Victim: Jessica, here aged five. As a young teenager she was lured by a criminal gang into an underage sex-for-sale ring.
As a child, Jessica loved playing in the tent in the garden, or walking her pet dog on the beach in sight of Blackpool’s famous tower, seven miles away up the Lancashire coast. She would go back to her family’s smart home for an early supper with her father Jim, a successful property developer, mother Jennifer, and her sister Melissa, who is three years younger.
The family moved to Rochdale, Greater Manchester, when Jessica turned 13, and it was the same story of happy family life. ‘The girls always came home for our evening meal together,’ remembers Jim today. ‘Even as young teenagers, they were not allowed to stay out after 7.30 in the evening. We set down rules, and they had a childhood full of ballet classes and wonderful holidays.’
Yet, to the bewilderment of her loving parents, Jessica’s behaviour suddenly changed. ‘By the age of 15, she wanted to be out late at night all the time. If we kept her in, she’d climb out of the upstairs window on to a flat roof above the porch, jump down and disappear into the streets. It was much worse than normal teenage rebellion.
‘We would drive my BMW around trying to find her. It happened at least 20 times, more than I can remember. She fell in with a local girl we did not like and started to use vulgar swear words in front of her sister.’
Now Jim and Jennifer know the truth. Their slim, dark-haired, pretty daughter — who was then studying for her GCSEs at state school — had been lured by a criminal gang into an underage sex-for-sale ring operating from Pakistani-run kebab shops and takeaways in Rochdale. At one stage, horrifyingly, she was being forced to sleep with five men a day, four or five times a week.
Last week, after a lengthy trial, the gang’s 59-year-old ringleader (who cannot be named for legal reasons) and eight other men were jailed for offences including rape, aiding and abetting rape, the trafficking of girls and conspiracy to have sex with a child. One was an Afghan national and the rest were of Pakistani heritage.
It was the latest in a string of almost identical high-profile cases in northern England and the Midlands involving the sexual abuse of white underage girls by street-grooming gangs.
For years, a dangerous myth has surrounded this type of sex crime. In this era of political correctness, it is a myth promoted by the police, the BBC, and many media commentators. They insist that the perpetrators come from every ethnicity and not, primarily, from the British Muslim Pakistani community.
In fact, almost all of the scores of men convicted of street-grooming schoolgirls for sex — and there have been at least 21 court cases since 1997 — have had exactly this ethnic background.
The abuse began at two takeaways in the Heywood area of Rochdale, including the Balti House, which is under new ownership
And now, a new myth is being peddled: that the girls themselves are somehow to blame. A picture has been painted of them as the wild progeny of feckless parents, or as girls lost in the care system who are prepared to sell themselves, as one male BBC Question Time panellist put it this week, ‘for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone’.
But as Jessica’s parents prove in this haunting interview, that is not necessarily the case at all.
The Rochdale gang convicted last week beguiled naive girls, one barely out of primary school, with bottles of vodka, cigarettes and mobile phones. And then, these children were forced to have sex with the gang members and scores of their friends.
To silence their victims, many of whom came from decent homes like Jessica’s, the gang threatened to tell their families they were prostitutes, rape their little sisters or kill their parents with knives or firebombs.
Jessica was the key witness in the shocking trial of the Rochdale street grooming gang. She bravely gave evidence, known only as Girl A — and her story was as heart-rending as it was shocking.
At 15, she became friends with an older white girl (the friend her parents disliked) who took her to a kebab shop and introduced her to the men who worked there. The girls began visiting regularly and, at first, the men were friendly. They gave the girls copious glasses of vodka and food. As Jessica told the court: ‘They also made me feel like I was pretty.’
But soon she began to realise the men were anything but friends. One day, a 59-year-old man, who turned out to be the gang’s ringleader, who was convicted at the recent trial, invited her to a room above the kebab shop for a chat. He reminded her of the free vodka and meals he had given her.
He said he wanted something back from Jessica in return. When she said no, he hurled her on to a bare mattress on the floor and raped her.
Jessica later recalled that as he forced himself on her, she found herself staring at a children’s clock hanging on the wall of the upstairs room. It had the face of an angel on it. Afterwards, the man told her not to cry.
When she finally got home, Jessica was too terrified to tell her parents. And besides, the gang promised they would beat up her, or her family, if she spoke to Jim and Jennifer about what had happened or refused to return to the kebab shop.
Under new ownership: The Tasty Bites takeaway – now renamed Bakar’s – was the other takeaway at the centre of the scandal
So it was that this terrified schoolgirl was ensnared — and that first rape was to turn into months of sexual attacks by dozens of men, who paid the gang £30 or £40 a time to sleep with her (from which she and other girls were occasionally given £10). On one occasion she was handed over free ‘as a treat’ to one of the gang members, a 25-year-old called Kabeer Hassan, who was convicted at the recent trial.
At the height of her ordeal, Jessica was driven in the gang’s taxis and pizza delivery vans around a succession of flats and houses in Rochdale and other former mill towns in the north, where there are large Pakistani communities. There, groups of men she did not know were waiting to rape her over and over again — and then hand over their cash to the gang.
‘I don’t know how many I had to sleep with . . . I couldn’t even count them in my head,’ she later told police. The men never used condoms.
She recalled at one point how at first she felt dirty and ashamed, but as time went on she just felt numb. As she said: ‘It had been going on for so long with so many different men it was as if it wasn’t me any more. I just couldn’t get out of it . . . I was trapped. It just became like a daily life.’
At home, as Jessica’s torment increased, her parents began to suspect something was wrong, but could not establish what it was.
Jim says: ‘When Jessica started coming home late with gifts of toys or sweets for her sister, we knew she didn’t have the pocket money to buy them. The idea that she was shoplifting went through our mind, and we invited the social services here to this house, but they refused to help us.’
The couple would berate Jessica for staying out late and being rude to them. ‘I would get cross with her,’ remembers 43-year-old Jim. ‘But she wouldn’t tell us anything. Of course we now know she was in the clutches of a criminal gang which was threatening to hurt us and her younger sister if she said a word.’
It was in August 2008, several months after she first went to the kebab shop, that Jessica summoned the courage to fight back against her abusers. After being plied with drink, she flew into a rage and smashed the counter of the shop in a protest at her treatment by the men.
Jailed: The Rochdale child sex gang who were jailed. Pictured (top row left to right) Abdul Rauf, Hamid Safi, Mohammed Sajid and Abdul Aziz; (bottom row left to right) Abdul Qayyum, Adil Khan, Mohammed Amin and Kabeer Hassan
The police were called and she seized the chance to blow the whistle on the gang. At that point, she told officers she had been attacked by two men, and an investigation began which involved taking DNA swabs from Jessica’s clothes and the men she accused.
For the first time, Jessica reluctantly told her parents a half-truth about the police inquiry. She said she had been raped by a man in the town.
Her mother cannot erase the memory of that terrible day. ‘When Jessica told us, we were so sad. We felt her innocence had been taken away. At that point we thought it was a one-off incident, although deeply traumatic for her.’
But if Jessica hoped informing the police would bring her suffering to an end and the rapists to justice, she was bitterly mistaken.
Just two weeks later, one of the gang, 41-year-old Abdul Aziz, started pestering her again on her mobile. Other gang members found out where she lived and watched her house from their taxis and delivery vans. Amid threats from the gang that they would tell her family she’d had sex with men for money, she felt compelled to visit her tormenters again.
What followed next is a scenario few will understand. For soon, Jessica was back in the gang’s clutches and being raped by more men. As she explained in a quiet voice at the trial: ‘They threatened to batter me and tell my mum the truth about me. I was scared to say no to them.’
Finally, having assessed Jessica’s allegations, the Crown Prosecution Service told the police that there was no prospect of a successful conviction. It reached that view despite DNA linking her directly to the 59-year-old gang leader.
As a result, scandalously, the gang remained free to continue grooming other schoolgirls for another two long years.
During the trial this month, the court heard how the girls — all under 16 — were held down by their abusers and raped. Some of the victims drank themselves into oblivion to blot out what was happening. Men would line up outside bedrooms in sleazy properties to have sex with them. One girl slept with 20 men in a single evening.
The gang used nicknames such as Tiger, Master and Daddy, so their young victims they could not later give their real identities to the police.
It was only when Nafir Afzal, a new Crown Prosecution Service chief in the area, reviewed Jessica’s file in 2010 that the police inquiry was re-opened. Mr Afzal says today that Jessica was ‘let down by the whole system’.
At least 47 girls were systematically abused by the gang before the first arrests were made, but only five dared to give evidence at the trial for fear of reprisals from the gang.
For Jim and Jennifer, the trial — which Jim attended — was an appalling ordeal. Before that, Jessica, who is now 19, had spared them details of the number of men who had raped her.
Sitting with her husband in their neat family home, Jennifer recalls the nightmare of hearing the truth for the first time. ‘Before the court case, she told us bits of things,’ she says. ‘We had a broad idea, but did not know everything. We were horrified.’
Blinking back tears, Jessica’s father says: ‘Since the trial, we have heard time and again, on the TV, radio and in some newspapers, that the gang’s victims were ‘vulnerable’ girls. But this isn’t the truth. This crime can happen to any girl from any background.
‘We want to warn other parents and other girls to beware. These men make friends with kids coming out of school in the afternoon, on the streets where they shop on a Saturday afternoon.
‘The younger the girls, the more innocent they are of the dangers. They are flattered by the attention and they think it is exciting to go to a kebab house and be given a meal and a glass of vodka.
‘Jessica had a lovely home, and a mother who was waiting here to greet her from school. We had told her never to talk to strangers. But these men were introduced to her as friends and she believed, to begin with, they were her friends.’
For their part, Jessica’s parents believe there is a disturbing racial element to the sex crimes of these grooming gangs run by British men of Pakistani descent. ‘All too often, these men think white girls are worthless and deserve what they get,’ says Jim.
Supporting their fears, one Muslim leader said after the trial his community were ‘burying their heads’ in the sand over this issue.
Although the great majority of Pakistani Muslim men must utterly deplore these crimes, a small minority believe white British girls are ‘easy meat’ who have none of the modesty of their own sisters, daughters and nieces.
After one recent case, a radio station asked British men from Pakistani families in Bradford why so many white girls were targeted by the gangs. One man replied: ‘It is the way woman dress, isn’t it, in mini-skirts? It encourages men to go and jack (snatch or attack) them.’
For the record Jessica — who now lives away from Rochdale (to avoid reprisals from associates of the jailed gang) but sees her parents regularly — never dressed in a skirt, let alone a mini-skirt. ‘She’s always in jeans or jogging pants and covers herself up,’ says Jim.
‘She did nothing to deserve the treatment she got from those men. If this can happen to Jessica, it can happen to any girl.’
When Jim shows me politely to the front door, we pass a blue plastic box in the hallway. It is an alarm system linked to the police — there in case any of the jailed gang’s associates come looking for the girl who bravely blew the whistle on them or seek to take revenge on her family.
For Jessica and her parents — and so many others who fell victim to these wicked men — the ordeal is far from over.
Some names have been changed to protect Jessica’s identity.