Vigilantes to be given life jail for killing pensioner

Paedophile witch-hunt: Father of girl who claimed she was molested admits evidence against acquitted man was weak

By Ian Herbert North
Friday 22 February 2002 01:00

Two vigilantes who murdered a pensioner on their housing estate because they believed he was a paedophile are facing life imprisonment.

Ian Lawless, 40, a pub cellarman, and Gary Lawson, 20, unemployed, firebombed the Grimsby home of Alf Wilkins after a local newspaper reported he had been in court accused of molesting a child. Although the report stated that Mr Wilkins, 67, had been cleared of the charge, Lawson and Lawless threw turpentine and a match through his letterbox and left him to suffocate.

A jury at Hull Crown Court this week convicted Lawless and Lawson of murder. A third neighbour, Gary Fairbanks, 43, was cleared of incitement to murder yesterday.

After the case, police condemned the witch-hunt that was prompted by the News of the World's "name and shame campaign" against child abusers and led to the death of the former tugboat skipper.

Humberside Police said Mr Wilkins was a well-liked man who kept to himself but had been killed because of speculation. "This has become a big issue since Sarah Payne and the News of the World campaign but vigilante activity is not right."

The newspaper's campaign was linked to at least two suicides by suspected paedophiles and the harassment of a female registrar who left her South Wales home because neighbours confused "paediatrician" with "paedophile".

Mr Wilkins was the only suspected paedophile to have been murdered.

During his years at sea he graduated through the ranks of the merchant navy, but his fondness of sherry earned him dismissal from at least one job, as a miner, and ended his marriage, which had produced several children. His last years were spent supping spirits from half-pint glasses at his £28-a-month council flat on the Yarborough estate in Grimsby.

But he could not have anticipated the consequences of a court appearance in October 2000 on charges of molesting a nine-year-old girl, which had not been reported by the town's evening newspaper until a 400-word article accompanied his acquittal.

The girl's father has since conceded that the evidence against Mr Wilkins was thin. "I just heard rumours and didn't know whether to slap him or not so I called the police." Her testimony was weakened by her claim that she had been "placed in a piranha tank" by another assailant and evidence that she had tried to impress her friends with her allegations.

But vigilantes in Mr Wilkins' neighbourhood were convinced enough of his guilt to set his flat alight in the early hours of 7 February last year. Ventilation in the flat was reduced because all but one window had been boarded up by earlier attacks and Mr Wilkins died in his kitchen, his 12-year-old German shepherd dog at his side.

Post-mortem tests revealed nine bruises to his body, all consistent with a vigilante attack eight days earlier. On that occasion, attackers were helped by a broken catch on an electronically operated door that should have controlled access to his ground-floor flat. They beat Mr Wilkins about the head with a broom, leaving him bleeding from a one-inch gash to the forehead that needed hospital treatment. The Hull jury convicted Lawson and his girlfriend, Chantalle Day, 17, of conspiring to cause grievous bodily harm in that attack.

After Mr Wilkins' murder, police discovered the words "nonce" – prison slang for child molester – and "pervert" daubed on the metal sheets used to board up windows at the property, on Arundel Walk.

In hindsight, Mr Wilkins' biggest mistake was to allow his accuser to call to see his goldfish and dog over a number of years, a decision he acknowledged at his trial. The child's accusations fuelled a mixture of hatred and embarrassment in Lawson. His grandfather used to visit Mr Wilkins until he was ordered not to after the abuse trial. "I didn't want him classed as a nonce," Lawson told the jury.

Other neighbours shared the view. Eight or nine were at a party where the subject of "dragging Alf and tying him to a tree" was discussed and the vortex of hatred inspired Day to write a "blueprint" for Mr Wilkins' death two days before the killing. "Each time I hear Alf's name – that nonce on the Yarborough estate ... I just want to break into his flat and Sellotape his hands behind his back ... put some socks in his mouth ... pour petrol all over his flat and all over him, then set him on fire," it read.

Yet Mr Wilkins was not an unknown recluse, like some of the paedophiles attacked in the past 18 months. He was well known by his older neighbours, some of whom drank at his flat, and to neighbours of his mother, Dolly. Before she died eight years ago, he would visit her each day, cycling the mile on his old-fashioned black bicycle, arriving at 2pm. His habit of wearing a neat suit and tie made him a distinctive sight.

Jennifer Sheridan, 54, a friend, said: "He showed me a photograph of his ship and being a woman I just said, 'Oh yes'. I suppose you might say that made him proud."

He had also stripped the wallpaper in her hall and would mend her bicycle. "But the down side was his tendency to be bossy. We had a row about me pulling down my elderberry bushes and had never quite squared all that when he died."

Lawson's admission, under police caution, that "when it became known that Alf was dead everyone wanted to party", said much for local sentiment. Among some neighbours on the Yarborough, outrage over the murder was still hard to find last night.

"Did he do something to that little girl? It's anybody's guess," said Karen, 40, who lived three doors away from Mr Wilkins.