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Boy, 17, found guilty of 'wild west' killing

Boy, 17, found guilty of 'wild west' killing

A 17-year-old boy from Sierra Leone was yesterday found guilty of the murder of a Polish woman who was caught in the crossfire of a "wild west" shootout in a south London car park. Armel Gnango was last night facing a life sentence for the killing of Magda Pniewska, 26, a nursing assistant who was shot during a gunfight with another youth over a debt thought to be less than £100. A jury of eight men and four women found Gnango guilty of murder, attempted murder and possession of a gun with intent to endanger life.

The incident happened on October 2 last year when the two 17-year-olds met in John Williams Close in New Cross. There was a history of antagonism between them and Gnango told the court he had punched the other teenager a few weeks earlier.

At the same time Pniewska was on her way home from work at Manley Court, a Bupa-run care home, and was talking on the phone to her sister Elizbieta Luby in their home town of Brzeg in Poland.

Gnango, who used the street name "Toner", was in a VW Polo with friends and was carrying in his waistband a 9mm pistol. At around 6pm, the other boy, wearing a red bandana across his face, appeared and opened fire. With his hood up, Gnango used the car as a shield and fired back, first over the roof and then across the bonnet.

Pniewska was shot in the forehead as the boys exchanged at least six shots. When she died she was just a few yards from the flat she shared with her fiance, Radoslaw Lipka, 25. Her sister heard it all on the phone. "At that point I heard several shots ... three, four," Luby told the court.

"There was a short break between the third and fourth shot, like a moment of hesitation. I asked Magda what is happening, who is shooting there, what is going on? Magda said 'Ela, just wait a minute'. I heard the last breath of Magda. I heard when she fell down, I heard the bags fall down. There was silence for a minute and then I heard two more shots." The teenager was convicted of Pniewska's murder, despite not firing the fatal shot, because he was "criminally responsible" for her death. The shot came from the second youth, who was also arrested but not charged and remains on bail.

Detectives from Operation Trident, which targets gun crime within the black community, are continuing to gather evidence against him. Gnango came to Britain as a child from war-torn Sierra Leone and went to school at St Joseph's Academy in Lewisham, a Catholic school in special measures for 11 years until it was relaunched in 2004 as a city academy.

At the time of the shootout Gnango was on a painting, decorating and bricklaying course at Lewisham College. He claimed the shooting was the first time he had ever fired a gun and that he was trying to sell the weapon on behalf of a friend for £2,500 when he was ambushed. "I put my hands over my head as I was crouching and let off a shot," he said. "It was not more than two shots. I was aiming at the sky. I had never shot a gun before. I was panicking. I was trying to scare him off."

Pniewska had left Poland six years before she died and was hoping to start a new life as a carer in Britain. After eight months she became homesick and returned to begin a business management degree. Four years before her death and a year into the course, she was persuaded to return to Manley Court.

In a statement read out in court, her mother, Barbara Pniewska, 53, said she has lost her "ray of sunshine".

"It is irrelevant that she was Polish," she said. "She had the same right to life, work and equal treatment as the citizens of this country."

Brian Altman QC, prosecuting, told the Old Bailey: "No one would quibble that ordinary people should be able to walk the streets without fearing they would be gunned down by youths arming themselves with lethal weapons, quite prepared to use them in public in order to settle scores.

"She hadn't been the intended target of that bullet, but in scenes reminiscent of the wild west, Magda was to become the innocent victim of a gunfight between two young men who were total strangers to her. She was simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time."

Gnango was remanded in custody until sentencing on June 23.

'Our ray of sunshine'
Extracts from a victim impact statement by Barbara Pniewska, the mother of murdered Polish care worker Magda Pniewska, which was read out at the Old Bailey yesterday:

"From the day of her death not a day passes when we are not thinking of her and grieving of her loss. We still wait for her phone call, her warm smile, her knock on the door. Hope has been overtaken by reality. She will never be with us again. The death of our Magda has cast a shadow on our reason for living.

"No mother is able to express the pain in words when confronted with the loss of her child. My child's life has been untimely cut short. The ray of sunshine that was Magda has gone from our family. We have lost a much-loved and loving daughter.

"It is irrelevant that she was Polish. She was one of several millions of people who came to England. She had the same right to life, work and equal treatment as the citizens of this country.

"No joy or happiness will fill the sorrow and emptiness left by Magda's loss.

"We are physically and mentally at breaking point. It is now a completely different life.

"One human being should be a brother to another human being. Unfortunately on October 2 someone forgot about that and took my child's life."