Murder among children

Options magazine, December 1 1993

Every evening in Watton is more or less the same. Around six, the children start to gather in the cafe in the High Street, sitting at the moulded plastic tables, pushing butt ends round the ash trays, until the cafe closes at seven and they move across the road to the pavement outside the Gateway supermarket, where they slump together in the doorway and watch the town go dark.

Years ago, in Watton, there was an Odeon cinema and an ice rink and there used to be regular discos at the Queen’s Hall. They’ve all gone now. Only last year, there was a skateboard ramp, but that got stolen. There’s no railway station any longer and there are no evening buses any more, so there’s no way of tackling the 25-mile trip to Norwich. There’s Youth Club on Tuesday evenings and sometimes there’s football training for the boys on Wednesdays, but mostly they just sit outside Gateway’s, blowing little smoke rings and practising their spitting.

Johanna Young used to sit here with the rest of them: with Bruce who got caught having sex with a 13-year-old when he was only 14 himself and Tom who was nicked for joyriding (he reckoned he’d hit a set of traffic lights at 110 miles an hour) and with the whole bunch of them who were smoking dope down by the lock when the police turned up one day. As she got older and prettier, Johanna used to hang around with some of the older boys who had cars. Sometimes, they drove her up to Dereham where there’s a disco on Friday nights and she’d get as drunk as a rat with them. But mostly, she was bored, like the rest of them.

When Joanna died last winter, the pavement outside Gateway’s was suddenly trampled underfoot with adults, all suddenly wanting to know everything about all of them, all agreeing that it was a terrible shock when a thing like this happened in a place like Watton, all wondering out loud what kind of person could possibly want to kill an innocent 14-year-old girl and leave her floating half-naked in a pit full of icy water. The truth sunk in quite quickly.

And a year later, more or less everyone in Watton knows the truth – about the lives that the children had been leading and about the person who killed Johanna Young. The police now think that they know exactly who did it – and how and why – and although they can’t prove it and although the rest of the world may still not understand, almost everyone in Watton now knows that the prime suspect for the murder is one of their own children.

*

It was two days before Christmas, Wednesday December 23 1992, when Johanna Young disappeared. It was about half past seven in the evening and she was at home with her family. Her younger brother, Daniel, was whining about a computer game which wouldn’t work and her parents were busy trying to calm him down, and she asked if it was OK if she went out. Her mother said OK, her father said not to be late, and off she went in her purple anorak, down Merton Road towards the High Street. It was dark and foggy and very cold.

Her parents assumed she was going to meet up with Ryan, her boyfriend for the last six months. He was three years older than her and he had already left school and started working at Bowes, the giant slaughter house on the edge of Watton. Johanna was very keen on him. She used to come home from school and run out before she had done her homework to meet him coming back from work. What her parents did not know was that two days earlier Ryan had told her that he wanted to finish with her. She had lost the only excitement in her life. In her bedroom that night, Johanna had taken down all of her Christmas cards.

There were very few people around. It was too cold. Johanna hung around outside Gateway’s for a while, ignoring the few others who were there and then she drifted off alone, past the old clocktower with the anti-vandal bars on the notice board, past the empty shops where the hardware store and the newsagents used to be, past the New Inn, now boarded up and derelict, to the traffic lights at the end of the road. She could turn right here and follow the lights back down Merton Road to her home but instead, she went straight on, towards Ryan’s house, towards the edge of the town.

When she didn’t return that evening, her parents thought she must be round at a friend’s and they guessed she would be back later. They went off to bed. Once, in the night, her father woke and realised he still hadn’t heard her but he didn’t worry, not until he was woken again at six the next morning by the sound of her alarm clock ringing with no one to shut it up. When he looked in her room, he could see the bed was unused and her newspaper bag was still hanging on the door so he knew she could not have gone out on her round. Later that Thursday morning, they called the police. It was Christmas Eve.

It took them three days to find her. First, it was her shoes they spotted, two black Matchstick kickers with muddy soles parked neatly side by side on the verge of an unmade lane called Gilman’s Drift. Then they found her pants and tights in a hedge. Finally, much further down the lane, through a five-bar gate, on the other side of a wall of brambles, they peered into the darkness of an old clay pit full of rainwater and rusting oil drums and there, under the claw of a crooked oak tree, they found Johanna Young, floating face down, still wearing her purple anorak.

When the police went to her home to break the news, Johanna’s father, Robert, who is naturally a gentle, mild-mannered man felt full of anger. Her mother, Carol, felt guilty for letting her go out without knowing where she was going. But most of all, both of them felt bewildered. A woman from the Victim Support Agency left them her phone number, but they didn’t call her back. They wanted to talk to people who had known Johanna, particularly her friends, who had known what her life was really like.

From the start, it was a difficult case for the police. The long hours in icy water had destroyed evidence which might have helped their pathologist; he could not even give them a time of death. The cold weather had kept people off the street and those who had ventured out or who lived close to Gilman’s Drift had seen almost nothing because of the fog. All that the police knew at the beginning was that Johanna’s skull had been fractured, that she had still been alive though probably unconscious when she was thrown into the clay pit, and that she had died by drowning in the rainwater, which was seven feet deep at that time of the year. Although she was half naked, she had not been raped. The police had no motive, no culprit and no leads and, for a while, it stayed that way.

They finger-searched the area around Gilman’s Drift and found nothing, not even her blue jeans which were still missing. They studied marks in the mud, found Johanna’s footprints leading half way down the lane before stopping, took plaster casts of numerous other prints and tyremarks, hoping that one of them belonged to the killer, but none of it gave them a lead. They banged on every door in the neighbourhood, they came up with several sightings, including a man who had been walking in Gilman’s Drift just after eleven o’clock on the night that Johanna disappeared. His dog had heard someone stumbling in the darkness, the man had run to fetch a torch but by the time he had returned, all was quiet and he had no idea who it was he had heard.

They looked closely at Ryan, who seemed, at first, to be a very likely suspect. They knew he had had a row with Johanna, that she had wandered off in the direction of his home and that his house stood at the top of Gilman’s Drift. They questioned him twice, for a total of nine and a quarter hours, checked his body for scratches and compared his shoe soles to their plaster casts but they concluded that he knew nothing about Johanna’s death, and his friends confirmed that he had been playing snooker with them when she went missing. Ten days into the inquiry, Johanna’s jeans turned up on a hedge in Gilman’s Drift: the attacker had evidently returned to dispose of them, but still he had left no clues.

It was not simply the shortage of evidence that made life difficult for the police. They encountered an unexpected resistance from some of the people of Watton, particularly from the town’s leading citizens. One woman who lived near Gilman’s Drift and who knew she had a potentially important fragment of information refused to go to the police station and finally agreed only to send her husband as a go-between. Another compromised by telephoning an officer who was a friend at his home. The police complained publicly that they were not getting the quality of information which they needed.

The problem, the police discovered, was partly one of small-town pretensions: people who had never been in trouble with the law did not want to be seen going into a police station and were embarrassed to be involved in any way. But more than that, the police were pushing into Watton’s sub-conscious. The town has no CID and all of the 40 detectives who were working on the murder had been drafted in from other parts of the county and the more time they spent on the pavement outside Gateway’s, the more they discovered about the life that young people were living there.

One officer now recalls: “This may be a small town but it suffers from a lot of the same things that happen in big cities. It’s not all of the children by any means but there is a minority who are up to it all – under-age sex, under-age drinking, drugs of one sort of another. It’s here. In Watton. The responsible people in this town always knew it was here but they wouldn’t do anything about it. They didn’t want to admit it was happening here.”

The police found that in their flight from boredom, a lot of the children who hung around Gateway’s with Johanna had been cautioned for first-time offences including breaking and entering and possession of drugs. A few of them had been convicted of heavier offences – petty theft, criminal damage, minor violence and even, in one case, possession of firearms (two shot guns which were never recovered). They realised that they would have to tread carefully to persuade the children to open up to them. Slowly, they won the confidence of some of them and that was how they began to get close to their prime suspect.

He is one of the older boys who used to hang around outside Gateway’s but who has graduated now to the bar of the Bull Inn further down the High Street. The local police already knew him well as a small-time thief and they suspected that he was bringing in cannabis from Thetford, ten miles to the south. The children who spoke to the police agreed that he was selling them dope and they also said that he was violent. One of them said he had broken his finger. Another said he had tried to stab him. And several of them said that he had always fancied Johanna.

As the children began to open up, they talked, among other things, about sex between them. Most of them claimed to have slept with someone. Some of them said they had started very young, just because it was something to do to chase away the tedium. Johanna may have been only 14, they said, but she had had several boyfriends and this older boy had made it obvious that he wanted to be one of them. Was it possible that he had heard about Ryan breaking up with her and followed her on that dark, foggy night? Was it possible, too, that Johanna had been happy to go with him, at least for a while?

The police had already guessed that the killer must be a local man. How else could he have found the claypit tucked away behind the brambles? Now, they went to the older boy’s workplace and were told that he had disappeared a few days after Christmas and that the last time they had seen him, he had had scratches on his face. They discovered, too, that he had recently resprayed his car. They traced him and arrested him and held him, first in Watton and then in Dereham, where the detectives had established their incident room. They seized his car and his clothes and shoes, they took body samples from him and sent everything off to their scientists.

By now, the police believed they had a clearer picture of what had happened to Johanna. Police scientists who had examined her body and her clothes found that her jeans and underwear were not torn or damaged and there were no marks around her waist or hips to suggest that they were taken off in a struggle. The fact that her jeans had been entirely removed and her shoes as well, also suggested that she had consented. It seemed likely that she had started to walk down Gilman’s Drift with someone and then returned to his home or car to have sex with him, that she had begun to undress herself but that something had gone wrong. Perhaps she had changed her mind or he had been unable to do it. And at that point, there had been violence.

The violence had not been very great. The police pathologist believed that Johanna’s skull was fractured by a fall rather than by a blow and he found, too, that her skull was unusually thin. The detectives believed that once their attacker had knocked Johanna over and seen her lying motionless with blood seeping from her head, he had assumed – wrongly – that she was dead and gone to get help to conceal his crime. They had found drag marks in the lane by the claypit and matched them to scratches on the lower half of Johanna’s back. Their work proved that her limp body had been carried by two people, one at her head, one at her feet, with her back sagging down onto the lane between them as they staggered towards the pit.

It was, in truth, not much of a crime at all. It was horrible in its results, but as a crime, it was clumsy and stupid, crude and selfish, a murder born of boredom. There was no deep motive, no great passion, no point to it at all: just two aimless young people and a sordid muddle. She wanted consolation and he wanted fun and expected to get it, just like pushing a button on a TV remote control. He had not meant to kill her when he pushed her. In fact, he hadn’t killed her at all, but he didn’t know that. He and his mate had thrown the body in the pit, both of them too witless and confused to realise that at that very moment they were committing the murder they thought they were concealing. It was junk crime, the kind you might expect from a town like Watton.

If the detectives were right, the difficulty now was to prove their suspicions. The scientists reported they could find nothing on the suspect or his possessions to clinch the case. The suspect, himself, refused to talk. “He knew what he was doing,” according to one officer. “He’d been busted before and he knew the system. He wouldn’t say anything and he was too thick to be frightened.”

They submitted a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions, asking if they could bring charges on the little evidence which they had. The answer was No. The boy went free, back into Watton, back to the bar of the Bull and the pavement in the High Street where he sat with Johanna’s friends and told them all about his adventure with the cops.

*

In their home in Merton Road, Robert and Carol Young have learned to live with the death of their daughter. They are short of money. Robert has been off work for five years with a series of back problems and when Johanna was murdered, the Department of Social Security cut his weekly money. Johanna would have been 15 by now and they wonder out loud what she would have been doing, where her life would have taken her.

“She had a lot of ambitions. More or less a different one each time she thought about it. For a while, she was going to be a motor mechanic so that she could help to mend the car when it wouldn’t start. Then she was going to be an interior designer, but she dropped that when she discovered she’d have to go to college for two or three years. She was always very bright and very artistic. She would have found something.”

They know all about the prime suspect. Carol sees him sometimes in the town, and Robert sometimes has to walk past his house. “I suppose I would like to knock ten bells out of him really, but that wouldn’t solve anything. It makes you feel uncomfortable to have him walking around but, to be fair, we can’t be sure that it was him. A lot of people say it was, but we don’t know. I have often walked down the High Street and looked at a fellow’s face and thought ‘Could he have done it?’ or if I see someone with an odd face, I wonder ‘Could he have done it?’

“But I’ve changed a bit now. I suppose I have mellowed and become a bit more forgiving. I did feel a lot of anger but I feel a bit better now. We trust the police to sort it out for us. They’ve been very good.”

Standing on the doorstep of his council house, with his hands jammed into the pockets of his blue jeans, the prime suspect insists that it is all a mistake. “Everybody knows they took me in. My solicitor says I should sue them. My car wasn’t even on the road that night. The clutch had gone and it wouldn’t even go round the block. Them people who said I had scratches was wrong. I never had scratches. They kept on at me, they took intimate body samples, they done my car. I kept telling them I was at home all evening. My mum was there. But she don’t remember things very well. I hardly even knew Johanna, just to say Hallo to. I didn’t know her well.”

In the town now, there is little reminder of Johanna’s death. All the police posters have been taken down from the windows. The detectives have gone back to their home stations. The incident room in Dereham has been closed. The detective superintendent who led the inquiry has retired. All that remains is the cluster of children sitting in the shadow of the supermarket, waiting for something to happen, watching the time go by.

* The names of some children have been changed for legal reasons.