Natural Born Teenaged Killer
How Chelsea O’Mahoney turned out that way
It was three in the morning on October 30, 2004. David Morley was sitting on a bench on the south bank of the Thames, chatting with his friend Alastair Whiteside, when they suddenly became aware of a group approaching them.
There were two black boys and a white boy, all dressed in hooded tops. The last member of the gang was a white girl. She, too, wore a hooded top and carried a blue bag. Her mid-brown hair was parted in the middle above a perfectly oval face.
Her left eyebrow, raised slightly higher than the other, lent her an amused expression as she approached Morley, camera-phone in hand: “We’re doing a documentary on happy slapping,” she said brightly. “Pose for the camera!”
At that cue, the three boys knocked Morley and Whiteside to the ground, punched and kicked them and searched their pockets for valuables. The girl with the camera-phone, who would later be identified as Chelsea O’Mahoney, a 14-year old from a south London suburb, did more than just film the assault. She also participated energetically. As Whiteside recalled, she kicked Morley’s head with the deliberation and sheer force of “a footballer taking a penalty”.
Morley was taken to hospital where he was operated on but died in intensive care. He had suffered more than 40 injuries from the beating, including several fractured ribs. Pathologists likened his injuries to those inflicted by a car crash or a fall from a great height.
Chelsea was arrested a week later at her home, having been seen entering it with the same blue bag that is clearly visible in CCTV footage of the attacks. Without prompting she told officers, “That’s what I wore on the night.”
Last week she was convicted, along with Reece Sargeant, 21, Darren Case, 18, and David Blenman, 17, of manslaughter and conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm. Between them they were sentenced to 44 years for assaults on eight individuals in the course of less than an hour. Chelsea was jailed for eight years.
Still only 16, she held hands with a social worker during the trial.
Chelsea Kayleigh Peaches O’Mahoney was born at Edgware hospital on November 15, 1989. As the daughter of a woman addicted to heroin, Chelsea was born an addict, too. Her father, another addict, had been involved only casually with Chelsea’s mother, Susanne Cato. He was in prison when Chelsea was born. Little more is known of him.
From as early as Chelsea could remember, Cato, who already had two children and who went on to have two more, injected heroin in front of her. Other children who have witnessed this particularly remember the sight of blood spurting onto the walls and floor. But the longer-term effect is a profound feeling of neglect.
“I never had no childhood,” says “Lorna”, another child whose parents used heroin and crack. “I did all the cleaning and cooking. My mum and dad would go off raving for the weekend. I was looking after three children, one of them a baby.”
When Lorna was 12 her father was sent to prison. To get money for food she turned to prostitution: “If my mum didn’t have her fix she would beat me up and put my hands over the fire.”
Another child of addicts, “Matthew”, puts it like this: “When you are little, you need a lot of love to be a decent human being. If your parents are taking drugs, they don’t give a shit about you. So you have to grow up fast. But you won’t turn out right because you have too much pressure on you.
“My mum and my stepdad would tell me to f*** off and slap me or punch me. I used to get beaten up and chucked down the stairs. I ran away when I was four. I witnessed attempted murder on my mum, there was blood everywhere and my stepdad was trying to smother her. I felt bad because I was too small to do anything. I remember everything. It’s not nice to think about it.”
He was eventually found by neighbours, who took him to social services, and was put in a home.
It is unclear what Chelsea had to put up with as a young child, but she must have been severely neglected because at the age of three she, too, was found wandering the streets alone -at night.
The local authority, Barnet, worked with her mother on rehabilitation but the following year social workers decided that Cato was incapable of looking after Chelsea. A year after that the courts granted a care order. Chelsea was seven.
Under the Children Act local authorities try to find foster care within the extended family. Chelsea was sent to an aunt and uncle in south London, who had no children of their own and had passed the same strict tests required of unrelated foster carers.
The court restricted contact between Chelsea and her mother to conversations on the telephone. But Cato frequently promised to call, then didn’t, or else she would call under the influence of drink and drugs. Either way, the result was to upset Chelsea and in 1998 the telephone relationship was terminated with Chelsea’s agreement. It is easy to imagine how difficult the decision must have been for her. As Matthew puts it: “My mum has done a lot of bad things to me, but at the end of the day you’ve only got one mum.”
Chelsea stayed with her aunt and uncle for nearly seven years, until June 2003. In general her behaviour was good, although she showed an inability to communicate.
She would shut down emotionally, then have occasional outbursts -behaviour consistent with her experiences as a young child, if not vastly different from the ups and downs of reasonably well adjusted children. All the same her aunt and uncle found it difficult.
Family therapy failed to resolve the problem and eventually Chelsea was fostered out to another aunt, who lived nearby in south London on the Ethelred estate in Kennington -where Chelsea was to make friends with the other gang members. She played football with them on Saturdays and went on to have a relationship with one, Blenman.
People who knew her at the time described her as a high-spirited girl. But when her aunt became seriously ill she had to be fostered out again -this time to an unrelated couple who had two children of their own, but had fostered successfully in the past. Most importantly, they lived in the right place, south Norwood, for Chelsea to carry on going to her old school.
The new arrangement was considered successful. In fact, Chelsea’s new family indicated that they would like to keep her until she was 18.
At Norwood school (a girls’ comprehensive), teachers recall occasional mild lateness and impertinence, but after letters were sent to her foster parents that improved. More generally, Chelsea was regarded as an able student who loved reading. She did not like talking about herself but in one-to-one situations she could be thoughtful and compassionate. At least one teacher received a Christmas card from her.
On one issue her foster parents sought advice from social services. Chelsea had asked to stay overnight with friends. Social workers advised the family to determine the issue as if she were their own daughter. Having satisfied themselves that she was staying with somebody appropriate, the foster parents allowed her to go.
As we now know, Chelsea was lying about whom she spent the nights with.
In her diary she wrote about what really went on – as in the following excerpt, describing one of the gang’s previous outings: “Yesterday I done an allniter wiv Barry, Darren and Reece. It was joke as well we went (?) places. Them lot bang up some old homeless man which I fink his badmire (?) even doe I woz laughen after.” (The pidgin Jamaican English, cannabis smoking and an obsession with graffiti were her trademarks.)
To most people, to assault strangers for amusement, with or without a camera-phone, seems incomprehensibly awful. But not to people whose lives most closely resemble Chelsea’s.
“To me,” says a girl only slightly older than her and from the same part of south London, “happy slapping is normal. A lot of people do that. I’ve done it myself.
“I was on the bus with a friend. I’d had a bad day, and at that time when I went on buses I used to make a lot of trouble. I said to this woman, what the f*** are you looking at? And she said, ‘Don’t you talk to me like that’. So I said to my mate, when we get off this bus we’re going to f****** happy slap her.
“I just needed to attack someone. It’s not calculated. You just lose your head. And afterwards you feel really bad. You think, what have I done? It’s scary. You know that someone has been hurt.”
We pay taxes for social workers to attend to the problems of children like these. So why aren’t we protected against their violent rages? Nobody has suggested that Barnet social services mismanaged Chelsea’s case. She had no previous criminal record and nothing in her history indicated that she would be involved in violent crime.
A former social worker from another London borough argues that the very structure of social services makes it difficult to identify problem children: “Quite often individual staff are told to pick up a case file and complete a specific task. But you don’t have the time to read the whole file so it’s quite difficult to establish that someone’s suffered chronic neglect. These things are easy to miss.”
If children like Chelsea do not display emotional or behavioural problems, does that mean they are fine? “No, because they could have internalised their bad feelings. The thing that concerns me is: how did it affect Chelsea to have a mother who used drugs and effectively abandoned her? These issues are not solved by placing someone with good carers.”
When this woman started out in social work she had just five cases: “With that number you can see children once a week. But when I left I had nine and with that many you find yourself constantly turning up at meetings and saying, sorry, I haven’t seen the child in question.”
As a result children come to hold social workers in contempt. Matthew, for one, gave up trying to build relationships with individuals who always moved on. “You don’t know who to trust,” he says. “You find yourself hanging round with a group that is just as disturbed as you are and you do bad things together.”
Matthew eventually turned his life round with the help of Kids Company, a charity that cares for thousands of neglected children in south London – including Lorna.1
Camilla Batmanghelidjh, who founded and runs Kids Company, says she frequently picks up cases that have been overlooked by social services: “Only last week we had to take Lambeth to court because they left a 15-year-old girl homeless after her father tried to strangle her.”
Batmanghelidjh does not know Chelsea but she believes the type of early childhood that Chelsea experienced is becoming more common, not less.
“Parental drug use is becoming more prevalent,” she tells me. “The cost of crack has gone down from £70 to just £15. And dealers are ‘lending’ drugs to people and collecting the money later. So it’s not a question of waiting for customers to come to you – you go to the customers.”
As a result, more and more children are being neglected. “And the general public has no idea how many.”
1 A lot has happened to Kids Company, and to Camilla Batmanghelidjh, since this article was written. I’m planning to come back and write more detail here in the footnotes. Back
Keywords: Kids Company