The day had started so well. When the knock at the door came, Fred and Mary Thompson had been making elderberry jam to sell for charity at a forthcoming church fair.
Mr and Mrs Thompson had retired to their small farm cottage in the village of Penjerrick, near Falmouth in Cornwall, some five years earlier. They would often describe themselves as just a normal happy family. Anyone could see that Mary’s daughter was the image of her. Though, in her late 50s, the passing of the years had turned her blonde hair grey and her face now bore the lines of tiredness. Fred was a hulk of a man. His weather-beaten features suggested he was much older than his 62 years and he was at the time of life where he was rapidly losing his mousy hair.
The Thompsons were popular amongst all of the 42 inhabitants of Penjerrick.
Village bobby, Tom Honeycomb, would normally drop in for a cup of coffee and a chat while on his beat. But today he stood at the front door with his hat held under his arm. Today he appeared formal and sombre. And the moment Fred and Mary saw him, they held each other’s hand as they sensed something awful had happened.
“It’s Rachel. I’m afraid she’s in hospital….”
Sirens deafened the normally tranquil Cornish country lanes as Pc Honeycomb drove them to a field, just off the A394, where the Devon & Cornwall police helicopter was waiting, ready to depart. Even though the BK117 Eurocopter would take them straight to York District Hospital’s helipad the ninety minute flight time would seem like an eternity.
During the trip they would be given limited details of what had happened and although they would be warned to steel themselves, nothing could ever prepare them for the shock they would experience.
Pinned to the wall of York Central Police Station’s Incident Room were photographs of four beautiful women: Rachel Thompson, Susan Hunter, Antonia Clarence and Shelley Jones. DI Sykes referred to each as he began briefing his team of 35 uniformed and plain-clothes officers who had gathered in a semicircle, “A little over three years ago, Shelley Jones and Antonia Clarence were raped. In both attacks the offender wore a balaclava. Both women say he repeatedly ranted ‘fucking bitch’ in a Northern Irish accent. His party trick was to produce a claw hammer, smash it down on an apple he’d brought with him, and then terrify them by resting the hammer on their forehead and whispering, ‘Not a word. You tell, I’ll kill’.”
Police knew the rapes would never have come to light, had it not been for primary school teacher Antonia Clarence subsequently breaking down in an explosion of panic when one of her pupils donned a balaclava as part of a Halloween game. The resulting publicity led to Shelley Jones reporting that she too was a victim.
An investigation was immediately launched, but by then both women had washed away all traces of forensic evidence. Inquiries at the time produced no leads and it was concluded the rapist had either left town or for some reason had stopped.
Three years later and four weeks before the latest attack on Rachel Thompson, a student called Susan Hunter died from multiple injuries after being hit by a bus. The driver said she’d run out from nowhere. Initially it looked like a straightforward road accident. It was only during post mortem examination that she was discovered to have been raped.
DI Sykes told how house-to-house inquiries two days later located the scene of the attack, “It was a bedsit on the opposite side of the street to her flat. The disused property had been cleaned up but forensics found fibres matching her clothes and many tiny traces of decaying apple – possibly as though it had been smashed to smithereens.”
The inspector did not have to spell out to the assembled officers that unless the rapist was caught soon they would be dealing with a trail of murdered women.
Fred and Mary Thompson entered the Intensive Care Unit and walked straight past their daughter without recognising her. It wasn’t just that her face was partially covered by the oxygen mask and that tubes and wires seemed to be attached to the whole of her upper body. Rachel’s once near perfect facial complexion was now reddened with first-degree burns. Her beautiful blonde hair had gone. Her scalp a mixture of red and black and her eyebrows were badly singed. More severe second degree burn injuries to her stomach had produced wretched blisters.
When Mary Thompson first saw her daughter she wailed, “Rachel, Rachel. What has he done to you? Rachel. Rachel….” The plastic casing around Rachel’s bed that shielded her from harmful bacteria also prevented Mrs Thompson from physically touching her. The shocking sight led Mary to hyperventilate. Her mind was racing. She would later describe it as a recurring nightmare of having to run through an endless tunnel of fire – where she could see, but never reach, the person she most loved at the other end screaming and begging for help.
As the hospital monitors bleeped and doctors, nurses, and technicians busied themselves providing tender care, Fred Thompson – who was a big man – felt a tiny weakling; for he could do nothing to help the most precious thing in his life.
It was as though he was in a trance when a distant voice was telling him something. As the voice became louder and clearer he realised it was one of the doctors. The hospital’s leading trauma injuries specialist, Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Biku Patel, introduced himself to Mr and Mrs Thompson.
Mary was by now sobbing as she sat next to Rachel. She was talking to her as though she were looking after her when she was a toddler – having tucked her up in bed when she had come down with a cold.
Dr Patel could see Mrs Thompson was in a state of mild shock and decided to hold back some information, “Mr and Mrs Thompson. Rachel’s burn injuries look far worse than they actually are. At the present time she cannot feel any pain. Because of what’s happened she’s in a state of shock. When the body goes into shock, the brain shuts down all the bodily systems it doesn’t need and so that’s why she is in a coma. It’s nature’s way of helping to repair body damage in the fastest way possible.”
Dr Patel hated this part of his job. How the hell am I supposed to tell them that their daughter has at best a fifty-fifty chance because some monster has played crude mind games on her before shoving a pole up her anus? There was no way Mrs Thompson could stand hearing what he had to say so he gently led Mr Thompson away to a consulting room.
Before Dr Patel spoke he paused to carefully choose his words, “Mr Thompson I don’t think your wife, at this precise moment, is emotionally strong enough to hear what I have to tell you…”
Fred Thompson continued to stare at the floor as though he was concentrating on something somewhere else. He nodded, “I’m grateful for that doctor.”
“Mr Thompson. Rachel is in a deep coma partly through the burn injuries, but also through the psychological and physical trauma of her attack.”
Fred Thompson’s stomach knotted even tighter, “Wh … er … what did he do to her?”
“I’m afraid she was raped.” The poor man didn’t need to know the full details. “Of course she would have been very frightened.” He doesn’t need to torture himself knowing she was actually terrified. “And I think this is what’s caused the biggest part of the trauma and shock to Rachel’s system.” Not the entire truth, but no lies either.
Fred Thompson remained seated in his chair, looking impassive. But somewhere in the back of his mind, while his main thought processes were coming to terms with what was happening, he was working through the implications of what the consultant had just told him, “What chance does she have doctor?”
Years of experience had taught Dr Patel that no matter how tactful, how diplomatic or how careful he was to give the essential yet least traumatic information, the most difficult questions could never be avoided. This time it was Dr Patel’s turn to avoid eye contact, “It’s impossible to say for sure. I think she has about a fifty-fifty chance of pulling through.”
“Thank you doctor.” Fred Thompson was on autopilot. He eventually got up and joined his wife at Rachel’s bedside.
At York Central Police Station calls were flooding into the incident room. As well as members of the public, journalists were now trying to get through to the senior investigation officer. The initial statement:
“North Yorkshire Police Officers are investigating a suspicious fire in which a woman was injured…”
put out by the police Press Office had had its desired effect. None of the local broadcasters – BBC Radio York and the independent station Minster FM – had asked whether the incident might be linked to any others. They ran ‘copy’ saying:
“A woman’s in hospital with burn injuries following a house fire in Blakehurst. Detectives say the cause may be suspicious. They’re appealing for witnesses.”
Under normal circumstances this sort of story would have been forgotten within 24 hours. But the Yorkshire Evening Post newspaper reporter, who turned up at the scene, obtained some information. She somehow learnt that the death of Susan Hunter, whose name appeared in the newspaper’s ‘Death Notices’ column four weeks earlier, may not be as straightforward as first reported – or rather it definitely wasn’t.
Minutes after copies of the first edition hit the city’s newsstands with the headline:
SERIAL RAPIST ATTACKS YORK STUDENTS
journalists in York would not take “no” for an answer. The police press officers had lost credibility and were accused by angry news editors of lacking the confidence of their own detectives to put out an elementary story.
Within an hour the Press Association’s London-based Crime Correspondent had spoken to a ‘senior officer’ within the North Yorkshire force and seconds later the ‘PA News’ flash:
“Murder Squad officers investigate possible link between rapes of York University students…”
appeared on the computer screens of every TV, radio and newspaper newsroom in Britain.
Producers from BBC News, Sky News and ITN realised the significance of a serial rapist attacking middle class university kids in this ancient Roman city. In no time at all, the entire North Yorkshire Police switchboard was jammed. It wasn’t just information about the attack that the journalists were seeking: now they were insistent that permission be granted to park their satellite news trucks outside the main police station.
York University’s Vice Chancellor was demanding to know from the Chief Constable what was going on, and why no one had been told of what had happened.
When the Chief Constable’s office called the incident room Supt Evans-Pearce was nowhere to be found and DI Sykes ended up being bawled at, “Yes Sir. Yes Sir. No Sir. We didn’t know for sure until this morning the attacks were linked. Yes Sir. I don’t know how it leaked out. I…” the phone went dead, “… would like to thank you too, Sir,” DI Sykes said under his breath.
The inspector was angry because an important opportunity had been lost with the media. He knew the benefits of keeping journalists on his side by apparently giving them what they wanted. They always wanted something new to say and preferably with some emotion from a victim. So long as they also carried the bit of information that he needed to get across then it was a professional relationship that worked well. But leaks like this, if it was a leak, led to a loss of control and the investigation was too important for that.
Where the hell’s Evans-Pearce when I don’t need him. Somewhat depressed, DI Sykes took his seat on the top table and continued analysing the information in front of him.
Later that day DI Sykes arrived at York District Hospital to find Rachel’s condition deteriorating. The sight of Mr and Mrs Thompson huddled together – Mrs Thompson still sobbing – provided a reason, if a reason were required, for him disliking such visits; the inspector was a hardened detective who had encountered many ghastly sights in his time. In the often macho world that was the police service he thought it was sometimes forgotten that he too had feelings, but – more importantly – such raw emotion always had the potential to cloud judgement. His judgement.
Even though the force has a Witness Liaison Service, in which a (junior) officer is assigned to look after the needs of the immediate family, he felt obliged to make contact.
Before DI Sykes spoke to Mr and Mrs Thompson Dr Patel told him of his realistic fears for Rachel’s survival. When he saw Rachel close up the details of her background – typed out as a matter of routine by an officer in the incident room – suddenly took on a whole new meaning. This wasn’t just ‘victim number four’. This was a young woman. A young woman like his two daughters. A young woman with everything going for her. And unlike in the case of his two daughters, pray God, a young woman whose life looked like being snuffed out to satisfy the perverted desires of a predatory psychopath.
He introduced himself to Fred Thompson. The two big men, for whom words did not come easily at such times of emotion, shook hands for longer than they maintained eye contact.
Mr Thompson withdrew slightly from the bedside and spoke quietly a simple message, “Mr Sykes. Would you please to do whatever it takes? Neither for my wife, nor me, because we will pull together. But for Rachel.” Mr Thompson turned to look at his daughter, “Please Inspector will you do whatever it takes to find whoever’s responsible for doing this to my baby?”
DI Sykes paused and while nodding slowly, he said, “I’ll do my very best for you Sir. I’ll do my best.”
At that moment in time the inspector could not possibly have known what doing his best would entail.