Return of the horse slasher sparks alert in Hampshire: Police still baffled by mystery of serial sexual attacks

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FEAR has returned to the narrow lanes and stable yards of rural Hampshire after what seemed to be a lull in the disturbing series of brutal, sexual attacks on horses that swept the county - and elsewhere - over a seven-year period. 'We are very apprehensive,' said Jocelyn Jenkins of the British Horse Society last week.

The fear is expressed in many ways. A letter from the society has been sent to riding schools and livery yards, suggesting that the attacks on (mostly female) animals are being renewed and calling on all members to 'keep your eyes peeled'. No details of the events prompting the letter are being disclosed, lest they inspire 'copycat' attacks.

Security precautions taken by horse owners after a 1991-93 spate of attacks are being checked regularly. The registration numbers of cars parked near stables or fields where horses graze are being passed to police. Outsiders are regarded with suspicion ('We're not having the media give this part of the country a bad name,' said a pub customer in Owslebury). So are all equine injuries.

'Three nights ago,' Mrs Jenkins said, 'a friend of mine lost a horse. It died of old age in the field, and may have injured itself falling down. But my friend had the vet inspect it, just in case. There is someone twisted in the head out there.'

A visit to the Basingstoke office of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals yields some idea of how twisted that someone is.

Superintendent John Dunn said: 'After 38 years with the RSPCA, nothing ceases to amaze me.' But amazement gives way to revulsion as he hesitantly pulls some colour photographs from a file. They show the rear ends of two mares. Both had been penetrated sexually by the attacker before being viciously assaulted with poles. Both survived. That their attacker also survived has long been a puzzle.

Det Ch Insp Des Thomas of Hampshire Constabulary confirmed that many of the 26 most recent attacks on mares in the county involved 'an intimate act'. He said: 'It would probably seem to you and me that this would be very dangerous. But whoever has been doing it in recent years is skilled with horses. It is someone who could, you know, do it with horses.'

Mr Dunn of the RSPCA tried to explain. 'It is not the sexual intercourse that bothers a horse. Consider how a mare will stand still and allow a vet to put his arm inside her to turn a foal that's facing the wrong way. No, it's the slashing that would make her react violently. We think some were sedated.'

According to Mr Dunn, in earlier cases distressed owners had concentrated on immediate treatment. 'They had the wounds cleaned and stitched, and it was usually a day or so later that they asked themselves how the animal might have been injured,' he said. Thus potential evidence was lost.

'We explored DNA (testing),' Det Ch Insp Thomas said, 'and had fortune favoured us in that direction we might well have had a prosecution.'

Hampshire's first serious attack was in December 1983. A three-year-old animal from Bishop's Waltham had to be put down as a result of her injuries.

Jocelyn Gregory, who has four horses and ponies at her Colden Common stables, said last week: 'The owner of that first victim is a friend of mine. I don't think she has got over the shock. The attacker used two broom-handles.'

Between 1988 and 1993 more than 40 animals, many of them young fillies, were attacked in Hampshire - some in stables, others in fields. Sexual attacks on two cows were studied by a police team because of similarities with the horse assaults.

Mr Dunn believes Hamp shire has been targeted, partly because it has a large number of horses (about 50,000) and partly because the attacker lives in, and is familiar with, the county. But grievous sexual assaults on horses have been recorded elsewhere recently - as far north as Newcastle and as far south as Helston in Cornwall.

At the height of the attacks, Hampshire police had a special operations room at Alton. The investigation was codenamed Operation Mountbatten - after a mare of that name was killed in January last year. The 20-strong police team questioned animal perverts by the score and came close to arresting three.

A Horse Watch, similar to Neighbourhood Watch, was set up (its posters are visible across Hampshire). Television crews, including one from Japan, cluttered country lanes. Although the police never had enough evidence for a prosecution, 'as we worked our way through all the suspects, the offences stopped,' Det Ch Insp Thomas said. 'We wound down the inquiry, but have always maintained a little residual activity in case of a recurrence.'

The 1994 recurrence began outside Hampshire. In April, a mare was killed in a vicious attack in the West Midlands. In July, a series of horse maimings were recorded in the Leeds area. Last month a pony was knifed to death near Wythall, Hereford and Worcester. And now, according to tense British Horse Society representatives, the Hampshire attacker is on the prowl again.

When Det Ch Insp Thomas was on leave two weeks ago, a 'small upsurge' was noted. 'There were three incidents,' he said. 'Two of them may have been the result of a natural occurrence, but the third is very strange.'

Alertness may help deter the Hampshire attacker, but what the police and RSPCA need most is a psychological profile of him. So far, there has not been much to go on. 'There were all sorts of theories, about the attacker striking at full moon and things like that,' Det Ch Insp Thomas said.

'However, in these rural areas moonlight is your only light, so it would not be unusual for someone to be active on a moonlit night.'

Richard Ryder, a psychologist on the council of the RSPCA, asked the society to look into its records 18 months ago, 'but nothing much came up. One can't get a psychological profile until one gets a resonable number of established cases. So all I can do is speculate. It could be the work of a sexual deviant, or a paranoid schizophrenic for whom the horse represents something threatening, or even a reasonably normal person with an abnormal resentment towards the equine establishment.'

(Photograph omitted)