The loner who claims he was there 'to watch over the girls'

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The Independent Online

Tom Stephens, the man being questioned over the Suffolk serial killings, is a self-confessed "sad and lonely" man, who claims to have turned to prostitutes following the collapse of his marriage three years ago.

Rarely can a man who is being questioned by detectives over a major serial-killing inquiry have been so publicly frank beforehand about his involvement with the victims.

Mr Stephens, who is 37, acknowledged that he was a likely suspect, but throughout long and often emotional interviews with the BBC and the Sunday Mirror before he was arrested, he denied all suggestions of personal involvement in the killings, saying he had simply been friends with the five women. He claimed to have been questioned four times, once under caution.

As well as pouring out his feelings to the media, Mr Stephens also has his own entry on the MySpace website. He is apparently a regular user of an internet blog site, on which he is photographed in a variety of bizarre postures: with a can of custard powder, in front of a wall of stars, and wearing a yellow shirt and Union Jack tie.

On his site, he gives his nickname as "The Bishop", lists one interest as "keeping fit", says he enjoys most types of music - "especially from the 80s" - and says his hero is the cartoon character Hong Kong Phooey. He lists his occupation as "Team Leader" and, under his companies, his entry reads "Tesco" and then "from 1997 until they sack me".

Under the "Here for" section of his details, his entry reads: "dating, serious relationships, friends". In the Sunday Mirror interview, he said: "On paper I should be attractive, but there is something about me women do not like."

He claimed to the BBC that he was a friend of all the girls, but said he was closest to Tania Nicol, claiming he was the "nearest thing to a boyfriend" she had. He said he became their "protector" and conceded it was possible he could be arrested. But he said: "I know I am innocent and I am completely confident it won't go as far as me being charged."

He added: "It wasn't a relationship like that, although Annette [Nicholls] in fact thought that we were an item." Mr Stephens said he had spoken to Ms Nicol's mother in the days following her disappearance. He said he had known Ms Nicol for about six months, but that he had known Miss Adams for 18 months - "about as long as I've known any of the girls".

He added: "If Tania hadn't been the first, I would be out there in the street watching over her now. I could have been there for the others. If I was out there tonight, I could watch over a girl, but I would tell her that I can't keep her safe."

In an earlier interview with BBC Radio 1, he said: "Obviously I wanted sex, because I was paying for it. But I know I wanted to chat with the girls before and after, and was always quite happy giving them a lift; they'd quite often want a lift to get their drugs. It was better for me like that, and that's how it developed into a friendship."

Jacci Goldsmith, 34, a former prostitute, backed him up yesterday, saying: "He was an alright guy - nice and sweet, with no nasty bone in his body. He hasn't got it in him to hurt anyone." She said she got to know Mr Stephens when he visited the red light area while she was working on the streets.

She added: "He used to come down the red light area nearly every night for a couple of years. Most of the girls knew him and he would run errands for them and drive them around. He used to take me to buy drugs. He knew all the murdered girls ... they all liked him because he was nice and kind to them and helped them out. His phone number was on all their mobile phones and they used to ring him if they needed help."

Mr Stephens described himself as "sad and lonely" and said that he had made "compromises on my morals" to visit the red light district in Ipswich. But he insisted: "I am from a good household. I have only told my mother today. I've been a terrible son, she is very ill."

He told the Sunday Mirror: "Don't think I'm pointing out my guilt, because this is almost the worst example to give, but in the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, he was arrested, released and later charged. But in his case he was obviously guilty, but at that point they thought he was innocent."

Mr Stephens was born and brought up in Norfolk. As a boy, he lived in the tiny village of Blofield Heath, where he attended the nearby Hemblington Village Primary School with his brother.

His mother is believed to have bought up the two boys on her own. She later moved to Ludlow in Shropshire, but then returned to a village in Suffolk, where she has been living in a house which was being searched by police yesterday. In one of his interviews, Mr Stephens said that he had often visited his mother there to look after her.

From primary school, he went on to Thorpe St Andrew High School in Norwich, a large comprehensive with a good reputation. The head teacher there refused to comment, but Norfolk County Council confirmed that a pupil of that name attended from 1980 to 1987.

A former classmate described Mr Stephens as "a nerd" who always wore extremely tight trousers. He said that he would hang around on the edge of social groups and never had a girlfriend. The man, who asked not to be named, said: "He was an introverted type who never seemed to have many friends. He would hang around on the outside of other people's groups. Also, he was very quiet, the sort of person you wouldn't want to get stuck talking to."

He added: "He didn't generally say very much and never seemed to have much self-confidence. Nobody ever thought he would get a girlfriend, it just didn't seem to be an issue with him. His dress sense was very uncool, but I do remember that he used to wear very tight trousers all the time. He was a bit of a nerd."

Details of Mr Stephens' career after leaving school until joining Tesco in 1997 remained hazy last night, although it was confirmed that he had worked as a volunteer special constable for Norfolk Police for several years in the mid-Nineties. He may also have worked as a taxi driver.

Also sometime in the mid-1990s, he got married, and the couple lived in Ipswich for some time. After the marriage broke up, he moved to budget accommodation near St Clements Hospital, where he rented a bedsit. Michael Gooch, housing manager for Galliard Investments, which owned the flats housing more than 300 medics, nurses and students, said he paid his £280 a month rent regularly until leaving in September.

"He was here for about three years. The sort of chap who would walk down the road and say good afternoon and smile. It never went beyond that. He was well spoken and always paid his rent on time. He was the ideal tenant. He never gave us an ounce of bother."