Man who stabbed university worker to death and wounded seven others jailed for life

A man who stabbed a university worker to death and wounded seven others has been locked up for at least 21 years.

Zephaniah McLeod, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2012, was handed a life sentence for a series of stabbings in Birmingham city centre.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

McLeod, 28, who will initially serve his sentence at a high-security hospital, targeted his victims at random during a “horrific” knife attack spree in the city centre in the early hours of September 6, 2020, all of which was caught on CCTV.

He pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of musician Jacob Billington by diminished responsibility, with the judge acknowledging he was “severely unwell and psychotic” on the night, and suffering “auditory hallucinations”.

McLeod had also admitted four counts of attempted murder, including one attack which left a victim partially paralysed, and three separate offences of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

The court heard previously how McLeod was released from prison unsupervised in April 2020, was only seen face-to-face by a mental health team on 3 September, then “refused” to attend a psychiatric assessment – just three days before he killed.

‘He was an absolutely fantastic young man’

One of his eight victims, 23-year-old Mr Billington from Crosby, Merseyside, was out celebrating a friend’s birthday in Birmingham when he was fatally stabbed in the neck and shoulder by McLeod.

After sentencing, Joanne Billington, Mr Billington’s mother, said: “Those who are responsible for the monitoring of McLeod have many questions to answer and I will be fighting to ensure these questions are answered, fully, honestly and in public.”

Speaking of her son she 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 who he was really keen on, 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.”

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 next year.

Jacob Billington

‘I have no doubt you are a very dangerous man’

During sentencing at Birmingham Crown Court on Thursday Mr Justice Pepperall touched on the issues, telling McLeod: “I find you were released from prison in April 2020 at the height of the first wave of the Covid pandemic without any appropriate follow up by mental health services.

“Indeed given your past medical history, it is a matter of considerable concern you were simply lost in the system for some weeks.”

Mr Justice Pepperall said: “I have no doubt whatsoever you are a very dangerous man and pose a significant risk to members of the public of serious harm.”

The sentence imposed means McLeod would move to a prison to serve the remainder of his term, if his mental health improved sufficiently – but could be returned to a secure hospital if it worsened again.

The judge said: “Such a sentence ensures you first obtain treatment but means should you ever be assessed as fit to leave hospital you will be transferred to a prison and not simply released.”

He added Mr Billington’s family were grieving a “life cut short”, while survivors were struggling “to come to terms with life-changing injuries”.

McLeod, of Nately Grove, Selly Oak, Birmingham, carried out the random and apparently motiveless attacks in the space of 90 minutes, but has since claimed he has no memory of the events.

However, the judge did not accept McLeod’s “claimed amnesia”, pointing to his internet search on the “Birmingham stabbings” after the attacks, and before his arrest at gunpoint by armed police on 7 September.

The events in the early hours of Sunday 6 September began at 12.30am when a 33-year-old man was stabbed leaving him with a neck wound. Twenty minutes later a 25-year-old woman was stabbed to her shoulder and, minutes after that, a 29-year-old man was left in a critical condition with a chest wound.

After attacking his first three victims, CCTV evidence showed McLeod had dumped his knife in a drain. He tried to get another knife from a pizza takeaway, but when they refused him, he caught a taxi to his home and re-armed himself, before heading into the city centre again to continue his assault an hour later.

‘McLeod has never give an explanation for his actions’

Mr Billington was out with friends including fellow Vedetts bandmate, Michael Callaghan, that night and was part of McLeod’s second tranche of victims.

Mr Callaghan was gravely injured by a single stab wound to his neck.

His left arm has been paralysed, his vocal cords are damaged and he has been left partially sighted, and unable to drive.

Michael now faces many months of rehabilitation, his mum, Anne said: “We don’t really understand how he survived because people just don’t survive those injuries. We’ve had real milestones, him being able to sit up, being able to sit in an ordinary wheelchair, getting up on his feet, using the stairs. We’ve had just some fantastic milestones and I’m sure there’s more to come. He’s so determined.”

Speaking outside court Mr Callaghan said Mr Billington was “the best of us” and called McLeod a “liar”.

Superintendent Jim Munro was the senior investigating officer for the case, and said: “McLeod has never given an explanation for his actions that night which leaves no closure for his victims or their families and friends, although I am pleased that the admission of his crimes has spared those involved the ordeal of a trial.”