Murder trial reveals brutality of the drugs underworld

For livestock farmer Michael Irving, there was nothing unusual in his early start on July 24 last year as he prepared for a day’s work on his land around Blackwell, a short drive south of Carlisle’s southern boundary. It was 4.40am. Yet over the next hour, his day became anything but ordinary.

First, he heard the sound of car tyres on gravel. Through a window, he glimpsed a black pickup truck driving past his home, along the lane towards his fields beside the River Caldew. Then he heard a “ping” – a gate-chain breaking, perhaps.

Concerned for his cattle, Mr Irving investigated. It took him ten minutes to dress and get out to his quad bike. Reaching the lane, he saw no sign of the pickup.

The gate into the field had been forced open, its broken locking chain snapped and left where it fell. After rounding up his cattle and feeding them, Mr Irving noticed fresh tyre-marks across the field – so he followed them. Minutes later, Mr Irving was standing on the riverbank, staring in horror at the body of a young man, lying face down in the river.

It was 5.23am. In a state of shock, he dialled 999. The discovery of Lee McKnight’s body triggered a huge murder investigation, leading detectives into the sordid and dangerous underworld of Carlisle’s drugs trade.

Within weeks, six people had been charged with murdering 26-year-old Lee McKnight. His body – partially wrapped in curtains – bore heartbreaking testimony to the brutality of the city’s drugs underworld. Over the last seven weeks, Carlisle Crown Court has peered into its dark heart.

Prosecuting QC Tim Cray set out the basic facts of this tragedy. Lee was dabbling in street dealing, selling cannabis and cocaine to contacts. He was also in debt to a higher-level dealer – 26-year-old Jamie Davison, who clearly had big ambitions – but he was under pressure for cash from his “upstream” suppliers.

Weeks before Lee McKnight died, a friend of his was visited by Davison and two “scary” strangers, one brandishing a baseball bat and the other a large spanner. “Evil” was the word used by the man whose home they barged into. Increasingly fearful for his safety, Lee went into hiding. But in the early hours of July 24, this simmering conflict finally caught up with him – and exploded into horrific violence.

The prosecution case was that Lee was “lured” to a terraced house in Charles Street, Carlisle, by Coral Edgar, 26, who along with her drug-addicted mother Carol, 47, was a regular customer for his drugs. At 2.40am on July 24, moments after Lee walked through the front door, he was attacked. Over the next two hours, he was subjected to horrific violence – a beating so severe that he was left with nine rib fractures, a fractured skull, and 36 injuries on his head alone.

Of these, 18 were “significant wounds,” said Home Office pathologist Dr Brian Rogers. The many injuries were consistent with him having been repeatedly punched, kicked, stamped on and attacked with a riding whip. He was, according to Dr Rogers, beaten “to the point of death.” But the pathology evidence showed he was still breathing when he was thrown into the river, but was so badly injured he was powerless to save himself.

He drowned. The prosecution case is that Lee was attacked in Charles Street by three men: Davison, and two men he recruited as “extra muscle”, 26-year-old Arron Graham and his pal Jamie Lee Roberts, then just 17. Coral Edgar was accused of being the “lure”, deployed to get Lee into the house where Davison was sofa-surfing.

She achieved this, suggested the prosecution, by promising Lee sex. Her mother Carol – hopelessly addicted to hard drugs – let the killers use her Nissan Navara pickup to move Lee. Jamie Lee’s father Paul Roberts, 51, a man with a long history of drug-related offending, admitted helping his son, going to Charles Street to give him a fresh outfit before destroying bloodstained clothes.

Over recent weeks, the Carlisle Crown Court jury who heard the case were given graphic – and at times disturbing – details of Lee’s last hours. The key player was Jamie Davison, a drug-dealing middleman whose associates allegedly called him “Mr Carlisle” – perhaps more an expression of his aspiration rather than any reality. “Drug dealing is a violent business,” said Mr Cray.

“Dealers cannot exactly go to the police or the courts to resolve money disputes. “Such disputes are overwhelmingly likely to end in violence when someone refused to pay up.” Just how brutal such violence can be was laid bare in the early morning of July 24 last year in Coral Edgar’s home.

Despite the efforts of those involved to cover up what they did, the police officers who later searched the Charles Street house where Lee was attacked found evidence of a savage and prolonged attack. Investigators say the house was “covered in blood”. At some point, as he was being attacked, Lee was probably tied to a chair, it was suggested.

His injuries were so severe, said Mr Cray, that he looked like a “torture victim”. “Think about what must have been going on,” Mr Cray told the jury. “Nobody at this point thought: ‘He’s still alive so we’ll get medical help; we’ll dial 999’; or even ‘we’ll just take him up to the hospital and dump him outside’.

Nobody does anything like that. “There was plenty of time to do that if anybody had cared at all for Lee – but none of them did the decent thing. We say that’s further evidence that they were all prepared to do Lee serious harm.”

One of most shocking aspects of this crime is what happened next. Bleeding heavily, probably unconscious, but still breathing, Lee was utterly helpless after his beating at Charles Street. Rather than get him the medical help he needed, Lee’s torturers chose to dump him.

It was an indescribably callous – and ultimately murderous – act. Lee was wrapped in a curtain, bundled into the Nissan, and driven to the river near Cummersdale. Powerless to help himself after being dragged from the Nissan and thrown into the water, Lee drowned.

The aftermath of this tragedy was unseemly. None of the six accused accepted responsibility. Like a “circular firing squad”, they blamed each other.

Davison said it was Jamie Lee Roberts – armed with a knuckleduster – who went “over the top” with violence. He said it was Roberts senior who took Lee McKnight to hospital. Jamie Lee Roberts – 17 at the time of Lee’s death – blamed Davison, allegedly calling him a “psychopath”.

Graham insisted that he was not at Charles Street when Mr McKnight was attacked and had nothing to do with removing him from the property. Coral Edgar said she was too terrified to intervene when Mr McKnight was attacked and only saw him being punched near to her front door. During the violence, Coral – battling with addiction and multiple mental health issues – said she had curled up in a chair, with her head buried in her hands.

Carol Edgar said she was not in her daughter’s home when Mr McKnight was attacked and never gave permission for her Nissan Navara pickup to be used by the attackers. Paul Roberts admitted helping his son, but said he had urged the other men to get help for Mr McKnight. He said he had tried himself to help Mr McKnight when he saw how seriously injured he was at Charles Street.

Sadly, the full truth of exactly how Lee McKnight died – and who did what to him – will probably never be known. But whatever the truth, what became abundantly clear in the trial was that the illicit drugs trade is an utterly sordid and destructive business. Addicted since she was teenager, Coral was spending GBP40 a day on cocaine and GBP20 on cannabis.

It was her way, she said, of blocking out the painful reality of her day-to-day life in the chaotic Carlisle crack den that was her home. Her mother’s life was just as grim: thrown out of her home after a relationship breakdown, Carol was in the grip of an even more damaging addiction. She injected cocktails of hard drugs: cocaine, heroin, Valium, pregabalin and Ketamine.

Her drug abuse was so extreme it triggered episodes of psychosis. “She’d pull veins from her legs, saying they were snakes,” said Coral matter-of-factly as she described how low her mother’s health had plummeted. For Lee McKnight – easy-going, affable, and friendly -street-level drug dealing must have seemed like easy money.

The debt he was in – and the ever-present threat of violence if he failed to settle it – no doubt fuelled his desperate need to make that money. But this was a truly dangerous world. A seedy world, inhabited by macho predators, willing to use casual and extreme violence to get what they wanted.

According to Lee’s friend Nathan Harrison, he simply wasn’t the kind of person to foolishly blunder into conflict or behave in a macho way. “If trouble came,” said Mr Harrison, “he’d always negotiate his way out of it. “He’d never fight.”

But on that July morning last year, Lee McKnight ran out luck. As he stepped into Coral Edgar’s Charles Street home, he had no idea of the horror that was about to engulf him. Tragically, this was trouble he could not talk his way out of.

Like other young men who had strayed into this ugly underworld, Lee McKnight paid for his mistake with his life. His killers, who showed no emotion as they heard the guilty verdicts yesterday, will have plenty of time to reflect on their mistakes for all face years behind bars. But for Lee McKnight’s devastated family and friends, the pain will never go away as they remember how his life was squandered for the sake of a few thousand pounds by thugs who cared nothing for his life.

The six defendants are likely to be sentenced at the end of the month.