How Ben Kinsella's murder brought crime elders up against the young killers

The senseless murder of 16-year-old Ben Kinsella provoked a vengeful reaction from the Adams family, the underworld gang that once ruled north London. Mark Townsend and Jamie Doward report on the clash between criminal cultures old and new

Terry Adams will spend today, like tomorrow and the next few years, languishing behind bars. Once Britain's most feared gangster, Adams's stock appears on face value to have fallen. Recently the man known as the British Godfather placed his £1.6m north London family home on the market in order to repay debts.

Yet his brutal reputation remains as large as ever, particularly on the "turf" which his gang - the infamous Clerkenwell Crime Syndicate, also known as the A Team - has controlled for decades. The territory in Islington includes the spot where Ben Kinsella, 16, was murdered 12 months ago while celebrating the end of his GCSE exams.

Ben was the brother of a former EastEnders actress, Brooke Kinsella. His death is the most high-profile teenage stabbing in a long line of seemingly unfathomable murders. On Friday his three killers, like the 54-year-old Adams, found their futures were behind bars as they were sentenced to life with a minimum of 19 years. Jade Braithwaite, 18, Michael Alleyne, 20, and Juress Kika, 19, were part of the new wave of "wannabe" criminals vying to emulate "old-school" crime lords such as Adams.

Detectives working on Islington's streets describe the three as "low-level" criminals whose drug dealing would net them little more than £100 a day, mere crumbs compared with the multi-million pound fortunes amassed by the established firms such as the Adams family, with their links to foreign cartels, accountants and offshore trusts.

Adams was estimated to be worth £11m in his pomp and there remains the possibility that Braithwaite, Alleyne and Kika may have been dealing drugs that originally came through channels owned by his syndicate.

After Ben's murder, the worlds of the three youths and the Adams syndicate would collide. Police have confirmed that a member of the Adams family, whose identity remains unknown (though it is not thought to be Terry), pledged to hunt down Ben's killers, a promise that would terrify anyone with even a passing knowledge of their operations.

Prosecutor Nicholas Hillard QC told the Old Bailey jury that the notorious family "weren't happy with a killing on the streets of their area," and that the Adamses were making inquiries to find those responsible.

For the Adams family, reportedly linked to 25 murders, it seemed an unusual move. There were no business interests at stake or any threat to their "criminal enterprises". Seeking out Ben's killers instead indicated that they had to appear to be in control and protecting their manor. One senior police source said: "They may have a low profile these days but there remains a powerful mythology surrounding the Adamses."

Almost immediately, Braithwaite, the ringleader in Ben's attack, handed himself in. On the streets where Ben was stabbed 11 times in five seconds, the word of the Adams family still resonates, a throwback to another era that even the police seem to regret has passed.

A retired detective who specialised in north London gang activity said the Adams modus operandi was extremely violent, but similar to that of the Krays in that only rival criminals would be targeted. "There was a code of honour that they largely abided by," he said.

But such a code is increasingly rare on the streets of Britain's inner cities as established firms vie with the new wave of aspiring criminals, attracted by the "glamour" and the instant "respect" conferred by their illicit activities.

Met commander Mark Simmonds, the head of Operation Blunt 2 which targets youth violence, said: "You still have organised criminal networks where the only contact is with other criminals and the idea is controlling criminal enterprise rather than targeting bystanders.

"Then you go from there right down to the more chaotic street-based gangs, where there is tension between different groups and who can be really problematic for us," said Simmonds, whose team arrested 259 people for gang-related offences in London last Thursday, the day Braithwaite, Alleyne and Kika were found guilty of murdering Ben.

This "chaotic" posturing on British streets is an increasing threat to young people, police warn. In the 30 months since Terry Adams was imprisoned for laundering £1m in 2007, the threat from those hanging around on the streets of the crime lord's former north London "manor" has changed considerably.

Superintendent John Sutherland of Islington borough arrived in the area in January last year, six months before Ben's murder. He quickly identified two factors that would be chillingly evident in his death. The first was the actual reason for violence. Ben, an innocent bystander, was killed after a spat in a bar that spiralled into a frenzied stabbing.

"The reason for violence seems far more trivial now: it does seem to require minimal provocation, less than perhaps has been the case in the past," said Sutherland.

The court heard how Braithwaite acted in revenge for a claim that he had earlier been "disrespected". Detective chief inspector John Macdonald, who led the murder inquiry, said: "Young people are obsessed about disrespect. It's becoming a massive problem. They feel that they have to respond".

The second factor identified by Sutherland is the speed of retaliation. "You can go very quickly from 0 to 60. You get a dispute, relatively low level that might occur in licensed premises, a "you've spilled my pint" scenario, and from there you go so quickly to the end."

Secondary school teachers have, according to Sutherland, identified how text messaging can rapidly inflame a situation. "The sort of thing that maybe took a whole day to get round school in the past can now take two to three minutes. Very quickly you can have a group gathered outside the gates." Moments before Ben's murder, Braithwaite called Alleyne and Kika to meet and help him avenge his diminished respect.

Another issue is the belief among detectives that most knife carriers have never contemplated what happens when a blade is thrust into the body. Ben was stabbed with such ferocity that the knife shattered a rib on its path into the teenager's heart. One wound was nearly seven inches deep.

Sutherland said: "Some have just the most alarming lack of appreciation of consequences. I remember talking to one youth worker who told me that their aspirations were limited to crime, jail or death. The concept of exams, a career and stable job does not figure, the expectation and aspiration doesn't really stretch beyond the weekend, never mind next year." Ben, though, was different. He already had a place at college and was a keen actor.

Three days before Braithwaite, Alleyne and Kika were handed life sentences, another London jury heard how a 14-year-old army cadet, Shaquille Smith, was stabbed to death by a gang in an unprovoked attack two miles from where Ben was killed.

The similarities with Ben's murder were uncanny: the targeting of an innocent bystander, the shocking use of violence and the "pack-like mentality" of the perpetrators. In Shaquille's case, six youths attacked him yards from his mother's home in Hackney.

But for detectives investigating such murders, familiar, deeper societal issues often emerge. Sutherland believes the breakdown of the family unit exerts a profoundly negative impact on young men. "The number we come across from broken homes and homes where domestic violence occurs or is witnessed is frightening. They are two of the most alarming and recurring features for me". Macdonald also identified the same factors while investigating Ben's murder. "Lack of parental care is a factor. The father's disappeared, the mother's not home. There is no controlling influence."

In truth, Braithwaite, Alleyne and Kika had little control over anything. They were the bottom-feeders of the London drugs chain. Although they were known to the public protection teams that worked with young offenders in north London, they didn't show up - perhaps unusually - on police and probation files as members of any of the area's known knife gangs. In essence, they were loners, an insecure trio of youths with only the muscle to pick on younger targets. "They were small-time drug dealers ," said one public protection source. "They weren't into gangs, they were just into dealing."

Of the three Braithwaite was said to be "quite articulate", even approachable. But as he got older and started dealing, this side of him was all but extinguished, replaced by a brutal desire to make money through drugs. It helped that they were physically powerful, making those who came into contact with them instantly wary.

Police believe the three youths would have made nominal profits and knew they would have to impress dealers up the chain if they wanted to progress through the narcotics hierachy.

Simmons said: "Younger people hang around the fringes of the drugs market and aspire to the lifestyle they see. Then they want to get themselves noticed and that is when they become potentially dangerous to other people."

The three enjoyed the burgeoning notoriety that came with their criminal activities. Indeed, when they were sentenced they gloried in their moment of infamy, making gun gestures. As the trial had progressed they had eyeballed witnesses and feigned boredom in court.

Ben's family told the Mirror that the three killers' behaviour in court - and that of their wider families - made forgiveness out of the question. "You can see where they get their nature from," said Brooke Kinsella, 25. "The boys who killed my brother could be as young as 40 when they get out. They could meet a girl, have a family, get a career ... and I don't think that's enough punishment for what they've taken away."

Yesterday 23-year-old Jade, the second of Ben's three sisters, described watching CCTV footage of the attack: "I just wanted to jump into the screen and yell at him to turn around and run. I can't imagine the fear Ben must have suffered with those animals circling him. One of them [Braithwaite] is 6ft 6in. Ben was 5ft 9in. He didn't stand a chance."


Mark Townsend

The GuardianTramp

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