Mark and John: The Fantasists

Crime Files

Mark and John were not their real names. Following a court ruling, their identities were kept anonymous due to their underage status. Mark, 16, had no prior convictions nor had he been involved in any other sort of trouble.

John, 14, was a bright grammar school student from a middle class family and was expected to go to university. He was also lonely and confused and had fallen out with school friends as well as his stepfather. He turned to his computer and the internet to make friends and indulge in a fantasy life that soon became out of control. Mark’s parents had bought him his own computer in 2002 to help with his schoolwork.

The two boys met in a chat room in February 2003, when John was posing as a 16-year-old girl looking for a cyber relationship. Mark took the bait and the two began an ongoing online conversation. By March 2003, the two boys were in regular contact.

Unbeknownst to his parents, John was becoming increasingly attached to Mark and had also had conversations with Mark as himself. When the two boys arranged to meet in person, John’s parents were aware of it and kept an eye on proceedings. Knowing the risks involved, they warned John not to give out his home address or telephone number. John’s parents even went so far as to meet with Mark’s parents and the adults seemed happy for their sons to remain friends.

John began to devise other chat room characters. The first was a 40-year-old woman from London, called Janet Dobinson, who contacted Mark in April 2003, telling him she was involved in secret work for the British government. Dobinson began to hint at a complex plot that involved a letter containing the Queen’s seal, secret agents, the world’s most expensive jewels and a ‘massive safe at the bottom of the Atlantic’. Dobinson told Mark that he would have to travel to London to meet the Queen, the Prime Minister and the head of the Secret Service.

Mark later told police that he thought Dobinson’s claims stupid at first but went along with them out of curiosity. As time went by and they spoke at length, it began to feel all the more real to Mark. Dobinson told Mark that he had become an agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) and that his agent number was 47695. This seemed to convince Mark that he was a secret agent, with a licence to kill.

John’s fantasy world was growing and his feelings of attachment to Mark were becoming stronger. He created other characters, both male and female, to contact Mark. For months they exchanged lengthy conversations, some of which turned sexual in tone and content. Mark reportedly even masturbated in front of his web cam on more than one occasion, on the request of John’s fake characters.John devised a new plan and, posing as agent Dobinson, ordered Mark to murder him.

The reason for the murder was that it was a test to prove Mark was capable of being a secret agent. He was told that his reward would not only be carrying our work for the British Secret Service but he would also receive money and sexual favours from Dobinson.

Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, specialising in technology and addictions maintains, “The internet is a medium where people can lose themselves emotionally. …You can become whatever is written on the screen. People can forget themselves.”Mark and Dobinson chatted on the internet on Saturday, 28 June 2003, the day before the murder was to take place. He was given specific instructions as to how to carry out the killing, details of where and when to meet John, as well as the code ‘6969’ which would be used should the mission be aborted. The act was to happen in the centre of Altrincham, near the Trafford shopping centre, and the method was to be stabbing.

Timeline

Born 1987 - Mark  1989 - John

The Victims  29 June 2003 - John, 14

Trial  28 May 2004 - Manchester Crown Court

Convicted  Friday 28 May 2004 – John: Incitement to murder and perverting the course of justice.

Friday 28 May 2004 – Mark: Attempted murder.

Sentenced  Friday 28 May 2004 – John: Three-year supervision order, banned from contacting Mark or using the internet without supervision.

Friday 28 May 2004 – Mark: Two-year supervision order and banned from any contact with John.

The Aftermath

Danger online

This was the first case in British law courts of one person inciting another to kill them. Thankfully Mark was not successful in his murderous mission.Following their time in court, both boys were able to reflect more seriously on what they had done. John claimed, “It was probably just a phase I was going through”, and we can only hope that he was right and that both boys have learned a serious lesson through their misdeeds.It is a sad and strange story but a good indicator of how, via the internet, people can be led to believe things that are not true. Combining the fertile imagination of a young mind with a lack of worldly experience can so easily turn a bright, exciting fantasy into something dark and dangerous.

The Trial

An "extraordinary" case

On Friday, 28 May 2004, both Mark and John appeared before the Manchester Crown Court. Judge David Maddison, the Recorder of Manchester, called the case extraordinary.Jonathan Goldberg for John’s defence claimed that the boy had been having troubles at home and school and was unsure about his sexuality. Goldberg added, “He felt an emotional intimacy with the teenager that he had never experienced before. This is the key to this extraordinary case. It is not going to happen again.”On 28 May 2004 John pleaded guilty to incitement to murder and perverting the course of justice and Mark pleaded guilty to attempted murder. John was given a three-year supervision order and banned from internet chat rooms, from contacting Mark and from using the internet without adult supervision. Mark was given a two-year supervision order for attempted murder and banned from any contact with John.

The Arrest

Ordering your own death

Both boys initially told police that a stranger had attacked John and dragged him into the alleyway, where he was stabbed. They gave police a false but detailed description of the attacker and the police, believing the incident had been a mugging that went wrong, launched a manhunt.Once investigators, led by Detective Chief Inspector Julian Ross, were able to view the CCTV footage of the area, they discovered the awful truth that the boys had been alone in the alleyway and there had been no unknown assailant.During police questioning, Mark told of how he had been recruited via an internet chat room by Dobinson from the British Secret Service.

At that point he still had no idea that it was in fact John who had given the orders to kill.Sally Hogg, a criminal intelligence analyst, was called in to discover who Dobinson really was. Hogg examined 58,000 lines of disjointed chat room conversation from Mark and John’s laptop computers. Initially the investigation team were somewhat puzzled by what they found and they arrested a young woman from whose email account some of the conversations regarding the killing had come. Investigators soon realised that her email address had been hijacked and used by someone else.

Hogg had made an important discovery and that was that five of the six characters who had contacted Mark had misspelled the word ‘maybe’ as ‘mybye’, leading her to conclude that all these internet characters were in fact one person. The computer experts were also able to ascertain that the last person logged on to John’s computer was ‘Dobinson’.After ruling out John’s family members, his mother, stepfather and sister, they concluded that the only person using the computer at the time of Mark and Dobinson’s final online conversation was John himself. When police investigators confronted John, he broke down and admitted to what he had done. Detective Chief Inspector Ross believed that it had been a deliberate suicide attempt from a sad and confused young man.

The Crimes

Fantasy turns to reality

On Sunday, 29 June 2003, the two teenage boys set out from Altrincham, Greater Manchester. They met up at Trafford shopping centre, where Mark casually told John he needed to pick up a knife. Mark withdrew money from the cash machine, they went into a shop and Mark told John to select a knife. He chose a six-inch Sabatier and Mark paid for it. Mark later told police that letting John select the knife would somehow make his death easier for him.Mark apparently began to feel sick and dizzy and the boys sat down for a rest. He was having disturbing visions of what he was about to do and that was to stab his friend to death. Mark tried telling John how he was feeling, saying that he “might have to do something” that day. John knew what it was but remained silent.The boys then walked to a wooded area nearby and it was here that Mark told John he would have to stab him. For over an hour, Mark held the knife close to John’s body, saying, “You have to let me do it”. Mark says, “I was not in control. I did not even feel like me. I put the knife to his stomach and pressed down on it. The knife went into him and he started bleeding through his top. I hugged him as I did not want to hurt him. Then I put the knife into him again.”

The boys then returned to Altrincham. Here they went to a MacDonald’s restaurant to buy a Coke before heading towards Goose Green, a fashionable area of Altrincham. It was here that they entered a deserted alleyway. John seemed determined to go ahead with the suicide/murder that he did not use the pre-determined ‘6969’ code for aborting the plan.Mark told John he was his best friend before plunging the knife into John’s stomach. John shouted at Mark to stop and started to scream in pain. Mark tried to get the younger boy to calm down and be quiet so as not to attract attention. Mark reported to police later that he had not felt in control at that point but, determined to complete his secret mission, had plunged the knife once more into John’s body.Shortly before 8pm on 29 June 2003, police received a phone call from Mark. He told them that his best friend had been stabbed by an unknown attacker, in a deserted alley, off the main street in Altrincham, Greater Manchester.Police and an ambulance arrived a few moments later and John was rushed to Wythenshawe Hospital in a critical condition from stab wounds, one of which had damaged a kidney and his liver. Following emergency treatment, John survived the attack and remained in hospital for a week.