Hundreds lament the passing of a 'ray of sunshine': A community united by shock and grief pays its respects to Nikki Conroy. Malcolm Pithers reports

THE HAUNTING sound of Pie Jesu hung in the biting cold air, a lament to a lost child.

Children, still dazed and depressed by the murder of their classmate, Nikki Conroy, just 12, stood in small groups yesterday outside St Mary's Church in Acklam, Middlesbrough. They seemed lost, utterly dejected, leaning on gravestones, gazing at each other. A small boy stood at the side of one group in shirt and jeans, shivering and sobbing as the funeral service began.

Their teachers and parents stood alongside them, their heads bowed, still not quite believing that Nikki and her smiling face would not be seen again. All around them cameras recorded their open grief.

Nikki was stabbed to death in her class by a masked man at Hall Garth School on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, Cleveland, just over a week ago.

Yesterday, the children who were with her when she died, including Michelle Reeve and Emma Winter, both 13, who survived stab wounds, stood at the front of the church as the cortege arrived. It had wound its way from Nikki's home, the lead car full of flowers and cards, including one from the Prince of Wales, with two footmen walking in front.

Nikki's family and close relatives were still deeply shocked by her death. It was, according to the Rev Simon Wright, vicar of St Mary's, a shock shared by the nation. 'One thing that has been very clear during the last few days is that Nikki's family have been comforted by a vast outpouring of love and support, not only from this community but from all over the country,' he said. 'People all over this country have felt grief, shock and sorrow at what has been done to Nikki.'

He touched the emotional nerve of those in and outside the church by saying that, for many people, Nikki had been a 'ray of sunshine'. She was always smiling and people all around will forever remember the photograph of her happy, smiling face, published soon after her death.

Her friends sobbed as Mr Wright said that Nikki had been poised to begin the main part of her life, like a 'bud about to bloom'. Her life, however short, had been full of interest, of activity and of expectation. She was a girl who loved sport, was a good swimmer and runner, a Linford Christie fan who also loved to watch boxing. She kept two eccentric rabbits, had always wanted to become a veterinary surgeon and was learning the trombone. Nikki's life, her hopes, plans and some of her personality were paraded proudly in front of the congregation and those standing out in the cold.

Peter Smith, her headmaster, read the lesson and her form tutor, Bob Howsam, read two short passages chosen by her brother, John, and parents, Peter and Di Conroy.

As the service ended, Nikki's friends walked slowly away, not speaking, still sobbing and still lost.

The man accused of murdering Nikki appeared in court for the second time yesterday, just hours before her funeral.

Stephen James Wilkinson, 29, as remanded in custody until 3 May when he made a one-minute appearance before Teesside magistrates in Middlesbrough.

During the brief time he was in court, Mr Wilkinson, who is unemployed, spoke only once to acknowledge his identity.

Mr Wilkinson, of Easterside, Middlesbrough, is charged with Nikki's murder and the attempted murders of Michelle Reeve and Emma Winter, at Hall Garth school.

(Photograph omitted)

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