How Corby is coming to terms with its first child murder in 25 years: 'Nobody is going to step up to protect you'
'It’s important to put yourself in the position of a 15-year-old who feels they need to carry a knife, just to walk down the road'
A wintry evening in George Street, and a handful of diehard teens are standing outside McDonald's despite the bitterly cold temperatures.
They don't want to say much, and when I tell them why I'm there - to ask them why kids in Corby feel they need to carry knives - they pull their hoods up a little further.
These boys knew Rayon Pennycook, who was aged just 16 when he was stabbed to death on May 25 after some teens ran from this spot in the town centre to Reynolds Road. There, they were joined by a defendant who stabbed the 16-year-old to death.
"If you're in a fight and the other kid's carrying something then you need something to protect yourself," says one of them.
"You don't go somewhere to deliberately shank someone, do you?"
And are they thinking twice after what happened to Rayon?
"Nah, I think we need knives more," says a pal. "There's a lot happening in Corby at the moment. You could get started on wherever. Nobody is going to step up to protect you. You need to protect yourself."
Less than 24 hours after our conversation, a jury will return a verdict of murder against the 17-year-old boy who killed Rayon.
During the two-week trial, Northampton Crown Court heard how the group went to the Hazel Leys estate to confront Rayon, following a fist fight between two girls. Rayon came out of the house with a knife and the defendant took out his own knife before stabbing the younger boy in the chest, severing the main artery to his heart.
Despite the very best efforts of all those involved, Rayon could not be saved.
His murderer went to Pure Gym, changed, got rid of his clothes, bag, and the knife, and went home. Cruelly, he has never explained why he did what he did. He no-commented his way through three police interviews and refused to give evidence at his own trial, heaping event more pain on Rayon's family, for whom the what-ifs must surely be too painful to contemplate.
Of course, knife crime is not confined to Corby and, in fact, knives have historically not been as big a problem in Corby as in other large towns.
Home Office figures last month revealed that there are two knife-related assaults every day taking place in Northamptonshire. In the year up to June 2021, police recorded 724 serious knife crimes in the county, including two murders, 369 assaults involving injury and 24 knife-related rapes or sexual offences.
But no child has ever been stabbed to death before Rayon in our town and the last teen to die at the hands of other children was 25 years ago in 1996 when Louise Allen, 13, was tragically kicked to death at the fair by some girls her own age.
And if you had a preconceived idea about what 'type' of child carries a knife, you'd probably be wrong.
Rayon Pennycook was from a caring home, surrounded by the love of his eight siblings and his large extended family. After his death his parents described him as a talented artist, the life and soul of their family gatherings and a gifted sportsman who was in his school's basketball team.
His parents said that they felt his loss every day and that they didn't want their son to become a statistic.
On the night he died, he believed he was protecting a girl he loved.
Kerry Prior, the interim school leader at Corby Business Academy, said Rayon was a 'bright, kind-hearted and creative young man who built strong relationships with many members of our student community and teachers'.
His family attended court every day, were dignified, united, and respectful toward the process, despite how unspeakably painful if must have been for them to sit in the same room every day as they boy who killed their son. After tensions rose in Corby in the weeks after their son's death, they appealed for calm because they did not want anyone else to get hurt.
The defendant, who cannot be named as he is still 17, and his family were equally as close. Like so many in Corby, his house had a home-made rainbow in the window as a sign of solidarity with the NHS and, in the days following the murder, neighbours told this newspaper he was a 'nice boy'.
The 17-year-old also misguidedly believed he was defending a girl he was close to on the night he went to Reynolds Road armed with a knife.
During the trial, his headteacher gave a statement saying that his attendance was excellent, and that he always presented as a 'respectful, quiet and polite young man,' with an 'unblemished school record'.
He had spent his school holidays working in a factory in Corby. His manager there said they were 'shocked' by what had happened and claimed it 'wasn't a true reflection' of the boy they knew.
His father, on finding out that his son had stabbed another boy, put him in the car and took him straight to the police station. In court, an elder male relative sobbed throughout the summing-up.
During the trial, the boy's barrister, Timothy Clark QC, tried to tell the jury his client was acting in reasonable self-defence.
He said that all the counsel working on the case were parents.
"We know that being a parent means spending the rest of your life being concerned at the harm that could come to your children. None of us can imagine how much pain his parents are in now. It's important that the family and friends of Rayon know that he's not on trial - the defendant is. The public should know your verdict is not a verdict on Rayon Pennycook.
However, the jury did not agree with his summary of the evidence as a 'clear-cut case of self-defence' and after more than two days of deliberations, returned a verdict of guilty of murder.
The boy concerned is now facing a life sentence when he returns to the court in January.
Since Rayon's death, Corby-based East Midlands Knife Amnesty has been working hard in the community to get knives off the streets, and to put bleed control kits at key locations in the town. They've also been into educational establishments to talk to kids about the dangers of knife-carrying.
The group helped organise a march through the streets of the Hazel Leys estate in October, to show solidarity with the town's young people.
Local councillor Zoe McGhee, who made it her mission to improve life for young people living on the Hazel Leys and Kingswood estates when she was elected just three weeks before Rayon's death, said that she believed there were deep-rooted societal issues that needed to be addressed to support young people and divert them away from knife-carrying
"My thoughts are with the families involved in the tragic events," she said.
"I think it’s so important for the community to be recognised for our commitment and passion to protecting young people. I love visiting the young people and youth workers at Kingswood Neighbourhood Centre.
"The work they do providing support and outlet for our young people is vital. I feel I have learnt that a crucial source of support is trained detached youth workers, who are local people, that can relate to our young people.
"I am a huge advocate for extending youth provision across the county, every young person deserves that support.
"The inspiration for my first speech to full council came from a passionate resident sharing a harrowing story about a young person involved in a serious knife crime incident in Hazel Leys.
"She painted a terrifying picture of a teenager with blood running from his head running down the street. I understand that residents are in fear of knife crime. I also think it’s important to put yourself in the position of a 15-year-old young person who feels they need to carry a knife, just to walk down the road.
"Or that young person running and bleeding, only then can anyone begin to imagine how our young people must feel.
"It is important to stress that so often there is a quick reaction from authorities and police - ‘we must do something’ - but these inputs can be very short lived.
"It takes time to build up trust, but just as projects start to have an impact the funding runs out and the community loses faith. We must make a long term commitment to our children and young people.
"I am in awe of Corby and the way the community is coming together to tackle knife crime. The march in October, organised by the brilliant East Midlands Knife Amnesty, was a huge moment for us to all stand up and take ownership of our town. It was so important to shout to anyone involved or worried about knife crime, that we care and will do all we can to prevent another tragedy."
The five boys with the defendant, and the two girls they were defending, had no knives. They are all continuing their lives, albeit forever altered
Of the two carrying knives, one had his life cut short and the other is facing life in prison. If ever there were a deterrent to carrying knives then this is it. And if anything positive can emerge from the shattering of so many lives, then it is the hope that teens in Corby and beyond will put down their knives after hearing the harrowing details of what happened on that spring evening in Reynolds Road.
Following the conclusion of the case, senior investigating officer Det Insp Pete Long said: “While I welcome this conviction, there can be no winners in a case like this – one young person has tragically lost their life, causing utter devastation to their family and friends, and another faces a significant prison term and having to live with the outcome of their actions forever.
“The circumstances of this case demonstrate just how dangerous it is to carry a knife – Rayon died from a single stab wound which caused catastrophic blood loss. His family have had to listen to the often-distressing facts of the case, including details of the injury which led to his death, and are still deeply grieving their beloved boy.
“Rayon’s family have been incredibly supportive of our investigation and have remained extremely dignified throughout the whole process of bringing the case to court. I have been so impressed by their composure during such a difficult time.
“It’s no exaggeration to say the ripple effects of Rayon’s death are still being felt by all those involved, and the wider Corby community. Our thoughts remain with Rayon’s family and friends at this desperately difficult time.”