Breck Bednar had a knack for figuring out how things worked right from when he was just a little boy.
“His favourite activities were building, making, putting things together,” remembers his mother, Lorin LaFave. “He just had that sort of brain.”
His precocious intelligence took him first to Lego and then, unsurprisingly, to technology and computers.
“It was just a really natural fit for him,” says Lorin. “He was always learning how the computer worked and how to make it faster and more efficient.”
He had already decided his career would either be in technology or that he would be a pilot – he had joined the Air Cadets to learn more about flying – when, in 2013, he came into contact with Lewis Daynes on an internet gaming platform.
Breck was groomed online by Daynes over a number of months. And then, in February 2014, aged just 14, he was lured to 18-year-old Daynes’ flat in Essex where he was stabbed to death.
Lorin has relived her son’s murder, and the events that led to it, many times over. First, because she had to, through the investigations, the trial, and the apologies of the police for not acting when she urged them to. But now, she does it because she feels she needs to.
She’s a campaigner for internet safety at the Breck Foundation – a charity set up in his memory to help young people stay safe online. She wants teachers to help her keep other young people safe.
An American, Lorin moved to the UK with her husband, Barry, shortly before Breck was born. Though the couple later divorced, Breck was brought up in a loving family environment with his younger siblings, who are triplets.
Lorin was a teaching assistant at Breck’s primary school. “I would observe him playing with the boys who had the same sorts of passions…this creative, clever group of boys who loved to build and make things,” she recalls.
The Lego gang
Lorin nicknamed them the “Lego gang”.
After primary school, Breck fell temporarily out of touch with the boys because they went to different secondary schools. But, in Year 9, the Lego gang got back together through an online gaming group.
Lorin was relaxed about Breck spending time with his friends online: “I knew those boys…so I felt really confident that it was a nice place for him to play.”
But because the boys used to talk to each other over the internet while they were gaming, and with Breck’s room next to the kitchen, it wasn’t long before Lorin overheard an unfamiliar voice. It sounded like a “deeper, man’s voice”.
“I went into Breck’s room and said ‘who are you online with?’” Breck pointed to a picture on his screen of a “really attractive, young boy” who looked like a “California prom king”.
“Immediately I didn’t feel that the voice fitted the picture,” Lorin says.
Instead what came into her head was the image of a “40-year-old, fat paedophile sitting behind a computer in his underpants”.
It’s a trope we’re all familiar with, but Lorin thinks this was one of her “first big mistakes”.
“I and others have this stereotype that all predators are older men that look creepy,” she explains. “A lot of the time, predators can be the children’s own age, or slightly older, and then the child doesn’t think they’re a danger.”
Daynes told the boys he was a teenage tech millionaire, and variously claimed to live in New York, London and elsewhere. He also said he was doing undercover work for the US government and the FBI.
Unsurprisingly, Lorin was sceptical. But when she voiced her early concerns with Breck, he would reply that his friends had been “gaming with this guy for years”.
This is a message that schools need to communicate to their students, she says: “Just because a person is a friend of someone else you know and trust doesn’t make that other person safe.”
Lorin tried to find out more about Daynes, and, at first, he was engaging. “I could see why the boys looked up to him,” she says. “He was well spoken…he would be able to converse with me in a way that an adult would.”
He was also evasive, however. “I would try to ask him questions about living in New York; I would try to ask him about his work, but he would always sort of brush me off,” she recalls.
Lorin first started to suspect that Daynes was exerting a malign influence on the boys when she noticed changes in Breck’s personality.
“The reason I felt that Breck was being groomed right in the early days was because his ideology was changing,” she says. Daynes tried to turn the boys against religion and the US and British governments.
Breck also became less responsive to his mother, and started objecting to simple chores around the house. His constant refrain was: “I shouldn’t have to do this because Lewis says I shouldn’t.”
“I started becoming the bad guy, which is what will happen with a predator,” Lorin explains. “They will turn the child against the parents, the family or any safe relationships.”
It was at this stage that Lorin shared her concerns with teachers she knew. Though she could see something was wrong, she wasn’t sure what Daynes’ interest was in the boys – she thought it could either be sexual, about radicalisation, or maybe an attempt to get the boys to participate in some sort of “mass hack”.
But none of the teachers she spoke to thought she should be worried. “The kind of advice I got was, ‘Don’t worry, all boys go through this phase.’
“I used the ‘g’ word – I said ‘groomed’, and nobody had advice for what to do.”
The fact is that “Breck was not on anyone’s radar”. He was an intelligent, well-liked young man who didn’t have “cuts or bruises”, and wasn’t “crying or being bullied openly”.
Another of Lorin’s key messages is that it doesn’t matter whether a child appears obviously vulnerable or not; the groomed child “could be any sort of child”.
Eventually, Lorin contacted Surrey Police. She couldn’t have been clearer about her concerns: “I said I needed to speak to the department for grooming – once again, I used the ‘g’ word.”
The call handler was unhelpful to say the least, says Lorin. “They said, ‘Tell your son to go on a different website.’ This was the most ridiculous advice on the planet because none of our children is on ‘a’ website. They’re using social media, they’re using different apps and messaging services.”
Nevertheless, Lorin handed over all the information she’d managed to glean about Daynes, and she was assured three times that police intelligence would be checked. “I hung up the phone thinking I had it in hand,” she says.
This was perhaps the biggest missed chance to save Breck’s life – had the police done the check they would have seen that Daynes had been accused of raping a boy and possessing indecent images in 2011, though he wasn’t charged. Surrey Police have since admitted making serious mistakes in how they handled the case, and have issued an unreserved apology.
Next, along with the parents of the other boys, Lorin organised an intervention meeting. They laid down a simple ultimatum: the parents would have to meet Daynes in person – “just a coffee, a chat” – otherwise the boys would have to break off their contact with him. The friends defended Daynes to the hilt and said that he would never agree to meet with the parents.
The parents then banned their children from making contact with him.
But unbeknown to Lorin, Daynes had instructed Breck to secretly record the meeting on an MP3 player. He knew the parents were on to him.
“Everything became that much more dangerous because it went underground,” Lorin says. On the advice of the police, she had confiscated Breck’s technology, but once again Daynes was one step ahead – he’d secretly couriered a brand new smartphone to Breck so they could continue to communicate.
The last time Lorin saw Breck alive was before he went away on a school trip to Spain. “We hugged and kissed and said goodbye to each other, and when he left, I was just so, so proud of him,” she says.
A ‘viral’ murder
He had seemed back to his old self. But what Lorin didn’t know was that while Breck was away, he was being “obsessed over and stalked” by Daynes, who was bombarding him with “non-stop text messages, voicemails, calls insisting that Breck get in touch”. He claimed he had important news about his company and that only Breck could help.
When Breck returned from Spain, he went to stay with his dad. Daynes told Breck to give his dad a cover story that he was going over to his friend Tom’s house. Daynes then sent Breck £100 for a taxi to drive an hour away, to his flat.
Breck was tied up with duct tape and murdered in a sadistic and sexually motivated attack. Horrifically, Daynes posted news of the death online, which went viral.
Breck’s siblings received texts saying “so sorry to hear about your brother” before the family and police even knew what had happened. Daynes is now serving a life sentence for the murder.
“I decided to set up the foundation two weeks after Breck was killed,” Lorin says. “I have to have something good come out of this horrible thing because I can’t bear it otherwise.”
The Breck Foundation has the tagline “play virtual, live real”, to remind young people that friends made online are not the same as their real friends.
Lorin says of one of the foundation’s core messages is, “Never, ever meet up in a private place when you’ve met online.”
The foundation has created simple safety messages with the letters of Breck’s name. However, Lorin says schools also need to deliver online safety “in an engaging and interesting way – it can’t be a list of rules”.
She recalls that Breck himself had an e-safety assembly at school, but reported it to be “boring”.
“If it’s boring, they’re just going to shut off,” she says. “If I had to give one message [to teachers] it would be to be seek out the resources, videos and stories that are available, sit the children down in a different setting…and open up discussion in a really honest and engaged way.
“Let them talk. Let them talk about sex, about their fears, about what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard, without them being worried that they’ll get in trouble, because it needs to be as real as possible. It cannot feel like a normal school lesson.”
Schools also need to do more to increase awareness among parents, grandparents and other carers. To improve attendance at such meetings, she suggests schools hold family barbecues, or offer “movie nights” to keep children occupied while their parents are given information.
Lorin believes society is becoming more aware of online safety but she thinks “it’s a never-ending battle”.
“The problem is that technology moves so quickly, there are more predators finding new ways to reach children, and through new apps. It’s a constantly evolving scenario.”
And, of course, there’s always a new generation of young people, teachers and police to educate: “Sadly we’ll never get to a point where we can just tick it off and go ‘we’ve fixed that problem’.”
But in teachers, Lorin says children have one of their strongest allies.
“Thank goodness for teachers,” she says. “Some people will say, ‘Well, PSHE lessons should be taught at home.’”
But while “we can’t rely on every parent to be knowledgeable in every area, we can train teachers to properly educate every child; that’s the best way to reach as many young people as possible”, Lorin says. “I have the greatest respect for teachers who devote their lives to ensuring that those young people they look after become the best selves that they can.”