Project Sapphire: Rape victims get justice

She thought the man who sexually assaulted her would never be locked up, but Fion Gunn is one of dozens of victims who are finding justice at last, thanks to a new cold-case police unit. Julia Stuart reports on how Project Sapphire has rapists on the run

On August 30, 1991, Gunn was asleep in bed with her 15-month-old daughter whom she had just breastfed. At the time, her then partner was driving the babysitter home after the couple's first night out together since the baby was born. Sleeping in another room of the flat in Balham, south London, was her other daughter, then aged five. The next thing Gunn knew was that she was being beaten around the face by an intruder and hauled into a sitting position. She has never forgotten his first words to her: "I want to have sex with you or I'll kill your children."

"I just went completely icy cold," she says. "I was so terrified that the baby would wake up. She had health problems and would scream an awful lot. If she woke I thought he'd just kill her. All I could think of was to keep very, very calm."

She was then made to perform oral sex on him. "While it was going on, all I could think of was the fact that I'd got some kitchen roll beside the bed because my daughter used to vomit an awful lot, and to get it over with as quickly as possible and spit it out... The baby was right next to me and I was holding her heel throughout the attack, just praying that she would stay asleep. She was a tiny little thing. And she didn't wake, thank goodness."

When the attacker finished his assault he said: "Well cheers, thanks a lot love" and left. Gunn looked to see how tall he was and what he was wearing, and then immediately spat the semen into some kitchen roll.

Within minutes of the attack, she was on the phone to the police. "They were brilliant," she remembers. "You hear all these horror stories of how the police treat people, but I have to say that, from the word, go I had near 100 per cent really, really good treatment. At one level, it wasn't complicated for me because I never felt that it was about my sexuality or anything I had done. It was just terrible, terrible fear."

Swabs were taken from Gunn's mouth, which, along with the paper towel, were sent to the Metropolitan Police's forensic science laboratory in Lambeth (now part of the Forensic Science Service, or FSS) for (omega) DNA analysis. The victim also had to undergo an HIV test as she had been hit so hard the inside of her mouth had bled, and there had been blood and semen contact. She immediately had to wean her daughter, which was highly traumatic for both of them. Fortunately, the test came back negative.

The Met immediately launched a manhunt, which included an appeal in the media with an artist's impression of the attacker, an unremarkable-looking short-haired, square-jawed man. In the meantime, staff in white coats and masks in the restricted-entry Lambeth laboratory analysed the samples. While the semen sample from the victim's mouth proved too small for a DNA profile to be made, one was produced from the semen stain on the paper towel. It was then compared to the profiles of suspects and offenders on the DNA database, but there was no match.

Hoping that the samples would one day be of use, Julie Allard, a consultant forensic scientist who was overseeing the case, cut out the remains of the stain on the paper towel that hadn't been tested, sealed it in a plastic bag, wrote the word "retain" on it, along with her initials, the case number and the date - 14 December 1991. She then put it in a drawer of one of 40-odd upright household freezers kept in the laboratory. The case file was sent to an archive in Birmingham. And with it, all hope of catching Gunn's attacker faded.

When DNA finger printing was invented by the British scientist Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys in 1984, he could not have forseen how rapidly his techniques would advance. Jeffreys discovered a stretch of DNA that is unique to every individual. It can be found in blood, bone, hair follicles, saliva, semen, vaginal secretions, skin and sweat.

By 1996, forensic scientists had improved upon his work by developing SGM (Second Generation Multiplex), a technique for detecting DNA thousands of millions of times more sensitive than Jeffreys' methods. It is now possible to grow tiny DNA samples into quantities big enough to produce an individual profile. Before SGM, scientists needed a blood stain the size of a two-pence coin to achieve one. With current techniques, all they need is a stain the size of a pinhead. And in some cases, it doesn't even have to be visible to the naked eye.

As Julie Allard explains today: "We now have got techniques that can pick up DNA if someone just touches something. We have cases where perhaps people are grabbed or they are tied up with something and the areas that someone has handled, or had a lot of contact with, we can sample and see if there is a DNA profile there."

It was these improvements which led to the establishment of the National DNA Database, based in Birmingham, now the biggest in the world. It carries more than 2.5 million profiles from criminals and suspects, and more than 200,000 DNA samples from unsolved crimes. However, it is not compatible with the police's former DNA database which holds samples using the old techniques; any samples from crimes committed before 1996, therefore, have to be retested in order to see if there is a match against today's database.

In 2003, the Metropolitan Police set up a cold-case rape investigation team, partly for this purpose. An offshoot of Project Sapphire, the unit which deals with sex attacks, its remit is to investigate unsolved stranger rapes and serious sexual assaults which took place between 1989 (before which forensic samples weren't routinely retained) and 1996 when the new DNA profiling techniques became available.

From the very outset, the FSS has played a vital role in Sapphire's cold-case investigations. In 2003, Julie Allard's colleague, FSS intelligence officer Sarah Mustoe, was sent to trawl through all the drawers of her office's imposing banks of freezers, looking for potential cases to review. The freezers contained thousands of DNA samples in transparent plastic bags from all types of crimes: swabs, DNA extracts, pieces of material. At that stage, there was no central list indicating what each drawer held.

After Mustoe had pulled out 353 promising samples, Allard and the FSS team began matching them with case notes, to determine which would be worth retesting. Some proved to be from cases that had subsequently been solved, others didn't fit the cold-case team's remit. But among the 209 samples that the team decided to retest, was Gunn's paper towel. (omega)

So it was that, as she studied the accompanying case notes, Julie Allard found herself re-reading her own handwriting from December 1991: "Area cut out and retained in DNA freezer," she had written, next to a hand-drawn picture of the paper towelling.

Meanwhile, far from the world of DNA samples and freezer-filled labs, Gunn had been trying to pick up the pieces of her life in the decade since her attack.

"I had a few bad years of real fear," she admits. "I couldn't sleep at night. As soon as I drifted off, I'd wake thinking it was happening again. I had all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress including panic attacks. They were really quite debilitating."

Desperate to leave the flat and its associated memories, she put her artwork on hold and took a full time job working with a charity, so that she could get a mortgage and move. A new home made a huge difference. She and her partner then split up, which had nothing to do with the rape. With the help of counselling, eventually she started to recover. She married and had another child, who is now aged nine. "I can't say that I was angry that he wasn't caught because I perfectly understood what the situation was. But I did find it very hard to come to the terms with the fact that because he wasn't caught it meant that he was going to go on and attack other people. I thought that was tragic, really."

For the team that was working on Fion Gunn's case, the breakthrough came when the new DNA profile proved a match to a known sex offender called Christopher Cleary. In September 1992, he had received a 13-month sentence for indecent assault, and, in November 1996, was given eight years for indecently assaulting a further three women.

But the match was not enough to immediately arrest him: the case had to be reinvestigated. "A lot of people think, 'You've got the DNA, why don't you arrest him tomorrow?' " says Det Insp Robert Anderson, 37, who heads the cold-case team consisting of six detective constables (three of whom are women) and two female detective sergeants. "The problem is that these cases are so old and procedures were done so differently in 1989 compared to now. In some cases, when we recall the file, documents are missing. If the statements are missing, you have to start again. I had one case where the victim was so elderly she had died. Without her statement, which was lost, you had to go back to the doctor and the doctor had to find his or her original notes."

In Gunn's case, the lead investigator, DS Annette Maslin, found the paperwork from the original enquiry was scant, so she set out to speak to all the officers who had dealt with the case back in 1991, to gather all the outstanding facts. She then had to ensure that she could prove the semen-stained paper towel had been looked after and properly stored from 1991 until 2004, when it was retested.

Before approaching Gunn, the cold-case team checked with a lawyer from the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure that, in principle, the case was prosecutable. "The last thing we want to do is to bring back a harrowing event into a woman's life after 15 or nearly 20 years, and then say to her we have identified who's done it, and promise them that it's going to be prosecuted and then, on the first day of the trial, the case is dropped," explains Det Insp Anderson.

Once they had agreement from the CPS, the team then decided the best time and place to approach her. " These things are done as sensitively as we can, either at home or at work," he says. "We take into account that the victim may well have moved on in her life, she may have remarried, she may have married for the first time, she may have children and the partner or husband may not even know about the offence. We try and avoid doing it in the worst possible circumstances when all the family are around, and it's embarrassing to her."

The majority of victims' reactions are positive. A number have read about cold-case reviews and have been hoping that their case would be solved. Others need time to think about whether they want to go ahead with a prosecution. A very small percentage decide not to.

"Some have buried this horrible event in their life and they want to move on," says the detective inspector. "There are times when we've approached women at home and the last thing they wanted to hear was that we'd identified the perpetrator. They don't want to know. I think it's such a horrible event, they've closed that chapter in their life and they don't want anyone to open it. Some people don't even want to hear his name." No case has yet gone to court without the victim's agreement, though it is possible to.

DS Maslin called at Gunn's home with PC Helen Wright, a specially trained sexual-offence officer from her local borough. And Gunn immediately agreed for a prosecution. The detective sergeant took a verification statement, confirming that she still agreed with her original statement. She also took a statement detailing the impact the attack had had on her, for the judge to take into account when sentencing.

Using the fact that Cleary, 51, was a registered sex offender, officers monitoring him went to his home in Erith, Kent, and left him a letter, purportedly about his registration, asking him to come into the station. He didn't show up. The following day, 29 September last year, DS Maslin and officers from the Territorial Support Group arrived at his house at 6.30am. The suspect didn't come to the door and the police made a forced entry. A very shocked Cleary was detained by two officers on a sofa bed in his underpants. He was arrested and taken to Charing Cross Police station.

On 22 December, Cleary was jailed for 10 years after pleading guilty to indecent assault and threats to kill. Before 2002, forced oral sex was not classified as rape.

His is the latest of 15 convictions for the cold-case rape team, which has a 100 per cent conviction rate. The youngest victim was 10 and the oldest 84. A further 14 cases are awaiting trial and there are numerous ongoing investigations.

"It's very rewarding to solve these cases, especially where, for example, from 1993 to 1995, a serial rapist was undetected, and with the breakthrough in science and working together with the Forensic Science Service, we have now solved that case. He was sentenced to 14 years," says Det Insp Anderson.

"These are very dangerous offenders out on the streets who think they've got away with it. Not only are they walking around thinking they got away with it, but they are walking around thinking I could do this again tomorrow. We owe it to the victims to give them closure. I say this to the women out there: your cases aren't forgotten."

While Gunn did not have to give evidence in court, she decided to watch the trial. It did her the power of good. "I just wanted to see his face in daylight," she explains. "I would see somebody and there would be a certain angle of his chin or the way he held himself that would immediately remind me and I found myself scrutinising people. It's very nice that I don't have to do that any more. I thought the judge was great. You hear all these reports about judges saying things like 'drunken consent is still consent' and you don't often hear about the cases such as mine when the judge really threw the book at him and gave him the maximum he could.

"Going to the court was very good for me. When the judge handed out his sentence, I was thrilled. The feeling that he's gone away for a good long period of time and he's not going to be out there threatening other women is very important for me. I am somebody who has had some very difficult times in my life, and you get to the point where you think I'm not somebody who will get justice. For this to happen for me was great."

National Victim Support line, tel: 0845 3030900

The human stain: Sex attackers caught by Sapphire's DNA profiling

The cabbie

Nick Keall pounced on a 21-year-old Belgian au pair in 1989 as she walked home from a north London pub, dragged her into a churchyard and raped her. At the time, police were unable to find her attacker, but he was arrested for assault in 2001, a DNA sample was taken and the 41-year-old mini cab driver was sentenced to eight years for rape in 2003.

The addict

In 1989, Carl Fridye, then a 17-year-old drug addict from Birmingham, climbed through the window of an 77-year-old's home in north London, while she was sleeping. He hit her in the face and sexually assaulted her in bed. She was too traumatised to ever give police a written statement about her ordeal and died of natural causes in 1997. He went on to rape a woman in Derbyshire in 1995 and indecently assault three others. He was jailed for seven-and-a-half years for those offences. In 2004, he was sentenced to five-and-a-half years for his attack on the old woman.

The alley attacker

Paul Karl Thomas carried out his first attack in January 1993, raping a 26-year-old inside a pub in Seven Sisters, north London. The following May, he attempted to rape a 23-year-old in north London, stating that he had a knife. The following year, he raped a 19-year-old in an alleyway off Oxford Street. Last year, unemployed Thomas, aged 37, from West London, was convicted of two rapes and one indecent assault and sentenced to 14 years.

The chef

In 1993 Isse Botan raped US tourist Brenda Sexton at knifepoint after she asked him directions back to her hotel in west London, after a night out. He went on to receive criminal convictions for offences which included fraud and assault. Last year Botan, 41, a catering chef, was sentenced to 12 years for rape.

The 'good Samaritan'

In 1994, Carl Harris approached a 28-year-old woman in Hackney, east London who was returning home by bus after a night out and had got off at the wrong stop. He pretended to help her by directing her away from the road, but led her to a nearby council estate where he raped her. Last year Harris, 34, of no fixed address, was sentenced to five years for the rape.