“When I called out to her and I didn’t hear a response… it’s every parent’s worst nightmare.”
This blog post is slightly different in that I can’t tell you the name of the victim, I can’t tell you the name of the perpetrators, I can’t give you specific details of the crime, and I can’t give a motive, but nevertheless, this is a chilling tale with worrying parallels to the abduction of little James Bulger in 1993.
Unlike previous crimes I’ve covered with timelines that have spanned days, months or years, this one lasted just 98 minutes and involved traditional old-style policing, a stroke of luck and incredible teamwork by Northumbria Police.
A court order remains in place to protect the identities of all those involved, including their families.
13 APRIL 2016 – NEWCASTLE CITY CENTRE
‘…an image he described as being eerily reminiscent of that of James Bulger being led away by Venables and Thompson.’
4pm: It was a spring afternoon and a mother was out shopping with her two-year old little girl. The child was hungry and fidgety, so they grabbed something to eat opposite Primark in Northumberland Street before heading into the store and up to the second floor to buy some clothes for nursery.
Two school girls who were also browsing stopped and remarked to the mother how beautiful her little daughter was. The mother found them very affable but kept an eye as they encouraged Child A from her pushchair and began playing with her. They offered to give Child A sweets but the mother declined, and Child A continued to run around and play with her two attentive new friends.
Within a matter of minutes the mother noticed an eerie silence and realised that the girls had disappeared, and so had her daughter. She began to frantically search for her child, in and out of racks and rails of clothes, but to no avail. The panicked mother spoke with the store manager but due to her distress, the only description she could offer was them being two white girls wearing school uniform and around 13-years of age. The doors were closed, an announcement was made over the tannoy, staff and security were scouring the store but Child A was nowhere to be seen.
4:55pm: Thomas Clay, manager of Primark, telephoned 101 to report that a young girl had been missing from the store for 20 minutes. Upon hearing that Child A was last seen playing and talking with two girls, the thoughts of the call handler, Kate McCafferty, immediately turned to the James Bulger case and realised the potential seriousness of the situation.
4:58pm: Kate McCafferty logged the call as a ‘grade one’ response, making the report a high priority. In the meantime, Child A’s mother was in the store and understandably distraught. She later described her feelings during that moment:
“My world stopped and I couldn’t think straight. How could it have happened? How could my child have just disappeared from right under my nose?”
PC Mick Miller was in the city centre when he heard the ‘grade one’ announcement and as he was nearby, he headed straight to Primark where he looked through the store’s CCTV. He discovered that Child A left the store at 4:29pm with the two girls – one wearing a red coat, black trousers and boots, and carrying a blue bag, the second girl had long blonde hair and was wearing a black jacket, white top and blue jeans, and was holding the hand of Child A, an image he described as being eerily reminiscent of that of James Bulger being led away by Venables and Thompson.
5:16pm: Once PC Miller radioed through his findings, the police investigation changed from one of a missing child to one of abduction. Inspector Steve Burn oversaw the operation and immediately dispatched as many officers to the town centre as possible in order to gather as much information and witnesses as possible.
5:20pm: A witness described to an officer how he had noticed two girls (one was carrying a small child) outside the Primark store and they headed along Northumberland Street. Police headed to the council’s CCTV control room to study footage of the area to see which way the girls had headed.
5:32pm: CCTV captured the girls entering Haymarket Metro Station with CHILD A at 4:33pm. Horrifyingly, it showed the child being unwillingly dragged along by the girls before being picked up and carried as they used an escalator and waited on platform 2 before boarding a train and heading north away from the city centre. An alert was shared with city centre retail and security staff via the local ShopWatch scheme as well as bus companies and the Metro operators. Police were then dispatched to every station on that line and the radio was filled with different information as every officer coordinated and took their place.
5:35pm: Back at the station, PC Graham Dodds had not long started his shift. He had no idea what was unfolding in the city centre and instead was reading through a report he had been assigned from earlier in the day – one of a completely separate missing persons report except this one was regarding two teenage sisters who had failed to turn up to school that morning. It was while he was reading this report that he noticed the extensive and busy communication on his radio at the very moment an officer was describing the two teenage girls believed to be with Child A. PC Dodds quickly realised that the description matched that of the sisters. Unable to be heard on the busy radio, he called through to the control room and reported his suspicions.
5:47pm: Officers were immediately sent to the girls’ home where their mother confirmed she hadn’t seen them since they left for school that morning.
5:50pm: PC Dodds noticed on the system that a social worker had made a note that the girls often frequented Gosforth Central Park and immediately shared this information via the radio. He was very sure that his two missing girls were the same ones who had taken Child A.
6pm: PCSO Shaun Cowan just happened to be in the vicinity of the park when the information was relayed on the radio and immediately headed through the gates. Through some trees he noticed the two girls and Child A heading towards an exit at the other side of the park and as he radioed through his sighting, the girls turned to look at him. They initially looked as if they were going to run so PCSO Cowan quickened his pace and called for them to stop, which they did. They claimed that the little girl was lost and they were taking her to their own mother because they didn’t know what else to do.
6:07pm: The two girls were arrested on suspicion of abduction and taken to a station for questioning whilst Child A was reunited with her very relieved mother. Although understandably clingy, Child A seemed unharmed but the mother noticed that Child A’s hairstyle had been changed from braids to a bun, which struck her as odd.
It took 98 minutes from the time the girls made their move on Child A to the moment they were arrested in the park on suspicion of abduction.
The two girls were 13 and 14-years old sisters, and their homelife was described as ‘chaotic’. They came from a large family with many siblings, had no friends of their own and spent most of their time together.
The sisters had no prior cautions or dealings with police. However, they were known to social services for ‘quite some time’ and had gone missing from home on a number of occasions.
Due to a court order, no further details can be shared.
During the interview process, both girls were described as ‘uncooperative’. Aside from brief prepared statements read out by their legal representatives, the rest of their interviews were met with ‘no comment’ as the girls refused to speak to the police.
The statements claimed that they had found Child A inside Primark, that they believed she had become lost and they were taking her home to their mother to obtain her advice on what to do. Police knew this to be false because they had already gathered accounts from a number of witnesses who, just as in the James Bulger case, had challenged the girls both inside and outside the store but each one was told by the girls that Child A wasn’t lost.
DCI Shelly Hudson was in charge of the investigation. Police interviewed other family members, friends and teachers in order to build a picture of the girls and if any light could be shone on as to why they abducted a little girl. Police seized equipment from the family home including a tablet that one of the girls had received for Christmas, and this is the point at which the investigation took a more sinister turn.
The search history began almost the moment the younger girl had received the tablet on Christmas Day, but the search terms very quickly descended into a worrying nature of dark content, such as child abduction, child sexual abuse, slavery and rape. Police were also able to use the time the tablet was used to correlate to being used by one of the girls because a lot of searches were interspersed between homework related searches.
Both girls told case workers that they had been groomed online by a man named ‘Nazzer’. A teacher had also seen a sexually explicit chat room conversation, but the information had been deleted prior to the abduction and police involvement. They claimed that Nazzer had told them to abduct a child and had actually been with them when they took Child A.
Police did establish that the younger sister had been groomed online and there was evidence that she had been encouraged to share intimate photographs of herself and her sister. However, no corroborating evidence emerged to back up their claims that Nazzer was involved in the abduction and with CCTV images showing the girls alone throughout the day, police concluded that this claim was false.
Whilst awaiting trial, both girls were placed into the care of the local authority, tagged, banned from Newcastle City Centre, and given a strict curfew. No family members attended the youth court during the initial hearing.
Although Child A showed no signs of any sexual assault, police firmly believed that the crime was sexually motivated and both girls were charged with kidnap ‘with the intention of committing a relevant sexual offence’ but the latter charge was ‘discontinued’ at the hearing and the girls admitted an alternative charge of kidnap.
As explained, a court order means there was very little information reported about the trial. What we do know is that both girls flatly refused to testify in court, nor explain what had happened to Child A whilst in their company and what their intent was. Using CCTV footage and witness testimonies, police were able to piece together as much as they could.
A previous pre-trial hearing heard prosecutors accuse the two girls of becoming obsessed with sex attacks, particularly on African children. Searches concentrated on the kidnap and rape of African women, including one very specific search for ‘a sister being raped by a step brother’.
CCTV from the Primark store caught the girls approaching two different families that same day before they finally made their initial move.
Just two hours prior to Child A’s abduction, the girls attempted to abduct another little girl from the same Primark store but this time by using deception. The sisters were playing with a little girl moments before her mother lost sight of her. At this point one of the girls approached her and asked if she was looking for a little girl with a green coat, and told her the little girl was at the counter. Thankfully the mother turned in the opposite direction and found her daughter.
The prosecution were also able to show intent because the girls had not only taken sweets into the shop with the intention of using them to lure a child away from it’s mother, but prior to the abduction they had also stolen dummies from a Boots store.
Once the girls had chosen their next target (Child A) they spent around 15 minutes playing with her.
CCTV caught the moment the two girls took Child A into the lift in Primark and the girls were described as ‘looking nervous’. The prosecution claimed that this highlighted they knew what they were doing was wrong.
Witnesses who saw them on the metro told how they noticed the little girl was very distressed and overheard the girls telling her: “Don’t worry, we will get you to your mummy.” A number of passengers questioned the girls.
When they reached Gosforth they attempted to take Child A to a soft play area but were refused entry (presumably because children have to be accompanied by an adult). The girls then headed into Sainsbury’s where they stole a baby bottle and milk to keep Child A quiet, before then heading to the swings in Gosforth Park.
The defence for the younger sister said that she had been sexually exploited and was “a damaged, vulnerable young girl”, and the defence for the older sister said she had displayed maternal instincts through her life and had never harmed a child.
Both girls were found guilty of abducting Child A. Despite their silence, the judge, Mr Justice Globe, was scathing during the summing up and stated that although the child was returned to her mother unharmed, this was only due to the girls being caught so quickly as it was his belief that the child was a real risk of being a victim of a sexually motivated crime at the hands of the two girls or a third party. He said:
‘It is not possible to state with any certainty who was going to harm her, or exactly what that harm would be, except to come to the conclusion it would have mirrored some aspect of the physical or sexual violence and/or exploitation found on the tablet, and in my judgment it is the true reason as to why she was taken.’Mr Justice Globe
Both girls were jailed for three years and three months.
FOLLOWING THE TRIAL
A police officer later stated:
“It is important we don’t paint a picture here of two angelic schoolgirls because that’s not what these two individuals were. They were devious, manipulative, and proficient in lies.”
Police firmly believe that the girls went out that day with the specific intent of abducting a child, which is backed up by the fact that, just like Venables and Thompson, the girls had attempted to abduct another child earlier that afternoon in Primark. Both the little girls they targeted were black, which is why the police, prosecution and judge gave the internet searches such gravitas and why they believed a sexual element was the motive.
To this day, a motive remains unknown and the sisters would by now be back in society. I am left wondering how a prison term can have any chance of reaching a successful conclusion if those concerned refuse to acknowledge or reveal anything about the crime, including the motive? We know from the Venables and Thompson case that even with all the information to hand, rehabilitation isn’t always successful.
From the crime itself, to the behaviour of the sisters, the chaotic homelife, truancy, the unsuccessful attempted abductions, the shoplifting, and not to mention the brazenness, this crime had all the same hallmarks as that of James Bulger’s abduction and police firmly believe that had they not managed to find Child A so fast, the outcome could well have turned out the same.
As to Child A, her mother stated that she showed no signs of harm and seemed to be too young to realise or remember what had happened to her that day, and that the actions of the two girls had a bigger impact on their own lives. In a show of incredible grace, the mother of Child A said she had long forgiven both sisters for their crime. She said:
“These were children.
Why would you hold something against a child?”
This blog post was created after listening to a podcast on BBC Radio 4.