Published: 09:26, 16 June 2021
| Updated: 15:39, 16 June 2021
Fifteen years ago today a community was rocked by the brutal death of 16-year-old schoolboy Michael Chapman after an attack by a former friend left him dying in his brother's arms.
John Nurden pieces together what happened on that fateful night, the lasting effects it has had on his family and why his parents believe their son's spirit is still helping them...
It had been like any other Friday night. Teenager Michael Chapman had been enjoying himself with friends and his older brother and was walking across playing fields back to his home in Bobbing near Sittingbourne.
But all that was about to change in an instant when a former pal ran up out of the blue and attacked him.
Michael, 16, slumped to the ground after being punched in the neck and kicked in the head and died minutes later in the arms of his shocked brother David.
The first Michael's mother Sue knew of the incident was when two police officers knocked on her front door at 1.20am. "I just thought the boys had forgotten their keys," she said.
"The officers said they had some bad news and when they said the words 'Michael is dead' I just replied 'You're joking'."
She then had to break the devastating news to her husband Lloyd, a lorry driver who was working in Thurrock that night. He had to drive his 44-tonne truck back to Sittingbourne after taking the earth-shattering call.
Lloyd, 64, a former Grenadier Guardsman, said at the time: "Michael was the light of all our lives in this family, a happy go-lucky lad who raised a smile in everyone he met, he was always laughing. He wasn't just a son to me, he was a best friend as well.
"I know we have to rebuild our lives without him but as a family we just can't believe he's gone. We keep expecting him to walk through the door."
The tragedy struck 15 years ago today, on June 16, 2006.
Mum Sue, 55, who still works as a senior clinical support worker at Maidstone Hospital, recalled later: "Michael didn't have any GCSE exams that day so when he got up he did the housework before I got home. We went into town so David could get a new mobile phone and they could buy a Father's Day card.
"That evening we all went to the Bobbing Apple pub with David's girlfriend Tash Flaherty and Michael's girlfriend Hannah Martin. Apart from David having a few pints, they all drank Cokes.
"At 9.20pm I said I'd get them a burger at McDonald's. Then they decided they'd go to The Grove playing fields at Gore Court Cricket Club to meet friends. I said: 'See you later, if you have any trouble give me a ring'."
That was the last time she saw Michael alive.
During the three-week trial in Court Six at Maidstone Crown Court during April 2007 Judge Andrew Patience branded Michael's killer a "coward".
He told the jobless 18-year-old - whose four-year sentence means KentOnline can no longer name because his conviction is now spent - said: "The attack on Michael Chapman which led to his death was, I have no doubt, pre-planned. There was no possible justification for it. The reasons for it can only be described as trivial.
"The attack on Michael was cowardly. Not only did you punch him but kicked him and in the true fashion of a coward you ran away, not stopping to see if he was hurt. And when you arrived at the bottom field you boasted about what you had done to your friends.
"Nothing I can do or say can restore Michael to life. The sentence will seem hopeless to the family and wholly inadequate when their sense of loss will never go away."
The court heard that Michael was ambushed by his killer and a 16-year-old boy from Broadstairs, who could not be named because he was too young.
A jury found the attacker not guilty of murder but he admitted an alternative charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in a young offenders' institute. He was released in June 2008 after two years behind bars.
Ian Henderson, defending him at the trial, said he was "fully aware" of the impact his attack had left and was "full of remorse". The attacker claimed he did not intend to cause Michael serious injury. The boy with him was cleared of all charges.
Following the result, Mr and Mrs Chapman launched the Protect Our Children Against Violence campaign to get tougher prison sentences, to ensure offenders served their full terms and to get 18-year-olds sent to adult prisons.
Mrs Chapman said at the time: "It's about getting justice for families. I don't understand why (his attacker) should have a life. He robbed my son of one. It's disgusting that just a few weeks after Michael would have turned 18, he will be out on the same streets. I can never forgive him. A lot of people say as time goes by it gets better but it doesn't."
This week she said: "Nothing has changed, nothing is better. People still do what they want to do and knife crime is going up. It's like we are living in a bubble and we can't escape. To me, there was no justice. The boy who did this only got two years. It's ridiculous. It was a shambles. If it had happened now I am sure things would be totally different."
More than 2,000 people put their names to a petition demanding the sentence be increased. They had celebrity support from Radio One DJs Bruno Brookes and Lynn Parsons, who Lloyd had worked with, and X Factor semi-finalist Ben Mills.
In 2008, Michael's parents, who still live near Bobbing parish church where their son is buried, met the then justice secretary, Labour’s Jack Straw. The following year there was a landmark judgement when Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge said greater weight should be given to the loss of a human life when sentencing. The minimum term spent in jail also increased from a third to a half of the sentence.
In April 2008, the Chapmans bravely staged a party for what would have been Michael's 18th birthday. A collection helped raise enough money to relay a 200-metre path in Bobbing churchyard in his memory. Memorial benches were also installed at the churchyard and the place where Michael died. The family would like to organise another event in his memory but even after 15 years they say it is still too raw. They are considering an event to mark the 20th anniversary of his death.
This morning, Mrs Chapman will visit her son's grave as usual and tonight she will hold a candlelit vigil in the field where he died from 10pm. She said: "Anyone is welcome to join me."
Michael's death hit her husband hard. He tries to put on a brave face but admitted: "I just can't concentrate. I come home from work planning to do jobs around the house but then I change into my dressing gown and can't see the point of doing anything.
"People say life must go on but everything is a huge struggle. A job which used to take me two hours now takes two years. I miss Michael so much."
He added: "It makes it worse because those boys never came forward to say they were sorry. They showed no respect for Michael's life.
"I still feel hatred for them. Eighteen-year-olds can vote, get married and fight for their country but they can't be sent to a man's prison. It's disgusting."
He said: "It is important for others to remember what happened so they understand the implications of throwing a punch or delivering a kick. They need to be aware of what the long-term effect can have on friends, family and colleagues. It costs nothing to be nice."
Help from the other side
Sue still visits her son's grave twice a day. "It's what mothers do," she said. "Every day I go to the churchyard to see him, morning and evening. I tell him what I've done that day and how much I miss him and that I love him.
"I can feel him with me all the time. I am sure him being around has kept us together. You hear of so many parents separating after something as dreadful as this. "
Lloyd, an ex-soldier, is convinced he once saw Michael ghost standing by his grave.
He said: "I don't visit his grave now. I have his photo on our fridge and always kiss him when coming in or going out. But one day, three months after he died, he came back to see me.
"I went to see him to thank him for helping me get a new job. As I was leaving I heard him say 'It wasn't me, it was you, Dad.' When I turned around I could see him standing there next to his grave in his school uniform with the biggest smile on his face and looking so happy.
'I don't believe in stuff like this but it was as clear as day'
"He waved to me and I waved back. I don't believe in stuff like this but it was as clear as day. I can't explain it. Even now I can feel him around the house. There have been little incidents like the iron turning itself off.
"Or when we lost a camera. I had searched the house from top to bottom and then Sue suddenly said 'Michael says its in the drawer in the dresser. And it was. It has proved to me there is another life. When I feel really down, he keeps me going."
Michael's last night wasn't the family's only brush with death. Almost exactly a year before, both boys had been in a horrific car crash. That time, Michael escaped with cuts and bruises but David was so badly injured doctors said he 'died' twice.
Mrs Chapman recalled: "They said at the hospital David wasn't going to make it. That broke Michael. They were always so close. Michael's death really affected David. He misses his brother like anything. Michael was loved by everyone and was the most caring, loving little boy.
"He was a shoulder to cry on. He would share his last chewing gum with you.The boys who did this have ruined our lives, the lives of our family and the lives of all his friends. They've ruined everybody."
Why was Michael attacked?
Michael’s killer told Maidstone Crown Court he hit his former pal because he wanted revenge.
He said a friend had been winding him up, saying Michael had been seeing his ex-girlfriend, and goading him to attack him.
The pair hid behind a metal container and then jumped on Michael as he walked past in the dark.
His killer said: "I punched him. It landed on the side of his face. It took him completely by surprise. I panicked, thinking Michael's going to get up and start punching me, so I kicked out."
He added: "I didn't mean to really hurt him bad or anything like that."
Alan Kent, prosecuting, said the killer later moaned that he thought he had broken his toe. He said 50 youths had gathered in the lower area of the park.
"It should have been a perfectly normal summer's evening but sadly it ended in tragedy and absolute devastation for the family and friends of Michael Chapman. Michael was unaware of what was going on. He didn't have a chance to defend himself."
Michael's brother David, 33, is now married with two young children and runs his own plastering business from Iwade. He said: "Even now, I can remember every single part of what happened that night."
He was 19 at the time.
He told the court he tried to grab one of the youths but felt something hit him in his back as they ran off. He did not recognise them because they were all wearing hoods. The court heard they ran home to get changed. Michael was pronounced dead at the scene.
The Chapmans are still hoping to tighten up the law and are appealing for any lawyers to get in touch to help their quest.
Mr Chapman said: "We don't know where to go or who to see. I am sure there are retired solicitors out there who could help us go through the court's paperwork to see if there are grounds to reopen the case."