Is it nature or nurture when teenagers kill?

The death of Ralph Millward - after the trial.

The notion that children and teenagers could kill is deeply shocking because it upsets our preconception of the young as innocents, incapable of such brutality.

This has always been a rose-tinted view – as much as when two young New Zealand girls beat their mother to death on a whim in the supposed ‘golden age’ of the 1950s – a tale which inspired the film Heavenly Creatures – than in how 19 teenage boys from British cities were killed in the first half of 2008 alone – the youngest 14, the oldest 19.

When a shocking attack or killing occurs, we convince ourselves our children are not capable of carrying out such violence using fanciful means – rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, violent films and more recently computer games have all been fingered as culprits in turning otherwise ‘nice’ children bad. But it is pointless to blame such media for the actions of a tiny minority when millions consume them regularly without ever developing violent or homicidal urges.

A study in 2005 by the American Sociological Association concluded there were no links between violent video games and homicidal behaviour in children, remarking that homicide arrest rates among children and teenagers fell 77 per cent in the 10 years after the release of computer game Doom in 1993, seen at the time as a touchstone of violent games.

The authors take a further step in pointing out the latent racism that lies behind the suggestion that white boys who kill are driven to do so by external forces. The report stated: “White, middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, and victims of an allegedly dangerous product. African-American boys, apparently, are simply dangerous.” The report’s conclusion that youth violence is better addressed by studying broader problems such as family breakdown, poverty, addiction and education seems crushingly common-sensical by comparison.

The three boys that killed homeless Big Issue vendor Ralph Millward in Bournemouth last year, Jimmy Ayres, 15, Warren Crago and Craig Real, both 17, do not seem to be the mythologised ‘teen killers’ – loners, mentally unstable, or obsessed with death or violence – that have committed even more appalling crimes elswhere, for example the Columbine School and Virginia Tech massacres in the US, and similar shootings in Germany and Canada.

On a sunny day in May, the Rossmore estate in Poole where the boys lived does not seem a threatening or unruly place. It is not an estate in the urban high-rise sense, more a neighbourhood of single and semi-detached houses, none older than thirty or forty years. One group of teenagers know the boys well. A cousin of Crago, 20-year-old Alex, said: “Warren was always a bit of a wild child, he got excluded from school and that, but he had a girlfriend and had just started to settle down. He had hobbies, you know, he liked bikes.

“When I heard from my father that he’d been arrested I said, shut up, you’re joking. We got round to see my aunt and uncle, Warrens’s folks, and they were in a terrible way.” Jimmy Ayres, the youngest of the group, lived with his grandparents after his mother left two years ago. He never knew his father. “They had enough on their plate already without this,” Stephan added. Ayres’ grandmother declined to comment. The television was on at Crago’s house, but no one answered. Real’s family had moved to Brighton, according to a neighbour.

While perhaps their defence of their friends is admirable, the darker implications are made explicit by another teenager, Jack: “Everyone’s got into a fight over nothing before. I’ve kicked a tramp in the head before. You do, if you’re boozed up.”

Others who knew the boys were far less complimentary. The grandson of one of Real’s neighbours said he had often thrown stones at his grandfather, smashed windows and hurled abuse over the fence.

“He always tried to be the big man,” said Jason Evans, 16. “Always trying to make out how hard he was, pick fights with people. He wasn’t well liked – there’s been a fair few cases when half the estate had been outside his house.” He added: “You do wonder if it’s the family or whatever, but it always seemed his mother was trying to bring him up right. I never thought he could do something like that.”

Other neighbours had similar stories of abuse, smashed windows, egged cars. Poole Council said antisocial behaviour in the area had dropped 30 per cent in recent months. So if the three were not irredeemably violent, then they at least thought nothing of using violence in the extreme. The court heard how, after the initial attack, Crago and Real had come back to throw a shopping trolley onto Millward’s battered body.

Christine Barter, senior research follow at Bristol University’s School for Policy Studies said that experience of violence going un-chastised by adults, or meted out without consequence built up a greater tolerance for violence. “There may be a high tolerance of violence, not just in young peoples’ culture but within their broader communities,” she said.

“It is not always easy to pinpoint a cause,” she said. “But complex families or difficult backgrounds often appear in these cases. There does seem to be a link between experiencing violent behaviour or neglect in the home as a child and then acting out that violence later in life.”

As the boys and their families were known to social care and other council services, the Poole Safeguarding Children Board, a watchdog set up to oversee the child protection work of probation, social care, education and other services, is to hold an independent review into whether there were any missed opportunities in previous dealing with the boys, perhaps providing better means in the future to help difficult families and children.

Although the board usually looks at cases of violence by adults against children, board chairman Ron Lock felt that although “most unusual” it was right that the board also review this case.

The inquiry will report within three months. The boys’ sentencing for manslaughter is at the end of June.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, June 2010]


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