Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
It hardly seems possible that it is 10 years since the infamous murder of five young women, aged from 18 to 25, in Ipswich between October and December 2006.
All the young women were addicted to drugs which they paid for by prostitution in part of the town which had become a ‘red light district’. Although regularly policed, with occasional raids, pimps, prostitutes and their customers kept returning to the area.
All that changed as, one after another, the girls’ bodies were found within just days of each other.
As the scale of the investigation became clear, there was fear, but no panic. Instead an overwhelming sadness amongst the local population, which was non-judgmental; I never heard a word of criticism of the girls’ lifestyles, merely sympathy for them and their families. People came together in a way not seen for generations.
Most importantly, it wasn’t just residents who came together. Leadership across local authorities and emergency services, religious, health and charitable sectors was strong, purposeful and constructive; politics put aside as everyone focused on protecting the vulnerable and finding the killer.
An eery silence pervaded, as people stayed at home in the ever darker evenings, shops and restaurants closed early, theatres and cinemas were empty, and the annual Christmas tree unveiling was a non-event. As a councillor, I spent days manning an information stand in the town centre with retired police officers, giving away hundreds of ‘rape alarms’ and advisory leaflets, helping to calm nerves.
As the national and international media descended, the town welcomed police officers from other Forces, including burly Northerners, who managed day to day policing with an enthusiasm not previously seen in Sleepy Suffolk. Uninsured, speeding drivers in cars without an MOT or road fund licence quickly paid the price, as did those indulging in petty crime under the illusion that they wouldn’t be caught when the police were distracted by the murders.
Meanwhile, Suffolk’s detectives forensically evaluated all the evidence, resulting in an early arrest. A lorry driver, Steve Wright, who subsequently became known as the Suffolk Strangler, was charged on 21 st December 2006.
Although relieved, there remained a nervousness across the town until he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at Ipswich Crown Court in 2008. It was only then that normality gradually returned.
Sadly, the murders highlighted the extent of the prostitution problem, previously largely hidden, even accepted as part of life, and there was a sense of shock that this had been allowed to happen.
Consequently, there was an immediate and strong commitment to ensure no repetition of the tragic events. The girls’ legacy became the Ipswich and Suffolk Joint Agency strategy – an initial five year programme, largely funded locally, which eventually eradicated street prostitution in the town. This programme soon became nationally recognised.
Since charities had previously worked with some victims to try to get them off drugs, the first priority was to identify those at risk and focus on their rehabilitation, with an emphasis on not criminalising the women. However, police rigorously enforced prevention by arresting more than 140 male kerb crawlers in the first year, and none have been seen since 2008.
It soon became clear, however, that no-one had any idea of the scale of potential child grooming in and around the town so, by identifying and targeting such vulnerable young people, 222 teenagers were saved from the sex trade in the first five years, with traffickers prosecuted. A former police Superintendent who led the initiative from 2006 believes that, had other authorities adopted a similar approach to stopping the development of organised grooming rings at the same time, some recent scandals, such as in Rochdale and Oxford, could have been avoided, and young people protected. Nevertheless, child exploitation remains a national problem, as recently highlighted again by the BBC on its ‘Today’ programme.
Throughout the last decade, Suffolk’s multi-agency teams (as well as councillors) were trained in awareness, to understand the potential impact on mental health, and the importance of early intervention, shared intelligence, including from communities, and joint working to achieve the best outcomes for vulnerable children and adults alike, getting them into safe housing, education and employment.
Reviewed and updated in 2009 and again in 2011 when the Suffolk Prostitution & Sexual Exploitation Strategy was developed, the same multi-agency approach continues, with designated ‘Make a Change’ teams, part of Suffolk County Council’s Children & Young People’s Services, handling hundreds of referrals of children – both boys and girls – aged eight to 18.
Whilst all parties acknowledge that it is unlikely that communities can ever be rid of off-street prostitution and sexual exploitation, efforts continue to contain it, and the streets remain safe.
There is always more to be done, but Suffolk’s sustained momentum to address associated issues and improve lives is a tribute to all those who responded to the horrific events with vision and determination to make good come out of something so evil as the unnecessary deaths of five young women, some of whom were mothers. All had their lives ahead of them, and could have achieved so much if only the right help had been available at the right time, enabling them to realise their potential.
A decade on, it is time to remember them, and be thankful for the vigilance and intervention which has so far prevented a repetition of those dark days in the run-up to Christmas 2006.