Gemma Hayter loved animals. She shared her chaotic flat in a tower block with a hamster and a noisy cockatiel called Jasmine and she would talk to every dog or cat that came her way.
But Gemma would talk to anybody who showed her the slightest attention – and it was her trusting friendliness that was ultimately to cost her her life.
Last week, three young people were convicted of Gemma’s brutal murder on a disused railway line, an act that followed hours of abuse in a flat.
Two others were found guilty of her manslaughter and all five were unanimously convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
Everyone who came across Gemma, 27, in her home town of Rugby knew that she was different. She had a rare congenital disorder that caused her serious learning difficulties, and a distinctive physical appearance with a large head and crossed eyes.
In the pre ‘care in the community’ era, it is unlikely that she would have been allowed to live independently. Dawn Jennings at the post office a stone’s throw from the ten-storey block where she lived, cashed her benefits cheque on Tuesdays.
‘She was a lovely girl, totally innocent and child-like,’ she said.
‘She would not have hurt a fly and was a friend to all, but I did worry about how she coped. She wasn’t aware of time and there was no one to tell her when to go to bed and when to have a bath.’
Gemma’s neighbours in Biart Place, a triangle of tower blocks less than half a mile from central Rugby and the grand halls of the town’s famous public school, were certainly aware of her problems. Her flat smelt so bad that it engulfed the entire floor.
Those she confided in revealed that she had been moved to Biart Place in 2008 from an almost identical tower block on the other side of town after suffering bullying and sexual abuse.
Martin Bowes, 56, said: ‘I got to know her when I saw her walking past picking up cigarette butts off the street and asked her what she was doing. She said that she made them into roll-ups to smoke.
‘We got talking and I felt sorry for her. I ended up feeding her twice a week.
Watching her eat was pathetic. She would finish everything off and then ask for more. She’d mop it all up with bread and then use her thumb to completely clean the plate.’
Cruel: Jessica Lynas and Duncan Edwards were both found guilty of manslaughter following the death of Gemma Hayter
More disturbing to Martin than her table manners were her liaisons with men, drawn in by her internet profile where she described herself as ‘big, bold and beautiful’.
‘These fellas would drive here from all sorts of places and she would be driven off by them,’ he said.
‘It worried me sick. She was a big woman but she was also like a four-year-old child.’
And nowhere was her childishness more evident than in her attitude to money. ‘I had no change once so I gave her a £10 note and told her to go round to the shop and buy a pint of milk so I could sort her out,’ recalled Martin.
‘She came back 15 minutes later with the milk, a bag full of sweets and chocolate and no change at all. She said, “Oh, these are all nice.” ’
Her problems with budgeting meant that despite receiving benefits she often needed to borrow money to top up her electricity. Those she asked for help strongly suspected that she was being exploited by some of the ‘friends’ she made in Rugby.
Guilty: Chantelle Booth and Daniel Newstead, who were dating at the time of the murder, were both found guilty
Neighbour Adele Butterworth, 23, said: ‘I know there are other people besides those in the dock who should be feeling guilty for the way they treated Gemma.
‘She just wanted to be accepted so badly that she would put up with anything and often she didn’t realise people were just taking the mick.
‘Gemma told me about this boyfriend she had who was in prison. I don’t think he even existed but she would tell me that she’d had to give money to him so they could set up a home together.
These so-called friends tattooed the words, “Simon STD X” on her wrist. She said it was her boyfriend’s name. She had no idea that STD [sexually transmitted disease] was an insult.’
With such parasites leeching off her it is easy to see how money became a problem for Gemma and it formed the backdrop to the terrible events that led to her murder.
In the early evening of Sunday, August 8, last year, Gemma had been invited to the flat of her friend Chantelle Booth, then 21, and her partner Daniel Newstead, 20.
They were entertaining their neighbours Jessica Lynas, 18, and her boyfriend Joe Boyer, 17, as well as another teenager, Duncan Edwards, 18.
All of them had gone into Rugby town centre the night before and Gemma had annoyed them by telling bar staff that Chantelle was only 15. It was Gemma’s idea of a joke but she’d ‘ruined their night’ and Jessica had slapped her.
Shortly after Gemma arrived at the flat, a £5 note went missing and Jessica found it tucked behind the fridge.
Chantelle then brought up an incident from two years earlier when she believed Gemma had stolen £800 in backdated child benefit that was meant for Chantelle’s six-year-old son who was in care following her conviction for unlawful wounding.
The mood darkened. Bubbly blonde Chantelle became upset. This angered her chubby boyfriend Daniel, the father of her second child, and her other suitor, Duncan – with whom she had been swapping flirty texts.
Duncan began hitting Gemma with pillows.
Then Joe and Duncan both urinated into a beer can and forced Gemma to drink it.
Jessica, also a teenage mother with a child in care, jabbed Gemma in the face with a broom handle. Duncan waved a mop at her and Chantelle is said to have broken her nose with a head-butt.
Daniel, who claimed to the court that he had left the flat to get help for Gemma, returned and was so cross to see her blood in his bedroom that he punched her twice in the face.
Gemma is then said to have asked for Joe and Duncan to walk her home but in the event all five of them went.
The group was filmed leaving the centre of Rugby on CCTV. Gemma was wearing a cap pulled down low over her head. Instead of taking her home, the five led her down on to a disused railway line where a bin bag was put over her head before she was stripped naked, strangled, kicked mercilessly in the face and then stabbed in the neck.
Her clothes were then burnt by Duncan – who singed his hair.
The next day the group went with Duncan to get his hair cut before going to Coventry to visit pubs.
They were all arrested on the Tuesday after Daniel told a receptionist at the local social services that he had been present at the killing.
During the seven-week trial that ended on Thursday, the young defendants’ behaviour caused utter dismay to their expensively assembled legal teams.
They changed their stories several times but finally the two couples – Jessica and Joe, and Chantelle and Daniel – decided Duncan was solely responsible, while he blamed Daniel.
Their inconsistencies were easily exposed under cross-examination. At one point, when cornered, Chantelle swore at a barrister while Joe who, in a police interview had casually referred to Gemma as ‘that thing’, claimed to have been too intoxicated to remember anything.
In the dock, they simply larked about – laughing, passing one another notes and betraying not the slightest hint of concern.
At one point, the judge, the Right Honourable Lady Justice Rafferty, was forced to separate them like schoolchildren and warn them that they would be sent to the cells if they continued to misbehave.
It was only when the verdicts were read out that their demeanours changed.
The boys sat emotionless while Chantelle and Jessica screamed, cried, swore and hugged one another, their faces contorted and covered in black mascara.
All five were found guilty of the assault in the flat. Chantelle, Daniel and Joe were convicted of murder while Duncan and Jessica were found guilty of manslaughter.
In the public gallery sat a row of Gemma’s family including her mother Susan, who endured every day of the trial, and her two half-siblings.
It looked like a big support network but it seemingly failed to function once Gemma had reached adulthood and begun to live on her own and become the easiest target for the lowest of the low.
At different times of her life Gemma had contact with social services but she did not have a social worker. It is understood support had been offered but refused.
Warwickshire County Council described Gemma as a ‘vulnerable adult’ and after her death a Serious Case Review was commissioned by the Warwickshire Safeguarding Adults Board.
Wendy Fabbro, chair of that board and strategic director for Adult, Health and Community Services at the Council, said: ‘The review, which is being independently chaired and authored, is expected to conclude in September to take account of any additional information to emerge from the trial. A public summary of the findings and recommendations will be published.’
Lady Justice Rafferty called the case, ‘a tragedy for six young people’ – Gemma, and, ‘the five hapless, undirected, unsupported individuals in the dock’.
It was an acknowledgment that of the defendants, only one, Duncan Edwards, had a parent present at the end of the trial. The others, it seemed, had been abandoned.
But what of the many other Gemma Hayters living out there? How can they cope in a society that would appear, in part, to have lost its sense of right and wrong?
The charity Mencap estimates that nine out of every ten people with a learning disability are verbally harassed or exposed to violence because of their disability.
In Gemma’s case exposure to violence meant murder, committed by vacuous souls who saw her as a figure of fun to be laughed at, abused and killed for their entertainment.
CAST ADRIFT, THE LONELY VICTIMS OF MATE CRIMES
By Katharine Quarmby
I became aware of a disturbing pattern four years ago when I was news editor of the magazine Disability Now.
During the previous year – 2006 – eight disabled people were robbed, beaten and brutally killed in a period of just six months, yet each death was seen by police, prosecutors and the media as an isolated incident, a motiveless crime against a vulnerable ¬victim who couldn’t fight back.
I began to investigate such crimes and discovered that the incidents weren’t isolated and the crimes weren’t motiveless – they were committed out of hatred, rather than because the victims were vulnerable.
Fiona Pilkington (left) killed herself and her daughter Francecca Hardwick (right) after years of abuse from bullies
There are so many cases: Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter Francecca after suffering years of verbal and physical abuse from youths; Christine Lakinski, who collapsed near her own front door but was covered in shaving foam and urinated upon as she lay dying; Brent Martin, who was punched and kicked to death by a gang of youths ‘for sport’, in the words of a prosecutor.
My research, which eventually led to a book, Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People, suggests that, although this is a problem with ancient roots, failures in the implementation of modern ‘community care’ policy are also to blame.
The lack of money to fund disabled people’s resettlement was one problem; another was the failure to anticipate the bitter backlash that would ensue. For disabled people had been maliciously stereotyped for at least 2,000 years as either scapegoats, sinners or freaks.
By Victorian times, disabled people were so shunned that many, particularly those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties, were imprisoned in asylums or long-stay hospitals. By the mid-Fifties, the number of disabled people who had been institutionalised had reached a peak of 150,000.
These institutions were, almost without exception, awful places where people with learning difficulties were treated with profound inhumanity.
Then a number of well-publicised scandals in the Sixties brought pressure to bear on the Government to start closing the institutions down.
In 1971, the White Paper, Better Services For The Mentally Handicapped, kick-started the community care initiative, pushing for at least half of those in hospitals to be living in the community by 1990. A similar White Paper, Better Services For The Mentally Ill, was published in 1975 by the Labour Government.
Community care was the right thing to do. But the way in which it was carried out failed the very people it was supposed to help.
Between 1955 and 1975, about 80,000 people left the asylums. But their need for medication, accommodation and support was not met. Community care was done on the cheap.
As early as 1985, a Social Services Select Committee report warned that hospital closures had outrun provision in the community. Even worse, a small number of killings by people with mental health problems sparked a fearful and angry reaction by the general public.
Jean Collins, a campaigner from the charity Values into Action, observed that the closures were characterised by ‘chaos and confusion’.
No one had prepared people with learning difficulties for life outside institutions. They were pauperised too, she said, adding: ‘Many were abandoned in a hostile, fearful society.’
Most were resettled in houses that nobody else wanted, on estates where nobody wanted to live. Many became socially isolated. And it wasn’t long before they were targeted.
Many, particularly people with learning difficulties, were desperate for friendship and were befriended by people who groomed them, robbed them, attacked them and killed them – so-called ‘mate crimes’, a recognised subset of hate crime.
Prejudice against disabled people had only grown stronger because so many had been shut away for centuries. Disability hate crime should have been a tragedy foretold.
But it wasn’t. Such crimes will carry on until we face our own prejudices about disability – and, as a society, start to change.