The names of grooming victims and the security guard have been changed for their protection.
By Ann Czernik and Pete Sawyer
In the center of Rotherham, England, is the Interchange, a modern glass concourse that serves as a nexus for the buses, taxis, and trains that crisscross the town. Rotherham’s sex gangs used the Interchange to recruit victims and transport them to waiting clients. According to the Alexis Jay report, which said 1,400 young girls were abused over a period of 16 years, within the well-lit and sterile corridors of the Interchange, school children “ran a gauntlet” of “drug dealers, addicts, and people involved in a range of criminal activity.”
“The C block is where the buses to the villages go. Very, very few people use that part of the Interchange," said victim Emma Jackson, It’s always very quiet.” The deserted terminal provided the perfect hunting ground for predatory sex gangs.
All of this was unknown to James Cole, who was 19 years old at the time and had just started working at the Interchange as a security officer. The police didn’t bother to ask if he had seen anything suspicious the night Emma was first raped, or to tell him to be on the lookout in the future.
But by 2005, Cole was well aware that there was something disturbing taking place around the town center—in the bus station, marketplace, and surrounding deserted alleyways. He said that “Asian lads were taking advantage—using—young teenage girls for sex. The girls were being passed around but it seemed almost as though it was a collective agreement that this is what would happen.” Added Cole, “I got the impression that they enjoyed terrorizing [the girls]. Lots of verbal abuse, name-calling—'slag,' 'bitch'—demands for oral sex, spitting at them. Girls would come to us and say they were being followed.”
There is a permanent sadness in Cole's eyes, which often fill with tears as he describes his experiences. “The impact on me has been massive,” he says. He pauses and takes a deep breath, hangs his head, and his voice drops to a hesitant whisper. “It’s destroyed me in a sense. Seeing the assaults, the abuse, and the cavalier manner in which these men got away with this. It’s tarnished and almost burnt a hole in my soul. They were just allowed to act like hyenas in the chicken hut.” Cole says that throughout 2005, large groups of drug dealers and grooming gangs fought it out on the platforms. He reported incidents to the police and the South Yorkshire Transport Executive but, he says, “Whatever I reported went into a black hole.” His bosses asked him to draft a child protection policy for the Interchange, which he did, but it gathered dust in a drawer.
In February 2006, a serious assault on Lauren, a 16-year-old girl, sickened Cole. He filed a witness statement to the police that claimed that an Asian man had tried to force Lauren to give oral sex to one of the gang and she had refused. He recalled, “She spat in his face and he ordered the gang to assault her in retaliation.”
Lauren was beaten senseless. According to the report, she was cornered between a marble screen and revolving door by four Asian men and a white man. She had no escape. As one punched her in the face, another was kicking her in the body. When the first two had finished, the white male “went in and punched her in the face and threw her to the floor.” Another man dragged Lauren off the floor and sent her crashing down again, rendering her unconscious. He then stamped on her face. Another man then entered the fray and continued to kick and punch the motionless young girl.
Cole said, “I thought they were going to kill her. We had it all on CCTV and it was very, very clear. I begged her to speak to the police,” who arrived at the scene 45 minutes later. Lauren’s attackers were all known to the cops and security staff, yet no prosecutions followed.
Cole explained, “I don’t know if it was because she was intimidated, or scared or just blasé. I tried to explain to her that males don’t have the authority to do this kind of shit.” But it seems that in Rotherham, they did. The victim didn't speak to the police. Cole says that months after the incident occurred, police returned the recording to the CCTV operator who accidentally dropped it and stood on it, destroying important evidence of the gang’s activities.
In August 2010, the Interchange suspended Cole after he made a complaint about the conduct of police at the Interchange. His employers offered him an out-of-court settlement, which he decided to accept and move on without seeking legal actual against them.
A few months later, in November 2010, Cole was reading his local paper, the Doncaster Star, over lunch. There it was: Five men had been convicted of child sex exploitation in Rotherham. Cole was shocked. Two of the men named, Umar Razaq and Adil Hussain, had been involved in the incident with Lauren years earlier. Cole said, “I felt physically ill. I went to the toilet and I shit myself.” When he got home he googled the story. As soon as the images came up, he realized that the men were part of the same gang responsible for the sexual violence in the town center and selling Emma into sexual slavery.
Appalled that it had taken so long for anyone to be punished, but with his convictions about what was happening reinforced, Cole began a personal campaign to highlight the links between child sexual exploitation and the gang culture embedded at Rotherham Interchange. Cole is deeply affected by his experiences, wracked with guilt that he should have done more. But he tried his best—documents show that Cole contacted every agency that had a statutory responsibility for safeguarding children and young people in Rotherham at the time, and others. A long trail of correspondence shows Cole’s concerns were ignored by the Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry into Child Sex Exploitation, the Labour Party, and Children’s Services, the Safeguarding Board, and South Yorkshire Police.
In 2010, Cole emailed the Strategic Director for Children’s Services at Rotherham Council, Joyce Thacker, and Paul Lakin, who replaced Shaun Wright in Children’s Services. (Lakin is now leader of Rotherham Council.) Thacker took Cole’s concerns to Rotherham’s Local Children’s Safeguarding Board (LCSB). Its manager, Ailsa Barr, dismissed the claims as “exaggerated.” Confidential documents show that Lakin agreed with Cole and suggested that a town center child protection policy was required, just as Cole had requested in 2005. But he and Thacker allowed the complaint to be delegated to Streetpride—an agency responsible for dealing with garbage and litter.
In 2011, Cole found himself unable to sleep knowing what had happened. He approached the Coalition for Removal of Pimping (CROP), a Home Office–funded charity that supports the families of victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) across the UK. CROP provided support services to parents in Rotherham, and had built up a comprehensive picture of exploitation within the town. A CROP worker recorded Cole’s evidence and told him that the information would "contribute to national policy." The charity told him that they intended to take the matter up with Rotherham services but Cole never received any feedback.
In 2012, Wright was running as a Labour Party candidate for local Police and Crime Commissioner, despite having resigned over serious weaknesses in Children’s Services just two years earlier. (Wright is now infamous for how long he took to resign following the Alexis Jay report.) In August 2012, Cole—a loyal and passionate member of the Labour Party—raised concerns that Wright was an unsuitable candidate for the role because of his tarnished record in tackling CSE. The letter he wrote, which was copied to Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, warned that Wright’s conduct “was bringing the Labour Party into disrepute.” Labour’s regional office brushed him off. Labour has since claimed that the party couldn’t have known about Wright’s failings when Miliband endorsed him.
In the bitter 2012 Rotherham election, Cole supported the Respect Party candidate, prominent British Muslim Yvonne Ridley, who pushed grooming to the top of the political agenda. The Labour candidate, Sarah Champion, won and Cole was suspended from the party for supporting Ridley. He later wrote to a number of Labour politicians, including the member of Parliament for the nearby Don Valley, Caroline Flint, to say that he was glad to have been expelled, saying, “I can't and won't be complicit in anything illegal or immoral.”
Cole then wrote to Champion to tell her that she needed to get her hands dirty and speak out. Cole told Champion, “I was warning about people in that gang in 2005—[Rotherham Council] ignored these concerns.” Champion assured him that she believed that “we have a strong system in place."
Less than a year ago, Cole was compelled to write again to Joyce Thacker and the LCSB again asking what action was being taken to stop the drug use, sexual acts, and other activities that continued to take place around the Interchange. Nothing was done once again—until the Jay Report was published.
A few days ago, Cole was surprised to receive a call from Paul Lakin to invite him to a meeting in the council offices. Cole says skeptically, “It’s almost as though I’m important now.” When the scandal broke, Cole took no satisfaction in knowing that he had been right to kick up a fuss and not let it go. Wright and Thacker have both since resigned, but Cole is disgusted that it has taken this long for anything to happen. He says, “Now we know to what extent Rotherham has become some kind of ghettoized brothel. I can’t believe it. It's absolutely insane. Why is it no one believed me?”