The 'British Fritzl' and his 27-year reign of terror

Violent rapist who inflicted a life of brutal abuse on daughters given 25 life sentences
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The Independent Online

A violent rapist with a "one-second fuse" who fathered 19 children with his two daughters during a reign of domestic terror lasting a quarter of a century was ordered yesterday to spend the rest of his life in jail by a judge who described the case as the most shocking he had ever heard.

An urgent review is under way into how it was that 10 of the children conceived by the women – who had been repeatedly beaten, abused and raped since the age of eight and 10 – were miscarried or terminated, yet their mothers' plight failed to come to the attention of welfare workers.

Judge Alan Goldsack QC said: "As a result of this case, questions will inevitably be asked about what professionals, social and medical workers, have been doing for the last 20 years."

The full details of the case, which have already drawn comparisons with that of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian whose daughter gave birth to seven of his children while kept in a dungeon for 24 years, were laid before Sheffield Crown Court yesterday, as a sentence was handed down after the man admitted 25 counts of rape at an earlier hearing.

Judge Goldsack ordered the 56-year-old, who cannot be named in order to protect the identity of his children, to 25 concurrent life terms with a recommendation that he should serve at least 19-and-a-half years in prison.

"I can say that in nearly 40 years of dealing with criminal cases and 14 as a family judge, the combination of aggravating circumstances here is the worst I have come across," said the judge adding that the public would demand that he stay in prison until he was "old and infirm".

The court heard how the powerfully-built father was a tyrannical bully who drank heavily and called himself the "main gaffer". He considered himself to be a "hard man", the court heard, with a "Jekyll and Hyde personality", who threatened to kill his children if they disobeyed him.

In order to avoid detection, the family moved from South Yorkshire in the early 1990s to live in small villages in Lincolnshire. Locals were puzzled at the lack of a father figure for the family's many children and wondered about the presence of the over-weaning figure they all called grandfather. But nothing was ever done. Concerns were raised by teachers and by doctors who grew increasingly concerned at the alarming infant mortality experienced by the two women. But still the case was not picked up.

On one occasion in 1988, burn marks on one of the girl's faces were spotted at their school but were put down to bullying. The other daughter suffered a broken arm but stayed off lessons to conceal her injuries. Another time, a doctor pleaded with one of the daughters not to have any more babies with the same man, but she denied outright the father of the babies was in fact her own.

The father had scared the girls away from seeking help telling them that if they told social services their children would be taken into care. When one of them eventually rang the children's charity Childline she hung up after failing to receive assurances over being able to keep her children.

The father jealously guarded them from any male company, viciously attacking them if he caught them talking to members of the opposite sex, right up until their 30s. One of his victims described how he would hold her head near to a gas flame while the other described being kicked and punched when she was pregnant to bring on a miscarriage.

Eventually the mother abandoned the family, leaving the two daughters and a son to live with their father in a council house. It is believed they had been too terrified to tell her about the attacks. The teenage boy was forced to sleep on the floor on the landing. "All the family were frightened of him. When they heard his car pulling up outside the house, the children and their mother ran to their respective rooms," said Nicholas Campbell QC, for the prosecution.

In a statement read to the court, the younger daughter said: "He continued to beat me if I didn't do what he said and I would get a good hiding. There was the look, a piercing look, an evil look."

The women became so desperate they offered to pay their father £100 a month to stop raping them, taken from their child benefit. But it earned them only a couple of months' respite. The case only came to the attention of the authorities in June this year, at least 20 years since the first warning sign.

The prosecution described how one daughter would babysit while the other was attacked: "The defendant played Russian roulette as to whether there would be complications in the pregnancies and with the health of his daughters. When he began the abuse he told each victim she must tell no one and it was their secret to be shared only between father and daughter.

"The victims were too frightened to tell anyone, even their mother. They did not consider the possibility that each may be enduring the same fate until the pregnancies began."

Mr Campbell said: "When either one of his victims tried to end the sexual abuse, he threatened to kill them and their children, and when they threatened to tell police, he said they would not be believed. He said that if they went public then the children would be taken away from them.

"All the time, when the sisters were challenged about the paternity of their children, they would cover it up."

Jayne Ludlam, the director of Sheffield City Council's Children and Young People's Specialist Services, said an independent review into what could have been done was already underway. "This is one of the most harrowing cases we have dealt with and to say that we were shocked to find the level of abuse perpetrated by this person is an understatement," she said.

The General Medical Council said it was up to a patient to come forward.

"If in this case the doctor was concerned that a woman had been raped... then their first point should really be persuading them to tell somebody. It would only be a last resort to try to inform the police themselves, because of the patient's confidentiality."

A spokeswoman for the NSPCC, which runs ChildLine, said the child had been given the correct advice when she rang the helpline. "It is critical we do not make any false reassurances to young people about what may happen. When a child decides they want to take the next steps in speaking out about their abuse, we will work with them and support them through the process unless they are in immediate danger," she said.

James Baird, representing the defendant, who refused to attend court, said nothing had been done by either Lincolnshire or Sheffield Social Services despite the strong suspicion of incest: "It must be inconceivable to those who have listened to this case that these offences have been carried out, in this day and age in a so-called civilised society, over such a long time and with such consequences, without them being reported or investigated."

The Sheffield MP and former Home Secretary David Blunkett called for an inquiry: "We should always ask 'What on earth were those close to this actually thinking?', and then ask what responsibility others might have had, if they had any knowledge or could have been expected to have any knowledge at all.

"Clearly, there is a need to inquire into all the circumstances, the chronology and whether, when the family moved, as they did in 1998 and 2004, any information was transferred."

Liberal Democrat leader and fellow Sheffield MP, Nick Clegg, said: "When I heard about the evil perpetrated by Josef Fritzl in Austria, I never thought anything similar could happen right here in Sheffield."

After the sentencing at Sheffield Crown Court, Chief Superintendent Simon Torr read a statement from the two victims. It said: "Today this offender has been sentenced to life imprisonment. His detention in prison brings us only the knowledge that he cannot physically touch us again.

"The suffering he has caused will continue for many years and we must now concentrate our thoughts on finding the strength to rebuild our lives. We do not wish to comment further on the factors of the abuse we suffered and hope that answers will be found during the serious case review."

Ian Johnston, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said: "If there was a way to create a situation where these girls could have shared information about what was happening, and suffering could have been prevented, we'd have wanted to do that. But it's not easy to identify abuse."