School struggles to make sense of boys' murders: Jonathan Foster reports from Sunderland on the mood of neighbours and friends as police hunt serial strangler of three youths

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The Independent Online
THE GINGER-HAIRED lad no longer leads the gang of mountain bikers through Roker Park and on to the promenade. Two of the bikers have died, and now the police know it was murder.

David Grieff and David Hanson, both 15, both killed in February, were well known in the area that runs to the sea from the park and the landmark pylons of Sunderland FC's football ground.

No one can make sense of the murders, including the police. Eight months after the two Davids were found, and 10 months after Thomas Kelly, 18, was found in an allotment shed, there is no motive, only confirmation from laboratory tests that a serial strangler must be at large on the north bank of the Wear.

All three were educated at the Monkwearmouth school. 'I think there's something in that,' a former pupil said. But there is no reason for children from the area to attend any other school.

Parents collecting their children yesterday said that they were hurrying them home and would keep them in at night. The children said they did not feel at risk and there were no interesting rumours along the school corridors, only that the boys must have known their killer or trusted him.

The police are inclined to agree. 'They were big, strong lads,' Superintendent David Wilson, who is in charge of the investigation, said. Nobody could easily have dragged them away, an inference appreciated locally.

Local people say David Grieff and David Hanson often rode with the ginger- haired one. They never caused trouble and the idea that they died sniffing solvents on their own never seemed plausible. 'They seemed the sort of lads that wouldn't know where to find trouble if they wanted,' a group of mothers outside the school said yesterday.

There is a framework for the motive. The bodies of Thomas Kelly and David Grieff were discovered just 50 yards apart on allotments that only someone with local knowledge could locate. David Hanson lay in a derelict guest house on the Roker seafront less than a mile away.

At the scenes of the crimes evidence of fire and solvents was found. In the families of the dead boys, there was evidence only of stability and the average interests of average boys. 'He was a canny lad,' one neighbour said of David Hanson, and the tribute could apply equally to all three.

The police have been criticised for the delay in declaring the three deaths as murder. But at no stage, Supt Wilson said, were investigations scaled down on the assumption that a grotesque sequence of misadventures, a terrible coincidence, had killed the boys.

Instead, the results of pathology and forensic science tests emerged only slowly, detectives suspected foul play from the outset but were certain of homicide only in the last few weeks. After the third killing, all data had been entered on the computer system used for major investigations.

Detectives consulted beyond the expertise available in the region. 'It was a combination of pathology findings and the results of examination at the scenes of the crimes,' Supt Wilson said.

In the streets around the crimes, one name is often mentioned, a 23-year-old local man who has been remanded in custody accused of attempted burglary and arson of the same house where they found David Hanson, on the same day. The police say they are not making any connections.

There is no mood of fear or vituperation. Roker and Monkwearmouth are predominantly working-class areas, but not especially violent or fragmented. The boys lived in neat homes. Thomas Kelly was described by a neighbour as a fine boy 'never in trouble'. The parents knew their sons, they knew all along that they had been murdered, and it must have been someone with cunning.

'Some of the kids in that gang on their bikes must know something,' a promenade regular said. 'There was always about six of them, riding their bikes around the bollards and along the front. They don't come out now, not even the ginger one.'

(Photograph omitted)