The death of a child is beyond comprehension and is every parent’s worst nightmare. Tragically for Tracey Hanson, this fear was realised when her 21-year-old son Josh was stabbed to death in an unprovoked attack in October 2015.
Two years on, Tracey speaks about Josh and how she’s working with officers from the Homicide and Major Crime Command in the fight to bring his killer to justice. She tells how she’s turning such a heart-breaking event into a force for good, explains how she’s lobbying for youth funding and changes in the law and how she thinks we can play our part in changing society.
“Josh was so loving and kind,” says an understandably emotional Tracey, sat at the kitchen table of her family home in Brent. “He was hard-working and had a zest for life, he would always say, ‘Mum, I’m living life, I’m out there’. He packed in so much into 21 years. He loved festivals, travelling, going to nice restaurants, making friends and having solid relationships. He’d been to Mexico just before he died and wanted to go backpacking in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. He wanted to see as much of the world as possible.
“When you love someone so much because they bring this enormous, fun-filled, loving, jovial and compassionate presence with them wherever they go and then you’re left with this huge void - it’s horrific.
“Josh had this presence about him. You’d hear his laugh before you’d see him. He had such a funny laugh, you’d never forget it. I wish I had lots of recordings of it to share with everybody, because if you didn’t know the situation, you’d laugh if you heard it. I miss it so much. We had a lot of banter, which is probably a bit unusual for mother and son.”
The night before Josh was murdered he spent the evening at home with Tracey. Not many young men would choose to spend a Friday night at home with their mum but Josh was devoted to his family. He even had a large tattoo across his upper chest that said “family first”.
“He was the man of the house and he earnt that title, especially in the last year of his life as he became a young man,” Tracey says. “He was never afraid to show affection or hug me in public. He wouldn’t think twice about posting a photo of us hugging on social media with a caption saying ‘love her to the end of the world’.”
With no Friday night complete without treats, Josh popped out for supplies, asking Tracey what she’d like. After asking for a chocolate fondant, Josh returned with a chocolate dessert big enough for six people. This was just one example Tracey outlines of how he always went above and beyond to look after her. She takes the remaining dessert out of the fridge, fighting back tears in her eyes. The dessert still has visible spoon marks.
That evening was the last time Tracey saw her son. Just over 24 hours later, Josh was stabbed to death in an unprovoked attack as he stood waiting to be served at a bar.
“My personality changed forever”
Shane O’Brien is wanted by detectives from the Homicide and Major Crime Command in connection with Josh’s death. Tracey only says O’Brien’s name twice.
“That night, my personality changed forever,” says Tracey. This is a thought her 27-year-old daughter Brooke echoes: “When Josh was alive I think I was blind to it all. I’d watch the news and say ‘that poor family’. I’d switch the news off, eat dinner with my family and forget about it. It wasn’t real to us. And then it happened.”
As Josh’s killer hasn’t yet been brought to justice, Tracey describes how she can’t start the grieving process; “Grieving isn’t an option for me right now.”
Since Josh’s death Tracey has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and panic disorder and has been unable to continue running her business as a beauty therapist. She’s incredibly proud and self-sufficient, having only recently begun to accept financial support.
Tracey’s turned the fight for justice into a near full-time job, having created a home office, which she “runs the campaign from”. Copies of the Met’s official ‘wanted’ poster line the office shelves, as do ‘Justice for Josh’ T-shirts and leaflets. Tracey estimates in just under two years, her and her supporters have printed and distributed around 30,000 copies of the wanted poster, in four different languages. “And that’s not taking into account emailing it around the world and people re-tweeting and sharing it on social media.”
The Josh Hanson Charitable Trust
Tracey and daughter Brooke have set up a charity in Josh’s memory – The Josh Hanson Charitable Trust - to help young people and divert them away from crime. They’ve raised nearly £40,000 towards their aim of opening a community coffee shop and to give money directly to those needing a steer in the right direction in life. “I want the coffee shop to be a base for young people to take part in different hobbies and activities,” Tracey explains. “Sports clubs and community groups could have their meetings there and I want to be able to directly fund young people in taking part in diversion activities, for example paying for a sports club membership.
“The premises would have art as its focus, so young people have a creative way to channel their energy. I want to raise as much money as possible so we can directly help those in need.” Tracey’s completed a sky dive, organised a 5k fun run and two family fun days and football tournaments, as well as taking part in anti-knife crime marches and rallies. With a steely determination, she says: “Everything I do is to let people know what happened to Josh and to raise awareness of knife crime.”
Tracey’s looking for trustees and mentors who can support her in her work, including a retired solicitor, police officer and accountant. “I’d welcome extra support, particularly from anyone who has experience in charity work and business management.”
The importance of stop and search
As well as doing all she can to bring about change, Tracey strongly believes others need to play their part too. “Parents need to intervene and find out what their children are up to. I used to say to Josh ‘bring your friends here’. It was a safe environment, I could see who his friends were and get to know their mums. I was building intelligence around my children.”
She also advises parents to hug their children, send them messages and “spend as much time with them as you can, even if they don’t want you to. Because some people can’t do that”.
She adds: “We need safe schools – children and young people need to know boundaries. Some youngsters think parents and teachers can’t discipline them, which means they don’t learn boundaries. And children need to know that if they see something, they can report it without feeling scared. They need to be supported and protected. We need more after school clubs and youth centres - places for young people to go to.”
When asked what more she thinks the police can do, she says stop and search is crucial. “Just do it,” she says. “When it’s used properly, it’s a very effective tool. You could potentially save someone’s life.”
Addressing officers she says: “I know you’re up against it and you get a bad press but the majority of people I speak to are supportive of it, as long as it’s done the right way. Give the reasons for the stop and keep explaining things throughout. When people aren’t properly informed or don’t know why something is happening, I think that’s when things become challenging. Officers having body worn video is brilliant. The public have smart phones and can post videos on social media, now you have cameras too.
“For me and all the other mums who have lost children to knife crime, please be relentless in your efforts to deter it. Remember, the vast majority of the public expect you to be stopping and searching people where you have grounds to, but sadly though we don’t have such a strong voice as those who are opposed to stop and search. Just think - every weapon recovered is saving a life and stopping another mum from going through the nightmare I’m facing.”
Tracey also believes working with communities is key: “I’d like to see officers involving their communities more and finding out how they think problems could be solved. They wouldn’t need to give them all the information, but working with them would appease them. I think it would also make the police feel they have the community’s support. The community could publically support the police and back them up. If offenders start seeing their own community supporting the police, potentially the criminals could be ‘flushed out’. And if every community did this, there’d be nowhere for them to go. Hopefully, some of them will say ‘I don’t want this life anymore’ and will accept help.”
Tracey feels strongly that “society is disconnected.” She says: “As long as there’s a divide in a community, a criminal will always have a way in. Until we come together and unite as one – all becoming responsible and involved – nothing will change. When people get involved in their communities, start to have more compassion, listen and talk, that’s when things can change.”
Lobbying across London and beyond
Tracey believes local and central government need to bring about change at a national level – to increase funding and facilities for young people, tougher prison sentences and support for victims and their families. She’s knocking on doors and has had interactions with several people, including the Mayor of London, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Victim Commissioner and her MP, however says: “There’s still a long way to go.
“I strongly believe life sentences need to mean life and there should be an automatic custodial sentence for possession of an offensive weapon. There’s also no victim’s law.
“I want to help the authorities and make society a better place and to stop the trauma of knife crime. Let’s get our power back. There’s always a solution.”
The investigation continues
Tracey speaks highly of the investigation team working to bring Josh’s killer to justice, who even invited her and Brooke to their office. Speaking of Detective Chief Inspector Noel McHugh and his team, she says: “They’ve been really amazing. I’ve had no doubt at all that they have done and continue to do everything they can to catch Shane O’Brien, the man they want to speak to in connection with the investigation. I fully support them in every way and I thank them for being human. I know it sounds like a basic thing to say, but it’s very important.
“They’ve probably had to experience new things with myself and Brooke as we’ve approached things differently to many other families. We’ve all be on a journey. I’ll do anything I can to help them, and I mean anything. It’s my duty. I’ve had first-hand experience of the worst thing that could ever happen to a mother, why would I not want to help them?”
Following her experiences, Tracey thinks it would be helpful for the police to give families a support leaflet after the murder of a loved one: “Some form of manual would be beneficial. It could outline the different stages of the investigation, what to expect and list the help available. It’s something the family could keep when the police have gone and refer back to. It’s very overwhelming and you’re numb, there’s a lot to take in and remember at a truly horrific time.”
Keeping her promise
Tracey shares a heartfelt promise she made to her children after giving birth: “I promised I’d always be a good role model for them. Whilst Josh isn’t here physically, he’s still here in spirit and he needs to see that I’m moving forward in a positive way.”
Battling her emotions, Tracey says: “Through me, I’m giving him a voice and highlighting his legacy. He should be here. Getting a conviction is the very least he deserves. I’ve always fought for my kids and championed their corners and I’m not going to fail Josh now.”
Tracey acknowledges she hasn’t “properly grieved” yet. She says: “I know everything I do is a distraction for the inevitable. One day the full on grieving process will start. Until we’ve had our day in court, this man is taken off of the streets and can harm no one else, I’m not ready to grieve yet. I need to save my energy.
“I can’t bear the thought of this happening to someone else. Every time it happens to another family it takes me straight back. I get the biggest flashback and remember all the things they’ll be going through.”
It’s only right we let Josh have a say too. Asked what he’d say if he could see Tracey now she says: “I think he’d say keep doing what you’re doing and try and help as many people as you can. He’d probably say ‘thanks for keeping me out there and thanks for letting everyone still see me’.
“I don’t know how I’m still standing but I want to help others. If someone were to turn around and say, ‘I was going to carry a knife but the Josh Hanson Charitable Trust helped me’, then I want to help them. By me showing them the right way, they might in turn help someone else.
“If we all work together we can make a change.”