This young man was both victim and villain when he was stabbed to death in London’s West End in May.
We mourned Steven Bigby for one whole evening. For those few hours, his death at the hands of another young black man outside a McDonald’s on Oxford Street on a bright May day seemed shocking. Three days earlier, Jimmy Mizen, a 16 year-old from Lee, had died after his throat was cut with a shard of glass, and the media was awash with reports that London – with 26 teenage murders in 2007, and almost as many again in the first half of 2008 – was in the throes of an epidemic. A fatal knifing of a 22-year-old during Monday rush hour in the West End was all the confirmation we needed.
As pictures of Bigby’s last moments – his prostrate form surrounded by paramedics and shoppers – flowed onto our TV screens, details of the incident began to emerge. It was, said one unnamed police officer, Oxford Street’s first murder. An argument had erupted in McDonald’s between a group of young men who, like Steven, were from the Holly Street area of Hackney, and another group from Waltham Forest. A dirty look started it. Then a drink was thrown. The row escalated, but soon defused. On the way out of the restaurant, however, Bigby was stabbed, and died from a single wound to the heart. The murder weapon, a 4in knife stained red from hilt to tip, was found discarded on the pavement 50 metres from the scene.
But that was Monday. By Tuesday, the press had been informed of Bigby’s past. He was, said the authorities, “known to the police”, and a member of the north London gang Tugs from Around who was on bail for wounding with intent and violent disorder after an incident in Southgate in 2006 where a man was stabbed. More significantly, Bigby had just been bailed for the rape of a 16 year-old girl at a disused house on Anthill Road in Tottenham in January – a case with 10 co-defendants. The boys were also charged with throwing caustic soda onto the victim’s body in order to destroy DNA evidence of their crimes, an act that, the police said, had left the victim permanently disfigured.
Our sympathy was extinguished. Bigby was no longer a victim but a “violent rapist”. When an 18-year-old from Walthamstow, Anthony Costa, was charged with his murder two days later, Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail captured the prevailing mood. Bigby’s death, he wrote, was “no great loss. Sounds like whoever killed him did us all a favour”. Another blogger was more direct. “Shame we can’t just round up all the guys like him,” he wrote, “and let them stab each other to death.”
In the coming days and weeks, Bigby faded out of view. Our attention was drawn to other stabbing victims, more deserving of emotional investment – those with unblemished backgrounds or famous siblings. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of Bigby’s new status came when newspapers periodically published lists of the capital’s young murder victims. As often as not, Steven’s name was omitted.
Even on the streets of Hackney and Dalston, where Bigby grew up, his name became mud. Janet Williams, a community leader whose youth club, the Crib, has turned around the lives of hundreds of young people in the area – and who knew Bigby – says that when he died “people were shocked. But when they released that information about him, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t been convicted, no one cared about him no more. He’s not even mentioned now. He’s just another dead black guy. He’s history”.
Bigby’s life, and his murder, had not ceased to exist for everyone. To Charlotte Bigby, Steven was not a “violent rapist”. He was her big brother. An attractive girl of 19 whose amiable manner is occasionally hijacked by a sharp tongue, Charlotte is the youngest of three (her oldest brother, Andrew, a photographer, is 28). She is working in a bar in Old Street to make money for the start of her first year at Bath University, where she will study nursing from September. Despite her wariness of reporters, and although her mother and brother advised her against talking to me, we meet in a youth club in Hackney. “What could you write that is worse than what the newspapers have already written?” she asks.
With some difficulty, Charlotte then tells me what she can about Steven, or Biggz as everyone called him. She was, she says, very close to her older brother. “He was a character. He loved life,” she says. “He could talk for England. He made everybody laugh. He loved anything that would give him an adrenaline rush: his Yamaha R6 motorbike, or the gym. He loved his music.”
The family lived in Hackney, first in Homerton and then near the De Beauvoir estate. It was, and is, a tough place to grow up. “There’s a lot of poor people here, and a lot of people who don’t really want to go nowhere in life,” she says. “With the girls, there are a lot of young mothers. There’s a lot of people who are very materialistic. But it’s worse for the boys. It’s hard for a black guy to walk down the street. He has to keep his head down if he wants to stay out of trouble.”
Since Charlotte was a child, her family has only had one parent. Her father “pissed off” when she was little, leaving her mother, Pearl, to look after the children. To do so, Pearl sometimes worked three jobs: as a carer for the elderly, a part-time receptionist, and as a cleaner on the weekends. “It got too much for her,” says Charlotte. She suffered from depression and gave up work eight years ago. “That’s when the problems started. Mum had really gone downhill. She tried her best for us, and she didn’t have it easy, but we started thinking, ‘Where are we going to get our money?’ From when I was 15, I’ve worked as a waitress.
“I think that’s the reason Steven was always thinking about money. I remember, when I was younger, I wanted drama lessons, and it was expensive. Mum couldn’t pay for it, so Steven started paying it for me. It was about £ 100 a month. I don’t know where he was getting the money, but he always got it. He said he used to work on a market stall in Dalston, selling phones and batteries for some Asian guy, but who knows?”
At the time Steven started to shoulder some of the family’s financial burden, he was a pupil at the Hackney Free and Parochial secondary school, where he was in the top sets for a number of subjects, and left, at 16, with a handful of GCSE passes. Janet Williams remembers taking Bigby on several trips over this period. “When I met him, he was always a really nice young kid. He was a lot like the others – he’d move with the crowd. He was very respectful and would always say hello to me. You can normally tell when you go on a trip who the troublemakers are going to be. He wasn’t one of them.”
At school, Bigby had been good at design and woodwork, and, like many of his friends, he was enthusiastic about music. But his mother wanted him to study business and economics. He agreed to enrol in a business course at BSix Brooke House college, in Hackney, but soon became frustrated. This, says Charlotte, is when the serious arguments between Steven and his mother began. Pearl was adamant that he should pursue a career in business. Steven had other ideas.
When he was 18 or 19, he left home for the first time, although, for the remainder of his life, he would return every few months. While he was away, he would live in rented accommodation around Tottenham and Edmonton, “and then the rent would get too much,” says Charlotte, “and he would come back. Plus, he can’t cook or nothing, so he needed my mum. He thought he was all grown up, but he wasn’t”.
What did he do for money when he was away? Here, she pauses. “He used to make money from doing music at raves and stuff like that,” she says. Later, she tells me what really brought the cash in. “He used to do robberies,” she says. “He used to rob brothels, drug dealers, bad people. I don’t think he hurt anyone. It was dirty money, he always used to say, so what did it matter if he took it?”
Wasn’t Charlotte worried about him? “Sometimes, but he was a tough guy,” she says. “And you know what? Even though he did those things, he was a kind person. Any money he got, he shared it with me. He would always try to give my mother money but she would never take it. So I would, and then I would pay the bills.”
When we meet again a week later, Charlotte is keen to clarify this point: “I’m not saying he was an angel. But I understood why he did what he did. There are guys out there who do what they do so they can buy a gold chain. They’re about themselves. Steven wasn’t like that. He did it so he could look after his family – so his mum could pay the bills, so his sister could go to drama school.”
If Larry Cox, a 26-year-old semi-professional footballer who grew up with Steven in Hackney knew about this part of his life, he doesn’t let on. “I don’t know how he got his money,” says Cox. “Probably signing on. He definitely wasn’t into the gang scene around here. There was a group of us guys who grew up together, who drink together, who rave together, who play football together. We’re just friends. But everyone sees 10 black guys together and thinks ‘That’s a gang.’ ”
Cox says Bigby was desperate to make it as a rapper and producer. Was he any good? “He was okay,” says Cox. “But, you know, there’s a lot of competition.” In fact, Bigby was meant to be visiting a studio on the day he died, but missed the bus. Instead, he, Larry and three friends headed into the West End to buy trainers at Foot Locker, before stopping by McDonald’s on the way home.
When Bigby was stabbed, Larry saw him pitch forward, mutter something inaudible, and then collapse. He then held his friend as he died. “Biggz basically went in my arms,” he remembers. “I was looking into his eyes, and I was trying to stem the blood. He couldn’t say anything. The ambulance arrived quick, but it was his heart. I knew. It’s been hard to deal with.”
Bigby had been bailed on his rape charge a fortnight before his murder. In the time between leaving prison and his death, Larry saw him twice: once, watching the final day of the Premiership in a pub in Hackney, and once on the day he took his last trip to the West End. In that time, he and Larry had talked about the allegations. “We didn’t go into detail, but he was adamant he was going to clear his name,” says Larry.
Bigby’s co-defendants are set to go on trial in October and, before a verdict has been reached, comment on the case is restricted. We will never know what a jury would have made of Bigby’s defence, because the indictment against him was quashed following his death. Bigby’s co-defendants have all pleaded not guilty to two charges of rape and one of GBH.
What is clear, from talking to Bigby’s friends, is that he didn’t like to discuss the allegations against him. Perhaps he was ashamed. Certainly, his girlfriend for the last six months of his life, Natanya Williams, 19, from Hackney, had not talked about it with him in any depth. He simply told Natanya, who is training to be a social worker, that he had been falsely accused, and she believed him. “For me to start asking him questions about it would have been pointless,” she says. “Because I knew the truth in my heart.” In fact, when Natanya and Steven were together, they stayed away from inflammatory subjects.
“When he was around me, it wasn’t about what he does with his life, it was about him and me,” she explains. “We’d go and sit down together in a park and have a laugh and a giggle. He was a really social person – he’d always pick you up if you were feeling down. I’d be lying if I said I ever saw him do anything wrong, because I didn’t.
“He talked about getting a job, he talked about getting his music career going. He was trying to put it all together, but it was taking him some time. I remember we used to talk about me and him starting to go to church. I’d always been when I was growing up, but when I got to college I stopped because of all the coursework and everything. But I’d talked to Steven about him coming with me and he said he would.”
When the news of Steven’s death broke, Natanya travelled into town, to where he was killed. A few bunches of flowers lay against the scaffolding outside McDonald’s, and she added her own. Over the next few days, she read what was written in the press about her boyfriend, but her anger came second to her grief. “I didn’t care what the news said about him,” she says. “I just didn’t want the fact of him dying to be true. I wanted them to say it had been someone else. I wanted my phone to ring, and for it to be him.”
When Charlotte puts me in touch with her brother’s friend Marc Earl, I assume it is because he will present a rosy picture of Steven. But his testimony is brutally straightforward. Small, with a wiry frame and razor-sharp patter, Marc is 21, works for House of Fraser as a sales assistant, and lives in a small flat in Walthamstow. He is known as Marc Five among his friends because he has five children – by two different mothers. Bigby was, he says, “a blinding bloke”. He was also a fellow member of the peripatetic north London gang Tugs from Around.
TFA used to stand for Tugs from Africa, because of the exclusively African make-up of its members, but the gang’s policies have grown more inclusive. It is now called Tugs from Around because they reject the postcode parochialism of other more established gangs. Unlike organisations like the Tottenham Man Dem, which protects and “reps” a particular patch of Tottenham, the TFA are drawn from all over north and east London, so nobody is punished for wandering into their turf.
“It’s more like a family,” explains Marc. “It’s a brotherhood. We take care of each other. If one of us hasn’t got something, we get it for him. You rely on each other, not just financially, but for stability, for emotional support. It’s got a lot of gang culture about it because we all wear the same kind of clothes and we’re about making money, but it’s also got a lot of things you wouldn’t put with gang culture.”
Marc met Steven six years ago when he saw him robbing passengers on a 230 bus from Tottenham Hale to Walthamstow Central. Marc liked what he saw and, when Steven left the bus, ran after him to say hello. They became close. When Marc asked Steven to become his son’s godfather, they became “brothers”. And though Marc is unnervingly sanguine about the sins in his friend’s life, he wishes people would “give him credit for the good things that he done”.
“He was a great godparent,” he says. “He was at the christening, he’d come to every birthday, he’d always be there when I needed him. If my son needed nappies, or some other trivial thing, Biggz would get it for him. He’d give me a hand buying clothes. That was the kind of guy he was, very family orientated. I know he wanted to become a dad at some point, but he wasn’t ready for the responsibility. So he could come round to mine, play at being a dad for a few hours, and then leave.”
But that wasn’t the whole story. “You know and I know that he did some things in his life,” says Marc. “Definitely. And I wasn’t with Biggz 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He might have done a lot of things I don’t know about.” He was with him enough to know that Bigby was a “hungry guy”. “I ain’t going to lie to you about that. If he had no money in his pocket, he couldn’t see someone walk past him with money.”
Perhaps this explains why other young men in Tottenham and Edmonton – those outside the membership of TFA – held him in such low esteem. Two or three contacted me, on condition of anonymity, to accuse Bigby of scamming younger boys out of drugs, or money, or both. He was, they say, a “wasteman” and a “dickhead”.
Bigby’s lifestyle was always going to make him enemies, especially because his criminal career started young. He and Marc began by doing small-time street robberies, or SRs as they called them, and moved on to robbing “shotters”, or drug dealers. By the time of Steven’s death, they had robbed security vans, brothels and crack dealers – although Marc insists they threw away the crack once they’d taken it, because “no one wants that stuff on the streets”. Steven also made some money on the side dealing small amounts of skunk.
Marc insists Bigby was a good person. How does this litany of illegal behaviour make him so? “He was a human being,” says his friend. “We all make mistakes. Good people do bad things. He was reliable and trustworthy. He was a good guy. If you knew him, he cared about you. If he didn’t know you, he didn’t give a shit about you, the same way no one gives a shit about him now he’s dead.
“All the time I knew him, he applied for jobs. I saw him go for interviews at JD Sports and Foot Locker. But by the end, his criminal record meant no one would employ him. They’d never have given him a job where he had to handle money. He thought music was his way out of being on the streets, but basically I think he gave up on life.”
To those closest to him, however, his life was worth something. And, in the warped logic of the street, whoever killed him will have to pay a debt. There is, says one friend, a £ 1,000 price on the head of Anthony Costa, the boy standing trial for his murder. The incident has also created tensions between Steven’s friends from north London and the boys in Holly Street, because the TFA believe Steven would still be alive if they had been with him on May 12.
“When the altercation started, we would have got on top of it right away,” says Marc. How? “We would have pulled out our shanks. I guarantee, two or three of the people Biggz was with had a knife. Maybe one had a little .38 handgun. We would have got on top of the situation.”
If one needed more proof of how casually violence is administered on these testosterone-heavy streets, one only has to look at a curious side-story of this murder. On the night following Bigby’s death, another boy from Holly Street, who lived close to Pearl and Charlotte, was stabbed. He had been with Steven on the day he was killed, but at the time the police said the incident was unrelated to the Oxford Street murder. Marc is certain it was retaliation by Hackney gang members who felt that Steven’s friends had left him to die.
What is hard to understand about Bigby’s fall from grace is how it ever began. He did not have the easiest upbringing, but it was not the toughest either. His mother cared for him and tried to keep him on the right track. His sister is hardworking and ambitious. He had stated his desire to get off the street and find a proper career. He was clever. Where did it go wrong?
“Well, he used to talk about his mum, his sister, his brother a lot,” says Marc. “But he never talked about his dad. It’s maybe an obvious thing, but he had no father figure. He looked up a lot to the older gangsters in Holly Street. And when he got older, he liked the fact that he was big, so people gave him a little bit of respect straightaway. He was all about respect. I think that’s maybe what killed him. He puffed out his chest to the wrong guy.”
Bigby understood he was not an angel. And, behind his braggadocio, Marc tells me his friend was looking for a better path. When he was in his late teens, Bigby, who was from a Christian family, thought about having a cross tattooed on his arm to affirm his faith. Marc was also going to do it if Steven did. But they backed out. Steven constantly doubted Christianity, and by the time of his death felt that “God had given up on him”. He had even, on his last stint in prison, inquired about Islam, although it is not clear how far these inquiries progressed.
If this story appears to be at odds with Natanya’s account of Steven’s willingness to go to church with her, it shouldn’t. He was, it seems, struggling for answers.
Indeed, Charlotte tells a story about a meal with him in the West End, shortly before his death, in which he waxed uncharacteristically philosophical: “He started saying, ‘You know what, Charlotte, I want to wake up one day and change my life.’ He started getting really deep. He said, ‘You know what my problem is? I always fall off track. I’m not focused. I need to get back to college. I want to be a better person.'” Right then and there, says Charlotte, Steven walked outside with a wad of banknotes, and gave them to a homeless man sitting outside the restaurant. She was furious. It was not Steven, after all, who had to pay the gas and electricity. She said to him, “That money should have gone into our account,” but he wasn’t listening.
Are all these stories true? Perhaps I have been offered something to sweeten the stench of Steven’s past, although it seems strange that three friends should offer contradictory but credible instances of Steven’s spiritual leanings independently. What does it change? Even if he were on the brink of some kind of epiphany, it does not excuse his prior actions. Perhaps, as all those commentators said in the wake of Bigby’s murder, he was an utterly worthless human being.
I prefer his sister’s summary, that “There was both good and bad in him.” Over the weeks that I talked to Bigby’s intimates, many facts were omitted, but his true character was never utterly disguised. While nobody condoned his faults, they also knew they were inescapably part of Steven’s life. But, whatever the state of his moral accounts sheet, a problem remains: Bigby’s many lives do not add up. Who could say what he was? Was he a rapist? A rapper? A family man? A robber? A drug dealer? A devoted brother? A gangster? A trustworthy friend? A scammer? A penitent? The tragedy of what happened to Bigby on that bright May afternoon is that he will never have the chance to find out.