On a balmy summer’s night four-and-a-half years ago, innocent young Thomas Devlin and his two friends left his home to buy sweets.
Yesterday his heartbroken parents finally got justice when the two violent thugs they encountered that night were found guilty of their son’s murder.
Fifteen-year-old Thomas was feeling happy and carefree, enjoying the school holidays, as he strolled to a garage close to his north Belfast home in the middle-class Somerton Road. Less than a mile away in the notoriously loyalist Mount Vernon estate Gary Taylor and Nigel Brown were arming themselves with a knife |and a wooden bat — |and going on the |prowl for victims.
Laughing and joking together as they walked back from the shop for a sleepover at Thomas’ home, with their sweets, crisps and bottles of Lucozade, the three friends were easy prey.
These were innocent young boys, young looking for their years, were not in any way street-wise — compared to their vicious attackers. The friends did not know the murderous intent of the two men walking towards them until it was too late and their two worlds collided.
Initially, the boys did not pay much attention to Taylor and Brown who were walking with a dog on the opposite side of the road.
Nobody will ever know what first alarmed Thomas but he suddenly screamed “run”, alerting his two friends, Jonathan McKee and Fintan Maguire, to the two men running towards them.
Terrified, Fintan and Thomas tried to escape by scrambling over a wall at St Patrick’s School, but while Fintan fell into the school grounds Taylor dragged Thomas back and stabbed him repeatedly.
Just 200 metres from the safety of his home Thomas lay bleeding to death from stab wounds to his chest, abdomen, arm and face. Fintan could hear his screams of pain.
As Thomas was being attacked by Taylor, Brown viciously attacked Jonathan, hitting him |repeatedly over the head, shoulders, arms and upper body with a wooden bat. As Jonathan lay injured on the ground Taylor turned his attentions to him.
He stabbed him in the stomach before grabbing at his back and striking out at him several times with the knife.
Jonathan was wearing Thomas’ backpack and it deflected the knife, probably saving his life.
Leaving their victims lying for dead, Taylor and Brown then strolled off along the Somerton Road, walking past Thomas’ home where his parents were expecting their son to walk through the door with his friends any minute.
Instead, Thomas was lying just a short distance away on the ground in a pool of blood, breathing heavily with a “vacant” look in his eyes.
A local man who was on the Somerton Road just moments after the attack saw Taylor and Brown walk past him.
He overheard Taylor tell Brown to “cover your face”, before turning to the man and saying: “We’ll do you, too.”
The man then saw Thomas and Jonathan lying on the ground and immediately tried to help, but Thomas died a short time later in hospital.
Thomas was just 15 years old when he was killed. He was a normal teenager, about to go into his GCSE year at his school, Belfast Royal Academy, and had a bright future ahead of him.
His school principal Billy Young said that he was an “articulate, |intelligent boy” who “had his whole future in front of him”. Thomas loved playing computer games, listening to heavy metal music, playing the tenor horn and socialising with his many friends.
His popularity was evident by the outpouring of grief following his death and the many emotional tributes that were paid to him.
Yesterday his mother Penny Holloway described her son as “a normal teenager with the whole of his life ahead of him, with ambitions and dreams for his future.”
She added: “He was kind and generous and a much-loved son and brother with a great sense of humour, and as one of his friend’s said, Thomas could make fun out of doing nothing.
“On the night that he was killed he was with his friends walking home believing he was safe — he had no reason to believe otherwise.”
Brown and Taylor have always denied murdering Thomas, but both refused to give evidence on their own behalf during the trial.
Brown had admitted being at the scene and previously pleaded guilty to attempting to cause grievous bodily harm to Jonathan McKee. However, he refused to give evidence against Taylor.
Both killers were captured on CCTV camera leaving Ross House Flats in Mount Vernon shortly before the murder and returning a short time later.
Taylor claimed that after leaving the flats he met two other friends who he went to a nearby carpark with to smoke cannabis. The two friends, however, declined to give him an alibi when quizzed by |police.
After almost five years of |campaigning for justice, Thomas’ family finally received some closure yesterday.
However, one question that still haunts them, and will probably never be answered, is why?
“We have no idea why Thomas was killed and we probably never will know,” said Penny. She added: “However, what we do know is that Thomas was brutally murdered and he was deprived of living his life to his full potential. He has been denied the opportunity to go to university, travel, marry and have children of his own — all of the opportunities that we wish for our children.
“Thomas is in our thoughts every day. We will miss him very much and whilst this trial brings his killers to their rightful place in prison, we would much prefer to have Thomas alive.”
Thomas and his friends were innocent young boys and their kind and peaceful characters could not be more different from the two men who so callously attacked them.
Taylor and Brown have a long history of violence.
In 2003 the pair were involved in disturbances on the Whitewell Road in north Belfast where |Taylor brutally punched a man six times and kicked him five times as he lay on the ground.
Brown then joined in, punching the man as least 10 times and kicking him in the face.
Two years after he murdered Thomas, Taylor was convicted of assaulting two police officers during disturbances at a petrol station on the Shore Road.
Officers had been called to the station after Taylor got into a fight with another man. When they |arrived Taylor punched one of the officers in the face and bit a second officer. As he was being arrested he told one officer he would cut his throat “from ear to ear” and told another officer he would follow him home from work and “get (his) family and kids”.
He also told him that if he was not handcuffed he would “stand on (his) head and stiff (him)”.
On the night of August 10 2005, Thomas Devlin and his two friends were picked at random by two blood-thirsty thugs with a penchant for drink, drugs and violence.
To his family, friends and all who knew him, Thomas will always be remembered as “an ordinary boy with light in his heart”.
Brown and Taylor will always be remembered as child killers.
For Thomas’s family, the gap left by his murder will never be filled. But they can draw some comfort from the fact that they fought — and fought — to get him justice.