Page last updated at 13:03 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Innocent victim of gangland fight

By Chris Buckler
North of England correspondent, BBC News

Rhys Jones
Rhys Jones died after he had been to football training

Rhys Jones was a "football mad" 11-year-old. On 22 August 2007 the schoolboy went to a training session held to mark the start of his team's season. It was the last game he would play.

Walking away from the football pitch Rhys was shot in the neck. He was just minutes from the safety of his home.

In the car park of the Fir Tree pub Melanie Jones cradled her son as he lay dying. In the days afterwards she appealed for people to contact the police with information about his killer. But it would be months before Sean Mercer was charged with the murder.

Mercer was just 16 years old when he killed the schoolboy. Even at that age he was regarded as "well up" within the Croxteth Crew - a notorious gang from that part of Liverpool.

Evidence destroyed

In just a few years there had been dozens of shootings linked to a bitter and violent feud between the "Crocky Crew" and their rivals the Strand Gang or "Nogga Dogs", from nearby Norris Green.

There had also been murders. On New Year's Day 2004, Danny McDonald, who was a senior member of the Croxteth Crew, was shot dead at the Royal Oak pub.

Two years later Liam Smith, one of the leaders of the Strand Gang, was killed outside Altcourse Prison.

Fir Tree pub in Croxteth Park
Rhys was cradled by his mother as he lay dying outside the Fir Tree pub

Because of the level of violence, policing had been stepped up in the area and officers were given special powers to stop and question youths acting suspiciously.

Sean Mercer was stopped several times. On some of those occasions he was with other members of the Croxteth Crew, including two teenagers later found guilty of Liam Smith's killing.

When Mercer committed murder he was also intending to shoot rival gang members. They were outside the Fir Tree pub at the time - but the teenager missed them and killed Rhys.

Mercer was a suspect from the start and was questioned almost immediately. However, it would be eight months before the police were able to charge him with murder.

That is because crucial evidence had been destroyed in the hours after the shooting.

Police surveillance

Mercer had allegedly been taken to an industrial estate in Kirkby by other gang members. There, it was claimed, he was washed with petrol to remove any traces of gunpowder residue. His clothes were then burned.

The mountain bike he had been riding was said to be one found stripped of its wheels and dumped underneath bushes near the industrial estate.

The gun alleged to be the murder weapon was given to another teenager who was told to hide it at his home in Croxteth. Police later found the gun hidden in the loft of the house.

Bike used by gunman
The bike used by Mercer was found in bushes after the shooting

The discovery of the revolver was a crucial breakthrough.

In return for being given immunity from prosecution the teenager who had allowed the gun to be hidden there agreed to give evidence against Mercer.

His testimony was vital in building a prosecution case, although detectives had already been gathering other evidence.

The police had been using listening devices to bug homes in Croxteth. On one recording they heard Mercer trying to persuade a witness to change a statement she had given to police.

Then, after a public appeal, they found the frame of the bicycle. Scientists were able to prove Mercer's DNA was on it.

After considering all the evidence presented during the two-month trial, the jury of seven women and five men found Mercer guilty of the murder.

The verdict will be welcomed by Rhys's family and friends, even if it will not end the grief caused by his death.

However, Rhys's parents know that their son will be remembered. A charity has now been set up in his name.

The aim of the memorial fund is to build a community centre close to where he lived. The charity's organisers see it as a place where young people can play and train together in safety.

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