A deadly game: A brutal killer is at large, but it's business as usual on the streets of Ipswich

Prostitution in Ipswich. Real though it is, opinions conform to the stereotype of the 'working girl'. But how much do we know of the grim reality of the trade? In this uncompromising report, Cole Morton discovers lives blighted by drugs, abuse and poverty
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The man is on top, usually. Pinning the woman down with his body, pressing her into the passenger seat of his locked car, in a dark lay-by. "You are trapped," says Jane, who should know. She has had sex with strangers in their cars hundreds of times, and says the punter has total control. "There is nothing you can do, not even move. You're just his." Jane slurs her words but there is no emotion in them, not even when she says: "He can do anything he wants. It's perfect for a killer."

Jane knew the women whose naked bodies have been found in patches of countryside around Ipswich. She walked the same streets near the football ground, hustling for money to pay for the same drugs. She had sex with the same men - possibly including the murderer. "I know, I know, it coulda been me. I think about that all the time."

Jane is wearing jeans, trainers and a hooded jacket almost identical to the one Anneli Alderton has on in the CCTV pictures of her released yesterday. Her dark hair is scraped back into a high ponytail in the same way. A week ago today, Anneli was discovered in woodland by someone who thought she was a discarded shop mannequin at first. She had been strangled.

"Imagine him being told," says Jane, looking across the road at a little boy in football kit leaving the Ipswich Town stadium with his mother. She is thinking of her own son, who is about the same age. All her children are in foster care. None of them knows what she has been doing. "Number one, they say, 'Your mam's dead.' Number two, 'She was a working girl.' Shit!"

She rubs her face, and her sleeves fall back to reveal bloody marks on her wrist, from a fight or a blade. Women who work as prostitutes get killed: 108 since 1990, researchers said last week. Nobody paid much attention to their deaths until now.

"I was attacked really badly like, a year ago," says Jane (not her real name). Her body moves in something between a shudder and a shrug at the memory of his breath, body odour, sweat and anger on her face. "I was halfway through, you know, whatever, and he said do something I didn't want to do. He'd paid up front and I said, 'That wasn't in the job description.' He started battering us... and stabbing away with a plastic knife."

Jane managed to get out of the car somehow, and run. She called the police, but when they arrived he was gone. "They weren't interested then anyway."

They are now. The attitudes of the police and the public have changed since the murders brought the lives of women working the streets of Ipswich into the spotlight. But in the sympathy for the victims and their families, some of the grimmest, deadliest details have gone untold.

Jane, who is in her early 30s but looks a decade older, says she has not sold her body on the street since late summer; but then she also says she is off heroin. Her hooded eyes, slow, hesitant speech and the way she sways when she tries to stand still say she is high on something.

Nine out of 10 women working the streets of Ipswich are on heroin, according to a detailed study made two years ago. Most said they injected every day, some several times, and they used more extreme parts of the body as it became harder to find a vein.

Heroin makes prostitution easier, says Jane. "It stops you feeling. You're not there." But addiction was also what made her sell sex in the first place, in her late 20s, a good 10 years later than usual. She tried shop-lifting to fund her drug habit but kept getting caught. She couldn't pay the fines, and got deeper in debt. Then a woman she knew said it was easier and quicker to go down by the London Road and turn a trick. She showed her what to do. "It's not like you think," says Jane. What was it like then? "Ugh. Much worse."

Her speech is hard to follow without leaning in close, but this is what she says, eventually, about how it is. You stand there in the cold until a car pulls up. You know you should take down the registration number and give it to a friend, and tell her where you're going, but while you do that someone else might steal the punter or the police might come. It's dark anyway. They used to work on the main roads, where the street lights are brighter, but the police starting pulling the kerb crawlers there and forced them into the back streets. "It's not so safe, 'cos it's dark, and anyway the people who live there don't like us."

The man might not say anything if he's nervous or playing some weird power game. So you name a price, knowing most want penetrative sex. It's £40 on a good night, when there are lots of punters coming through and not more than half a dozen girls. It's much less if you're desperate. "You need about a oner," says Jane, "to pay for the drugs. The most I got in a night was £220, for six or seven times."

She says she never agreed to have sex without a condom (which are free from drugs workers). "I always kept it safe. In that way, anyway." Every working woman will say the same. But almost all have been asked by a punter, and some have been desperate enough to accept it for another tenner, whatever the risk.

The trade starts around six on a winter evening, with the suits walking down from the office, briefcases swinging, for a quick hand job in the park. The average punter, according to Home Office research, is about 30 years old with a wife and a full-time job, and no criminal convictions.

James (not his real name) fits the bill. "I'm not ashamed," he insists on the phone, after refusing a meeting but agreeing to a quick chat. "My wife doesn't know, she doesn't need to know. It doesn't matter. It's just ... it helps." What does he think of the women? "I don't. I try not to."

He may have to, if Detective Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull is true to his word. Some prostitutes have given details of punters to the police, so a few family men can expect to jump every time the doorbell rings this Christmas. "If they have been in the Ipswich red-light district," said Mr Gull, "they need to volunteer that information before we come knocking at their door."

The punters who turn up at closing time, sometimes together, can be tricky: pissed and easily angered. After midnight come shift workers, lorry drivers, men out of the docks, and the ones who want to be sure they are not seen. Their cars range from filthy bangers to expensive ones like the BMW whose driver the police have already spoken to.

"You get all sorts," says Jane. And all sorts of requests. "One wanted me to play with his nipples. That was all. He did the rest for himself, while I was doing it ... But, you know, if that's what he wants. I took the money."

More than half the 80,000 or so women working as prostitutes in Britain are homeless or have bad places to sleep - in doorways, cars, hostels, on the floors of a friend's house. Jane lived in a tent for a while, in a churchyard where the homeless go. Then she was in a squat. One punter gave her a bed in return for sex - then told her to stop working, and turned nasty when she wouldn't. "How am I gonna live, man?"

Few, if any, of the 30 or 40 women working in Ipswich are victims of sex trafficking. Almost all are of white British origin. Among street prostitutes like this, say criminologists, the "classic pimp" running a string of street women is becoming less common than the boyfriend who pimps his girlfriend to pay for both their drug habits.

Jane is with a new partner who she says has helped her stay off the streets. So has a prescription for methadone, the heroin substitute. "I got out just in time, didn't I? Not like the others." She thinks one or two of the victims stole from punters, "a phone, a bit of cash, anything to pay for a bag of brown or something".

Jane had her first child when she was 18. Every so often a burst of eloquence betrays the person she used to be. If that is not heroin sweeping away her thoughts, it may be crack cocaine: 82 per cent of women working as street prostitutes take crack, according to the Ipswich study. Some have supported a heroin habit for years, only for crack to make them "more chaotic and vulnerable".

Every working girl Jane knows was abused in her youth, as she was, by a friend of the family. It is what makes them able to sell themselves for sex, she says. "You learn to turn yourself off, while they are doing whatever they are doing. It's a survival skill, yeah? So sex with a punter is like, 'Yeah, whatever, get it over with and get the hell out of there.'"

That sounds like it might be more true in theory than in real life. "Yeah. You don't realise how much it fucks with your head. If you told me there was one girl going on the streets by choice ... you wouldn't find one. Not here anyway. They all have to."

The women studied in Ipswich in 2004 are believed to have included several of the murder victims. Most were sick and malnourished, which may be why Jane wolfs down her Kentucky Fried Chicken so quickly. By her coffee cup are at least 20 sugar sachets that she and her partner have ripped open. He takes a new wet wipe between every handful of fries and rubs his hands.

Even before these latest murders, attacks were the greatest fear of women working the streets in East Anglia. Mandy Duncan vanished while working as a prostitute in Ipswich in 1993. Two others have disappeared from the red-light area of Norwich since 2000, and one of them was found strangled. Gang rape is another terrifying occupational hazard. "You get in the car, go with them, and there's a load of others waiting," says Jane. "Try and leave and you get beaten. The police don't want to know."

They do this weekend. Worried that the killer will strike again, Suffolk Police have urged what they now call "working girls" (deemed less offensive locally than the word prostitute) to stay off the streets. Most have done so - apart from one or two who have sold their stories to television crews or newspapers.

Jane lets me pay for her chicken dinner but refuses any other payment. "One of them girls told me she was having the time of her life. How could she say that, with the others dead? It's blood money. I'm talking for my own sanity. I want to get it straight in me head and maybe help other girls stay safe."

Sex workers in Ipswich have been offered food vouchers, accommodation, fast-track prescriptions for methadone and even top-ups for their mobile phones in the past few days. "Our aim is to take away the need for them to be on the streets or meeting strangers," says Simon Aalders of Suffolk Drug and Alcohol Action Team, who suddenly has the support to cut through red tape that has held women back in the past. "We will... get them out of whatever bad situation they are in and do the paperwork later. We need to demonstrate that somebody cares what happens to them."

Not everybody does. Jane's parents tried to help her fight addiction but could not handle finding out she was a prostitute. "They haven't called me, not even with all that's gone on. I would, you know, if it was my daughter. Wouldn't you?"

THE VICTIMS

Gemma Adams, 25

She lived in Blenheim Road with her partner and went missing on 15 November. When she disappeared, Miss Adams was wearing a black waterproof waist-length jacket with a hood and light-blue jeans. Her naked body was found in Belstead Brook, near Thorpe's Hill, Hintlesham, at 11.50am on 2 December. She was the first of the five to be murdered.

Tania Nicol, 19

Vanished on 30 October after she left her home in Woolverstone Close. She was later caught on CCTV in London Road near Sainsbury's garage. Miss Nicol was believed to have gone out to work. Her mother called police on 1 November after she had not returned home for 48 hours. On 8 December, police divers found her body in the same river as Miss Adams, near Copdock Mill.

Anneli Anderton, 24

Was last spotted on the 5.53pm train from Harwich to Colchester on 3 December. Miss Alderton's body was found in woodland near Nacton on 10 December 10 by a motorist. A post-mortem found she died from asphyxiation and that she was three months pregnant. Her grandmother, Joan Molloy, 84, is said to have collapsed on hearing of her murder.

Paula Clennell, 24

Was last seen at 12.20am on 10 December in Handford Road near the junction with Burlington Road. Her naked body was found in woods near Levington on 12 December. Tests revealed she died from "compression to the neck". She leaves three children. Her relatives, who are taking care of them and her dog Beanie, believe she was lured to her death by someone she knew.

Annette Nicholls, 29

Last seen in Norwich Road at 9.50pm on 5 December. At the time she was wearing dark-grey patterned leggings, calf-length boots, a black top with a low neckline and a dark bomber jacket. Her naked body was found in the same woods near Levington on 12 December after a police helicopter scoured the area where Miss Clennell's body had been found.