Armed police patrols in Liverpool are being stepped up to the highest level since the city's violent gang wars of the mid-1990s because of a gun murder that detectives believe is linked to two earlier killings.
Tony Lawler, 45, was shot dead in front of his elderly mother after taking her shopping for groceries in the Netherley district of the city on Thursday evening. A boy of 11 was seriously wounded when he was hit in the leg by a stray bullet as shoppers ran for cover.
The boy was in a stable condition at Alder Hey children's hospital with his mother at his bedside on Friday, awaiting probable surgery on his gunshot wound. Police are concerned for the boy's safety and asked that he not be identified.
The shooting is thought to be linked to a five-month feud between two rival families.
Mr Lawler's younger brother, Stephen, was the first to be shot dead, as he walked home from a party in May. Peter Clarke, 23, a soldier, has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial. There were tense scenes when he appeared for a remand hearing at magistrates' court, with members of the Lawler and Clarke families exchanging threats.
Last month the defendant's brother, Ian Clarke, 32, was shot as he sat in his car outside a pub in the Anfield district of the city. He died six days later. Acting Assistant Chief Constable Mike Langdon told a press conference yesterday that he believed the killings were linked.
Tony Lawler clearly realised he was a target when a gang of four men jumped from a blue Ford Transit van as he got out of his car near a chip shop at the Middlemass Hey shopping parade at 6.30pm on Thursday.
Mr Lawler ran but was shot in the back while trying to escape across waste ground. During the confrontation Mr Lawler's mother, Mary, lashed out at the gunman, hitting him with her shopping bag. The van was later found burnt out in Woolton Park, an affluent south Liverpool suburb.
The most remarkable aspect of the three killings, which are among eight fatal shootings on Merseyside this year, is that they may not stem from the usual causes of Liverpool's underworld disputes – the lucrative control of nightclub doors or the drug trade.
Instead, the dispute is understood to have started with no more than loss of face during a row in a Merseyside bar. "Disrespect" is considered a grave offence among some of the well-known Liverpool clans.
In the three years since his appointment as Chief Constable of Merseyside, Norman Bettison has been less willing to initiate high-profile armed policing than his predecessor, James Sharples, who cracked down hard after six people were shot in seven days after the murder of David Ungi, a businessman, in May 1995.
But the latest spate of killings appear to have prompted firmer action. At yesterday's press conference Mr Langdon promised to increase the number of armed response units throughout the city and step up high-visibility policing in known trouble-spots.
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