The Ipswich murders, 12 months on: 'It still does my head right in'

A year ago, Jo heard her best friend had been found dead. Now off the streets, she tells Cole Moreton why life for sex workers is more dangerous than ever

Sunday 09 December 2007 01:00

A year ago Jo was selling herself for sex on the streets of Ipswich while her friends and fellow prostitutes were being murdered. "They found my best mate Annette's body on the Tuesday," she says. "It still does my head right in."

Annette Nicholls was discovered in wasteland near a road on 12 December 2006, and identified three days later. She was the last of five women killed in the Suffolk town just before Christmas. Until then Jo not her real name had carried on working the streets, despite knowing that the serial killer everyone was talking about was likely to be one of the men who paid her 40 a time for sex in their cars.

She needed five times that amount of cash a day for drugs. "I was a big mess," she says. "I was on crack cocaine. I was on heroin. I weighed seven and a half stone. I was living in toilets in the town centre. I was used to getting attacked and beaten up. You just don't care, you get up and do it again, because you need the money."

Jo doesn't do it any more. One year on, neither do all but one of the 28 women who worked the Ipswich red light area before the killings. "You won't see any girls in short skirts down there unless they're going to a night club," says Jo, 31, and she's right.

The Ipswich police have cracked down on kerb crawers, arresting more than 120 men in 2007. The only cars that move slowly are unmarked patrols. CCTV is watching. London Road is now weirdly quiet at night, although residents dread the return of the outside broadcast vans when their neighbour Steven Wright goes on trial for the murders in January.

Jo has changed as dramatically as the old red light area, thanks largely to a drugs charity that helped almost every woman on the streets get counselling, treatment for addiction, a place to stay, help with debts and even food as they struggled to live without their former earnings. The story she has to tell in this, the only interview given by any of the women to mark the anniversary is brutal, but may just have a happy ending.

Outside Ipswich, though, things have actually got worse for women like Jo. Astonishingly, those who know the trade say it is now more dangerous to be a street prostitute than it was before the killings happened.

The zero-tolerance approach has been copied across the country, but often without the accompanying care for the women. The need to do a deal quickly and go to more isolated places is putting them at risk, says Rosie Campbell of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects. "All the safety basics go out the window if you haven't got time to suss out if the man is safe."

It is hard for the police to carry out "the dual role of arresting clients and protecting women", she says. And it is going to get worse, believe other campaigners who say the Criminal Justice Bill now going through Parliament is a "repressive response" to the murders. Sex workers will be criminalised by the threat of jail if they do not attend a series of meetings with a counsellor, says Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes. "How can [they] be expected to attend rehabilitation meetings when no resources are being made available to address practical needs?"

But those things have all been available in Ipswich since it fell under the world's gaze. That was one reason the women did not just move on to neighbouring towns to ply their trade, although Jo is outraged by the suggestion. "Our mates have died and we'd do that? No! It's not like that. We have got feelings. We are people."

Instead they stayed and were helped by a local charity called the Iceni Project, which has a drop-in treatment centre by the river. "Without Iceni," says Jo, "I would be fucked. I would still be out there. So would everyone else."

She was taken to the centre by a police liaison officer earlier this year, instead of being arrested. Jo stopped selling sex in spring when she was given a prescription for methadone. "This place has been around for ages," she says, "They don't judge you. But it took something like the murders to shock me into coming here."

Acupuncture helped with the "twitches and pains" of coming off crack and heroin. Jo looks drained and still makes nervy, jerky movements when trying to sit still, but walking down the street in embroidered jeans and black top she just blends in with the crowd. Counselling was vital because "my head was a bit twisted with what happened to Annette. I haven't let it all out properly yet. I'm still in shock."

She became addicted to drugs as a teenager in the north-west of England, and couldn't ask her family for help. "My mum's dying of cancer. My brothers are all smackheads and dealers and idiots. My dad's an idiot as well."

Then she drops a bombshell. "All my children have been adopted and I don't know where they've gone." Jo was 17 when the first of three girls was born. All were taken away from her. "Then I had twins. They died. Still-born. The hospital said it was because I just came off drugs straight away when I found out I was pregnant."

A month after losing the twins she was back "on the beat" (another woman had a caesarian on a Thursday and sex with punters the next Saturday). Jo moved to Ipswich, her boyfriend's home town, to escape addiction but that went quickly wrong. "The first thing he did when we arrived was find a smackhead and score. He came up with prostitution as a way to make money," she says. "He beat me up if I wouldn't do it. When we split up I carried on, because I was hooked on drugs."

She worked hard. "People think because they see The Secret Life of a Call Girl on the telly that it's all glamorous like that. Is it fuck! I was standing out there for hours, freezing my tits off. No Jag pulled up to me and gave me a wad of money, or took me off to spend the night in a glamorous hotel with bubbles and Richard Gere." She laughs, bitterly. "A clapped-out Skoda stinking of fags. A greasy, horrible man with black teeth and smile that makes you think, 'Oh my God!' That's about as glamorous as it gets. The nicest car I ever got in was a police car."

We can't talk about what happened last year, for legal reasons. But she says: "Whatever anyone says, you can't tell who's a killer. He hasn't got it tattooed on his forehead."

Jo now has her own housing agency flat in another town, "so I don't just go and score if I feel down". She lives on 50 a week income support, when court fines have been taken off. After bills, that leaves 20 for food. "I'm on a diet," she says grimly. The electronic tag she got for drink driving hurts her ankle. But she says: "I feel a lot better now. Cleaner. I feel good about myself."

Jo still has a long way to go. But when she leaves, Brian Tobin, the project director says: "These women have suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse and need a total life overhaul, but they deserve so much credit for fighting so hard to change. They're not out of the woods, but what has happened so far is amazing."