Luke's killer gets life term

30th July 2004 at 01:00
As school bully Alan Pennell begins his sentence, Helen Ward reports on how the school has coped with the tragedy

The nightmare that descended on a Lincolnshire community eight months ago ended this week when a school bully was sentenced to life for murdering a fellow pupil.

Luke Walmsley, 14, died from a single stab wound to the heart despite the efforts of teachers and paramedics to save him.

Gary Loveridge, head of the 278-pupil Birkbeck school and community arts college, said: "I hope the verdict can bring a kind of closure so that we can move forward confidently. Students and staff are hardly able to believe the tragedy that has unfolded. But we have coped better than I could have ever imagined."

Pupil Alan Pennell, who has a history of violence, was given life with a recommendation that he serve a minimum of 12 years for the murder. Mr Justice Goldring lifted the media ban on naming him, and said Pennell had gone to school with a "wicked" weapon intent on harming his victim.

"I am sure this was not something done on the spur of the moment. It was something you thought about," he told him. "You may have intended to kill him. I am sure you took the decision to cause him the most serious injury."

Birkbeck school serves the coastal village of North Somercotes, 16 miles from Cleethorpes, where Luke lived. The village, population 1,500, has a couple of pubs, a fish and chip shop and a village hall. A memorial fund set up after Luke's death to provide it with a sports hall has raised pound;42,000 so far.

The fund is one way that friends, families and neighbours have found to cope with the tragedy. The community has also rallied round the school, due to expand to 305 pupils.

Mr Loveridge said: "I have been amazed by how resilient students and pupils have been. The whole principle has been to attempt to run the school as normally as I can."

For Mr Loveridge, the last few weeks of term were split between giving evidence at the trial and preparing for an Office for Standards in Education inspection in October - delayed from last autumn.

He said: "We are positive about having Ofsted. We feel the inspectors will see the school in a very good light."

It is a very different atmosphere from last year when Mr Loveridge said it felt as if "a nightmare had descended upon us with one moment of violent madness".

The school closed on the afternoon of the stabbing on November 4 and reopened the following day for staff only, when almost all turned up.

The staff decided to suspend lessons for the rest of the week and hold two "fellowship" days, allowing students, teachers and parents to meet in the school for mutual support. Counsellors and a Methodist minister attended.

Jane Filer, deputy head, described reopening the school five days after the stabbing as "the hardest day of our professional lives". A brief assembly was held. Then came Remembrance Day, when assembly was dedicated to Luke.

Afterwards, students had 20 minutes in class before heading home; many simply sat in silence.

Since then, Birkbeck has begun to resume its routine: exams have been taken, work started on a new art block, school trips were enjoyed. But all this was overshadowed by the 14-day trial at Nottingham crown court.

Pennell had denied murder, claiming he had held out the serrated-edged flick-knife to scare Luke, who accidentally walked on to it. The jury delivered a majority 11 to 1 guilty verdict. Jurors heard how Luke had left his science class on November 4 and walked past Pennell, who stepped forward and without saying a word stabbed Luke in the chest.

One witness told the court: "It looked like (Pennell) punched him, but when he pulled the knife out I realised it was blood splattered up the side of my face."

A post-mortem examination found the seven-centimetre blade had been pushed in with such force that it had touched the back of Luke's heart and left hilt marks on his chest.

The jury was unaware that Pennell was a bully with a history of violence.

It emerged later that he had frightened many of his peers at school and had already been warned by police for assaulting a fellow pupil.

Pennell's mother died in a drink-drive car crash with her boyfriend when he was four, leaving him with his father, a lorry driver often away from home.

The teenager spent much of his youth getting drunk and hanging around with a succession of girlfriends. Among them was Luke Walmsley's 12-year-old sister, Lauren. Pennell fell out with Luke after his relationship with Lauren ended, and Pennell began boasting that he would kill the younger pupil, of whom he appeared to be jealous. But his threats went unheeded by pupils, dismissed as too extreme to be taken seriously.

After his arrest, Pennell was asked by a psychiatrist what he would do if he had three wishes. He said he would like to bring back his mother, to turn back time to before the incident on November 4. He could not think of a third wish.

Leader 14

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