Women in Croydon voice fears over serial sex attacker

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In Croydon yesterday, they were not alone in their fear. Young women were sticking together in groups, and boyfriends and parents were providing impromptu taxi services.

The women were all aware that, after the police linked the murder of Sally Anne Bowman, 18, with a sexual assault on a woman in the same area in 2001, a serial sex attacker could be in their midst.

Police spelt out their concerns after receiving reports of 40 other incidents - some sex attacks - following the model's murder last Sunday, already linked to the assault in Purley four years ago.

One woman was even attacked on the same evening by an assailant matching the description of a man seen near the scene of Sally Anne's murder.

The attack on the woman, 36, by a white man in his 20s, about 5ft 10, clean shaven and with short hair, happened not far from the South Croydon road where the model's body was discovered.

The attacker approached the woman as she got out of her car to call a friend after it had broken down. Thinking he was going to rob her, the woman held out her handbag, but the attacker still beat her about the head, back, arms and hands with a metal object. He then ran off with her handbag. The victim believes the robber had a knife in his waistband.

Police have been urging women in Croydon to be vigilant, warning that a serial attacker could be preparing to strike again.

Local women have been speaking of their fears. Kay Savage, 23, who lives and works around the corner from where Sally Anne Bowman was killed, said: "I usually walk home about nine o'clock. It may be only two roads but I get a lift home now. I won't even go out in my garden."

Emma Rivers was out with a crowd of friends, all determined to have fun at a foam party until the early hours of the morning. But she insisted she would not be drinking too much.

She said: "Last night I was really scared. Normally I go home on the bus and walk through a field at two in the morning. I stopped drinking quite early. I generally spend all my money but I made sure I had some left over for a cab because I was petrified."

Aged just 18, she already knows what it is like to be the victim of a spiked drink after collapsing in a bar a year ago after just one drink. She was thrown on to the street by bouncers who were convinced that she was inebriated. Friends put her into a mini-cab.

"They [the cabs] go all round the houses to get extra money and it makes your heart beat faster. Tonight we will all share the same black cab," she said.

Croydon Council operates a "Best Bar None" scheme, which rewards venues that have a responsible drinking policy. Now, as part of a pilot scheme, special "marshals" are on duty in a well-lit part of the town centre, which is monitored by CCTV, to check a mini cab's credentials before customers are allowed to get in.

Debbie Spearing, 36, now worries for her daughter, Roxanne, 17. "This has hit home a bit. I don't ever remember being scared in my day. I used to walk home in the wee small hours and get on trains late at night, things I would not want my daughter doing now," she said.

Despite the blow dealt by news of a murder so close to home, this generation of young clubbers are increasingly streetwise to the dangers around them.

"In Croydon in general, people are quite aware that it is not the nicest place in the world," said one 22-year-old woman.

Her mother added: "In Croydon, there is not just one of them out there."