The barbaric crime wave we ignore

Published by the i paper (12th December, 2016)

Like many people with learning difficulties, Lee Irving was a trusting character. His family tried to protect him since people could be cruel, but he was a man who enjoyed life, especially ice-skating and the cinema, and always looking to make friends. It can be tough when you stand out from the crowd: he was routinely robbed of his money, mobile phone, even his clothes. And this search for friendship proved to be the 24-year-old’s downfall after he fell under spell of a vicious inadequate named James Wheatley.

Lee’s battered body was found in a pushchair, dumped beside a footpath in Newcastle popular with dog walkers. He suffered an appalling slow death at the hands of Wheatley. Lee had 27 separate rib fractures, bruises all over his body, a collapsed lung, cuts and more broken bones in his face. It emerged he had been drugged with morphine to stop him fleeing while his bank account was drained of cash – and that he had suffered previous attacks from the vile thug posing as his pal.

One medic said the injuries were similar to those caused to a person not wearing a seat belt in a car crash. To make matters even worse, Wheatley was no lone killer and seemed proud of his evil deeds, even taking pictures of his victim. He texted his girlfriend to say they would ‘hammer’ Lee’s bank card to buy a ‘watch, beds, tellies, fridges, everything’. He sent another boasting he had ‘smashed Lee all over, should see his face.’ Wheatley’s mother was even in on the savagery, texting a friend to say: ‘You want to see Lee. It’s like a bloodbath. He is like an elephant man.’

Where is the outrage over this slaughter of an innocent man? Where is the national soul-searching as there would have been if the cause of such brutality was race or sexuality rather than disability? Scandalously this was not even deemed a hate crime, which would have ensured the killer was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison rather than the 23-year minimum he received.

Yet again, we see how little society cares about such people. Inquiries have been launched as ever after one of these appalling cases. Lee was known to social services and other local agencies because of his disabilities – yet he was slowly stamped, kicked and beaten to death in the middle of a British city. A report next year will no doubt repeat all the usual platitudes of mistakes made, lessons learnt. There will be apologies and promises to ensure such tragedies are prevented in future.  Yet this is just the latest in a long list of people with learning difficulties kidnapped, tortured and killed in the midst of our supposedly civilised nation.

Here are three more cases from the last 12 months alone. Phillip Nicholson was lured to a flat in Bournemouth and stabbed to death by a couple who falsely accused him of sexual assault. Susan Whiting was drugged, tied to a bed, raped, smashed on the head with a hammer and strangled by a married couple in the West Midlands. Adrian Munday was kicked and beaten to death in Devon by a drifter who moved into his home, stole all his possessions and spent his cash, his body found with 20 broken ribs and brain injuries.

Every now and then one of these incidents permeates through the national consciousness, such as the story of Fiona Pilkington who killed herself and her disabled daughter nine years ago after years of abuse, or Bijan Ebrahimi, set on fire in his front garden after false accusations of paedophilia. Politicians, police and social service chiefs solemnly promise it will never happen again.

Yet there are scores of these barbaric cases. One report found evidence of 68 violent deaths of people with disabilities in just three years. Statistics also suggest other hate crimes against them are rising. Often it is individuals with learning difficulties – those least able to defend themselves – who get picked on. They can lead lonely lives, dumped in the most distressed parts of towns, rarely employed and provided with few facilities. One study found almost nine in 10 people with learning difficulties reported harassment over the previous year, each incident an assault on their confidence and independence.

Many are victims of ‘mate crime’ like Lee, befriended by bullies who rob, abuse, taunt and torture them. Fatal cases often show victims dehumanised before death with degradation and fake accusations of sexual abuse. These deaths are inevitable consequence of a society still trapped in a mindset that people with learning difficulties are not fit to play a central role in our national life. They are the legacy of a nation that still locks up people with disabilities, that laughs at people who look different, that uses words such as ‘retard’ to demean and insult people.

Sometimes it is hard not wonder if we have really moved on that much from the days of Bedlam. I remain haunted by the final words of Phillip Nicholson – ‘a kind and caring man who thought the best of everyone’ according to his family. He was just 22 years old when he was slaughtered – one year younger than my own daughter with learning difficulties. His last moments as he bled to death were recorded on a mobile phone. ‘Stop,’ he pleaded. ‘I don’t want to be threatened. I just want to be friends.’ How many more must die before we wake up to this tide of tragedy?

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