UNFOUNDED rumours that a Liverpool man living in east Durham was one of James Bulger’s killers ended in an explosion of violence leaving an innocent man dead.

John Littlewood, known as John D, was battered to death with a hammer in his own bed when Marty Bates crept into his home while he was sleeping.

His murder was the culmination of a day of drinking, drug taking and violence when four friends spent that fateful day with the 36-year-old in his Blackhall home.

The Northern Echo: John LittlewoodJohn Littlewood

Today, Teesside Crown Court heard how a violent argument erupted over accusations that James Riley was one of the men responsible for the notorious murder of Liverpool toddler James Bulger – a rumour they accused Mr Littlewood of spreading.

Riley’s barrister, Gregory Bull QC, said it was this that ignited the violence in Mr Littlewood’s home in July 2019.

“Bates created a situation where Riley, a man of low intelligence, overreacted to a situation; he too had been drinking, he too was drunk.

“He attended the home of Mr Littlewood having been told by Bates that the deceased was spreading a rumour that he was one of the killers of James Bulger – that was wholly untrue, caused great offence and seemed to have some credence that my client comes from Liverpool,” he said.

Mr Bull said it was this that caused Bates and Riley to attack Mr Littlewood, leaving him covered in blood, before leaving his home.

The court heard how Riley was not present when Bates, who was jailed for life for murder, delivered the brutal, fatal blows to Mr Littlewood’s head.

The Northern Echo: A shirtless Marty Bates making his way home after brutally murdering John LittlewoodA shirtless Marty Bates making his way home after brutally murdering John Littlewood

Riley, 31, also of Ninth Street, Blackhall previously pleaded guilty to intending to pervert the course of justice, witness intimidation, and a further count of assault occasioning actual bodily harm in relation to a separate incident when he punched and kicked Mr Littlewood to the head.

His partner, Donna Balfour, 36, now of Neasham Road Darlington, pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice by interfering with a CCTV system at her home to attempt to delete footage.

The court heard Balfour was pregnant and gave birth whilst on remand charged with the murder of Mr Littlewood.

Her barrister Lisa Wilding QC said: “She not only gave birth in custody but she has raised her now 17-month-old child, principally in custody and since on bail under close supervision.

“Miss Balfour has lost the first 18-months of her daughter’s life or lost them to the extent that have occurred under the enormous shadow of these matters.”

Richard Wright QC, prosecuting, said Riley and Balfour switched off the CCTV at their home to enable Bates and his partner Tracey Bunney, who was cleared of murder in April, to leave the property and make their way to Mr Littlewood’s nearby home.

Mr Wright said several days after the murder the four returned to the victim’s home and found him dead in bed. Several hours later Riley threatened to ‘kill’ a neighbour if she co-operated with the police during the murder investigation.

The Northern Echo: Marty BatesMarty Bates

Judge Paul Watson QC, the Recorder of Middlesbrough, sentenced Riley to a total of 42-months in prison and Balfour to 29-months less 103 days.

“It clear that you, Bates and Littlewood, along with the two women, had been in the house for some time drinking and there was some suggestion of drug taking,” he said.

“There was an argument over something trivial and during the course of that argument you attacked Mr Littlewood by, first of all, punching him to the face and then following up with a full-blooded kick to the head.”

The judge added: “I’m satisfied that you knew that Mr Bates was going to Mr Littlewood’s house to correct some perceived slight from earlier in the day. I’m quite satisfied that you knew there would be a measure of violence but I accept entirely that you had no idea that he would use the level of violence that he did, and indeed go on to kill.”