One day in November 2000, civil servant Richard Taylor was at work at the Ministry of Defence in Nigeria when a phone call came through from London. He heard the voice of his son, Tunde, who had news that would shatter Richard’s world. Damilola, his 10-year-old child, had been killed in a senseless attack.
'I collapsed,' Richard Taylor later recalled. 'That was all I remember until I was revived by the clinic. I never thought such a thing could happen.'
It was the beginning of an ordeal both personal and very public, as Damilola Taylor was rapidly elevated from crime victim to nationally beloved martyr. His now-famous photograph – warmly smiling, radiating innocence – became a kind of cultural touchstone in the wider discourse about street crime and gang violence in Britain.
Damilola, along with his mother and much older siblings, had moved to the UK so that sister Gbemi could receive treatment for severe epilepsy. It was a radical shift in lifestyle for the family. As Richard Taylor later put it, 'We had a comfortable home and Damilola had a private driver to take him to and from school. Now he was squatting at an auntie’s house in Peckham and was confronted with lots of challenges he’d never experienced before.'
Although it was known that older kids at school would bully younger, more vulnerable children into giving up money which they would then spend on drugs, Damilola managed to retain his sunny optimism, voicing his ambition to have a career in medicine, and joining an after-school computer club. It was while walking home from the club, 'hopping and skipping with the exuberance of childhood' as journalist Paul Vallely described it, that Damilola was attacked. He sustained a fatal wound to the leg, and was found bleeding to death in a housing estate stairwell.
The media outrage was immediate. The likes of footballer John Fashanu and Nigerian High Commissioner Prince Bola Ajibola attended his funeral. However, catching his killers would prove to be a long and convoluted process. As Nick Ephgrave, who headed up the investigation, would later say, 'Locally we did a lot to break down reluctance to talk to the police.'
After numerous false leads and setbacks, four teenagers were brought to trial at the Old Bailey in June 2001. Far from bringing the Taylor family justice and consolation, the trial turned out to be a fiasco, with the prosecution’s main witness – a teenage girl known only as 'Bromley' – deemed by the judge to be unreliable and compromised. It was even alleged police had offered her bribes for evidence. This led to two of the accused walking free. The pair of remaining defendants were later found not guilty by the jury. (The witness 'Bromley' later spoke out against the proceedings to the BBC, saying she hadn’t lied and that she was living fearfully under police protection.)
Despite the calamity of the trial, detectives doggedly continued looking for new leads, eventually finding DNA evidence that implicated three new teenage suspects. It was in January 2006 that they appeared at the Old Bailey on charges of manslaughter. One of them was eventually found not guilty, but the other two – brother Daniel and Ricky Preddie – were eventually convicted and sentenced to eight years. The relatively short sentence was explained by the judge, who noted that the brothers had been only 12 and 13 at the time of the crime, and that they had not attacked Damilola with the intention of killing him.
Ricky Preddie has been in the news a number of times since then. Released in 2010 after serving half his sentence, he was soon recalled to prison after breaching his probation conditions by associating with gang members. He was released a short while after that, only to be recalled again just weeks later for again mingling with known gang members. More prison terms for driving offences followed, and in February 2020 he was handed a four-year sentence for driving a vehicle into a female police officer.
Unsurprisingly, Preddie’s compulsive criminal behaviour – and the societal context around it – has been the source of yet more pain for the Taylor family. A spokesman for the family told the media, 'The Taylor family, society at large, and also the boys themselves have been failed by the system and the academics that run it.'
Richard Taylor has been a loud and outspoken voice for a holistic approach to tackling violence, placing an emphasis on helping young people in deprived areas avoid the vicious cycle of crime and punishment. He has received an OBE for his campaign work through the Damilola Taylor Trust, which has spearheaded school programmes, career development initiatives and anti-knife crime drives.
'The young people are still killing themselves over nothing,' Richard Taylor said in an interview with the BBC. 'I don't see why this is still going on but the Damilola Trust has started yielding fruits.' Two decades on from his death, the little boy who came to England with dreams of being a doctor continues to inspire others to change, and effect change around them.