Cold case detectives vow to solve historic sex crimes

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Det Con Hayley Dyas warns offenders who may think they have evaded justice, ‘we will come for you’

By Kirstie Brewer
BBC News

With so few rape cases making it to court across the UK, one police team has made it a priority to revisit 50 years of unsolved sex crimes.

Operation Painter, run by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit, started in 2016 and began by combing through 5,407 unsolved rape and sexual assault cases.

It is using the latest forensic science to bring some justice to victims such as Karen – who had believed her rapist would never be caught.

Karen had been celebrating her 26th birthday with a night out in Luton, Bedfordshire, in 1993, when she decided to get a taxi home.

But she became uneasy when the driver took a wrong turn and began to veer away from the direction of her house.

Karen says the tone of his voice switched and he said: “You haven’t got a clue where you are, have you, you stupid bitch.”

She says his whole face changed and he looked “completely evil”.

Karen went into “survival mode” while the man raped her by some garages in the dark.

“I thought, ‘the best thing to do here is just to let him do whatever he wants to do, to survive and get back to my son,'” she tells a new BBC Two documentary.

Intimate swabs were taken after the attack, but forensic science was not advanced enough to get a DNA profile of the culprit from the traces of semen which were found.

If you have been affected by sexual abuse or violence, details of help and support are available at BBC Action Line.

Karen’s case file joined the tens of thousands of other unsolved rape and sexual assault cases lying dormant in police archives across the UK.

But for her and so many other victims, the trauma of what happened could never be so neatly filed away.

Nine convictions

So far, Operation Painter has led to 10 cases that have reached court and nine successful convictions.

These include convictions for the rape and sexual assault of men, women and victims who were children at the time of the attack.

Another case is due in court this month, and detectives are currently working on 10 live cases.

There are also other cases which would have been taken to court, but the suspect has died or the victim hasn’t wanted to reopen the investigation.

DNA evidence kept from the original police investigations is outsourced to Eurofins Forensic Services in Staffordshire for analysis

Advances in forensic science have put the police in a much stronger position to make arrests and progress cases.

DNA evidence kept from the original police investigations is outsourced to Eurofins Forensic Services in Staffordshire for analysis.

In Karen’s case, the forensic scientists took another look at the swabs taken after she was raped. They had been kept along with a thin wedge of case notes from the original investigation and an e-fit she had helped create at the time.

The scientists used modern techniques to find traces of sperm that had been missed during the initial investigation. This made it possible to establish a full DNA profile, which was then loaded on to the National DNA Database.

The database, which was created in 1995, holds the DNA records of people who have been cautioned by police or convicted of a crime in England and Wales.

The profile generated a single match against Zahid Majeed, a taxi driver in his 50s, from Luton.

His name was on the DNA database because he had been arrested for another offence in the past.

“It was the DNA evidence put to him [in his police interview] which made him accept that this wasn’t going away,” says Det Con Hayley Dyas, who worked on Karen’s case.

He was charged in 2020 and the following year, after a three-day trial, Majeed was sentenced to 13 years in prison for rape and three for kidnap.

When the judge sentenced her attacker, “it was very difficult to hold the tears back”, says Karen.

“The look he gave me when he was sentenced was absolute disgust, and that’s what reminded me that he could still be quite dangerous.”

Det Con Dyas says her favourite part of being a police officer is working on cold cases like Karen’s.

“Success is standing in front of a victim and saying, ‘we’ve done it, you’ve got through this and not only have we always believed you but now 12 jurors have believed you too,'” she says.

‘Money got tighter and tighter’

The number of convictions achieved so far might seem small, but the harm being removed from society is big, says Det Supt Carl Foster, who ran the team for more than five years.

“Even if we only ever got one conviction, it would be worth it,” he says. “For the victim, and for the public to know that person is in prison and can’t offend again.”

He adds that people who commit rape can often be serial offenders – five of the men Operation Painter has put behind bars had offended before.

Det Supt Carl Foster says unsolved rape and sexual assault cases will be continually reviewed as forensics advance

“This is work that every police force ought to at least be considering because of the results it delivers for victims. The issue is, it’s massively time-consuming,” he says.

Building a rape case can take years, and even when a person is charged, it currently takes an average of two years to get to court and be completed.

From October to December 2023, there were a record number of 10,141 sexual offence cases waiting to go to court, and 2,786 adult rape cases – again, a record high, according to government figures.

Detectives will also work on live murder investigations and other major crimes alongside their cold case work.

“There’s always daily demands and those jobs need resourcing as well,” says Det Supt Foster.

The unit is waiting for another 90 cases to come back from Eurofins Forensic Services to see if they can yield new evidence and provide grounds to knock on the doors of more suspects.

Funding is also an issue. The operation was initially financed as a special project by the three police forces involved, explains Det Supt Foster. But he says “money got tighter and tighter” and for about four years the funding to keep it going has come out of the Major Crime Unit’s own budget, absorbing this work into its daily business.

The Ministry of Justice has told us that it is up to individual major crime units to prioritise their workloads, but says that the number of adult rape cases being referred by the police, charged and reaching court, has doubled since 2019. It adds that 4,500 officers have completed specialist training to better support victims,

‘Never stop looking’

Despite these challenges, Operation Painter is ongoing and cases which cannot be reinvestigated now will be reviewed as forensic science advances, Det Supt Foster confirms.

After Karen’s attack she developed agoraphobia and still has days when she battles with her mental health.

But with her rapist’s life now restricted, she says her life is “opening up”. She adds: “He’s in jail now and I’m not, I’m walking free.”

Det Con Dyas says she often wonders whether there’s a point when people who have committed horrific crimes stop worrying about getting a knock on the door from the police.

She has a message for those people: “These are just a few of the successful convictions we have secured and should send a clear warning that justice has no expiration date. We will come for you.”

Cold Case Investigators: Solving Britain’s Sex Crimes will be broadcast on Monday 20 May and Tuesday 21 May at 21:00 GMT on BBC Two. Or catch up afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

27 May 2022

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