How vile social media stole our son's life: Olly Stephens, 13
How vile social media stole our son’s life: Olly Stephens, 13, went to a park and never came back – a victim of wannabe gang members who glorified knives in sick online boasts. As his killers get ‘life’, the tragic teen’s parents speak out
Fifteen minutes was all it took for life as Amanda and Stuart Stephens knew it to be changed for ever. At 3.33pm on January 3, their 13-year-old son Olly left their Berkshire home and headed to the park across the road to meet a girl the same age.
‘He had left saying, “Don’t worry, Mum, love you,” and off he went,’ recalled Amanda.
So when there was a knock at the door quarter of an hour later she assumed it was the pair of them coming back.
But when she opened it, her son wasn’t there – just a boy he knew.
‘Olly has been stabbed,’ he told her.
Amanda ran, shouting those same four, terrible words to her husband.
Olly had been lured to the park in a carefully planned ambush. Judge Heather Norton thanked Olly’s parents for their quiet dignity in court, which she described as humbling
Stuart Stephens, the father of Olly Stephens, reads a statement outside Reading Crown Court
‘Stuart ran out without his shoes on, over to the field,’ the 52-year-old said. ‘And when I got there he just fell to his knees and he was screaming, “My boy, my boy” – and I looked over and Olly was just completely lifeless.’
Stuart’s memories of that moment are heart-breaking. ‘I wanted to be near him,’ he said. ‘I ran over to the field and there was a crowd of people surrounding Olly and I just remember the faces – everyone turning and looking at me and the horror just written on their faces.
‘I was kneeling in his blood, so I knew he had lost a lot of blood. Once I held his hand I knew he had gone.
‘Fifteen minutes before he was happy, laughing, joking,’ the 51-year-old added. ‘He had no idea what he was walking into. They are children. You don’t expect children to do that.’
Olly had been lured to the park in a carefully planned ambush.
The ‘cunning and manipulative’ girl was part of it, watching as he was attacked by two boys aged 13 and 14.
At some stage the younger child, who because of his age can only be identified as Boy A, drew a knife and stabbed Olly twice.
As he collapsed, onlookers rushed to help. But despite the efforts of paramedics and an air ambulance crew, he was pronounced dead in the park.
CCTV image issued by Thames Valley Police dated 3/1/2021 of Olly Stephens walking in Emmer Green
Yesterday at Reading Crown Court his killers – all three of whom are now 14 – were detained for a total of 28 years. Boy A and Boy B had been convicted of murder earlier. They received life sentences with minimum terms of 13 and 12 years respectively.
The girl had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to three years and two months in custody.
Judge Heather Norton thanked Olly’s parents for their quiet dignity in court, which she described as humbling.
‘I know the sentences I am about to give to these defendants will seem to you to be unbearably short,’ she told them. ‘For the defendants’ families, they will seem unbearably long. They are in no way a reflection of the worth of Olly. I know for you he is priceless.’
For the Stephens family that is not the end of the matter. Their one hope is that no other family endures their agony. As Amanda says: ‘We are broken.’
They are particularly angry about the role social media played in Olly’s death.
He was threatened on Snapchat, while on Instagram his killers posed and posted gang-related imagery.
Investigators at a forensic tent in Bugs Bottom field, Emmer Green, in Reading following the horrific ambush
For the Stephens family that is not the end of the matter. They are particularly angry about the role social media played in Olly’s death
‘It is a crazy situation,’ says Stuart. ‘You have companies based in San Francisco harvesting your children’s data and making a lot of money out of it and yet when a child dies they are not held accountable.
‘The only analogy I have for it is if you are a car manufacturer and you make a car and it has a faulty petrol tank or has faulty brakes and people die because of that, you are up in court, you are held to account. With social media no one is held to account and that to me is a big problem because our children are using these tools to threaten, harm and kill each other.’
Raised with his older teenage sister in a quiet cul-de-sac in Emmer Green, Reading, Olly enjoyed a happy, middle-class childhood. He was keen on skiing, fishing and particularly rugby, which he watched with his father at London Irish RUFC, where, at seven, he was the team’s mascot.
Always full of life, anything he approached he did so whole-heartedly.
‘For a quarter of the family he was 80 per cent of the entertainment,’ his father recalled this week as, seated beside his wife, they gave their first media interviews ahead of the sentencing hearing. ‘He gave everything a go.’ But moving to secondary school proved to be a challenge, with Olly failing to settle.
‘He loved the social side of school, but found the educational side very difficult,’ Stuart admits. Diagnosed with autism, in many ways the lockdowns came at a good time, allowing Olly to spend time at home where he would use any spare time perfecting wheelies on his bicycle.
But his family was less aware of the other side of Olly’s life – one conducted through a screen.
‘What we found is you think you know your child but you know a small percentage of what your child is doing,’ says Amanda. ‘We could see on the face of it Olly was in his bedroom on his Xbox. But, on his phone, when we saw how he was being spoken to in conversations it was absolutely horrific – you could almost say it was two worlds going on in one house.’
To be clear, this was no random killing by strangers. The girl was even known to Olly’s parents.
What makes his death even harder to understand is the age of those involved – children only recently turned teenagers arguing over a trivial, perceived slight.
The two boys, the court heard, believed Olly had been ‘talking behind our backs, saying things we haven’t done’ that might get them in trouble with some older boys. In fact, as Amanda observes, it was simply the case that Olly had been standing up for the underdog.
‘What came out of the court case was why they were so angry with him was because he had taken a screenshot of a younger boy being humiliated and shared it with that boy’s brother to try to protect him.
‘That was what Olly was like – he wouldn’t have liked that injustice.’
But in the boys’ minds, this was sufficient excuse to inflict violent retribution.
The plan was to force him to apologise and film that apology, a ‘ritual of embarrassment’ – and all because of some deluded belief that they were real gang members who had been ‘disrespected’. In reality, the lives of the two boys were also far from difficult. Raised by loving parents, Boy B was in all the top sets at school. Although the parents of Boy A were divorced he also had a stable background.
What makes his death even harder to understand is the age of those involved – children only recently turned teenagers arguing over a trivial, perceived slight
But on social media they tried to portray an image of themselves far removed from reality.
In one image seen by the Mail, Boy A poses on a scooter making a gang signal. He looks young enough to be at primary school.
Boy B had built up something of a fan club on Instagram, with one female follower even compiling a video based on images of him in a balaclava. It was entitled, ‘Ah, I cannot get over you’.
Footage recovered from their phones shows the boys mock fighting with a knife. A screenshot from a TikTok video showed a baguette with a knife inside it with the comment: ‘Ur baguetting stabbed.’
People watch the funeral procession of Olly Stephens as it slows at All Hallows Road
On January 1, two days before the murder, Boy B, wearing a balaclava, posted a video on Instagram in which he threatened to stab Olly with a ‘nank’ – slang for knife.
He warned: ‘You’ll see the knife go through the top of his skull… if he comes I promise you I’m poking a nank through his head.’
There were also recordings of raps involving street language to discuss knives, stabbing and burning clothes.
Messages exchanged on Snapchat over Christmas discussed how they could ‘set up’ Olly. ‘I’ll make him lick my shoe,’ Boy B said in a message. ‘I’ll just give him bangs or stab him or something. I don’t care.’
To lure Olly, they enlisted the girl, who was known to have fallen out with him, to bring him to the park.
She told the boys she didn’t care whether or not he ‘f****** dies’ and that whatever happened would be ‘karma’.
The online threats leading up to Olly’s stabbing formed the central plank of the case against the trio.
Within hours of his killing the boys tried to cover their tracks by deleting messages, photos, videos and social media accounts.
But, as Stuart reveals, it was already too late. On the night of Olly’s murder, his mother and sister went online to try to understand what had happened. ‘They were scouring social media and gathering a lot of evidence.
‘I believe some of the stuff our daughter gathered played a pivotal role in what the police were able to do,’ he said.
‘Where she found that strength from I don’t know.’
Boy B deleted 57 image files and 15 video files, and in a message to a girl Boy A called himself a ‘dead man’ before deleting Snapchat and Instagram.
What Olly’s family have since learned about the way in which social media is used by teenagers has made a lasting impression.
On the morning of the murder, Boy B confronted Olly on Snapchat calling him a ‘f*****’ and insulting his mother.
‘I don’t believe children under 16 should use it. They are not mature enough and not able to deal with the recriminations of things they say,’ Stuart says.
He adds: ‘They don’t understand what they are saying is illegal. It feeds the fire. There is a whole subculture out there. The gangster lifestyle looks glamorous to a 13-year-old. It’s not. It only ends in harm and danger. The way the internet is policed is inadequate to the degree where our children are slaughtering each other.’
He wants accounts to be linked to a credit card or other form of identification so the user’s identity can be established.
Stuart and Amanda Stephens, the parents of Olly Stephens, outside Reading Crown Court after two 14-year-old boys were sentenced to 13 years and 12 years respectively in a young offenders institution for the murder of the autistic 13-year-old
His wife adds: ‘Life has changed so dramatically from the year 2000 onwards. It is just escalating. You have all the Xbox and PlayStation games, a lot have knives in. It’s kind of almost desensitizing young children by the games they play. The music, some of what is said in that music, and then obviously images on social media. It is a perfect storm.’
As for the children who killed their son, Amanda says she does not feel hatred, explaining: ‘There isn’t a feeling of anger towards them, it’s just sadness at the situation that’s been created, and the loss for us and for everybody.’
But Stuart, who with his wife attended court every day, admits he found seeing the two boys with their parents particularly difficult.
‘They still have their children,’ he said. ‘They will be able to visit them, hug them, kiss them. We can’t. There is no way back for us. We have lost a massive part of our lives.
‘The moment Olly hit the ground he was forensic evidence really. To say goodbye to your child in the back of an ambulance when you can’t touch them, can’t hold them, can’t do anything – you had spent the day with them laughing and joking and then you see them lifeless. That is quite a moment.’
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