Sarah’s haunted face stares out under a red Islamic head-dress in her wedding photo. Beside her, guests eat cake while celebrating the marriage, conducted by the local mosque’s imam at a terraced house in the Home Counties.
Yet Sarah is not a willing bride. She is being made to marry a member of the gang that effectively forced her into sex slavery after abducting her in a Tesco car park in the English suburbs one autumn afternoon. Her captivity lasted for 12 long years.
Within minutes of her wedding picture being taken, the white English girl was pushed upstairs into a bedroom and raped by her new husband, a man she had set eyes on for the first time only half an hour earlier.
It was just one of the unimaginable torments Sarah endured after she was kidnapped as a shy 15-year-old. She had never had a boyfriend. She was studying at college, hoping to train as a midwife.
Sarah, a white English girl, was raped by her new husband within minutes of marriage and forced to wear a hijab to hide the bruising where she had been beaten
Sarah’s story is described by House of Lords crossbencher Baroness Caroline Cox, who has taken up her case, as the most serious example of sex grooming yet to emerge in this country.
‘I know Sarah and her family,’ explains Baroness Cox. ‘Every sex grooming case is terrible. But the length and cruelty of her abduction make it the worst I have known.’
Sarah’s abuse went on while her distraught family’s pleas for help were, they insist, ignored by a police force that refused even to list her as missing.
Her family were forced to keep up the search for her on their own after she failed to return from Tesco.
‘The police kept saying leave it a few days, she’ll come back,’ says her mother Janet today. ‘But she never did.’
Sarah was snatched five years before the scandal of sexual abuse of young white girls by street grooming gangs was first revealed in 2010, after investigations by the Daily Mail and later by the Government.
The all-pervading culture of political correctness at the time of her abduction meant the gangs, often of Pakistani-British heritage, were ignored by police forces that were terrified of being called racist if they pursued them.
This is the appalling background against which Sarah’s abduction took place, as her parents battled desperately to find her.
The kidnap gang were ruthless and bent on making Sarah utterly dependent on them. They hid her in various houses and cut off her contact with the outside world by refusing her a mobile phone or computer. She was raped, beaten and made to swallow strong sedatives every day to make her docile.
During her ordeal she had eight abortions, five of them overseen by the same doctor at an NHS hospital and others in illegal backstreet clinics.
She was made to learn the Koran in Arabic and allowed to speak only in the Pakistani languages of Urdu and Punjabi.
Why did no one do anything?
The unfathomable failure to act in cases such as Sarah’s was once commonplace — as a Whitehall-commissioned independent review published in July spells out. The review investigated the police’s and the Home Office’s lamentable reaction to sex grooming in the late 1990s and well into the 2000s.
It told of a teenager called H, who was one of 1,500 girls abused by sex groomers in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. H’s mother told the police her child was in the clutches of a gang, only to be instructed to ‘go and get your daughter yourself if you know where she is. It is not the role of the police to run around after 14-year-olds’.
Time and again, while reporting on grooming gangs and their victims for more than a decade, I have encountered the same thing: parents regarded by police as hysterical time wasters, while their daughters were dismissed as ‘silly girls’ who had ‘asked for it’.
Incredible as it seems, some brave mothers who went to gangs’ houses to try to rescue their children were even threatened by police with harassment offences, according to this review.
The fact is, the widespread culture of political correctness meant the authorities were deeply afraid of being accused of racism if they went after Asian sex-grooming gangs. Their reluctance to act led to the nationwide scandal of grooming being kept from the general public.
Many of the cases recently brought to court — cases that finally resulted in convictions of gang members — have involved girls who were abused up to two decades ago, and whose families’ cries for help were conveniently ignored for years.
When we asked the police force involved in Sarah’s case why they took so long to act, they replied: ‘Our understanding of and approach to issues such as child sexual exploitation and modern slavery has evolved and improved over the past decade, as is the case with police forces up and down the country.
‘We have had major success stories in recent years in these areas, securing lengthy prison sentences for those perpetrating such crimes and establishing specialist support services to help victims.
‘Officers are far more aware of issues around vulnerability, while we also have specialist, dedicated resources to deal with such cases, including historic ones.
‘Victims of these crimes should have every confidence in our force’s ability to tackle criminal exploitation and bring those responsible to justice.’
Forced to wear Islamic robes with a head-covering hijab, she had to cook, clean and iron for hours every day.
It was only last year that Sarah, at the age of 26, finally escaped the gang’s clutches. ‘Ever since I was a young teenager, I have known nothing other than life under the gang’s control,’ Sarah told me this week, in her first harrowing interview from the secret house where police and social services placed her last year to hide her from her tormentors.
In her years of captivity, she says, she fell victim to Stockholm syndrome, where a prisoner forms an emotional attachment to a captor, believing they must co-operate in order to survive. She became particularly attached to the gang leader, whom we will call Jerry.
She explains: ‘I began to think that Jerry loved me because he kept telling me so. He said my parents didn’t care for me because English families don’t look after their girls like Pakistani Muslim ones.
‘I soon felt I couldn’t breathe without him. My mind was being twisted. I was dependent on him for food, for clothing, for a roof over my head. He said my family would be killed if I tried to tell them where I was or what was happening to me.’
Sarah’s horrific story began in the autumn of 2005. She is the youngest of four children, her father is a builder and her mother a housewife. For legal reasons and her own safety, we cannot use her real name or identify where she was kidnapped, held, or where she lives now.
After college one afternoon she walked to a Tesco food store a few minutes from her house. Her mobile phone rang and she answered. A man’s voice said in a Northern accent that he was watching her and had something for her. Would she go over to a black car in the store’s car park?
Sarah, to her eternal regret, went naively to the passenger door.
‘A man in his mid-30s opened it and in the same Northern accent told me to get in. So I sat in the front seat to hear what he wanted to give me. He instantly drove me away,’ she says.
She thinks Jerry found her number after spotting her a few days earlier when she took a minicab with her brother to get a takeaway burger. She had noticed a dark-haired man in a black car staring at her as they got in the minicab with their meal.
Crucially, to book the ride, Sarah had given her number to the minicab firm where friends of Jerry’s worked. The gang leader, she assumes, then got hold of it.
In the car with Jerry speeding off, she began to panic. He put his hand on hers and said he would look after her. Sarah was trembling and told him her family would be frantic. It was to no avail.
After half an hour they reached a house next to an industrial estate, where he asked for her mobile phone, taking out the sim card and snapping it in two.
‘He took me inside and I saw a lot of Pakistani men in an open-plan room. Jerry led me past them up the stairs to a tiny boxroom with a bed and the curtains taped up,’ she says. ‘Then he left, closing the door.’
For the first 24 hours she was alone apart from a few visits from Jerry, who brought her bottled water and some curry, which she ate with her fingers.
‘I could hear voices in the open-plan room below me. I now know these men were all friends and relations of Jerry and part of his gang that dealt in drugs.’
It was on the second night that Jerry first raped her.
‘I was pulling back from him and I was scared,’ she remembers. ‘I felt angry, dirty and disgusted after he had finished.’
Pictured: A girl known as ‘Siobhan’, 29 who was kept as a prisoner, as a sex slave
As Jerry assaulted Sarah, he told her he had saved her from the gutter where white girls with low morals like her belonged. It was the same mantra that sex gangs tell all the girls they target, as numerous court hearings up and down Britain have revealed.
After seven days in the small upstairs room, she heard a commotion at the front door. She recognised the voice of her brother, who had been searching for her.
It later transpired that he had tracked her after going back to the minicab firm, where staff pointed him towards Jerry’s house in a network of streets largely inhabited by Pakistanis.
The brother banged on the door and when it opened, he went in shouting: ‘Have you got my sister?’
In the chaos that followed, Sarah’s brother was thrown out by Jerry, who refused to let him upstairs, saying it was private.
Such was the fear of the gang locally, says Sarah, that neighbours didn’t try to help her brother — and she was too frightened to cry out because the gang had said they would harm her family if she told them where she was.
‘I didn’t dare shout because I didn’t want my brother to get hurt,’ she admits now.
A recent Sky TV investigation revealed how sex grooming victims were silenced in this way in one British town — Telford, Shropshire — where gangs have been convicted of systematically abusing girls and threatening to harm their families if they sound the alarm.
The programme interviewed one girl who was raped with a gun to her head by a gang member. The victim — who told Sky she had been raped by 100 different men — told the programme: ‘They said they would blow my house up and kill my mum and dad if I told anyone, even rape my mum, too.’
After her brother’s visit, Sarah’s parents told the police about the house where they suspected Sarah was being held captive. But nothing happened.
In any case, Sarah’s abductors were one step ahead. ‘The day after my brother came, Jerry said we were moving out,’ she remembers. ‘The police hadn’t come to find me and I was taken to another house.’
There, Sarah was given Islamic robes and a hijab to wear. She was again left in a bare room upstairs. The Western clothes, jeans and a T-shirt, that she had worn to go to Tesco were taken away.
For three hours each morning she had to cook curries, clean and iron for the gang. If she didn’t, she was beaten.
She was allowed out of the house occasionally with two of Jerry’s sons to go to the local supermarket. ‘I had to wear the hijab, partly because the gang ordered me to and partly to hide the bruising to my face and head where I had been beaten.’
Meanwhile, Sarah’s mother Janet was continuing her frantic search. ‘Her dad and I had been looking for her for two months by this time,’ she tells me.
‘We had put up missing posters, never stopping. Finally, a friend said he thought he’d seen her in a Pakistani area. We went there every day, showing her photo to people in shops and on the streets.’
During this relentless hunt, there was an agonising near miss. Jerry’s sons and Sarah were in the supermarket when she saw her mother, who was looking for her in the area.
Instinctively, Sarah ran over and hugged her mother. ‘Mum asked me who the young boys were,’ recalls Sarah. ‘I said they were the sons of the man who had taken me away months before.’
But the startled boys quickly hustled Sarah away from her mother, who kept shouting to her: ‘Are you in trouble?’
Janet continues: ‘When I saw her in the supermarket I couldn’t believe it. She was in Islamic dress. I saw from her eyes she was terrified. She begged me not to say anything. She was panicking and obviously scared of the gang we now know was holding her.
‘She was scurried off by the boys. But my husband and I followed them at a distance and carefully watched the direction they went.’
Seconds later a black vehicle with Sarah inside and an Asian man at the wheel screeched past them as they stood in the street.
‘We saw a flash of blonde hair under a scarf but that was all. We had lost her. We were heartbroken,’ says Janet. She reported what had happened to the police, only to be brushed aside again.
What had happened was that Jerry’s sons had taken Sarah back to the house and told Jerry her mother was near by.
‘He was furious. He ordered me to get into his car,’ recalls Sarah. ‘He smashed my head against the dashboard and windows, which became splattered with my blood.’ Then he drove her quickly to yet another house, in a different town.
In her new home, she was prevented from going out.
One day, out of the blue, Jerry told her he had married her. ‘I hadn’t been to any ceremony but he showed me the Islamic wedding certificate signed by an imam at the local mosque,’ she says. ‘I now think this marriage was to make the police believe I was a willing wife if they ever found me.’
Bewildered — she was being given 20mg of Valium each morning to stupefy her— Sarah continued her life of hell, regularly being abused and raped.
Inevitably, she fell pregnant. ‘After one termination I was fitted with a coil, but Jerry made me go back to the hospital with him and have it removed because he said he could ‘feel it’ when he raped me,’ she says.
‘I wasn’t allowed to speak to doctors at medical appointments. I had to walk 5ft behind him, keep my head down and wear a hijab. He said I was his girlfriend.’
As if this were not horrific enough, the first abortion didn’t work. The five-month-old foetus survived the drugs given to Sarah on a Sunday afternoon in a side room at an NHS hospital.
‘I was in labour for nearly 24 hours,’ she says, with tears welling. ‘I was begging for help. One nurse ran from the room and said she couldn’t take it any more.’
On the Monday morning, she was taken for a scan and the baby was still alive.
‘I was rushed to the operating theatre, where they surgically carried out the abortion,’ she says. ‘I don’t know if I was carrying a boy or a girl and I hope one day the NHS will tell me, as I cannot forget that child.’
How could all this happen to an underage girl in the modern NHS? Perhaps because Jerry was so intimidating or because the gang network had its tentacles everywhere.
Whatever the case, the rapes and abortions continued.
One day, Jerry announced their marriage was over. Under Islamic rules, he told Sarah three times that they were divorced.
Then she was suddenly married off to another man. On her ‘wedding day’ in 2012, nearly seven years after the kidnap, she was lying in her room when two women came in carrying a clear plastic bag.
They took out the red dress and told her to put it on. They tied back her hair, put make-up on her and said she was about to marry.
Sarah was pushed downstairs to the ceremony and clapping guests. It was over in minutes and she was ordered back upstairs — with her new husband. ‘The women had put petals on my bed in the Muslim tradition,’ she says.
‘The strange man began putting his hands all over me. I was so weak I couldn’t fight him. He raped me as the wedding party was still going on downstairs.’
This shocking episode was the beginning of the end.
Time and again she had tried to run away down the street, only to be grabbed by Jerry and brought back for a beating. But now she managed to escape.
‘When Jerry was asleep upstairs one morning, I found his mobile phone and called for a taxi. I took £20 to pay for it from the pocket of his jeans. When the taxi arrived I was in Islamic clothes. I raced out through the back gate and told the driver, a white man who kept asking if I was all right because I was so pale, to take me to where my brother lived.’
She had grabbed the certificate of marriage to Jerry and the red dress. ‘They were the only possessions I had,’ she explains.
Sarah thought she was free. But Jerry’s gang did not give up.
After Sarah left her brother’s house a month later, she moved to a flat in a different part of Britain, away from her family, so they could not be threatened by the gang for protecting her.
Yet the gang leader found her through his extensive network of contacts. The coercion, the beatings, the rapes continued.
Finally, after an especially savage beating, a neighbour called the police to report a domestic violence incident. Sarah was taken to hospital and there started to tell police she was a prisoner, sparking inquiries into her kidnap which continue today, more than three years later.
The gang’s response was to offer her £30,000 ‘hush money’ — and when she refused it, they broke into her flat and beat her again.
‘That was the point where I knew this had to end,’ she says. ‘I began to tell the police everything and begged them to protect me.’
The gang still tried to silence her. Sickeningly, she says, at one stage a Muslim officer turned off the tape recorder during an interview with her and told her to drop allegations against one of her attackers ‘because of lack of evidence’.
She was so frightened, she did so. ‘The police officer came from the same community as the gang and has since been imprisoned for child sex crimes himself,’ she says now.
And today? Sarah’s case is in limbo as police try to gather sufficient evidence for the Crown Prosecution Service to bring charges against the gang. Baroness Cox has put Sarah in touch with lawyers from the Christian Legal Centre, and she is getting advice from the organisation Mothers Against Radical Islam and Sharia.
Yet unbelievably, Sarah says she has still not totally escaped the gang.
Last week, she tells me, she received a call from Jerry. He had discovered her number but, thankfully, not her secret address.
‘Hello white trash,’ said the gang leader menacingly, before cutting off the call.