Police are confident of catching the 'jack roller' rapists of Northampton

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The Independent Online

No chances were being taken this weekend, despite reports yesterday that the police were closing in on the men suspected of a series of gang rapes.

"Lots of strong leads" and "good progress" were confirmed by a spokesman for Northamptonshire constabulary yesterday.But three rapes and two attempted abductions in nine days have shocked townspeople.

Those who did brave the streets on Friday night moved in groups under the watchful eye of a massive police presence. Taxis did a roaring trade. Boyfriends and husbands queued in cars outside the train station, whisking returning partners to safety.

The methodical, tactical way the three-strong gang are thought to have stalked their victims has sent an icy chill through the August air.

Few people have been as alarmed as 40-year-old Louise Harvey. As she walked to her gym, she kept an eye on street corners and lanes, for on 5 August, as she emerged after a workout at around 10.30pm she says a man approached her. Like subsequentvictims, she described her assailant as black: "He came up to me and started saying things, like 'You look nice in your leotard'. I thought he was sleazy and I walked away back towards the gym door. It was really odd and creepy and I told him where to go."

Ms Harvey then described how he walked up the street where he men a man who was sitting on the bonnet of a BMW. Days later, she was stunned to learn that women had been pulled from nearby streets into a similar vehicle. One, a 30-year-old, was found with head injuries close to Ms Harvey's home. Ms Harvey says she is determined to continue her life and not be bullied into hiding away. Yet streets away, it was noticeable that there were many more men than women out.

The gang of suspects are thought to speak with South African accents and as such have been labelled "jack rollers" after township attackers who abduct women and sometimes keep them as sex prisoners for days on end. On Friday night, the dozens of police patrolling the small town centre handed out leaflets to those who did brave the streets. It read: "Females: Be Alert."

Among those carefully perusing them were 18-year-old Joelene Kerr and her friend Sherolyne France, 20. "This is horrible," said Miss Kerr. "Here in Northampton, it's unbelievable. I've come back from London and you hear about really bad stuff going on there, but here it's mad. It could even be a serial thing."

Her friend intervened: "I certainly wouldn't go out on my own any more. We've been sticking together tonight and watching who we talk to carefully. You have to keep an eye on your drinks now: people can just slip things into it."

The suspected attackers, though, are understood to have approached women walking alone in the street. It is thought that they are using two cars, a blue 7-series BMW and a silver Fiat Punto.

Walking by the main Bridge Street pubs were Pam Newell and Kay Faulkner, who had both been issued with rape alarms by their employer. "More companies should do that," said Ms Faulkner. Her friend, originally from Belfast, was adamant that the perpetrators of the crimes should be castrated.

Down the street, as the bars closed, a few young girls did look considerably the worse for wear, but police kept a close eye and dozens of taxis patrolled every street.

"The town is quieter than it usually is at this time of year, but those who do go out are getting a taxi to make sure they get home safely," said Michael Rogers, a taxi driver.

Also noticing the fewer numbers prepared to go out for the evening was Vas Matoshia, manager of the Paparazzi wine bar and restaurant. "We want these guys caught because no more girls should have to go through this. I've been here almost two years and have never seen it like this. We are taking in one day what we normally take in four. This feels more like a Monday than a Friday night."

They needed to catch the rapists so everything could return to normal, he added. Until then, the fear would remain, even among those not out partying.

Working in Paparazzi was 18-year-old Lydia Riddle. "In the past I might have walked home, but you'd be mad to do that now.

"Everyone is pretty scared. I hope they get them soon."