Inside Operation Clover: The three-year police operation to bring evil Rotherham child abusers to justice
For three years in a corner of Sheffield's Snig Hill station, a team of officers have been building an unprecedented investigation focused on one of the darkest chapters of South Yorkshire Police's chequered history '“ the Rotherham child abuse scandal.
Under the spotlight of intense international media scrutiny after the publication of the devastating Jay report in August 2014, Operation Clover has resulted in the convictions of 13 people given combined sentences of 199 years.
Among those finally put behind bars are four brothers who for years raped, tortured and prostituted young girls with impunity in the town.
Operation Clover started in August 2013 following publicity about failures to investigate child sexual exploitation cases in Rotherham that told the stories of victims who had been left down by the force.
Over the course of the Clover investigation, officers assessed 10,000 documents, conducted 135 interviews, took 924 statements and looked over records going back to the 1980s.
For the first year of the operation, a team of five officers were involved in ploughing through social care records and files from the Risky Business child sexual exploitation service in the town that dated from the late 1980s.
Det Chf Insp Martin Tate took charge of the operation in August 2014 – walking into a ‘perfect storm’ as Professor Alexis Jay’s report was published and shocked the world by revealing that at least 1,400 children had been sexually exploited in Rotherham over a 16-year period.
The report said young victims had been treated with ‘contempt’ by the police and outlined horrifying and heartbreaking stories of missed opportunities to catch perpetrators, fathers being arrested for trying to remove their daughters from houses where the girls were being abused and whistle-blowers being silenced.
The report also made clear the majority of abusers were from a Pakistani heritage background, with their victims mainly being white girls.
With South Yorkshire Police facing huge criticism, Operation Clover became a priority case.
For the first time in South Yorkshire, a child abuse investigation was treated in the same way as major murder or terrorism investigation with 25 detectives assigned at its height.
DCI Tate said: “We had to make sure the case was absolutely ready to go to trial.
“The difficult dimension was holding your nerve in terms of what we thought was right. It would have been easier to succumb to that scrutiny and make some quick arrests. But the right thing to do was to build a legally-sound investigation and prosecution.
“The success of the first trial was that we had a significant number of witnesses and supporting documents.
“The first Clover trial remains the single largest prosecution in the UK in terms of child abuse.”
The trial contained many uncomfortable moments for the police – with allegations some officers had colluded with the child abusers, taken bribes, passed sensitive in formation to them about victims and in one case ‘had sex with girls’.
Many victims were angry at how their abuse had been ignored and in some cases actively covered up by police officers.
But the Clover team took a new approach to the cases involving now-adult women, gradually winning their trust and helping to bring those who had groomed and raped them to justice.
Det Con Lindsay Harding was one of the officers who approached women who were potential victims and witnesses in the case.
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She said: “You are potentially throwing somebody’s life upside down again. They may have partners that didn’t know what had happened.
“We were knocking on the door and saying ‘What do you know about Ash, Bash, Bono and Sageer? It was quite difficult. Some turned us down then got back in touch later. Some told us straight away, some said they didn’t know what we were talking about.”
Part of DC Harding’s role was carrying out the recorded interviews with the victims which were played in court.
She said it could be difficult to listen to some of the things – including one girl who had been taken to a flat in Sheffield where she was tortured and men ‘lined up’ to sexually abuse her.
She said: “It was horrific. As she was telling us about the abuse she was physically retching recalling it again. It is awful. You think about it after.”
Det Sgt Steve Smith helped to build a support network for victims involved in the case involving 20 to 30 people from different agencies – a structure that has now been nationally recognised and will be implemented by other forces in similar cases.
He said: “We had to look back to what went wrong. All the victims or the majority of the victims would say nobody listened to them at the time.
“The fact we didn’t listen in the 2000s meant it was clear to me we had to listen to them and bring them in to be part of this. They are the central part of this – they secured the convictions, we just put the papers together.”
DS Smith added: “If you meet a victim who has been abused and let down and through your professionalism and humanity, they say ‘I trust you’, that is a major burden to have to carry.
“This was never ever a normal workload. If you ask the team, they would say this is a once-in-a-career job, the one job they will still be talking about when they retire.”
The first trial resulted in verdicts that led to four men – three of the Hussain brothers and their uncle Qurban Ali being convicted – along with two women. Two other men were found not guilty but each victim who had given evidence saw guilty verdicts returned on some or all of the counts involving them.
DCI Tate said: “Even for senior detectives who have worked on horrific crimes, it was an emotional moment.
“For the victims who have invested their trust in you – to make the phone call and say the verdict is guilty is a great thing to do.
“There was also the professional pride in South Yorkshire Police. Mistakes have been made in investigations in the past. We are all extremely proud of the role we do as police officers. This is 2016, it is a very different police force and we wanted to make sure we got the investigations right.”
The subsequent trial in September and October resulted in the convictions of all eight defendants, including Sageer and Basharat Hussain.
DC Harding said: “I remember in the early stages I went to see one of the girls.
“I remember going out with a colleague and chatting about what had happened to her. She said something along the lines of ‘nothing will be done’.
“I remember saying ‘If we can’t do something for her, we are in the wrong job. When we got the guilty verdicts it was satisfying.”