In the early hours of the morning Detective Chief Inspector Simon Morton stared at a whiteboard covered in the names of scores of men and young girls. Many of the girls had been reported missing, then turned up again in the city, only to be reported missing again. Some of the men were local, others came from Bradford and elsewhere in the UK.
“I remember it very clearly,” he said. “It all became clear. They were selling young girls for sex and what I was looking at was an organised crime group at the centre.”
It was this realisation which – after years of mistakes and failures by the police and social services – led to a watershed being crossed.
The officer had begun his inquiries knowing nothing of the repeated failed investigations by Thames Valley into single incidents reported by some of the young victims. The girls and some of their abusers crossed the police and social services radar multiple times over the years. In 2006 alone the police received four complaints from young girls about the men – with corroborative accounts of their activities in some cases.
One victim made two complaints in 2006, on one occasion saying she had been held against her will by two Asian men, and later that she had had sex with Akhtar Dogar and another man in a park in exchange for drugs. She told the police: “They’re doing it to other girls, little girls with their school uniforms on.” Dogar was questioned but denied rape, saying the girl had mistaken him for another man. The investigation ended there.
Another girl – known in court as Girl C – was found in 2006 in the basement of the Nanford guest house in Oxford distressed, crying and shaking. She told police she had been drugged, raped and smacked in the face repeatedly. But the investigation was dropped when the girl withdrew her complaint.
In 2007 and in 2008, Girl D told the police and social services about Mohammed Karrar, telling officers she had been raped by him. She said she was told it would only be possible to get the men on drugs charges and she decided to “walk away from it”.
Social workers were also aware that Asian men were grooming schoolgirls. One said: “Nine out of 10 of the social workers responsible for the individuals were aware of what was going on.” But no one did anything to put the evidence and intelligence together.
Morton knew none of this when, in the autumn of 2010, he became concerned about the number of missing girls who were disappearing then reappearing in Oxford. He had no complaints from victims but decided to investigate further. He called a meeting with social services who spoke of rumours that the girls were spending time with older men.
Morton set up Operation Bullfinch shortly afterwards. Two social workers were seconded to his team and the officers went about pulling together all the intelligence in the police and local authority system. They began to identify men who were around the girls and on his whiteboard, Morton wrote a string of names of men and young girls.
Once he had identified the perpetrators as an organised gang – some of whom were known to the police for drug dealing – he determined to go after them without the accounts of victims.
It was a groundbreaking investigation that involved building a case around the perpetrators without the evidence of the victims. It involved using every tool available in policing – covert surveillance, telephone monitoring, informants, corroborative evidence – anything that would build evidence against the men.
Morton travelled to Manchester and Derby to talk to officers there who had worked on the Rochdale and Derby grooming cases, and took advice from the UK human trafficking unit and the child sexual exploitation and protection centre.
His investigation involved trawling the medical, social services and school records of possible victims. He went back historically to get every detail of girls who had come forward in the past in order to build a picture of them.
“We had a number of girls who were in a really bad place. They had been corrupted, they had been groomed in every sense of the word. It became apparent to me that they were owned by these men,” he said.
By the time the police were ready to arrest the men in the spring of last year, 250 officers were working on the investigation. In simultaneous raids 13 men were arrested and put into custody.
It was then that Morton went to the string of victims he had identified through meticulous research and investigation. “We told them we had 13 men in custody, we believed they are sexually exploiting girls and we think you are one of them.” 80% of the victims spoke to police. By the time the case came to court six victims were prepared to give evidence.
The prosecution case was built around historic cases of abuse – with older girls identifying the men – and more recent cases involving younger girls who gave evidence. Evidence included not only the victims’ accounts, but DNA evidence, identification evidence, corroborative accounts from witnesses.
“We want this case to be a catalyst for change,” said Morton, who retired a year ago but has seen the case through to Tuesday’s’s convictions. “There were mistakes and missed opportunities in the past. We are really sorry for that. These men managed to keep their activities secret for a long time. It takes a completely different mindset to see what is going on.”