It’s a horrifying image: five teenage boys posing triumphantly with a vulnerable woman, who is cowering on a Bury St Edmonds park bench after being covered with eggs and flour.
But what might have remained a local matter, dealt with by police and parents, soon blew up nationally when the photograph was shared on social media and went viral.
The five boys – two aged 17 and three aged 15, and who cannot be named – have been arrested in connection with the incident, all on suspicion of common assault. They have all been bailed pending further inquiries. But concerns remain about violent retaliations against the teenagers, who have been dubbed “feral yobs” by the tabloid press.
The intensity of the reaction has prompted local police to warn against vigilanteism.
Parents of at least two of the boys have claimed they have received death threats, while another boy has been threatened after being mistaken for one of the suspects.
The anger against the teenagers reached fever pitch when comedian Robin Armstrong posted a foul-mouthed video on Facebook in which he said the teenagers deserved to have “their heads ripped off their fucking shoulders”.
Under the post, which was shared more than 60,000 times and commented nearly 6,000 times, Armstrong added the names of the teens alleged to have been involved, and asked for information on their whereabouts. He said: “I’ll give you updates on every single move on how their lives fall apart and crumble. I can’t wait to lead the fucking way.”
A mother of one of the boys told MailOnline that her son had received threats after his name was leaked over the internet. “I’ve reported the abuse to police and we are now under their protection,” she said. “If anyone comes to our home to cause problems, we have a number we can call which will get the police here straight away.”
The father of another told The Sun that he had marched his son to the local police station when he found out that he had been involved. He added that he was grounding his son both to keep an eye on him, and also to keep him safe.
“There’s been death threats made against him online and we’ve told the police about it. He’s at home at the moment and that’s where he’s staying,” he said.
A neighbour of the victim, whose identity remains unknown, has asked for people to respect her privacy, and confirmed she has severe mental health problems. The attention has also been distressing for for her, Katherine Brame wrote in a Facebook post.
“She cannot cope with people popping in or gifts. It’s complicated but if you want to help, how about donating to a mental health charity as people with these unseen illnesses go under the radar all the time and they are totally under funded then maybe she will get the real help she needs from qualified people,” Brame wrote.
Suffolk Police said they were aware that the incident had sparked “concern and anger” in the local community and online, but that they are tackling the matter robustly.
Acting Detective Superintendent, Barry Byford, said: “This is a live investigation and we do not support vigilantism in any way, shape or form.
“Social media users should remember that sharing names and images, which may later form part of a criminal investigation, can disrupt or jeopardise the case.
“We are satisfied that we have spoken to everyone involved with the incident and we are continuing to support the victim.”