Page last updated at 21:24 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 22:24 UK

Killing highlights gang culture

By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

Paul Erhahon was killed in east London after being set upon by youths armed with knives, baseball bats and a samurai sword.

What does the 14-year-old's death tell us about Britain's urban youth culture?

Paul Erhahon
Paul Erhahon was attacked in the foyer of a block of flats

During the trial of Paul Erhahon's killers it became clear the attack on him was partly linked to something as seemingly trivial as postcodes - in this case E11 and E15.

The Old Bailey jury heard a rivalry existed in estates close to Leytonstone town centre.

There was never any suggestion Paul was part of a gang himself and he appeared to be an innocent victim of the feud.

Jurors heard Paul was talking to his friend in the foyer of a block of flats when he was summoned by a member of the gang - which quickly led to the mass assault involving teenagers armed with an array of weapons.

Paul and his friend were unarmed and stood no chance.

The violent flurry left Paul lifeless while his friend, who survived, was left "for dead".

Paul's mother fled the courtroom in tears as the jury heard her son was beaten as he lay on the ground.

At the Old Bailey, prosecutor Jonathan Turner QC said the teenager's death resulted from a "senseless acts of gratuitous violence".

For an insight into the "senseless" attack, it is important to consider local tensions among youths living within close proximity to each other.

The Cathall Road and Thatched House estates are separated only by a park which some locals claim has become a no-go area.

Residents say the park is regularly filled by menacing teenagers and their aggressive dogs.

Clockwise from top left: Paul Benfield, Kevin Adu-Marcet, Nathan Desnoes, Theo Diah and Jordan Conn
There is self-evidently a culture among boys of your age to do with the carrying of knives which needs to be changed
Mr Justice Keith

The form of turf warfare that cost Paul his life appears to be increasingly common across London and other major cities in the UK.

Postcodes can form the basis of rivalries - with violence prompted by someone simply crossing to the other side of a street.

Last year a Metropolitan Police report on London's gang culture identified 169 separate groups, a quarter of whom were believed to have been involved in murders.

One of the worst affected areas was the borough of Waltham Forest, which includes Leytonstone with 11 known gangs.

At the Old Bailey, Paul Benfield, 16, and Kevin Adu-Marcet, 15, were given life detention sentences with a minimum term of 13 years for murder.

Jordan Conn, 15, was also convicted of murder, and was given life with a minimum term of 11 years.

Nathan Desnoes, 16, was found guilty of manslaughter and given a detention sentence of 12 years.

Theo Diah, 19, was also found guilty of manslaughter and given an indeterminate sentence with a minimum term of seven years.

Sentencing, Mr Justice Keith said: "There is self-evidently a culture among boys of your age to do with the carrying of knives which needs to be changed."

There are still boys who are always hanging around and it's a problem
Mary Bonsu
Leytonstone resident

One year on from Paul Erhahon's death, wilted flowers tied to railings on the estate where he lived act as a sad reminder of his death.

The makeshift shrine, now surrounded by discarded beer bottles, is close to Blackthorne Court, a seven-storey complex of grey council flats where Paul and his friends whiled away their spare time.

Mary Bonsu, who has lived in the area for just over a year, said rival groups of youths aged between about 13 and 18 had continued to cause "problems" in the area since Paul's death.

She said: "There are still boys who are always hanging around and it's a problem", adding that there had been a shooting in the area in recent months.

She said she was determined to move away before her young children grew older and were drawn into one of the rival factions.

But Mrs Bonsu welcomed recent work in the area which has seen the dismantling of several corridors and crevices and the installation of surveillance cameras.

Waltham Forest Council said the work was part of a £1.5m security improvement project in the area, and said it was keen to address the violent gang mentality that contributed to Paul's death.

A council spokesman said it was working with community groups and police to address the issue of tension between youths in the area, "focusing on early intervention, robust enforcement and working with those involved in gangs to help them exit".

Police initiatives

And Waltham Forest police said they were working with community groups to combat youth violence through "youth diversion initiatives" involving football, athletics, workshops and music events.

Ch Supt Mark Benbow said Waltham Forest police "will always encourage, support and engage with young people to drive them away from crime", although he added that police "cannot tackle the problem of gang culture in isolation".

"We need the help of the public, parents and schools to help us do this in the most effective way possible," he said.

And, broadening his comments to address London in general, Ch Supt Benbow added: "Operation Curb is an ongoing Met initiative tackling youngsters under 20-years-old who are involved in serious violence.

"These youths are the focus of borough intelligence teams, who are working with them to reduce their risk of further offending or becoming a victim."

The trial of Paul Erhahon's killers also shed light on another aspect of gang life – the relationship between older youths, and their younger peers, known as “youngers”.

Earning 'spurs'

The jury heard that a gang member encouraged “youngers” to attack Paul and his friend before using his phone to call more gang members.

Jonathan Turner QC, prosecuting, told the court: "As the fight began some witnesses heard him say, 'Go on youngers'."

These junior gang members wanted to "earn their spurs" in the group, said Mr Turner.

The legal team behind the conviction issued praise for the witnesses, which may also act as a warning to youngsters seeking to earn respect through violence.

The Crown Prosecution Service hailed "the bravery of the young witnesses whose evidence helped to convict these defendants", stressing that this should not "be under-estimated".

CPS lawyer Paul Goddard said: "We worked tirelessly with the police to protect the anonymity of these witnesses. We will do so again whenever necessary to ensure that the guilty are convicted, and that gangs do not win."

Youths guilty of teenage murder
09 Apr 08 |  London
'Postcode gangs' stalk East End
26 Jan 07 |  London
Street life
28 Feb 07 |  Magazine

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