Despair and death on an estate without hope: Peter Dunn looks at the background to the brutal murder of a lonely old woman whose cries for help went unheeded

EDNA PHILLIPS had endured months of torment, living an isolated life with her dog Chum on the Penywaun council estate outside Aberdare in the South Wales valleys.

Constantly terrorised by her neighbours, she had asked the local council to rehouse her as long ago as 1987. Nothing was done. Her house was broken into by the teenager next door who took money and smeared the walls with dog excrement.

Last July, the neighbour, Maria Rossi, 17, and her friend Christina Molloy, also 17, frogmarched 70-year-old Miss Phillips up her garden path and strangled and tortured her. The girls, high on a cocktail of cider and drugs, used a dog chain to strangle the half-blind pensioner, slashed her face with a Stanley knife and broke eggs over her corpse. They tried to scalp her.

The Crown's QC said that the girls had 'literally butchered' Miss Phillips. Next day, Maria Rossi boasted about the murder and was heard singing 'We've killed Edna' to the tune of The Wizard of Oz.

At Cardiff Crown Court on Monday, the girls were described by the judge as 'evil products of a modern age'. As they started indefinite jail sentences yesterday, details emerged of Miss Phillips's desperate cry for help and of a system involving police, politicians and social workers which ultimately failed to save a frightened, lonely old woman.

She had known Maria Rossi since she was a baby and used to take her for walks, but over the years Rossi made Miss Phillips's life an unbearable hell from which there was no escape.

The Rossi family despised her because she complained about drunken parties and loud music. Miss Phillips reported Rossi to the police with the result that she was stoned and her dog hurt.

In desperation, following the burglary, she wrote to Ann Clwyd, her MP, whose intervention led to some action by police in Merthyr Tydfil. On 30 June, Chief Inspector Keri Humphreys, deputy divisional commander, wrote to Ms Clwyd saying: 'All matters raised within the letter have now been satisfactorily addressed.' A visit from Victim Support had been arranged 'and I further understand that she feels more secure with the recent installation of a burglar alarm'.

After her murder a crowd of 300, including women and children, stoned the Rossi house with Maria's mother, Linda, a formidable woman with tattooed arms, shouting defiance from an upstairs window. Linda's mother, 60, resident on Penywaun for 25 years, and Christine Molloy's parents, newcomers to the estate, were also rescued from their wrecked homes and spirited away. Grandma Rossi's greenhouse, tended by her 82-year-old husband, was wrecked, its plants uprooted and 'Murderer' daubed on their house.

An attempt was made to firebomb Ali's general store where a distant relative of the Rossi's worked. Even the estate's community hairdresser, another Rossi, had to be driven away. Community leaders were shocked by the murder and the backlash - a mixture of indignant self-justification and injured civic dignity over the implosion of violence.

A post-war estate of 800 houses set against serene hills at the head of the Cynon Valley, its economic problems deepened after the miners' strike. The closure of pits that followed was interpreted as a political act designed to punish the miners' union, whose lodges were for generations the social power houses in the valleys.

The reality of life today has its own symbolism in the Penywaun police house - visible from Miss Phillips's former home - with its boarded windows and gaping hole in its roof. It was shut a decade ago to save money and the estate lost its resident policeman, 'Copper' Walters, an affable man on a bicycle who commanded respect. Burglary, by 'problem families' known to all the estate residents, is rife, the solving of them - as Miss Phillips complained - a desultory process. When Robert Lloyd and his wife Lisa moved into a notorious part of Penywaun, known as 'East of the Colliers pub', they were burgled twice within a week, once while they were at home listening to their back door being smashed in.

'We had to move all the electrical goods out and lock them in a garage,' Mr Lloyd, young, unemployed and chain-smoking, said. 'The wife had to live at her mother's and I moved to mine. We only got another house because we told the council we'd split up.

'Everyone knows who's doing the stealing. None of them have cars. They just carry the stuff through the streets. One of the families had a daughter that set fire to the comprehensive school when I was in form three. They had a son, only seven, who broke into the nursery school, stamped on the hamster and they still let him back in. The same family took a little girl down the river, stripped her off and threw her in.

'Put it this way. The police haven't got much authority here. The old lady that got killed had rubbish thrown in her garden, human excrement wiped on her windows. No one bothered.

'Job prospects are zilch. I've got to go to this stupid job club in Aberdare, look through the newspapers, have a cup of tea. If I don't go they'll take my benefit. I've got an application in for a railway guard but nothing's going to come of it. You look in the JobCentre and you can tell the money's low because they all say 'Wages Negotiable'.'

Like most young unemployed on the estate, the Lloyds have heard about most of the survival wangles. One of them is called hobbling. Men on the dole sign up with building sub-contractors, often under false names, and get paid pounds 20 a day, far below the going rate even in South Wales. The sub-contractors then bill their main contractor for a full wage. That way everyone gets a bit of scratch.

'Ninety per cent of the families are respectable here,' Mr Lloyd said. 'But there's a lot I know claim single parent benefit who shouldn't because they still live together. If you're separated the woman gets pounds 20 a week extra, so the bloke gets pounds 40 and she'll be on about pounds 75. I get pounds 150 a fortnight. It's that low because I had a loan from social security for another cooker at Christmas, so that's pounds 10 a week off. Then there's pounds 5 for the water, pounds 5 for the poll tax. My pay day's tomorrow and when I've paid back what's borrowed I'll be borrowing again on Monday from parents and relatives.'

Mr Lloyd's parents, Mary and Bryn, a mineworker invalided out of the industry with a collapsed lung, live near by. Lloyd senior drives a taxi in Aberdare and sees, most weekends, the nightmare of social activity in the town. 'Night before last I was on the taxi rank near Burtons and there were five boys sitting on the benches openly injecting themselves,' he said. 'I picked four boys up one night to take up to Penywaun and when they started messing about in the car I told them to get out. They went round the front and did pounds 1,000 of damage kicking the wings.'

Adrian Creedy, in his early thirties, is one of the few young men of Penywaun to have looked for work in England. He had a job as a guard on the Tube in London, but is back home again, divorced, living with his mother in a house where the brass ornaments and parlour chairs shimmer with daily polishing.

He heard the crowd outside the Molloy's house, a distant sound of tinkling glass with sporadic bursts of applause. He saw two plain- clothes policemen lead a man into the house to prove to him that it was empty. Upstairs, watched by the officers but not detained, the man had smashed a bedroom window.

'I think the valleys have just caught up with the inner cities, to be honest,' Mr Creedy said. 'Youngsters today have nothing to do, nowhere to go all night so they're down in Aberdare shoplifting. On Mondays you'll see them in school uniform. Saturday nights they'll be drinking or injecting cider into their veins. Respect for elders has gone out of the community.'

Politicians, social workers and churchmen seem curiously irrelevant in the kind of society Penywaun has created for its day-to-day survival. The traditional liberalism of the old mining lodges is a thing of history. Everyone I saw spoke from the depths of poverty of their desire to see flogging and hanging.

'Like in America, they should have Death Row to keep them on for years until they've made sure they haven't got it wrong,' Robert Lloyd stated. 'They should have a place like that here, keep them a certain time and then execute them.'

(Photographs omitted)

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