VICE U.K. originally published this article.
It was late on Sunday, September 16, 2018, when 16-year-old Cemeren Yilmaz lay dying on a patch of grass in Bedford U.K. between Ashmead Road and Westrope Way. He was already bleeding from a deep stab wound inflicted by one member of Bedford's Black Tom gang when two more 15-year-old gang members, Ramon Djauna and Caleb Brown, arrived on the scene. They were carrying a hammer. One of them struck Yilmaz on the head with it, a blow that caused a compressed fracture of his skull, lacerating his brain and damaging it irreparably.
Yilmaz groaned: "I think I'm going to die."
We know he said this because Djauna was standing over him, filming the attack on his phone at the time. Yilmaz begged him for mercy. Instead, Djauna posted the video to Snapchat.
This murder—callous, impulsive, and utterly pointless—was just one of hundreds inflicted with a knife over the course of last year, as the U.K.'s knife crime crisis continued to escalate from 2017. So many of these deaths were reported as consequences of gang-related disputes, which—at a glance—might have you picturing the kind of involved tit-for-tat clashes you'd see in Narcos or a Ross Kemp documentary about gangland murders in Honduras. However, the reality here—as in so many of those cases—is much more mundane.
Yilmaz's night had begun several hours earlier, when he took a taxi from his home in the village of Harrold, Bedfordshire, to a housing estate in Bedford. There, he met a friend before the two of them made their way to Ashmead Road. At six minutes after 9 p.m., they saw Jacob Morgan, another 15 year-old member of the Black Tom gang, who was standing on the road with two friends next to a damaged motorbike. Yilmaz ran at Morgan and stole a bag that belonged to either Morgan or one of his friends. In retaliation, Morgan called his 19-year-old cousin Aaron Miller for back-up and went to get hold of a kitchen knife. The one he managed to get his hands on had a seven-inch blade.
This was not, by any means, Yilmaz's first dealings with the Black Tom gang. In fact, he had once been either a member or close associate of the gang, who take their name from an area of Bedford which was itself named after a 19th century highwayman. The original Black Tom was sentenced to be hung for his crimes and was buried at a spot that now lies beneath a nearby roundabout. On his way to the gallows, it's said that Black Tom was offered a glass of wine by a local landlord. The highwayman drank it and told the barkeep that he'd pay for it on his way back. Although he was buried with a stake through his heart to prevent his return, local legend has it that the ghostly form of Black Tom can still sometimes be seen haunting the roads around Bedford.
The bad blood between Yilmaz and the modern-day Black Tom gang had begun when he'd switched allegiance to their rival London Road gang. The tension between the two gangs was recorded in a drill video made by Morgan, Djauna, and Brown and posted to YouTube well before the night of the murder. It involved a mention of "getting Cemz." As a result of his changing sides, Yilmaz had confided to his brother that he suspected an attack was on its way.
"People like this have no mercy," he told him. He'd added that he expected to be attacked with a knife, and that if he was "caught" it would "end badly." That prediction proved to be fatally accurate.
Shortly after 10 p.m., all four of Morgan, Miller, Brown, and Djauna converged on Ashmead Road, carrying weapons and searching for Yilmaz. It didn't take long. Morgan and Miller were the first to find him. At around 10:15 p.m. they spotted Yilmaz walking down Ashmead Road with his friend. After they confronted Yilmaz, Miller began to scuffle with him. The pair traded punches and kicked each other until they were both on the ground. As Miller got up, Yilmaz stabbed him in the neck with a pocket knife.
In response, Morgan stabbed Yilmaz with the kitchen knife. The blade passed through his left kidney and lacerated his liver. The blow was so deep that the knife came close to passing all the way through Yilmaz's body. He had a bruise on the front of his abdomen where the tip of the blade had almost emerged out through his other side. Seeing what his cousin had done, Miller told Morgan to "pick up your shank." They continued to punch and kick Yilmaz as he lay on the street and bled.
Somehow, Yilmaz managed to drag himself to his feet and make his way to the patch of grass where he was found by Djauna and Brown, who had arrived carrying a hammer. Yilmaz's friend had by this point called for an ambulance, and was heard on the line telling them: "Your guys just did him up, fam."
Djauna, as well as filming the attack on his phone, also kicked Yilmaz in the head. Later, in court, Djauna would claim, incredibly, that he had accidentally filmed the attack while trying to turn his phone's flashlight on, and then accidentally posted it to Snapchat while climbing over a fence.
Realizing that police and an ambulance were now on their way, all four of the attackers fled the scene. Yilmaz was rushed to the hospital and immediately operated on. Despite surgery to remove his damaged kidney, he died the next day. He had suffered massive internal injuries, a fractured skull, brain damage, and two cardiac arrests.
Miller and Morgan also made their way to Bedford Hospital. Miller received treatment for his own stab wounds, while Morgan was with him holding a tracksuit top soaked in blood. Miller and Djuana were arrested within hours of Yilmaz's murder. Within three days of the attack, Brown and Morgan had also been arrested. On the following Thursday, all four were charged with murder.
The knife that had been used to stab Yilmaz was found in a drain near Ashmead Road; a forensic examination found that Morgan’s DNA was on the handle, while DNA from Yilmaz was on the blade. The hammer used by Djauna and Brown in the attack has still not been found.
An explanation for how Djauna justified his part in the murder was provided by a recording that was made after he and the other boys had been arrested and placed into the back of a police van. Djauna could clearly be heard saying: "He done wrong to, like, our people, innit, and in the Bible it says defend your people, does it not? It says love your neighbor and my neighbor is my people, innit, so if I'm defending my people… it wasn't supposed to go that far… it's not like I end him off for no reason."
Later, he was heard giggling as he said: "He was like: 'Save me!' I was like: 'Fuck you!'"
When it came to sentencing, Miller, the eldest of the four—who was also not thought to be a member of the Black Tom gang—was given a minimum of 21 years. Djauna and Brown both received 17 years, while Morgan will serve at least 16 years in prison. The judge described the murder of Yilmaz as coming out of "a sadly all too common back drop of gang rivalry and associated carrying and use of weapons with tragic consequences and the loss of a young life."
Judge Simon Bryan described Djauna's claim that he had filmed and posted the attack to Snapchat by mistake as "ludicrous." The judge added that he was: "Sure that you made that video deliberately, and did so as a trophy, and as a warning to any others who might shame the gang with which you were associated, that they would be met with extreme violence if they crossed you."
Detective Chief Inspector Branston, from the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit, said: "This was one of the most brutal attacks I have seen in 25 years in policing. The fact those involved were mostly children makes it even more shocking. All four attacked Yilmaz as he lay helpless on the ground. The sheer volume of injuries is appalling, but the force with which some of these blows were inflicted is nothing less than savage. This is violence of the worst degree and has no place on the streets of Bedfordshire. Those responsible for this cowardly attack deserve to be spending such a significant time in prison. I hope these sentences go some way to securing justice and closure for Yilmaz and his family."
According to statistics collected by Anti-Knife U.K., Yilmaz was one of 272 people killed by a knife in the U.K. between January and November of 2018. In the same time period, there were a total of 1,887 reported knife attacks. While the media often paints knife crime as a problem particular to London, in fact 205 of the fatal stabbings occurred outside of the capital.
Yilmaz's murder came a little over a year after another serious incidence of gang violence in Bedford, whose total population is under 90,000, and where 35 percent of young people are living in poverty. On June 3, 2017, a man was assaulted in a park by 25-year-old Saffa Gbonda, a member of the Kempston Block gang, who is now serving 12 years for conspiracy to kidnap. Two weeks later, the Two Mile Road gang retaliated with a machete attack for which Maksims Boikovs, 19, and Terrell Romain, 22, are now serving 14 and 18 years respectively. Antonio Ziu, 22, and Vincent Kingswell-Shaw, 23, were convicted of conspiracy to commit GBH [grievous bodily harm] with intent, and possession of a shotgun with intent to endanger life. Judge Nigel Lithman said the gang violence had "brought knives and guns on to the streets of Bedford."
The similarities with Yilmaz's murder are obvious, and common among knife crime incidents in similarly deprived areas across the country. Speaking to VICE in March of 2019, James Treadwell, professor of Criminology at Staffordshire University, said: "[The] perpetrators and victims of knife crime […] tend to be disproportionately young men; they've often had huge amounts of adverse experiences in childhood; poor educational attainment; exclusions from mainstream school; living in areas with high social deprivation. Therefore, if the social fabric is such that there are more of those people around, there's going to be more of that violence."
Away from this broader environment, many have tried to pinpoint the specific causes of individual knife attacks; depending on which politicians or columnists you believe, the blame can been laid on: drill music, middle class cocaine users, social media beefs, or the "county lines" phenomenon. The problem with this reasoning is that it's exactly that broader environment that explains the increase in knife crime. Austerity—and its various symptoms, such as: increased poverty and inequality, a lack of mental health provisions, the closing of youth centers, and underfunded schools—breeds the kind of claustrophobic climate in which boredom and violence can take hold.
As Adam Abdullah—the 16-year-old Young Mayor of Lewisham, one of London's hardest hit boroughs when it comes to knife crime—told VICE in April: "[Austerity] isn't just youth centers closing. It's cuts to the NHS, your mom's benefits, and the budget of the school that you go to. It's the production of poverty. It's systematic, and it's handing our youth to their deaths."
In Yilmaz's case, the manner of his death—broadcast to his friends, rivals, and peers on Snapchat—might make it seem for a moment like a modern problem. In fact, the factors that lead to violent youth crime are the same ones that have driven the problem for hundreds of years. Something needs to change, but even if it does it will be too late for Cemeren Yilmaz.
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