Is it nature or nurture when teenagers kill?

The death of Ralph Millward - after the trial.

The notion that children and teenagers could kill is deeply shocking because it upsets our preconception of the young as innocents, incapable of such brutality.

This has always been a rose-tinted view – as much as when two young New Zealand girls beat their mother to death on a whim in the supposed ‘golden age’ of the 1950s – a tale which inspired the film Heavenly Creatures – than in how 19 teenage boys from British cities were killed in the first half of 2008 alone – the youngest 14, the oldest 19.

When a shocking attack or killing occurs, we convince ourselves our children are not capable of carrying out such violence using fanciful means – rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, violent films and more recently computer games have all been fingered as culprits in turning otherwise ‘nice’ children bad. But it is pointless to blame such media for the actions of a tiny minority when millions consume them regularly without ever developing violent or homicidal urges.

A study in 2005 by the American Sociological Association concluded there were no links between violent video games and homicidal behaviour in children, remarking that homicide arrest rates among children and teenagers fell 77 per cent in the 10 years after the release of computer game Doom in 1993, seen at the time as a touchstone of violent games.

The authors take a further step in pointing out the latent racism that lies behind the suggestion that white boys who kill are driven to do so by external forces. The report stated: “White, middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, and victims of an allegedly dangerous product. African-American boys, apparently, are simply dangerous.” The report’s conclusion that youth violence is better addressed by studying broader problems such as family breakdown, poverty, addiction and education seems crushingly common-sensical by comparison.

The three boys that killed homeless Big Issue vendor Ralph Millward in Bournemouth last year, Jimmy Ayres, 15, Warren Crago and Craig Real, both 17, do not seem to be the mythologised ‘teen killers’ – loners, mentally unstable, or obsessed with death or violence – that have committed even more appalling crimes elswhere, for example the Columbine School and Virginia Tech massacres in the US, and similar shootings in Germany and Canada.

On a sunny day in May, the Rossmore estate in Poole where the boys lived does not seem a threatening or unruly place. It is not an estate in the urban high-rise sense, more a neighbourhood of single and semi-detached houses, none older than thirty or forty years. One group of teenagers know the boys well. A cousin of Crago, 20-year-old Alex, said: “Warren was always a bit of a wild child, he got excluded from school and that, but he had a girlfriend and had just started to settle down. He had hobbies, you know, he liked bikes.

“When I heard from my father that he’d been arrested I said, shut up, you’re joking. We got round to see my aunt and uncle, Warrens’s folks, and they were in a terrible way.” Jimmy Ayres, the youngest of the group, lived with his grandparents after his mother left two years ago. He never knew his father. “They had enough on their plate already without this,” Stephan added. Ayres’ grandmother declined to comment. The television was on at Crago’s house, but no one answered. Real’s family had moved to Brighton, according to a neighbour.

While perhaps their defence of their friends is admirable, the darker implications are made explicit by another teenager, Jack: “Everyone’s got into a fight over nothing before. I’ve kicked a tramp in the head before. You do, if you’re boozed up.”

Others who knew the boys were far less complimentary. The grandson of one of Real’s neighbours said he had often thrown stones at his grandfather, smashed windows and hurled abuse over the fence.

“He always tried to be the big man,” said Jason Evans, 16. “Always trying to make out how hard he was, pick fights with people. He wasn’t well liked – there’s been a fair few cases when half the estate had been outside his house.” He added: “You do wonder if it’s the family or whatever, but it always seemed his mother was trying to bring him up right. I never thought he could do something like that.”

Other neighbours had similar stories of abuse, smashed windows, egged cars. Poole Council said antisocial behaviour in the area had dropped 30 per cent in recent months. So if the three were not irredeemably violent, then they at least thought nothing of using violence in the extreme. The court heard how, after the initial attack, Crago and Real had come back to throw a shopping trolley onto Millward’s battered body.

Christine Barter, senior research follow at Bristol University’s School for Policy Studies said that experience of violence going un-chastised by adults, or meted out without consequence built up a greater tolerance for violence. “There may be a high tolerance of violence, not just in young peoples’ culture but within their broader communities,” she said.

“It is not always easy to pinpoint a cause,” she said. “But complex families or difficult backgrounds often appear in these cases. There does seem to be a link between experiencing violent behaviour or neglect in the home as a child and then acting out that violence later in life.”

As the boys and their families were known to social care and other council services, the Poole Safeguarding Children Board, a watchdog set up to oversee the child protection work of probation, social care, education and other services, is to hold an independent review into whether there were any missed opportunities in previous dealing with the boys, perhaps providing better means in the future to help difficult families and children.

Although the board usually looks at cases of violence by adults against children, board chairman Ron Lock felt that although “most unusual” it was right that the board also review this case.

The inquiry will report within three months. The boys’ sentencing for manslaughter is at the end of June.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, June 2010]


On Ralph Millward, one year later

Ralph Millward. Photo: Bournemouth Daily Echo
Ralph Millward. Photo: Bournemouth Daily Echo

Does what the eye not see not hurt us? If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear, does it make a sound? Among equals, are some more equal than others?

Compared to many others, Britain is not a violent country. Residents of Somalia, Congo, Brazil, Russia, or South Africa for example might disagree with a stereotypical something-must-be-done rant about the declining state of our Albion. But violence does exist on our streets and in our homes, and newspapers report it when it happens.

Or do they? In May last year, 41-year-old Ralph Millward was kicked to death outside a branch of Marks and Spencer’s in leafy Westbourne, Dorset. A few days later three teenage boys were arrested and charged with his murder. Their trial begins tomorrow in Poole.

Millward was homeless. He sold The Big Issue magazine from his pitch outside Marks, said his hellos and how-are-yous to his regulars, and slept each night in the bushes behind the shop.

His death and the manner of his death – a quiet, unassuming man who read books, kept to himself and was well liked, apparently attacked by three boys barely old enough to get a job, aged 14, 16 and 16 – sent a shockwave of revulsion through Westbourne. A few weeks later, hundreds of people walked the half mile from the spot to a nearby church to pay their last respects. The local paper, the Bournemouth Echo, of course covered the events in detail. But for the national newspapers, that a member of the street community had been brutally killed apparently by schoolboys was worth barely a word.

The day after Millward was killed, another senseless death shocked another community – 39-year-old Craig Wass, a father of four from a small village outside Sheffield, was beaten to death by a group of young men. Wass had stepped out of his house to tell the group to be quiet after their arguing had woken his children. Again, those arrested and charged with his murder were all young, late teens and early 20s.

This appalling attack was widely reported – the Sun said Wass had been “slaughtered with bricks”, the Daily Mail reported how his bride-to-be Andrea had cradled him as he breathed his last, and The Times remarked on how the “gentle giant” had been struck down.

For Millward, only a brief 100 word piece appeared in the Daily Mail noting his death, and another of similar size in The Times later remarked on the crowds at his memorial.

In a country in which only around 1,000 murders occur each year, most are reported. A murder is serious – it sends ripples through society, it can stoke fears and create change; in the law, in problem estates, in the practices and procedures of institutions like the police, social workers, or local authorities.

But a glance at newspapers over the last few years reveals a bleak trend that seems not yet to have stirred any response.

In January, a homeless man was attacked by four men while travelling by train from Croydon to London, breaking bones in his face.

In Norwich, a homeless man was kicked and beaten in the city centre in November last year, and a video of the attack posted on internet site YouTube.

Will Cameron, 27, was stabbed in the neck with a bottle last May while living homeless in Reading, where police said it was a “miracle” he was not killed.

Keiff Hunt, 45, was left for dead with multiple fractures, stitches and head wounds after being attacked by 10 men while living homeless in Bournemouth in April last year, just two weeks before Millward was killed.

Big Issue vendor Matt Browning, 33, had a glass bottle smashed over his head in Aberdeen in January 2009.

Valerie Manning, 55, living homeless in Reading, was battered and robbed on her way to church in 2008. Rough sleeper Michael Kennedy was “kicked like a football” during an assault in Norwich in April the same year, while in 2002, homeless Big Issue seller Keith Swan was attacked and killed by three men in the same city.

One rough sleeper, quoted in the Norwich Evening News earlier this year following the conviction of Manning’s attacker, said: “I have just come back from the hospital today where I had 10 stitches removed. I was attacked by a group of boys and girls who were laughing while they did it.”

Random, unprovoked violence is rare. Most murders, rapes and assaults are perpetrated by people known to the victim. The homeless face a greater level of threats, intimidation, violence and abuse by virtue of the fact that their ‘home’ is often a public thoroughfare in which the full spectrum of human life pass by.

But there seems also to be a disproportionate rise in the frequency and severity of attacks on the homeless and others in the street community, as if they have become acceptable punchbags on which society can take out its frustrations. It remains to be seen whether this week’s trial, or others like it in the future, receives the column inches it deserves within a national press obsessed with the fleeting and the banal. Because by treating those at the bottom of the pile differently from anyone else, the media risk being party to a tacit acceptance that, in Orwell’s words, some are more equal than others. That the violent and pointless death of one is worth less than another, as determined by arbitrary factors like one’s luck in life or propensity toward addictions, mental health problems, or any of the other main drivers of homelessness.

Granted, every news day sees stories competing for priority and space. Some will not make the cut. But the mark of a civilised society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable, and to ignore the violence they endure without comment is to condone it. And in the end, if our society begins to accept that degree of savagery upon one group, then it will grow to infect and affect the whole of society. Just because we don’t know about it now doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt us in the future.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]