Donna and Louise know a thing or two about scouting for punters. Their beat on City Road, a major artery moments from Bradford city centre, is a strategic choice. “If the vice squad stops [the punters], they can say they’re heading home,” Donna explains. The nearby backroads, on the other hand, lead nowhere in particular – and it is there, amid condemned terraces, that the most desperate girls can be found.
According to Donna and Louise, up to 100 women tout the streets around them. “Sharon, Tessa, Tracy and Cindy…” Their list peters out. The two women have smoked the last of their crack, injected their last spoon of heroin, and they know the “rattles” of withdrawal will soon overtake their bodies. “And there’s worse than the rattles,” Donna says, looking increasingly desperate as the cars drive past.
Here, just moments from Centenary Square, with its opulent Venetian-style City Hall, the only rule is “don’t poach trade from other girls”.
“Now and again someone gets a slap,” says Donna, who lost her front teeth in a row over territory and never got around to replacing them. These days there are no pimps to settle a score. “Crack is the pimp,” says Louise, identifying one of the most radical changes in the oldest of businesses. The women working here are controlled by nothing other than their addictions. And there are no conditions too rough, or warnings too stark, to preclude a night working for money to buy the drugs on which they depend.
Showing us around this dark quarter of a grand old industrial city, an area dominated by the textile mills that once brought prosperity and pride to the West Riding, Donna and Louise identify another critical change. Even though Bradford is, according to West Yorkshire police, one of the most pervasively monitored cities in Britain, the women are alone and out of sight. Venom, West Yorkshire police’s pioneering CCTV street surveillance and car number plate recognition system, is a network of more than 100 cameras. It was this initiative that helped catch the killers of PC Sharon Beshenivsky in November 2005. But six years on, and with a serial killer only recently removed from these streets, the red-light district is still a collective blind spot.
According to police chiefs, the situation in Bradford is not unique. A raft of new legislation has served only to shunt thousands of women like Donna and Louise out of well-lit, residential locales and into desolate, semi-industrial wastelands.
“Our foolish laws mean that while prostitution is not in itself illegal, working in a brothel is,” says Max McLean, who has served in West Yorkshire CID for almost three decades and recently retired as detective chief superintendent. “This gives a clear message to those who work in prostitution: you’re on your own, and out on the streets.”
It is a message that has reached other quarters as well. According to criminologists and detectives who studied the case, it was this realisation that first brought self-styled “Crossbow Cannibal” Stephen Griffiths to this area of Bradford. For more than a decade he roamed Bradford’s grid, befriending its sex workers, even moving to a top-floor flat in a converted Victorian textile factory on Thornton Road so he could be at the heart of the action. Noting how poorly monitored the area was, and witnessing the increasing disconnection and desperation of the women working there, he began to plot his crimes.
In June 2009, the criminology student, who was researching a PhD entitled Homicide In An Industrial City, started hunting the grid’s workers with a crossbow, before dismembering them in his bath. Some parts he cooked. Others he ate raw. Fragments were bagged and dumped in theriver Aire. In the winter of 2006, lorry driver Steve Wright had embarked on a similar spree in Ipswich, murdering five sex workers in an industrial dead zone. “Griffiths and Wright consciously zeroed in on these voids and the invisible women society had pushed between the cracks,” saysDavid Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University. “They knew they could do whatever they pleased. They killed because it was easy.”
By the time Griffiths appeared in court last December, the body of his first victim, Susie Rushworth, had still not been located. Of his second victim, Shelley Armitage, only the shoulders, vertebrae and connective tissue had been found. Suzanne Blamires, his third victim, had also been dismembered, with police able to recover only 81 fragments of her corpse.
In both cases, it was the serial killers who became the main focus of the story. Little attention was paid to the women who had died, or to those left behind.
Today, Angela Williams is superintendent for Bradford South and the operational chief responsible for the grid. But when she first started as a PC in the vice squad in Chapeltown, Leeds, two decades ago, it was a different scene entirely. In those days, Williams recalls, the sex workers had “nice houses, nice possessions and nice clothes. They worked from 7pm to 12am, for their pimps and to put food on the table. Then they went home.” In Bradford, they gathered on Lumb Lane, then the centre of the city’s red-light district, where a close-knit local community afforded them some protection.
But even then, they watched their backs. A few streets away had livedPeter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who had begun targeting local sex workers in 1975. By the time he was caught, five years later, he had killed 13 women and injured seven more, most of them sex workers. Searching Griffiths’ flat last summer, police found material suggesting he had come to lionise Sutcliffe, and was obsessed with carrying out a similar series of killings.
By the mid-1990s, West Yorkshire police – dogged by criticism that they had failed to catch the Ripper in time, despite having interviewed him on nine occasions – were further barraged by complaints from Lumb Lane residents about the kerb crawlers and used condoms. Gradually, the sex workers were moved into industrial areas. “The same was happening all over the UK,” McLean says.
The women’s new beats were more remote. They attracted violent, predatory men. Among them was Kenneth Valentine, a loner who moved into Soho Mills, a converted factory on Thornton Road, and rented his bedroom to sex workers forced out of Lumb Lane, for £5 a session. Valentine secretly watched through a hole drilled in the wall, until one night in 1996, when he raped and killed Caroline Creevy, a 25-year-old sex worker who rejected his direct advances.
Unlike Sutcliffe, who during his trial was diagnosed by four psychiatrists as being a paranoid schizophrenic, Valentine, who had previously been convicted of the manslaughter of a girl he had sexually assaulted in 1991, was described by police as a “dangerous man” who killed because he had an opportunity. Creevy was also a new kind of victim. She had no pimp. She worked alone and out of sight. All she cared about was drugs.
One of the few who had been closely studying Valentine was his neighbour Stephen Griffiths, who had also moved into Soho Mills before the murder and would remain there after it was renamed Holmfield Court, to shake off the stigma of the killing. Creevy’s murder was a precursor to the killing and dismemberment Griffiths would later carry out in the same building.
At the time, though, there was little impact in the grid. The street workers, including Donna, moved a few blocks north-west to City Road, Rebecca Street and Chain Street.
Then, in April 2001, Becky Hall, a 19-year-old sex worker with a heroin habit, vanished. She was found after 13 days, naked and bludgeoned behind a low wall at the back of an unlit car park in Thornton Street, her child-sized C&A clothes scattered around, along with used condoms. Donna was working nearby. “We heard Becky drowned in her own blood, and we continued to work a few paces away,” she says. “Getting the rattles was too much to bear. The beating, rapes and killings increased, and we just accepted it.”
They tried to judge which punters might be dangerous, Donna says. But, as Bridget Farrell recalls, Griffiths did not look like a killer. Bridget sometimes worked the City Road beat, and Griffiths had cooked her dinner, washed her clothes and let her sleep on his sofa when she had nowhere to go. “He was like a brother to me,” she says. Donna knew him, too. “At the time, we thought he was just a numpty,” she says. “Quite a lot of girls took advantage of him, robbing him when he offered to score for them.” He never talked to them about his past: his early childhood in Dewsbury, his upbringing in Wakefield and his public school education – and certainly not the petty crimes and fits of violence that followed.
By 2008, Donna was running out of steam. Since being pushed into the grid, she was being raped at least once a month, hit weekly and threatened daily, as were most of the women working there. “We had become punchbags,” she says, “but then I really got fucked over.” A Toyota people carrier stopped for her, its driver negotiating the rate, while three others hid beneath seats in the back. She was gang-raped and robbed before being smashed over the head with a beer bottle and thrown out of the speeding vehicle. “Now I just couldn’t go out,” she says. “I started shoplifting instead, anything to get my drugs.” The driver, a former Slovakian coalminer, was eventually convicted after Donna and others from the grid were persuaded by McLean’s detectives to give evidence. But the three other rapists had already fled abroad.
Then, in June 2009, Susie Rushworth vanished. By now, Donna was back on the game, but had decided to move to Huddersfield. She had heard the streets were safer and, with fewer sex workers, she could charge three times as much. It was there she met Louise, a 20-year-old with dyed pink hair. Bright and outspoken, Louise had been studying for a diploma in public administration until her boyfriend nagged her into giving crack a go. Just 18, and already taking ecstasy, crack suited her too much. She dropped out of college, had a baby: “And then the father fought me for custody, using the drugs he supplied as the reason for me being unsuitable,” she says.
She scored heroin to come down off the crack, but then got caught and was forced to go to a drug counsellor. After missing a session, Louise ended up in a women’s jail in Wakefield. Coming out with nothing, she was homeless and stigmatised with a criminal record. Any prospect of a return to normal life was lost. She headed for the nearest street corner, where she met Donna.
Louise was young and popular with the punters, Donna experienced and savvy. They remained in Huddersfield for 18 months, splitting their takings and drugs, a decision that took them out of Griffiths’ orbit. “The day I heard Shelley had gone missing,” Donna says, “I said to myself I must never go back to Bradford.”
Shelley Armitage, 31, was known to everyone on the grid. “She was one confident girl,” Donna says. “She talked of becoming a model.” Shelley had last been seen alive on Rebecca Street on the night of 26 April 2010, after discussing trade with a passing motorist. She had been addicted to heroin since she was 16. “A car would go past and I’d say, ‘£30 for full sex’ and the punter would go round the corner to Shelley and she’d do it for £20,” Donna recalls. “She stole off the punters, too, dipping their wallets when she was giving them a blow job.”
Like most of the new girls on the grid, Shelley had a dependent boyfriend, reliant on her to raise money for drugs. They shared a flat in Allerton, a bleak western suburb of Bradford. Her boyfriend was so used to her unpredictable lifestyle that it was several days before he became worried enough to contact McLean’s detectives. When news broke that two girls were now missing, many others wondered what to do. “But the rattles don’t stop just because there’s a killer on the loose,” Louise says. “Believe me, you’ll do anything to make it go away.”
Just under a month passed and the grid seemed to quieten. No sign of Shelley. Or Susie. Shelley’s best mate, Suzanne Blamires, was still on the streets, though. Suzanne, 36, was always a mess, says Donna. “She was a drunk, and stumbling around.” Like Donna, she had been battered and raped by a gang. “But Suzanne was so mad she just slept it off like a hangover and went out again the next night, covered in bruises.”
Suzanne had grown up with gymkhanas, church on Sunday, A-levels and a place at nursing college. But weekend raves with ecstasy in the early 1990s had turned into week-long binges on crack and heroin. Her wedding photos show a happy 20-year-old with a chic pixie crop, but by 2001 things had got so bad that Suzanne was on the street to fund her spiralling habit, her hair now fastened with an old rubber band. “Only the drugs mattered,” Donna says.
Suzanne was last seen alive near Sunbridge Road in the early hours of 22 May 2010. Later that day, her boyfriend, who had not seen her for three days, finally became worried enough to call her mother in Wrose, a middle-class Bradford suburb. When Nicky Blamires said she hadn’t heard a word from Suzanne in weeks, the family contacted the police.
McLean, by now head of West Yorkshire police’s homicide and major enquiry team (Hmet), was at home with his family in Shipley when he got the call. “That was it. I knew we had a serial killer on our hands,” he says. “And a missing prostitute always raises the stakes for West Yorkshire police.”
The failed Ripper inquiry had resulted in a number of changes to the policing system, including the formation of the dedicated vice squad to which the young McLean had been assigned, and the creation of the Home Office large major enquiry system (Holmes), a computerised cross-referencing system developed between West Yorkshire police and IT experts. But while policing had been transformed, street prostitution had not. And to the annoyance of some of his contemporaries, who saw the police’s job as cleaning up the streets, McLean had become determined to do what he could to improve the girls’ lives. The killing of Becky Hall had brought it home to him. “She was just 19, a single mother with a three-month-old baby,” he says, reflecting on how, even after he had gone on BBC’s Crimewatch, very few people came forward. “No one cared about a dead prostitute.”
With three more sex workers now missing, McLean’s detectives got to work. Even as they searched the DNA databases and sex offenders register, another rape gang struck, this time robbing and savaging the 20-year-old daughter of missing Susie Rushworth.
Then the police got a lucky break, without which the investigation might have foundered. Peter Gee, the Holmfield Court caretaker, called on Monday at 1pm, distraught. Reviewing footage from private security cameras, he spotted something terrifying: a woman fleeing number 33 in the early hours of 22 May, followed by a man who grappled her to the ground, shot her twice at point-blank range through the back of the head with a crossbow and dragged her back into the flat.
Afterwards, knowing he had been filmed, the man approached the camera again, this time with the crossbow held high, and gave the camera the finger. Over the next few hours he was filmed again, emerging from the flat with black bin bags and holdalls. Sergeant Helen Metcalfe, head of Bradford’s vice squad, identified the woman as Suzanne Blamires. Police honed in on Griffiths, who had by now lived in Holmfield Court for more than 15 years and had a history of violence towards former girlfriends. A few hours later, detectives found more video footage, this time on Griffiths’ computer. It showed a naked, trussed-up woman in his bath, the words “My Sex Slave” spray-painted on her back. Metcalfe identified the woman as Shelley Armitage.
Max McLean retired last October, two months before Griffiths was convicted, receiving three life sentences. Images of the battered corpse of Becky Hall remain with him. Alongside her unsolved murder, detectives in Yorkshire have open files on at least another six murdered sex workers, including that of Michaela Hague, a 25-year-old found stabbed to death near Sheffield city centre in November 2001.
Although there are no definitive figures, the number of sex workers murdered across Britain in the past decade is thought to be anywhere between 60 and 140, with only a quarter to a third of cases ever solved. “There is no doubt in my mind that serial killers of prostitutes in England remain at large, but nobody wants to be associated with missing or dead prostitutes,” McLean says. “No one wants to call the incident room and say they know anything. If you’re using prostitutes, you want to keep it secret. And deep down, I think too many people don’t care when they hear a prostitute has been killed.”
While the overall murder rate in Britain is the lowest it has been for 20 years, street workers have never been more at risk. The Association of Chief Police Officers has called for the funding of a national database of men suspected of attacking sex workers, and its spokesman, deputy chief constable Simon Byrne, has said a debate is needed about changing the laws governing prostitution. In West Yorkshire, some senior detectives have gone further, suggesting all men convicted of kerb crawling should be placed on a DNA database.
For Professor Wilson, this conversation is long overdue. “We need a proper grown-up discussion about making victims’ lives better,” he says. His suggestions include managed zones where sex workers can work safely, decriminalisation, or even full legislation. Some women’s groups, however, decry these measures as legitimising the abuse of women, calling instead for them to be given amnesty, while those who use sex workers receive more draconian sentences.
Wilson and these groups agree on one thing. “At present, rather than help them, we contribute to their vulnerability by having a system of policing that targets the prostitute rather than the punter,” he says. Current laws, updated in the recent Policing and Crime Act 2009, state that if women are caught persistently loitering or soliciting, which translates as more than twice in a month, they can be arrested. If convicted, they can be required to attend three counselling sessions with drug or health workers. Missing a session results in a fine or, as in Louise’s case, a jail sentence.
Drug counsellors in Bradford warn that, like Louise, many women leave prison still addicted and newly criminalised, having to pay off their debts by working harder on the streets. The Bridge Project, which has two-thirds of the city’s estimated 2,500 heroin and crack users on its books, is frustrated by these glaring contradictions. Chief executive John Royle says: “The police’s primary aim is to prevent crime. Our job is to help people with drug problems. But increasingly, the police recognise that locking them up and fining them only encourages the women to go back out on to the streets to get the money to pay the fine. They know it’s a hopeless system.” There is no quick fix, he says. “After years of chaotic lifestyles, drug use and sex work, these women are not going to change overnight. We need time to develop their trust, to give them respect, dignity and help.”
Donna and Louise returned to work in Bradford’s grid just a month before Stephen Griffiths went on trial. Trade was just too slow in Huddersfield. The beatings and rapes continue; six weeks ago, Louise was tied up and raped multiple times by a 50-year-old judo instructor. “There’s no point in me complaining to police,” she says. “It’s normal.”
Between them, they need to raise £60 a day to feed their addictions, which puts them on City Road seven nights a week. “She’s a smack head and I’m a crack head,” Louise offers by way of explanation. And with that, they head out into the dark; still a double act after everything they’ve gone through.