We hugged the thugs who kicked our son to death… then found one a job
The most extraordinary — and deeply moving — story of forgiveness you will ever read
01:41 GMT, 13 September 2012
On a balmy day in July last year, three people sat down to share tea and biscuits together in a Surrey community hall. Ray and Violet Donovan, a smart, middle-aged couple, listened to a softly-spoken, suited young man tell them of his dreams and plans for the future.
After three hours of laughing together and sharing confidences, they all embraced — and made fond promises that they would never lose touch. Nobody could ever have guessed that the young man hugged so lovingly that day by Ray and Violet was one of a gang who had murdered their son, Christopher, and destroyed the family life they held so dear.
The fact the Donovans agreed to meet the man who kicked their son to death in May 2001 is extraordinary enough. But when they tell you how he callously laughed while on trial as they sat in court paralysed with grief, their compassion is almost impossible to comprehend.
Compassion: Vi and Ray forgave their son Chris's killers and will even go to the Christening when one of them has a baby
Vi — as she’s known to friends and family — understands only too well why some people would find this strange.
She says: ‘When Ray first said he wanted to forgive the killers, Chris had only been dead a few hours. I screamed and swore and raged at him. I wanted to tear into the killers, the way they had torn my son away from me.
‘But a few weeks later I realised the only way we could ever continue living our own lives was to forgive. Even so, for nine years, I remembered how that teenage boy who had killed Chris swaggered into court and laughed.
‘But when we met him for tea last summer, he had served his time, spent eight and a half years in prison, and he wanted to tell us how sorry he was. Ray took him in his arms, and he sobbed.
‘That was when justice was finally done — not in the courtroom, but over a cup of tea with a young man who had finally carved out a future for himself.’
Ray and Vi, who live in Surrey, married in 1971 when Ray was 20 and Vi 18. Their son, Louis, was born in October 1972, daughter Amanda a year later.
'The gang of teenagers, high on drink and drugs, had picked on Chris simply because he was singing'
In the mid-Seventies, the couple divorced. Ray says: ‘We had married so young, and didn’t know what we wanted in life. But we met up again after our divorce and realised we were meant for each other.’
After a miscarriage, Vi gave birth to Chris in May 1983. Ray says: ‘He was a symbol of new hope. When they handed him to me I was on such a high that I promised him the world.
‘He had a little kiss-curl, and he was perfect. We’d been so shaken by the miscarriage that Chris was really special.’
His brother, Phil, was born 11 months later, and the boys did everything together. ‘Chris could be a rascal — when he was 12 I caught them bunking off school, hiding in a wardrobe,’ remembers Ray. ‘But even as a little boy, he had a heart of gold. Before he died, he won a holiday to Paris in a radio competition. He could have taken any girl he wanted — he was a handsome boy — but he said: “Mum and Dad, you need it.”’
On April 28, 2001, Ray and Vi remarried. Life seemed pretty much perfect. Then, a month later, on May 25, 18-year-old Chris went out with Phil, 17, for the evening. When the doorbell rang after midnight, Ray found two policemen standing there. They said there had been a fight, and Chris was badly injured.
He had been walking down a nearby street with Phil, innocently singing Champagne Supernova by Oasis. A gang of nine youths attacked Phil for no reason and when Chris tried to help his brother, he was kicked to the ground as well.
The gang used Chris’s head as a football, throwing his unconscious body into the road where he was hit then dragged along by a car. As Phil regained consciousness, he saw his brother disappear under the wheels.
Ray says: ‘At the hospital Vi and I sat waiting while they operated, but when the doctors returned and I saw their faces, I knew what they were going to say.’
Chris was dead — and the distraught couple were asked to identify their son’s body. ‘We were told we couldn’t hug him — we couldn’t even touch him,’ says Ray. ‘I asked: “Can I just kiss his forehead” and they let me do that. I kissed him, just as he had kissed me hours earlier when he went out that night.
‘We didn’t want to leave him so we just sat outside in the hospital grounds. It was like some ghastly nightmare.’
Victim: Chris was just 18 when he was murdered by a gang in a mindless and unprovoked attack
A friend arrived to drive the couple home — and it was during that journey that Ray first suggested they forgive the men who had killed their son.
Vi, 59, says: ‘Ray said: “In order to get through this, we are going to have to forgive the boys who killed Chris.” He feared that if we didn’t find a way to forgive, the bitterness and anger would only destroy us.
‘But I had so much rage, it just boiled over. I started screaming and swearing at Ray. I accused him of being disloyal to Chris. I stayed like a volcano about to erupt for a very long time.
‘During those first weeks I couldn’t eat or sleep. I still can’t bear to think of the pain that Chris must have been in.’
The couple’s agony was compounded by the fact that Chris’s brain had to be removed for forensic tests — so it was 16 weeks before they could bury their son.
As Vi admits she, Ray and Phil were each lost in private grief. Then, one day, Ray said: “We are in this together, and whatever we are feeling, we should share it.” From that moment, we began to talk, and we discovered we were all feeling the same wretched way. It united us. We found a common strength.’
Three youths were arrested soon after the murder and a year later, when they were found guilty, Phil and Vi were sitting in court.
They heard how the gang of teenagers, high on drink and drugs, had picked on Chris simply because he was singing and had aimed ‘penalty kicks’ at his head as he lay dying on the floor. The judge described the attack as ‘gratuitous, alcohol-provoked mob violence’.
Phil says: ‘They swaggered into court and laughed, which hurt. It was only when they were sentenced that their laughter stopped.
‘I went to the canteen and a man followed me. He looked grief-stricken. He told me his son was the eldest of the attackers and held out his arms, expecting me to hit him. Instead, I hugged him.
‘The police had told us they were a decent family whose son started running with the wrong crowd. Their world had fallen apart too.’
That father’s son, who was 19 at the time, served nine years in prison. The 16-year-old attacker served ten years, and the youngest assailant, aged 15 at the time, served eight-and-a-half years. Incredibly, last year, Ray and Vi met two of the killers separately.
'If we didn’t find a way to forgive, the bitterness and anger would only destroy us'
Ray, 61, says: ‘After the court case, Vi and I decided we wanted something positive to emerge from Chris’s death. We set up the Chris Donovan Trust and started going into prisons and schools trying to make people aware that one single action causes this appalling ripple effect which changes lives forever.’
Then, in 2010, they were approached by the charity CALM — Confidential and Local Mediation — which arranges mediation between people in turmoil. They asked if the Donovans would like to meet their son’s killers.
They agreed, and in July last year found themselves face-to-face with the youngest assailant.
Ray says: ‘He walked into the community hall and held his hand out to shake mine, but I stepped forward to hug him instead, and he started weeping.
‘He told us he’d been walking at the front of the gang, had turned to see what was going on, and had started hitting Chris too. He had simply been following his friends, who he was trying to impress.
‘We told him what we went through, and he wept. He said: “I didn’t know you had to wait 16 weeks to bury him.”
‘This lad showed genuine remorse. He had already been released from prison, so it was no false display to gain parole. He had studied in jail, and gained qualifications. He wore a suit for our meeting, and he was a handsome, fresh-faced boy — so different from the teenager who had swaggered in court.
‘He wanted to make something of his life, and when he told me he was looking for work, I found him a job as an art curator. He’s doing well.’
The remarkable couple then met a second killer — the eldest of the gang, who was 19 at the time — in May this year. He explained that he’d seen his friends begin to attack Chris, and, high on drugs, had simply joined in without thinking.
He told Ray he was starting work on a building site. Ray, a retired cleaning manager, says: ‘I passed on a piece of advice. I said: “Dirty your tools, son. If you walk on site with gleaming tools, they can guess you’re the one who was in prison.”
Trying to move on: Vi and Ray have set up the Chris Donovan Trust in the hope something positive can come from their son's death
‘I want him to be a success. I want his life to have turned around. He’s no longer on the crack cocaine and alcohol which made him act with such mindless violence. His girlfriend is pregnant, and he’s going to be a dad. We told him we’d like to go to the Christening.’
Vi and Ray’s diary has become an unrelenting round of prison talks and meetings. Around 18,000 copies of their pamphlet, Five Minutes Of Madness, A Lifetime Of Regret’, have been distributed to jails.
They’ve now been asked to devise a similar pamphlet for schoolchildren. Ray says: ‘A headmistress told me children as young as five are arming themselves with knives and joining gangs. So we go into schools and tell them how lives can change with just one silly action.’
Ray and Vi travel many miles every day, meeting some of the toughest and most notorious criminals in the country.
Ray says: ‘When Chris died, our friends drifted away. Nobody knew what to say to us any more. Now we have more friends who are prison inmates than we have friends on the outside.’
Vi, a retired cleaner, admits: ‘I still feel cheated. I look at my grandchildren and wonder about the children Chris would have had.
‘His favourite song — David Gray’s This Year’s Love — was about falling in love, and I’ll never know who he would have married. Christmas is never the same, and we dread having to tell our grandchildren how Uncle Chris died.
‘But I have a vision of Chris, looking down on us and being proud of his mum and dad. That’s what keeps me going.’