In England, when the gates of the West Road Cemetery in Newcastle are locked, Bev Irving is forced to climb over the wall to spend the night by the side of the grave of her disabled son, Lee.
“I can’t bear the thought of him being out in the cold,” Bev said. “I need to be with him, to hold his hand, and to make sure he isn’t alone.”
“I still leave the hallway light on for him and I still set a place for him at the dinner table,” the 47-year old mom said. “We’ll never get over losing him and I’ll never forget that terrible day.”
Bev’s eldest, Lee was a 24-year-old with learning disabilities who was imprisoned, tortured, and beaten to death by someone he thought was his friend.
Six years ago, in 2015, killer James Wheatley pushed Lee’s lifeless body through the streets in a stroller, before dumping him at the side of the road.
The investigators examined Lee’s body, and they found that he was killed in a savage beating that his nose had detached from his face, his ribs had fractured in 27 places, and he was covered in cuts and bruises.
What made Lee’s suffering more horrifying was the fact that his mother Bev had repeatedly pleaded with authorities to let her take care of Lee herself in the months leading up to his killing, but she was ignored.
“I begged the social workers and DWP to let me help my own son, but they wouldn’t,” Bev said. “I knew James Wheatley, his killer, and his family. I knew they were taking advantage, but I was powerless to stop it.”
In a new documentary, The Murder of Lee Irving: Disability Mate Crime, Bev spoke out and is campaigning to make it an offense to abuse people because they are disabled.
Bev realized Lee was in danger long before he was savagely killed – and she tried everything she could to keep him safe.
Lee’s first encounter with his killer, James Wheatley, and friends was when he shared his Blackberry Messenger BBM pin and started chatting with the group.
Wheatley and his friends invited Lee to a house party and befriended him, he then started spending lots of time at their house and eventually moved in.
“I went to the house where they were keeping him and took food and clean clothes,” Bev said. “I begged him to come home but he would always go back, they fooled him into thinking they were his friends and that he belonged in that dreadful house.”
Wheatley held Lee captive and exploited him, along with the help of his mother Julie Mills, girlfriend Nicole Lawrence, and roommate Barry Imray, all of whom were ultimately convicted of the horrendous crime in 2016.
Wheatley’s group manipulated Lee with different drugs including morphine, anti-psychotics, and a heart medication for dogs to keep him sedated and stop him from leaving the house.
Wheatley and Lawrence kept him high so they could keep control of his money and make him do their dirty work, including committing crimes.
“He wanted to live a normal life, just like everybody else,” Bev said. “I know he would be alive today if I’d have been listened to.”
“These evil bullies took advantage of him,” Bev recalled. “They used him as slave labor-sending him to strip walls and run errands, do the shopping and clean houses; working for nothing and all the time they were beating him up and abusing him.”
“His benefits were going into their pockets,” Bev said. “They forced him to go shoplifting and even tried to take loans out in Lee’s name.”
“Lee was not properly equipped to be able to handle his own money. He needed help from his family, the people who loved him and who he could trust,” Bev said. “But nobody listened to me and now my son is dead.”
Before 2014, Lee had lived a happy life. Lee had lived with Bev and his three brothers Joe, 23, Owen, 14, and Charlie, 13.
“Lee was a happy-go-lucky lad,” Bev said. “He always had a smile on his face and he always saw the good in people.”
“He loved school and spent many happy times on holidays at Centre Parcs and other outdoor activity centers,” Bev recalled. “He was a real live wire.”
However, as Lee got older, he found it increasingly difficult to cope with his condition.
Bev would regularly report her disabled son missing to the police and other agencies but she was ignored and repeatedly told that because Lee was an adult, he was free to go where he pleased.
But in reality, Lee wasn’t free at all.
On June 6, 2015, Bev shared a Facebook post asking for people to help identify a body that had been found dumped on waste ground.
Bev had no idea it was for her son.
“I thought his poor family would be devastated and I just wanted to help,” Bev said. “It wasn’t until much later that day that the terrible truth dawned on me. It was my Lee.”
“Officers came to my door and told me that it was a murder inquiry, I had to identify him,” Bev said. “There was a long walk down a dark tunnel to the mortuary. I could feel my legs giving way.”
“It was like a nightmare,” Bev said. “To this day I struggle and have flashbacks when I am in corridors.”
After a few months, Wheatley was on trial for Lee’s murder – and the true extent of Lee’s suffering came to light for the first time.
The jury heard Lee was murdered in a “truly shocking” barrage of “merciless” violence during which he was stopped from seeking urgent medical attention.
Wheatley pummelled Lee while Mills, Lawrence, and Imray watched.
The sickening injury report Lee suffered would have “caused him the most severe degree of prolonged pain.”
Between May 28 to June 6, 2015, Lee was kept in Wheatley’s house in a critically injured state, and on three occasions during that period he was beaten brutally.
Text messages from Wheatley to his girlfriend Lawrence read out in court revealed the true motive: they were going to use Lee’s card to buy a “watch, beds, tellies, fridges, everything. We will hammer it.”
Lee was punched and kicked to death, ultimately dying of respiratory failure brought on by his injuries, particularly his rib fractures.
Wheatley was found guilty of murder and was told he must serve at least 23 years in prison.
Newcastle MP Catherine McKinnell says the law was still failing to protect people with disabilities, years after Lee’s death.
“There are many examples of people with a learning disability who have been abused by people who they thought were friends,” McKinnell said. “This has given rise to the phrase ‘mate crime’, where individuals take advantage of someone’s vulnerabilities, bullying them physically, psychologically, or stealing money and possessions.”
“The phrase does not adequately describe in any way the serious financial, physical and often sexual exploitation faced by far too many disabled people at the hands of those they are led to believe are their friends.”
McKinnell is backing Bev’s campaign to make “mate crime” an offense in and of itself.
Elliot Reed, the executive producer at Zeppelin films who worked on the documentary about Lee’s case, also supports Bev’s quest for justice.
“Fourteen agencies, including social services, were involved with Lee since he was four years old,” Reed says. “A review concluded there were multiple failings to safeguard Lee. Six years on, those closest to Lee are still struggling to come to terms with his death.”
As for the grieving mother, Bev hopes telling Lee’s story will prevent vulnerable going through what her son endured.
“The only thing we can do is to make sure these evil cowards who prey on vulnerable young people and adults are dealt with properly by the courts,” Bev said. “I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through what we have been through since his death.”