A crack team of detectives is re-investigating thousands of cold cases – bringing to justice criminals who thought they had got away with it, sometimes for decades. Vicki Robinson reports on their work.
IN an unassuming building on an industrial estate in Leeds, a team of detectives are sifting through hundreds of thousands of documents and pieces of evidence.
They are a hand-picked squad determined to bring to justice criminals who believe they have got away with murder and serious sex crimes.
The West Yorkshire Police Major Investigation Review Team has been tasked with re-examining 42 murders and 3,300 sex offences – some of which date back as far as 1974.
Amongst their caseload is the murder of a Leeds pensioner who was stabbed to death, the notorious killing of a West Yorkshire schoolgirl and the brutal death of a Leeds prostitute.
Their work has already yielded some impressive results. In the six years since it was established, the team has opened a number of new lines of inquiry on several murder cases. Senior officers are unable to disclose the exact nature of their findings for legal reasons, but describe them as “significant”.
However, it is their work in reinvestigating sex offences – dubbed Operation Recall – where they have had most success.
Their reviews of cold case sex offences have already seen 20 sex offenders convicted for historic crimes. Their jail terms range from three-and-a-half years to three life sentences.
As reported by the YEP on Saturday, businessman John Leeming was one of them. He was jailed for seven years following two attacks on women, the first of which took place more than 20 years ago.
He was snared when the cold case detectives ordered a fresh forensic test on evidence from the time.
DNA from the rape in Bradford had been on the national database since 1991. However, it was unable to be identified as belonging to John Leeming until a sample was taken from him in December 2010 following a road rage incident.
Offenders like Leeming are now being warned justice has no time limit.
Det Supt Colin Prime, who leads the team, said: “We are dealing with people who have committed serious crimes and have evaded capture and justice for many years.
“They have been able to go about their lives as normal whereas the victims and their families have had to suffer years of stress and anxiety.”
It can be a long journey, however, to get to the point where offenders are brought before the courts.
The team has had to look through hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence, scraps of paper, tapes, reports and documents.
All of that material has been re-read and re-catalogued – enabling the real detective work to begin.
Det Supt Prime said: “It is a massive undertaking. We’ve been to police stations across West Yorkshire, collating every piece of evidence and researching all case material and paperwork that exists
“This painstaking work has culminated in the re-investigation of a large number of offences where new lines of enquiry have been established. These are significant findings which until we started this review would probably have lain uncovered.”
Once the evidence is gathered, often the first step is to order fresh scientific tests – since the late 1990s, there have been major advances in forensic science and DNA testing.
The national DNA database has been instrumental in identifying many of the offenders – Leeming ended up on the database after being cautioned for a minor public order offence.
Acting Detective Chief Inspector Howard Atkin said: “The use of DNA is the subject of much debate, but when it comes to the detection of serious crime the national database is vital to our work.
“It allows us to quickly and cleanly identify offenders if we have them on file, which also means that anyone who isn’t involved is immediately removed from any suspicion.
“Because DNA evidence is so powerful and conclusive, it often leads offenders to plead guilty rather than face trial, so victims do not have to relive their experiences in court.”
At the heart of the team’s work – and of paramount importance – is consideration for the victims. They are supported by a specially-trained team who do all they can to guide them through the rigours of the reinvestigation and, ultimately, the court process.
In each case, an officer will speak to the victim to see whether they wish to co-operate with the new inquiry and possible court action. Occasionally, a victim will say no – preferring to try to keep the suffering in the past.
Det Supt Prime said: “We never underestimate the difficulties victims have to contend with when we re-investigate the circumstances of their complaints, especially those made many years previously.
“Some have moved on with their lives or perhaps blocked out their experience and find it difficult to have to think back and recount evidence relating to their ordeal. We do all we can to support them throughout the process but ultimately the decision to progress the case is one the victims have to make.
“Thankfully most victims support a prosecution and take great comfort from knowing that their attackers have finally been brought to justice.
“We have an example of a young lady who was raped as a young woman in 1987. It had had a terrible effect on the rest of her life. She was unable to form normal relationships with men.
“Over 20 years later, we went to knock on her door to tell her we had identified the man responsible.
“It was difficult for her, but she spoke very movingly of the relief it gave her to finally have justice.
“Her rapist was convicted and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in 2008. Sadly, just 12 months later, she died.”
In each case, regardless of the wishes of the victims, police still take whatever action they can when they have identified an offender. They are questioned about their crimes and in some cases, other matters are brought to the surface. In one case, whilst no prosecution was possible against a man for past offences, the Recall team established he had committed other crimes relating to indecent images of children.
He was prosecuted for those offences and he continues to be monitored through the sex offender register.
Det Supt Prime added: “In other cases we review old prosecution files to establish the identity of sex offenders who were convicted prior to the advent of DNA. In all cases they are visited with a view to them voluntarily providing a sample to the police for inclusion on the national DNA database.
“They are warned that this may be used to check against offences of the future. Surprisingly most agree and hopefully, whilst some have rehabilitated this process serves as a stark reminder and deterrent to those who may ever think about re-offending.”