Reading stabbings: Victims were ‘true gentlemen’

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Tributes have been paid to three “true gentlemen” stabbed to death in a park in Reading.

James Furlong, David Wails and Joe Ritchie-Bennett were regular customers at a pub near Forbury Gardens, where Saturday’s attack took place.

Local residents held silences and laid flowers around the town for the trio.

Police continue to question suspect Khairi Saadallah, 25, who came to the UK from Libya in 2012. He was arrested under the Terrorism Act.

Mr Saadallah originally claimed asylum and was given leave to remain in 2018, the BBC’s Home Affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford said.

He came to the attention of MI5 last year as someone who might travel overseas, possibly for terrorism purposes, but they assessed that he was not a genuine threat or an immediate risk.

A close member of his family told the BBC that he left Libya to escape the violence there, and that he had suffered from post-traumatic stress from the civil war. However, he had been thinking of trying to return.

They said his long-standing mental health problems had been exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown.

Neighbours said Mr Saadallah threw a TV from his top-floor flat this year and had a mental health key worker.

Mourners gathered for a one-minute silence outside the Blagrave Arms pub in Reading town centre, where Somewhere Over The Rainbow was played. A tribute on the door said management and staff were “devastated”.

“Our friends were the kindest, most genuine, and most loveliest people in our community that we had the the pleasure of knowing,” the note said.

Jamie Wake, a friend of the victims, called the pub a “safe space” for members of the LGBT+ community.

“We become so used to seeing incidents like this on the television,” he said.

“This time, we cannot change the channel. This time, it’s on our doorstep.”

Police were called to Reading’s Forbury Gardens at about 19:00 BST on Saturday.

Witnesses say a lone attacker with a knife shouted “unintelligible words” and stabbed several people who were in a group.

Three other people who were injured in the attack have since been discharged from hospital, police said.

Martin Cooper, a friend of the three men who were killed and the chief executive of LGBT+ charity Reading Pride, described them as “true gentlemen”.

“They were a support network for individuals, and I know they will be sorely missed by many,” he said.

Mr Wails, a 49-year-old scientist, was the last victim to be named.

Friend Michael Main said he “always made people smile”.

“We’d have a lot of banter… it’s sad to know he’s gone so early,” he added.

Mr Ritchie-Bennett, 39, was originally from Philadelphia but had lived in the UK for 15 years, his father confirmed to US TV network CBS.

Robert Ritchie said his family was “heartbroken” and described his son as “brilliant and loving”.

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BBC Radio Berkshire presenter Sarah Walker said Mr Ritchie-Bennett had been married to her close friend, Ian, who died from cancer nearly six years ago.

She described him as a “fantastic human being” who was “outrageously funny”.

“He was one of those unique people who on one hand could make you properly belly laugh, but, at the same time, he could show you such extraordinary kindness,” she said.

Mr Furlong, 36, was a teacher and head of history, government and politics at The Holt School in Wokingham.

His parents Gary and Janet described their son as “beautiful, intelligent, honest and fun”.

One of Mr Furlong’s former pupils, Molly Collins, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he was a “passionate and enthusiastic” teacher who dedicated extra time to helping students progress.

More than 100 students, some holding hands, gathered at the gates of The Holt School for a two-minute silence on Monday morning, while a flag in the courtyard was lowered to half-mast.

In an open letter, former pupils and parents have asked for the school’s humanities block to be renamed in Mr Furlong’s memory.

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The suspect, Mr Saadallah, was initially arrested on suspicion of murder. He was later re-arrested on Sunday under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

Under the Act, police have the power to detain him without charge for up to 14 days.

Counter terror police, who are not looking for anyone else in connection with the incident, have said they are “keeping an open mind as to the motive for this attack”.

They are continuing to appeal for information – and asked any drivers with relevant dashcam footage to come forward.

After visiting Reading to lay flowers on Monday morning, Home Secretary Priti Patel told MPs the threat posed by lone attackers was “growing”.

She thanked those who responded to the incident, including student police officers – noting that a “young, unarmed” officer “took down the suspect without hesitation” while another carried out first aid.

“They showed courage, bravery and selflessness way beyond their years,” she said.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said it was “heartbreaking that we are having this conversation again so soon” after attacks at Fishmongers’ Hall near London Bridge in November and in Streatham in February – adding that the public “will want answers”.

He previously said that with the Ministry of Justice’s budget having been cut by 40% over 10 years, the government needed to reconsider the resources available for de-radicalisation programmes in prisons, as well as monitoring, supervision and risk assessment of released prisoners.

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