‘They’re dying. Please, please’

Journalist Catherine Smyth has written a new book about the murder of goth girl Sophie Lancaster in Bacup in 2007

It was 2am and I was staring at the transcript of an emergency phone call. Writing Weirdo Mosher Freak had come to a sudden halt.

“Right, are we definitely in… we’re definitely in Bacup and we’re not in Waterfoot?”

There it was again. It was the fourth time the ambulance controller had queried the location of a brutal attack in a Lancashire park. So severe were the injuries inflicted on a young couple that a teenage boy and girl made not one but three calls pleading for help. The 15-year-old boy opens his second call by saying: “Please, they’re f***ing dying, please, please.”

Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend Rob Maltby stood out from the crowd. They dressed differently in a goth style and Lancaster had many piercings; they were individuals.

In her call to the ambulance the 14-year-old girl says: “…this mosher’s been banged because he’s a mosher…” That was the only explanation given for the attack that summer’s evening. Before Maltby received the first blow the gang was heard to say “let’s beat him up” and “we’ll bang them”. Witnesses said Lancaster was cradling Maltby’s head when she was set upon; again she was kicked and stamped to the ground. Some of the other teenagers tried to stop what was happening. They grabbed at the gang members and shouted for them to stop.

Why did it take the ambulance crew so long to travel a distance of just a mile?

Thirteen days later, Lancaster’s life support machine was switched off and the investigation became a murder inquiry.

Five local youths eventually admitted the attack on Maltby. One, Ryan Herbert, who was 15 in August 2007 when the attack took place, also admitted Lancaster’s murder while another, Brendan Harris, also 15, denied it but was convicted after a trial. The murder charges were dropped against the other three.

That first 999 call was made at 1.17am – but the ambulance crew can only be heard arriving in the background of the second and third calls at around 1.32am.

Why did it take the crew so long to travel a distance of just a mile when all three calls had talked of Bacup and Bacup Park and two had also given the park’s proper name of Stubbylee? Why was Waterfoot mentioned at all?

Catherine Smyth
Journalist Catherine Smyth

Waterfoot is a village three miles from Bacup. It too has a park, Edgeside, with a skate park, and it is on Park Road, the incorrect street named by both the callers. Although Park Road is nearby, Stubbylee Park is in fact on a road called New Line.

“I think I may have stumbled across something,”

I told Sylvia, Lancaster’s mum, when I called her the next day. We had a working relationship as I was the reporter who had covered the case. “I think the ambulance went to the wrong park.”

I was aware my news would shock her but I was not going to try to obtain answers if Sylvia did not endorse my actions.

I informed her of the phrases repeated over and over again when the controller queried whether the caller was in Bacup or Waterfoot.

With her blessing I made a Freedom of Information request to the North West Ambulance Service. It emphatically denied my claims that the ambulance had gone in the wrong direction. It confirmed the crew had been at the station in the neighbouring village of Stacksteads when it was despatched but never justified the length of time taken to travel the distance of just a mile.

When I posed further questions, again with Sylvia’s blessing, the North West Ambulance Service refused to respond until it had an assurance there would be no legal action. Surely, if the crew had gone straight to the correct park how could anyone pursue a legal claim?

On further investigation, I discovered police officers had initially gone to Edgeside Park because they were responding to a message received from the ambulance control. That message said “assault in a park, Park Road, possibly near a skate park”. Crucially, there was no mention of Bacup. The police didn’t arrive at the right location until 1.45am.

When the newspaper I worked for relocated its office 20 miles from the patch, I chose to take redundancy. The previous year I had been approached by Pomona, a small independent publishing house by coincidence based in my home town of Keighley in West Yorkshire. I was asked to write a book on the murder but it was only when

I finished work that I decided to accept the proposal.

Being a mother of two, I would start writing after 10pm when the house finally settled down and I could focus on the task ahead. The book was far from an easy assignment, although I was fortunate to have kept all the newspaper cuttings; I had no idea why I felt compelled to retain them.

When faced with writing the chapter on the emergency calls, I knew it would be an ordeal.

I determined to write into the night so I would not have to face returning to those transcripts again.

This was the first time I had read the papers as I had not been in court on the day they were entered into evidence and the witnesses were cross-examined through a video link.

The attack was still happening when the calls were made

Convinced there had been a breakdown in communication causing the delay in ambulance attendance, I looked again at the pathologist’s statement regarding the cause of death – hypoxic-ischaemic changes. Ischaemia relates to her time in hospital when there was a reduction in blood flow to the brain but the hypoxia is an inadequate supply of oxygen to the brain at the time of the assault. This was when three teenagers were trying to follow ambulance controllers’ instructions. They took off their own clothes and wrapped them around the victims’ heads to try to stem the flow of blood. They had no formal training or knowledge of how to ensure the couple’s airways were not compromised.

It is impossible to say if Lancaster would have survived had help arrived sooner, but what is certain is that the attack was still happening when the calls were made. It is audible in the background of the transcripts. Any adult entering that park, be they paramedic or police, would have been a witness to the assault and could have offered vital evidence.

They say every journalist wants to write a book but I can honestly say I never set out to do so. The feedback I have received has stunned and humbled me. I was even stopped when walking to the corner shop by someone in a car. She reversed to where

I was and wound down the window. “Excuse me.” “Yes,” I replied, expecting to be asked for directions for somewhere in the village. Then the voice said:

“I bought that book you wrote on Sophie Lancaster.

I really enjoyed it – you did a good job. It was well worth buying. I just wanted to let you know.” “Thank you very much,” I said. And she drove off.

A third of profits from sales of Weirdo Mosher Freak will benefit the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, the charity set up by family and friends in Sophie’s memory. Its aims are to widen the scope of the Hate Crime Act to include attacks on alternative subcultures, create educational workshops to promote tolerance and provide a lasting memorial to Sophie Lancaster. It has already provided a platform for people who follow an alternative lifestyle to have a voice though social networking web pages. The foundation uses Sophie’s name to stand for Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere.

Weirdo Mosher Freak by Catherine Smyth is available in bookshops and on www.pomonauk.com priced £7.99. For information about the Sophie Lancaster Foundation visit www.sophielancasterfoundation.com.

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