Family terrorised for helping the police: Fear for justice as witnesses are left unprotected

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THE JUSTICE system is in crisis because it cannot protect witnesses giving evidence in court against criminals, a senior police officer said yesterday.

Witnesses and juries in Britain were being approached and attacked, added David Mellish, Assistant Chief Constable of Northumbria police. His warning came after a North-east family revealed they were driven from two homes after violent attacks and intimidation by a criminal gang because they helped police.

Anthony and Marie Peterson said their lives had been ruined after they let their Sunderland house be used for a Northumbria police surveillance operation. Their case was highlighted on the day figures were released showing violent crime, robbery and burglary continued to rise last year, although the rate of increase in crime overall slowed.

Last night the Home Office said it was working on revising the way statistics are drawn up to avoid inconsistencies caused by legislative changes.

The Petersons were victimised after a gang suspected of robbery discovered the family had helped police. Mr Peterson, 42, his wife and three children were all physically attacked; Mr Peterson had his jaw broken. In one assault masked men hit them with rounders bats.

Mr Peterson said they were forced to move and now live at a secret address away from relatives and friends. He and his sons were also forced to give up well-paid jobs. During a sustained hate campaign involving hoax calls, a stream of delivery vans, lorry loads of building materials, manure, television and video repair teams and a hearse arrived at their home. Mr Peterson was anonymously accused of sexually assaulting his daughter.

Lumps of concrete, bricks, ball bearings, wooden stakes with nails on and creosote bombs were thrown through the windows of their newly purchased council house. Two family cars were wrecked.

Speaking yesterday at a press conference organised by the BBC Television programme That's Life, Mr Peterson, commended by a judge for his 'public spirited' conduct, said the police were unable to protect them.

'We have been driven out of our home and have had to leave the city where we were born and grew up and where all our friends and family are. We used to have jobs and a future. Now we have nothing,' he added.

'I am utterly disgusted by what has happened to us. Helping the police is the worst day's work I ever did. We can never go back.'

Hooded men threatened them after dark, he said. 'They fired ball bearings from catapults, which came through the windows like bullets, embedding themselves in the plaster. One caught my son between the eyes and knocked him unconscious. We were frightened to leave the house . . . . We could see the men's girlfriends and wives dancing and cheering every time there was a hit on our house.'

Their pleas to be rehoused were ignored because they owned their home. Eventually they were forced to sell at a loss. Persecution continued after they moved to a neighbouring town. Mr Peterson said: 'Nobody who saw what happened to us would co-operate with the police.'

Detective Superintendent Ray Henderson, of Northumbria police, said: 'Witness attacks and threats are a growing problem. Witness intimidation is something we face in a vast number of cases.'

Crime figures, page 3

Policing the police, page 21