cookery and an optimistic outlook, despite a motorcycle crash that meant he needed a walking stick to get about.

Paul Cooper never found himself short of friends in the area of north Manchester where he grew up. He was known for his devotion to his dog, Blue, an interest in cookery and an optimistic outlook, despite a motorcycle crash that meant he needed a walking stick to get about.

But a positive contribution to community life counts for little when a neighbourhood starts feeding on fears of crime and takes the law into its own hands.

A murder investigation was under way yesterday after a gang of men near Mr Cooper's home at Heywood wrongly convinced themselves he was a paedophile and beat him to death at his flat.

Detectives were forced to stress Mr Cooper's innocence after being hampered in their investigation by locals who are unwilling to give evidence because they believe he was a sex offender.

Mr Cooper's disability hampered his attempts to defend himself against the attack, by several young men, which took place at about 11.45pm on Friday, at his flat in Walton Close, a concrete-clad block of flats near Heywood town centre.

He was subjected to a "brutal and prolonged" attack, detectives say, and was found with serious head injuries in his bathroom. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Fairfield General Hospital.

Despite the police's insistence that Mr Cooper, 40, was an entirely innocent victim of "mistaken identity", the climate of bigotry and vitriol that contributed to his death was still palpable in Heywood yesterday. "Some people deserve to be killed," said a drinker at the Starkey Arms pub before issuing an obscenity about Mr Cooper and his dog.

Greater Manchester Police have come across the same sentiment as they have set about solving the crime. "We are trying to dispel the myth that has developed in the area that Paul was involved in paedophile activities," said Detective Chief Inspector Jeff Mahon of Greater Manchester Police. "We have checked our records and there is no trace of anything of that nature. However, the myth appears to have led to tragic consequences. Paul was a nice lad who did not deserve to die."

Mr Cooper's death appears to reflect the nationwide climate of suspicion and fear being fuelled by growing public concern over crime and punishment.

Rising hostility toward minority groups, clamour for tough sentences against offenders and a sinister desire for retribution are being driven by an increasingly prevalent right-wing agenda.

When the murder of Sarah Payne led the News of the World, four years ago, to publish the names and photographs of 50 people it claimed had committed child sex offences - tapping into anxiety about paedophiles in our midst - protesters circulated a list of 20 alleged sex offenders on the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth and proceeded to target them.

In that climate of suspicion, a female registrar was hounded from her home in south Wales because neighbours confused "paediatrician" with "paedophile". A former sea captain from Grimsby, Humberside, who had been cleared of paedophile offences, was murdered after his details were published in the local newspaper.

Mr Cooper's life appears to have been carefree before the vigilantes began targeting him.

Old schoolfriends from St Joseph's secondary, around the corner from his flat, attest to the fact that he was popular. Some say he drank too much in adulthood but he spent most mornings doing chores for his mother and had many friends at the Starkey Arms and Navigation pubs in Heywood, where he drank and was known by many.

His problems started when his brother was convicted of sexual offences. It is unclear whether the brother is still serving a sentence but local people suggest that Paul Cooper became the target of vigilantes some time ago and was on the receiving end of at least one serious attack.

A police spokeswoman confirmed last night that Mr Cooper's brother has been convicted of sexual offences in the past.

As community rumour and counter-rumour became detached from reality, many became convinced that Mr Cooper - not his brother - was the offender. "I used to live in the flat above him and I knew about his brother," said Paul, an associate. "But others didn't. There might have been confusion about them.

"Paul was a good lad. He was liked and didn't deserve this."

"It wasn't the only attack of its kind," said a man who would only be known as Stephen, 42, a former schoolfriend of Mr Cooper's. "There's a halfway house for prisoners at the top of this road and, when word got out that a paedophile was there, a mob hit that place too."

Mr Cooper's mother, Patricia, who suffers from a heart condition, said she could see "no reason" for the attack. "He was an easygoing, friendly man whose disability would have made it virtually impossible for him to defend himself," Mrs Cooper said.

Police said two men in their twenties from Rochdale, Greater Manchester, had been arrested on suspicion of murder. One of the suspects, aged 24, was later released, but the other man, aged 22, was still being questioned last night.