:: Article

Murder in a Small Town

By Max Dunbar.


Weirdo, Mosher, Freak: The Murder of Sophie Lancaster, Catherine Smyth, Pomona 2010

Detective Inspector Dean Holden described the attack to journalists as ‘the most horrendous crime I have seen in fourteen years as a police officer.’ From a phone call to 999 dispatch made by a witness at Stubbylee Park: ‘There’s blood coming out of her ears and now her eyes, there’s blood coming out of her eyes and her ears.’ Consultant neuropathologist Dr Daniel de Plessis compared Lancaster’s brain injuries to those of a car crash victim. Judge Anthony Russell QC told the killers at sentencing that ‘The effects of what you did on that night will remain with the families forever, as so movingly expressed in the various victim impact statements and letters I have received, and were it within my powers to have those statements read out to you every day for the remainder of your lives, to remind you how cruel and wicked you were, I would do so.’ DI Holden: ‘There was a break in the assault and Sophie knelt down at the side of Rob and was cradling his head in her lap. One or two then kicked her to the floor.’

Stephen King’s recent novel Under the Dome was an epic tale about a small community that is sealed off from the world by an invisible barrier. He informed the tone of the book with a recurring line from James McMurtry’s ‘Talkin’ at the Texaco’: ‘it’s a small town/you know what I mean/it’s a small town, son/and we all support the team’. If someone is shot in Manchester or London or Los Angeles, people will say: ‘These things are inevitable because of inner-city culture.’ When someone is killed in a small town, it is always an isolated incident, whole community in shock, can’t believe anyone from round here would do such a thing. Catherine Smyth got sick of fielding the same the question from national reporters: ‘How can a crime like this be committed in such a small place?’ The real question was: ‘How could it not?’

Money poured into Bacup during the regen boom of the 2000s. Lancaster’s teenage killers had youth clubs and skate parks to alleviate the usual boredom and aggression. And yet, while northern cities and towns enjoyed renaissance, Bacup stayed behind. It was common to see people drinking in the street at nine or ten in the morning. There used to be an annual carnival on the park where Sophie Lancaster was beaten to death. The event was relocated in 2004 after ‘[t]hirteen people, 10 men and three juveniles, including a 15-year-old girl, were arrested and two police officers were injured.’ These are statistics you would expect from a police report on a central London demo or riot, not a smalltown community fair. I recall an anonymous police officer quoted in a select committee hearing who said that rural communities have the same problems as the urban sprawl: the problems are just less visible.

Smyth grew up in multiracial Keighley. She was stunned by the absence of non-white faces when she moved to Bacup. A Guardian reporter asked a local in a pub why this might be. ‘He smiles. ‘They get fired-bombed out of their houses and given a whack with a baseball bat to make sure they get the message’.’ You could see the BTG tag of Lancaster’s killers sprayed on the walls and surfaces of Bacup’s rotting infrastructure. A friend of Lancaster’s described the town as ‘one of those places that needs to be wiped off the face of the earth. There might be some OK people but they’re not in the majority.’ No one else the Guardian spoke to would give their name. Another resident said that ‘So many people know [the gang’s] families or know of them and they’re scared. They also don’t want bad publicity for Bacup.’ It’s a small town, son, and we all support the team.

No one connected with the case, try as they might, could find any motive for the killing except this: Sophie Lancaster had strange hair and a lot of piercings. Russell defined the murder as ‘a hate crime against completely harmless people who were targeted because their appearance was different.’ Smyth speculates that a flash of social envy instigated the attack: ‘I think they walked into the park and were intelligent and funny and the lads couldn’t stand it. They didn’t like that they were suddenly getting all the attention and wanted to do something about it.’ The focus drifted from the gang and that was all it took. They were different and that was all it took. The boys in Lord of the Flies chanted ‘Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!’ Is this what it comes down to – racism, fascism, genocide? Another line from King comes to mind: ‘Or is it a simple failure of imagination? One doesn’t like to think such a rudimentary failing could bring about the end, yet…’

Shortly after the convictions a couple of pieces of disturbing information filtered into the public domain. The first was a video on YouTube. It was not mobile footage of the murder – Google promised to delete any such footage if and when it was posted. This clip showed three of the killers striding through Bacup, waving wooden sticks and shouting out a rap: ‘if you mess with the gang, you go down.’ It transpired that this performance had been part of a DVD called Where U From (Bacup) – note the relentless gangsterish identification with the home area in the title. The DVD had been produced as part of a youth project for the local social housing provider. For Lancashire detective Richard Horton, this illustrated ‘the general uselessness of many Social Work Youth Projects. In fact not just useless, worse than that, encouraging, enabling and sponsoring the worst in young people.’ And: Judge Russell revealed after Ryan Herbert and Brendan Harris had been taken down that the two killers had carried out a similar attack four months earlier. They were given youth referral orders. On the day of the Lancaster murder they should have still been in prison for the previous offence. It is time to end the culture of indulgence, excuses and second chances.

I have never visited Bacup and have been harsh on it in this piece. I am sure there is good in the town and Smyth relates awe-inspiring examples of individuals and businesses rallying around the SOPHIE campaign and supporting the families of the victims. Government was petitioned to add discrimination against alternative cultures to hate crime legislation. Downing Street rejected this idea, I think rightly. The worst reaction would be to create a monolithic ‘Goth community’ with leaders and pressure groups. The murder of Sophie Lancaster was about the right of an individual not to be part of a community.

Lancaster’s mother tells Smyth at one point that ‘I was looking through some old photographs and she would alter every few months; she would change the way she looked. I do miss her.’ At a parachute jump for a campaign fundraiser, Lancaster’s friend Leanne Millar paid this tribute. ‘My mum sent me a quote from Judy Garland. It said, ‘Always be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.’ That sums Spo up very well.’

You can donate to the Sophie Lancaster foundation here.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 28th, 2010.