Rhys Jones centre tackles Liverpool gang culture

Rhys Jones centre in Croxteth
Image caption The centre is named in memory of 11-year-old Rhys Jones

Six years ago 11-year-old Rhys Jones was killed by a stray bullet as he walked home in Croxteth, north Liverpool. Now there are hopes a community centre named after him will help local youngsters escape a life of poverty and crime.

It was a murder that caused national revulsion and became symbolic of north Liverpool's gang warfare problem.

An innocent 11-year-old schoolboy caught in the crossfire of a gangland shooting as he walked home from football practice across a pub car park.

Rhys was just a few hundred yards from the safety of his home, in Croxteth Park, where he lived with his respectable family.

'Scary thing'

His unremorseful killer, Sean Mercer, who was 16 at the time, was jailed for a minimum of 22 years as a judge condemned the brutality and cowardice of Liverpool's gang culture.

Image caption Rhys Jones was murdered in 2007 as he walked home from football practice

Now a community centre named after Rhys is being opened, watched by his "delighted" parents Stephen and Melanie.

The Alt Valley Community Trust, which runs the centre, want to offer apprenticeships to young people. They say deprivation - not gangs - is the key problem for young people.

It is unclear whether the gangs have gone for good, but community workers say Croxteth is not the same as it was six years ago. Figures from the police suggest crime is down 35% and anti-social behaviour has reduced.

Paul Barwise, from the trust, said young people in the area had "minimal life chances".

His colleague Phil Knibb said the apprentices would be in sports centre management and it would give them an opportunity to train for future employment.

The centre also features two all-weather football pitches and a mosaic of Rhys's team - Everton Football Club.

"I think this centre has been a long time coming," Mr Knibb said. "It will be a real focal point for young people in the area as its specifically aimed at them.

Image caption A mosaic at the centre to devoted Everton fan Rhys Jones

"Hopefully it will be a beacon that will galvanise the community."

Councillor Peter Mitchell, who represents Croxteth, said it was "vitally important" for the area.

"It's one of the largest private housing estates in Europe but there has been no focal point for the community," he said.

"It's a truly positive story, a celebration day and hopefully it will give some closure for Rhys's parents, who are thrilled to be opening the centre. It is an opportunity for us all to move on in a positive way."

'Coming after you'

Anthony Lavelle was 12 when Rhys was murdered. Now 18, he works as a community worker for the GEMS youth centre in Croxteth and lives in the area.

"There's a stereotype of Croxteth of gun crime and violence but it's a great community to live and work in. It's a very big community and there's violence everywhere and criminality - not just in Liverpool.

"Just because the media puts it on the front pages, it's not necessarily true."

He said Croxteth had improved "a lot" and there was not as much of a police presence now.

The centre was "a great thing that's happening," he said. "It's most definitely going to bring that community together."

A Merseyside Police spokeswoman said they "don't have the same problem with gangs" and cited an increase in partnership work and a reduction in anti-social behaviour.

But Det Ch Supt Paul Richardson, head of the Merseyside Police Matrix anti-gang unit, said there was still a long way to go tackling gang violence.

He said: "Does that mean my job is done? It doesn't for one minute.

"I have a personal commitment to the people of Merseyside we will continue to reduce firearms and criminality and hopefully we will never ever face those tragic circumstances ever again."

He warned people who use firearms: "Whether you loathe me, hate me, I will be coming after you with the teams that work for me."

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