Teenage gang warfare in Liverpool claimed the life of an 11-year-old boy who was shot to death by a stray bullet on his way home.
On August 22, 2007, 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot in the back by a stray bullet in the midst of a gang war that had plagued the Croxteth and Norris Green estates in Liverpool for almost a decade. Rhys Jones had no affiliation to the gangs in Liverpool and was merely making his way home from football practice when he and his friends made the fateful decision to cross the Fir Tree Pub car park.
Some time earlier in 2007, a “young scally,” as the locals would say, named Sean Mercer had received an Anti-Social Behaviour Order from the Courts for terrorising a security guard at a local Shopping Centre with close friend Dean Kelly, age 17. Mercer was 16 at this time and was keen to make a name for himself among the leaders of the “Crocky Crew” gang to whom he was affiliated. His desperation to escalate in the ranks of the Crocky Crew and his hatred of the rival Strand Gang member –Wayne Brady – is what eventually would lead to the untimely death of Rhys Jones.
The Crocky Crew was formed around the turn of the millennium and its rivalry with the Strand Gang had slowly simmered since. Petty incidents of beatings and criminal damage were regularly exchanged between the two. This escalated to a much more serious level on New Year’s Day in 2004 when Crocky Crew member Danny McDonald was shot dead in Liverpool’s Royal Oak Pub. The murder was never solved by the authorities but is widely believed to have been carried out by a Strand Gang member. This incident accelerated a rise in the tension between the two gangs and a spate of shootings ensued. It is important to stress, at this stage, that the gangs in Liverpool had very little organizational structure and were based more on hatred and “territory” than on financial gain: as Chief Superintendent Steve Watson stated:
"We wouldn't want to overstate the sophistication of the gangs: They are an amalgam of dysfunctional teenagers,"
Despite a lack of organization and structure, it would quickly become apparent that the gangs in Liverpool were capable of extreme brutality in their efforts to obliterate one and other. In retaliation to the murder of Danny McDonald, Liam Smith – a 19 year old member of the Strand Gang – was blasted in the face with a shotgun when 12 Crocky Crew gang members arrived at Altcourse Prison on August 23, 2006, where Liam was visiting a friend. His injuries were fatal and served to deepen the hatred between the rival gangs. The shooting of Liam Smith saw three Crocky Crew members convicted of murder in 2007 but this did little to stem the flow of revenge attacks and retaliations on both sides as new feuds were created and hostilities between the gangs grew.
Sean Mercer was first seduced by the allure of gang affiliation in his early teens when a pupil at De La Salle school. Here he witnessed peers, such as future accomplice Melvin Coy, leave the school and earn fearsome reputations as gang members. Coy drove around in an expensive Range Rover and was considered to be a major player in the Crocky Crew during the run up to the murder of Rhys Jones. This skewed romanticism of gang life also proved tempting for Mercer’s fellow classmate Wayne Brady. Brady was from the Norris Green estate and this single factor was enough to determine that his loyalties would lie with the Strand Gang and that he and Sean Mercer were rivals. This rivalry was intensified by the fact that Wayne Brady had begun a relationship with former a Miss England contestant and an ex of Sean Mercer, Victoria Smart. Being from the Croxteth Estate, Smart, according to popular opinion amongst gang members, should have been off-limits for a Norris Greener such as Brady and this compounded the animosity shared between him and Mercer.
Mercer often spoke of his desire to attack Brady. For him, Wayne Brady was not only a figure of intense hatred but also the key to enhancing his reputation amongst Crocky Crew members. However Mercer was not the only Crocky Crew member who targeted Wayne Brady. Brady had been shot twice for straying onto Crocky territory in 2007. On both occasions he was attempting to meet Victoria Smart. This however, did not deter him, and on the eve of August 22, 2007, a day before the anniversary of Liam Smith’s murder – Mercer received a phone call from Melvin Coy that would spark a chain of events which would change the course of his future.
Coy called Mercer at approximately 6:45 p.m. to inform him that he had seen Wayne Brady meeting Victoria Smart in the car park of the Fir Tree Pub. Mercer responded instantaneously, meeting James Yates, 20, to borrow his pistol before stopping off at fellow gang member Dean Kelly’s house to ask Kelly to join him on his mission to shoot Wayne Brady. Kelly declined because he had “just bought some chips” and so Mercer set off on his own, using a mountain bike as his method of transport, to the Fir Tree Pub car park.
At around 7:15 p.m., Rhys Jones arrived in the Fir Tree Pub car park with a few of his friends and unwittingly kicked a football against the wall of the rear of the pub: not knowing that the person in the car on the far side of him was Wayne Brady or that a gangland shooting was about to commence. At 7:30 p.m. Sean Mercer emerged from an alley that borders the pub at the far side to Wayne Brady. CCTV footage later showed that he was wearing tracksuit bottoms with a green top, his hood up and his face covered with a scarf. For a few moments he surveys the car park before catching a glimpse of Brady. When he sees Brady he extends his right arm with the .455 Smith & Wesson and he fires three shots that ring out across the car park. Panic ensues. Hearing the shots, Brady ducked down and escapes harm. Mercer, having missed his target, quickly accelerates back down the alley he emerged from.
When Rhys Jones’s friends turned around to survey the damage done by the shots they noticed their friend awkwardly laying face-down in the car park. It was later established that one of Mercer’s shots had ricocheted off of a car and struck Jones in the back. Jones’s mother was quickly informed of what had happened by local residents and rushed to her son’s side. At this point the boy was unconscious and soon after the ambulance arrived, he’d stopped breathing. He was transferred, with his mother, to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital where, after an hour of attempted resuscitation, he was pronounced dead.
Meanwhile Mercer and his accomplices meticulously began to cover their tracks. Mercer met with Melvin Coy and Gary Kays almost immediately after the shooting and they took him to the house of Boy M* in nearby Kirkby. This served as a rendezvous point. There they were joined by Dean Kelly, Nathan Quinn and James Yates – the five accomplices helped Mercer destroy forensic evidence tying him to the shooting by burning his clothes and bathing him in petrol (this was done in an attempt to wash off any gunshot residue on his skin). They then concocted an alibi which involved claiming that Mercer was watching DVDs at the home of Dean Kelly when the murder took place. It was then decided that the murder weapon would be hid in the dog kennel of another friend named only as Boy X.
The crime stunned Liverpool and attracted nationwide media attention. National campaigns to tighten gun control laws were launched by tabloid newspapers and a zero-tolerance policing response to the criminal gangs was called for. Further pressure was mounted on the police when they were met with a proverbial wall of silence in their investigation. This continued, despite pleas from Rhys’ family, up until a reconstruction of the shooting was aired on the BBC’s “Crimewatch” program a month after the shooting. This appeal led to 12 phone calls naming Sean Mercer as the killer. Mercer was also named online and in graffiti as the killer. However, it was widely reported at the time that Mercer, whose name could not be published for legal reasons, basked in the notoriety of his connection to the murder. The pattern of his existence did not change and in the months following the murder he was seen on a regular basis loitering with other Crocky Crew members.
Meanwhile, detectives slowly built a case against Mercer and his accomplices and from the April 15-18, 2008 17 arrests were made in connection with the case. These included the arrests of Mercer and the five accomplices who rendezvoused at Boy M’s house on the night of the murder. All six were charged and remanded in custody and a trial date was set for September of that year. In the time between the defendants being charged and the date of the trial Boy X, who was apparently frightened of the Crocky Crew, agreed to testify against them in exchange for immunity and anonymity. This dramatic turn of events helped strengthen the case of the prosecution in the run up to the trial. Further evidence was gathered from bugging devices in the homes of the defendants.
This evidence was then presented by the prosecution over the course of a nine-week trial. During this time Mercer refused to take to the witness stand – a move which drew accusations of both cockiness and cowardice from the media. Details of mobile phone calls and information gathered from electronic bugging allowed the authorities to piece together the movements of the defendants on the night of the murder. Mercer and his accomplices pleaded not guilty in response to the accusations which ranged from murder to assisting an offender. However, this show of defiance proved to be in vain when all six were found guilty of their respective charges on December 16, 2008.
On hearing the guilty verdict, it was reported that Mercer’s face paled and that he began to repeatedly puff out his cheeks. Emotions also ran high in the public gallery: his mother sobbed into her husband’s arms and Mercer’s estranged father mouthed “I love you, son” as Mercer was lead away by the usher.
Following the verdict, the parents of Rhys Jones expressed their satisfaction and thanked those who had supported them throughout the process. Rhys’s father stated:
First we would like to record our enormous gratitude to Merseyside Police for their professionalism and perseverance in securing this outcome, especially for Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly. From the day Rhys died, the kindness shown by the people of Liverpool has been immeasurable, for which we will always thank them from the bottom of our heart. Over the months we have found strength in messages of support from the many thousands around the world. As a family today it is not the final chapter but we can begin the challenge of rebuilding our lives.
The sentences handed down to Mercer and his accomplices were as follows:
- Sean Mercer was sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommended minimum term of 22 years.
- Gary Kays, James Yates and Melvin Coy were each sentenced to seven years for assisting an offender.
- Nathan Quinn was sentenced to two years and Dean Kelly was sentenced to four years for an accumulation of four offences related to the murder of Rhys Jones.
- 16-year-old Boy M was sentenced to a two years of Supervision Order for his role in the cover up.
However this did not bring the case to a close. The police investigation, which included the use of wire taps at the homes of the Crocky Crew members involved in the murder, brought to light the fact that certain relatives of the Crocky Crew members involved also assisted in the cover-up of the crime. The mother of Sean Mercer – Janet, was prosecuted along with the parents of James Yates for perverting the course of justice. All were found guilty in 2009 and given sentences of up to three years imprisonment. Then in October 2009 the Court of Appeal deemed the sentence of James Yates to be too short and therefore lengthened his sentence from seven years to 12 years imprisonment.
This concluded the investigation and Merseyside Police closed its case files on one of the most senseless crimes to have taken place in Great Britain since the turn of the millennium.