Fatal stab victim’s mother believes ‘mistakes were made’ before killer struck

·7-min read

The mother of a university worker stabbed to death on a night out in Birmingham believes “mistakes were made” by prisons and mental health services who had contact with the killer before he struck.

Joanne Billington, whose son Jacob was killed as knifeman Zephaniah McLeod went on a chilling rampage through the city last year, said: “It doesn’t feel like (mistakes were made) – I know mistakes were made.

“I’m hoping that we will get some genuine scrutiny of the agencies involved.”

McLeod pleaded guilty to 23-year-old Sheffield Hallam University graduate Mr Billington’s manslaughter at a court hearing in September last year.

The 28-year-old also admitted four counts of attempted murder and three charges of wounding with intent, after carrying out a spate of stabbings in the early hours of September 6, 2020.

The court heard how McLeod had previous convictions for robbery, imitation firearm possession, assault and supplying drugs, and was known to the prison services.

He was also known to mental health services, had a history of hearing voices telling him to “stab” and “kill”, and had been suffering paranoid schizophrenia since 2012.

McLeod then missed a psychiatric assessment appointment just three days before he struck.

Mrs Billington, from Crosby, Merseyside, said an NHS-led serious case review is currently under way into various agencies’ contact with McLeod, but a final report is not expected to be published until early next year.

She said: “It’s not like things like this haven’t happened before in Birmingham, so we’re hoping that that will be taken into account.

“The agencies who said they were going to make changes appear not to have made changes.

“For me, going forward – McLeod, let the legal system deal with him.

“But that other side is equally important to me.”

She added the review process has made it hard to get answers to many outstanding questions she has about McLeod, adding: “All they say is, ‘it’s gone to the review, you’ll have to wait for the report’.

Jacob Billington on graduation
Jacob Billington at his Sheffield Hallam University graduation, with sister Abbie (family handout/PA)

“Because this individual was involved in so many different agencies, there’s about six different people that are contributing.

“He was in a lot of different prisons and all that sort of thing.

“It goes back quite a long way.”

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, West Midlands Police was criticised for the speed of its response to the incident, but it later emerged McLeod had gone home part-way through his spree, before returning to continue.

Mr Billington was attacked after McLeod collected another knife from his home and got a taxi back to the city centre, having already slashed and stabbed three people earlier that night.

Mr Billington was a talented musician who played drums for The Vedetts and he had been on a night out with old friends, including band-mate Michael Callaghan, that night.

After celebrating one of their birthdays, the group was walking back to the nearby Ibis Hotel when McLeod struck, with Mr Billington stabbed in the neck and shoulder in Irving Street, Birmingham, at about 1.50am.

Mr Callaghan was gravely injured by a single stab wound to his neck but is continuing to make progress on what will be a long road to recovery.

Mrs Billington said she has “no criticism of the police”, saying the situation was “confused” and McLeod’s behaviour “unusual”.

Paying tribute to her son, Mrs Billington said: “He was an absolutely fantastic young man.

“He was fun, cheeky, full of life, full of happiness.

“Things were going really well for Jacob at the time of his death.

“He was working at the university where he’d studied as a graduate intern.

“He had a new girlfriend. He was just in a really good place.

“He had an amazing set of friends who were really supportive and they were just enjoying their young lives. I couldn’t have hoped for more with Jacob really.”

Mr Billington “loved” music and could turn his hand to everything from a guitar, to the more exotic Peruvian percussion instrument, the cajon.

“He was playing in a band with Michael and some other friends,” said his mother.

Jacob Billington and The Vedetts
Jacob Billington, left, and band-mates from The Vedetts, including Michael Callaghan, in green jacket, who was also injured that night (The Vedetts/PA)

“Music was massive for Jacob. That was his big love.

“If it wasn’t playing in bands, it was going to see them, festivals, he lived for it really.

“I think his dream was always to be a musician.

“But he wanted to stay working for a university.

“He was very interested in the widening participation agenda in universities, getting people who wouldn’t traditionally go to apply for university.

“He really loved the university life and working there was a bonus for him.

“I think if he wasn’t going to be a rock star, he probably would have stayed in the higher education sector in some way.”

Mrs Billington described how an ordinary night out with friends became every parent’s “nightmare”, when she got a knock at the door from police in the early hours to tell her that her son was dead.

“I can still see him leaving the house with the lads in the car outside beeping the horns getting him to hurry out,” she said.

“He skipped out and we just thought he was going for a lovely night out with his friends.

“We just got a knock on the door – two police officers – it’s exactly how you think it is, ‘we’ve got something to tell you. Can we come in?’

“Then it was ‘We’re sorry to tell you that there’s been an incident in Birmingham and Jacob’s passed away’.”

There was little information as what exactly had happened – McLeod was not caught until the following day – so the family “had an hour where we knew he was dead”, but nothing about the friends he had been with, or whether it was an accident.

She then had the “awful” task of waking Mr Billington’s younger sisters and telling them what had happened.

Jacob Billington
Jacob Billington was killed on a night out with friends (family handout/PA)

“You feel like you had all the breath sucked out of you, is the best way I can describe it,” she said.

As the day wore on, more information emerged and they discovered Mr Callaghan – with whom Mr Billington had been friends since primary school – had been gravely hurt.

“If anyone’s got kids – it’s like your worst nightmare. And it is as bad as you think,” added Mrs Billington.

But the family “haven’t hidden away”, and there are “pictures of him everywhere”.

The eldest of Mr Billington’s sisters, 22-year-old Abbie, also has photographs of her brother in her university student house, describing him as an “amazing” man.

“We spent our lives together, but we got closer as we got older,” she said.

She said “there were just no words” to describe her feelings when told her brother had died, adding: “Sadness doesn’t even do it justice.

“This is someone who I’ve shared my life with, and now I have to go forward in life without him.”

Even over a year later, she said: “I feel like he’s away at university – it just feels like he’s in Sheffield and I can just message him or I can give him a call and he’ll answer because it just doesn’t feel right that he’s not here.”

Asked about her feelings towards seeing McLeod in court, Mrs Billington said: “I feel I’d love to ask him, why? Why did he pick Jacob?”

Abbie said: “He’s the one who took my brother’s life, but I can’t do anything about that.

“I can’t change the fact that he’s done that, so why should I give him any of my energy, any of my emotions, my anger, my sadness, anything like that?

“I just don’t feel like he is worth that.”

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