Homing Pigeon Boy

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Before he was finally jailed for four years, Shaun McKerry, the notorious 16-year-old Homing Pigeon Boy, had taken to smiling cheekily (even sticking out his tongue) for the press cameras. But, at Bishop Auckland police station in County Durham, a collection of 29 mug shots, covering young Shaun's criminal career, present a different and more depressing photographic history.

Before he was finally jailed for four years, Shaun McKerry, the notorious 16-year-old Homing Pigeon Boy, had taken to smiling cheekily (even sticking out his tongue) for the press cameras. But, at Bishop Auckland police station in County Durham, a collection of 29 mug shots, covering young Shaun's criminal career, present a different and more depressing photographic history.

Kept for the records, the first snap shows Shaun at 12, a handsome little boy, being cautioned for some minor offence. It's a strange little picture. Most children, in the station for the first time, would look ashamed or scared. Not Shaun. Face fleshed out with puppy fat, he is smiling proudly at the camera as if he has finally arrived.

As the photographs stack up, covering four years of charges, Shaun's dark hair gets shorter until, finally, his skull is bare. His face grows thinner and the crimes grow more serious, as community orders lead to spells in secure accommodation and short periods in young offenders' institutions. Damage to property graduates to stealing cars and burglary. Sometimes Shaun looks defiant, a hard-man puffed up with brazen pride. At others, he looks depressed, bewildered even. In two of the shots, his eye is blackened.

This month, Shaun was sentenced to four years in a young offenders' institution for an armed raid on the post office in Leeholme, the former pit village outside Bishop Auckland where he was raised. He was easily apprehended for he was simply following the pattern which gave him his nickname. After he and 22-year-old accomplice Scott Butler burst into the post office in balaclavas - Shaun swinging a golf club and Butler waving a seven-inch blade - Shaun headed for home with his haul of £3,194, apparently to feed his heroin habit. Postmaster Barry Palmer saw the robbers run into the nearby Yorke Close council estate: home, as everyone in Leeholme knows, to the infamous Shaun McKerry. Police with sniffer dogs found McKerry and Butler hiding in the attic of Shaun's house.

In Leeholme, they say "that lad" was always going to end up in prison. How else could it turn out for a kid who, though clever, hardly went to school after he left primary? "They should throw away the key," says one neighbour, summing up the frustration of a community plagued by McKerry, the slightly-built perpetrator of perhaps 1,000 criminal offences over the past four years. His was a one-child crime wave which the authorities seemed powerless to stop. Court was just a revolving door. Shaun would appear before magistrates who would sentence him to community-based orders and then let him go. Juveniles can only be detained for serious offences. Often Shaun would be robbing and stealing again before he even reached home.

Leeholme has that familiar flat, washed-up feel of so many former pit communities. But it retains some of its old closeness. Everyone knows everybody else and no one who is interviewed wants to give their name. Shaun has plenty of relatives in Leeholme and neighbouring Coundon. Last week, his grandmother, I'm told, poured beer over a man who told a local TV crew that he was delighted that Shaun was in jail.

At the local post office, Barry Palmer's main concern, understandably, is that Shaun will not be away long enough. "He won't serve four years," he says. He's still angry that Shaun smirked in court. Palmer feels the sentence would have been stiffer had the victims (himself, his wife and daughter, who were terrorised in the attack) been allowed their say. But Shaun McKerry pled guilty, as he invariably did.

On the York Close Estate, where Shaun lived with his mother, Paula Hart, they are just waiting for the McKerry family to pack up and leave. "We will throw a party when she goes," says an elderly neighbour, following rumours that Paula, a slim blonde in her early thirties, is moving on. Paula raised Shaun and three younger siblings as a lone parent and has been the victim, locals claim, of domestic violence. Yet neighbours have no sympathy. Mostly they blame her for the way Shaun has turned out.

The most polite summary of local opinion would be that Paula has been an inconsistent parent. Her appearance in silhouette on local television a year ago, when she begged for help with a son she said was out of control, only seemed to increase local anger. Paula has also pleaded for Shaun to be locked up, saying drugs "made him evil".

"She didn't accept any of the responsibility," says a neighbour. "And she never seems to be in."

Only one person, a woman of similar age to Paula, asks: "Where was Shaun's dad?" Shaun's father, who has been separated from his mother for a decade, still lives locally. Whatever influence he has had, say police, it was always Paula who accompanied Shaun to the station.

The extended McKerry family is respected locally but Paula's little branch seems now to be despised. "This was a nice estate but Shaun McKerry ruined it," says "George", a 78-year-old who preferred not to give his real name. "There were parties all the time and fights. McKerry and his mates would walk across the estate carrying crowbars. They did not care who saw them. He was always round the doors selling stolen goods."

George says his nephew was one of the vigilantes who "gave McKerry a hiding", 18 months ago. Fed up with the authorities' failure to contain him, a handful of young men administered summary justice. Shaun was ambushed as he walked across a field and beaten with baseball and cricket bats. Shaun's family say his kneecap was broken and ribs and skull fractured. Shaun's lawyer claimed that there were three vigilante attacks on the boy, and that Paula's door was kicked in and a brick thrown through her window.

"His injuries were exaggerated and anyway he got what he deserved," insists George, though he admits that until the post office episode, Shaun was never violent. Detective Inspector Ted Edgar, from Bishop Auckland police, says McKerry has never pressed charges for assault. But George claims: "The police came to see my nephew but they did not push it. They knew the score."

Shaun was 14 at the time of his "hiding". But no one here saw him as a child. "You would not have thought of him as a child if you lived here," says George's daughter. "He was a rotten little robber," says George. "And we hate that round here."

A few streets away, in a dark corner at the estate's edge, is Paula's home. The windows of the house next door are plastered with old newspapers. The occupant moved out to get away from the McKerrys. Paula is polite as she peers through her letterbox. "I'm saying nothing more," she insists. She is sick of the "system" and says she never got enough help with Shaun. She laughs nervously: "I'm not the only woman whose son has ever been in trouble." Then she closes the letter box and is gone.

It is the North-East way to give lurid nicknames to its "repeat" child offenders whose real identities are protected by law. As well as Homing Pigeon Boy, there is currently Lambton Worm Boy, a 12-year-old from Chester-le-Street, already weighed down by 24 previous convictions, who recently brought his local town centre to a standstill by hurling masonry from a shop roof. Then there's Laughing Boy, a 16-year-old from Sunderland, recently arrested for the 139th time, who sniggers when he is sentenced.

The North East has also given us Rat Boy, Spider Boy, Blip Boy and, most tragically, Balaclava Boy, alias Gareth Brogden, who died, aged 18, in March this year after a drug overdose. Brogden, from Hartlepool, was only 11 when he got his nickname after boasting on TV in a balaclava, about stealing cars. Early notoriety, one suspects, did not help Brogden to return to the straight and narrow. Christina Blythe, head of Durham County's new multi-agency Youth Offending Service - created to implement the Government's new strategy on juvenile offenders - suggests the same applies to Shaun. She points out that repeat offenders are a minority of child criminals and argues that "superboy" nicknames feed fragile, troubled egos. Incarcerated superboys even get fanmail from other kids.

That phenomenon may be reinforced when their real names become public. Until March last year, Shaun was still the anonymous Homing Pigeon Boy, though everyone in Leeholme knew who that was. Then the Northern Echo won the rare right to name and, it argued, shame Shaun, by persuading magistrates to lift his anonymity.

The paper reasoned that he was such a menace that the public deserved to know who he was. Local magistrates agreed and their decision was later upheld by the High Court in London. Interestingly, when the paper recently applied for the right to name the Lambton Worm Boy, different magistrates turned it down, arguing that notoriety might exacerbate the behaviour.

"Naming and shaming only works if a kid is shamed," argues Blythe. Shaun clearly wasn't. Detective Chief Inspector Paul Green warned that Shaun would "feed off the publicity". His deputy, DI Edgar, says that "peer pressure" is a huge factor in Shaun's offending, as with many other juveniles. Shaun was actually one of a gang of four or five persistent young offenders, plaguing the area, but only he became famous. "That was probably because he was youngest and perceived to be the ring leader," says Edgar. Shaun's nickname, he says, increased the pressure on him to maintain his position in his peer group. "One-to-one, he was pleasant but surrounded by his peers he always had his kudos to maintain."

Blythe says new legislation will ensure faster, tougher, more intensive action for juvenile offenders. The days of endless cautions are over, she promises. But while a range of new court orders - affecting offenders and their parents - are now available, the aim is still to keep kids out of custody. All the research shows that, whatever a frustrated public wants, locking them up does not stop them offending. It simply introduces them to a whole lot of other criminalised kids.

DI Edgar says drugs are a crucial factor in juvenile crime. But somehow in all the public debate about Shaun McKerry his drug addiction seems to have been underplayed. Its unlikely he has ever been treated for heroin abuse. There are no residential facilities in the North East to treat addicted youths, something Blythe is addressing.

For county councillor Phil Graham what is crucial now is that being inside changes Shaun McKerry. "I really want him to come out and be a full member of this community but if he comes out as he went in it will be a complete waste of time."

Graham makes the depressing observation that it's easy to be written off at sweet 16. "Even if he miraculously reforms, with his notoriety and criminal record, it's hard to see who will ever employ Shaun," he says. "That's profoundly sad."