Woman who fought back held the key to finding Leeds sex attacker

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Police officers, crime scene tape, a helicopter circling overhead – this was the scene which greeted the regular dog walkers, joggers and families as they arrived at the canal towpath in Rodley on the morning of October 8.

The usually tranquil stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal had become the focus of a fast-moving investigation into a series of sexual assaults, each more worrying than the last.

Detective Inspector Phil Jackson on Alice's Steps in Rodley Canal, where the third assault took place. Picture: Simon Hulme

Detective Inspector Phil Jackson on Alice's Steps in Rodley Canal, where the third assault took place. Picture: Simon Hulme

Detective Inspector Phil Jackson, of Leeds District CID, said: “Because of the area, time of day, lone females – it painted quite a hard picture of a potential sex attacker on the loose. The description was that he was young and that added to it.

“Have we go somebody that we don’t know about? Are we going to identify this individual? It was about using all our resources that we could do to try to trace him.”

The first victim, a 48-year-old dog walker, had smiled at the boy as they neared each other at around 8.15am.

He touched her bottom when he went passed her and she walked on.

The section of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal where the attacks took place is popular with cyclists, joggers and dog walkers. Picture: Simon Hulme

The section of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal where the attacks took place is popular with cyclists, joggers and dog walkers. Picture: Simon Hulme

Minutes later, the boy stepped out towards a 26-year-old woman as she ran under a bridge on the towpath.

She slowed and moved backwards as he came near and reached out to try to put his hand over her mouth.

As she dodged him and ran past, he shouted: “I’m sorry. I was only joking.”

While the jogger told another dog walker further along the towpath what had happened, they heard a woman’s screams.

Detective Inspector Phil Jackson revisits the canal towpath where the attacks took place. Picture: Simon Hulme

Detective Inspector Phil Jackson revisits the canal towpath where the attacks took place. Picture: Simon Hulme

This was a 40-year-old jogger who had passed the boy as she ran down steps near the bridge.

The boy pulled her back onto the steps, where the two became involved in a struggle.

Det Insp Jackson said: “He’s obviously escalated from the second victim. He had been building in confidence.

“He’s put his hand over her mouth, round her waist and then pulled her back towards him, then she’s gone to the floor.

“Flight or fight has kicked in. She’s lashed out because she’s cornered. The reality has hit afterwards, rather than at the time.

“She’s actually gouged at a bit of face, which is quite pertinent. She then manages to shake him off and back away.”

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While immediate efforts to trace the suspect continued and gather evidence at the scene continued, other officers interviewed the victims and offered community reassurance through increased patrols in the area.

In fighting off her attacker, the third woman had gouged at his face with her fingernails.

“The key there is to get our scene of crime officers to get some forensic swabs,” Det Insp Jackson said. “She was brilliant. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her hand and that enabled us to get what eventually took us to the suspect. The swab gave us the DNA sample.”

Processing samples can take several days and with no guarantee that it would return a match to police records, so the team continued to pursue a number of other avenues.

They sifted through responses to public appeals, spoke to witnesses, trawled CCTV footage, and began checking the alibis of known sex offenders.

Once the forensic results came back, they led detectives to the a teenage boy, then 16, who was on police systems.

Det Insp Jackson said: “He was known to us but not for that crime type. He wasn’t somebody who was on our radar for any sex offences.

“It would have been a long haul without the DNA.”

In praising the women for coming forward and the third victim for preserving crucial evidence, he also acknowledged the impact on their lives.

“Two of whom have been unable to return to the canal since that day,” he said.

“Their lives have taken a turn for the worse. They were all quite confident women beforehand. Since something like that has happened to them, they think anything can happen. It’s the ‘what if?’”

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Jamie Sharlotte.

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