Helsinki police are wrapping up a preliminary investigation into an unusual case in which a group of minors is suspected of aggravated robbery, assault and attempted aggravated theft.
Late last year, Helsinki police were notified that three or four boys were beating up another young man by striking and kicking him in various parts of his body.
"The victim says that he was kicked and hit, including being struck in the face with a rock, and that his property was stolen. Some of the perpetrators were in the stairway outside his apartment, but had fled by the time police arrived," said Detective Chief Inspector Marko Forss, who is leading the probe.
Drug deal as pretext
The victim told police that he recognised two of the suspected attackers, even though one of them was wearing a balaclava over his face.
Based on the victim's testimony, law enforcement authorities detained two suspects. One was soon freed, but police then identified another suspect based on their own investigations.
The two minors were kept behind bars during the early stages of the probe. As it progressed, three more underage boys were detained, while one who was under the age of 15 was questioned. Those over 15 have since been released but are under a travel ban. The suspects were aged 14-16 at the time of the alleged attack.
Victim becomes a suspect
Police say that it soon became clear that the case was related to drug offences. The suspects had apparently been told that there were significant amounts of cash and controlled substances in the victim's flat.
They had agreed with him via social media to purchase a small amount of drugs. They allegedly planned to steal his key and gain access to the apartment, but didn't make it closer than the stairwell.
Police now suspect the victim of drug offences. However they have not been able to ascertain whether there was in fact large amounts of cash or drugs at his home.
"This is an exceptional case in that the modus operandi resembles that of the adult world and organised crime based on its level of planning and seriousness," says Detective Jari Illukka of the Helsinki police department. However he adds that robberies in conjunction with drug and snus tobacco deals are familiar to police.
Underage status hampers investigation
Just over a year ago, the Helsinki police department set up a special team to investigate suspected crimes by minors in the capital region.
"As in this case, investigations are more difficult in situations where the suspects are under the age of 15. Although prison is no place for someone under the age of 18, suspects under 15 are problematic in that they cannot be arrested," Forss says.
Another challenge in probing youth crime is dealing with those who have escaped from children's homes or juvenile detention facilities. Last year, authorities in Helsinki sought about 800 such runaways.
"A runaway child is at higher risk of committing new crimes, but also of becoming a victim of crime. One could also ask whether it makes sense to put children who have committed serious crimes into the same place as those who have been taken into care for other reasons," Forss says.