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How a British Town Cleaned Up the Legacy of the 'Suffolk Strangler'

In 2008, Steve Wright was convicted of the murder of five sex workers. Ten years later, we visited Ipswich to see what memories remain.

by Francisco Garcia; photos by Bekky Lonsdale
07 November 2018, 4:00am

Left: Steve Wright, a.k.a. the "Suffolk Strangler". Right, clockwise from top left: Tania Nicol, Paula Clennell, Annette Nicholls, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton. All images: Suffolk Police

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It's quiet on London Road. It usually is now. There's little to distinguish it from any other residential artery in the country on the unseasonably warm autumn afternoon that I arrive in Ipswich. All the usual faces and semi-domestic sights; the carriages and daytime strollers, the rows of neat semi-detached houses and well-kept front lawns.

Things were different here in 2006. This was the heart of the town's red-light district, a site of regional notoriety which was soon to face what felt like the entire world's appalled attention. On Monday, October 30, that same year, 19-year-old Tania Nicol went missing, having last been seen on foot at 11 PM, striding past the Sainsbury's garage at the bottom of the road. Two weeks later, on November 14, 25-year-old Gemma Adams was reported missing by her worried partner at 2:55 AM, having failed to return home or check in with the usual phone call.

On Saturday, December 2, 2006, a naked body was discovered by a member of the public in a brook flowing through Hintlesham, a well-to-do village five miles outside of Ipswich. It was soon formally identified as being that of Gemma Adams. Six days later, Tania Nicol's was found by divers at Copdock Mill, just off London Road.

It took four days for three more women to be discovered. Paula Clennell, Annette Nicholls, and Anneli Alderton. The grizzly details of their deaths are not important to relate. They were murdered because they were involved in sex work on London Road. Tania was the youngest at 19, Annette the oldest, at 29.

This is no unsolved mystery. They were killed by Steve Wright, a twice-married, bankrupt, failed pub landlord, and ex-forklift truck driver with a penchant for golf and catastrophic gambling losses. The 49-year-old was well-known on London Road, where he lived, and drove a blue Ford Mondeo—one of the details that precipitated his capture on December 19, 2006—an unremarkable, pathetic figure, now serving a whole life sentence at HM Prison Long Lartin.

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London Road, Ipswich

Despite being found guilty of all five murders in February of 2008, Wright has never acknowledged his guilt. Some of the women from that time have since remembered him, either as a beige nonentity or a figure of repressed malice, whose visitations they'd dread.

Ipswich has tried its best not to linger over his story in the 12 years since. Things have changed radically since then. The killings provoked an unprecedented response: the eradication of street prostitution in the town, a first for any urban center in the country. Heads of services, the police force, all of the key players were mobilized. It sounds simple in retrospect: shifting the legal onus onto the soliciting men, while also providing substantial support for the women on the streets to exit the street sex trade and rebuild their lives.

Alan Caton was Suffolk Police's District Commander, in charge of coordinating the multi-agency response. He's retired now, but remains proud of what they achieved, he tells me over the phone that everyone chipped in. Health authorities, drug charities, and housing associations, from chief executive level to the grassroots, working to help 32 women exit the street trade, while police focused on the kerb-crawlers, making 39 arrests in 2007 alone.

London Road, once awash with syringes and condoms, is now peaceful, with residents no longer disturbed outside their front doors. Community involvement was key, in a strategy Caton calls "multi-pronged." Firstly, it was understanding the nature of the problem. There was no lack of information on who the women were and where the activity took place, with the murder investigation melting away their old certainties.

"There were over 100 women working in Ipswich over a five-year period—we would only have said there were 40 or 50 [previously to that]," says Alan. "We had to work closely with the residents; they were adamant that things had to change. We kept up these meeting on a regular basis for a number of years following the murders." It was difficult, slow work at first, he says. "But when things started [to change], it was very positive."

However, there was mistrust and bitterness, too. "They were a complete pain in the neck," one local was reported as saying about the sex workers, in 2006. "Y'know, they're better off ten-feet under… that's a horrible thing to say, isn't it? But I'd love to shake [Wright's] hand and say: 'Thank you very much for getting rid of them.'"

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Brian Tobin of Iceni

Brian Tobin is the founder and Chief Executive of Iceni, an addiction charity that still works with many of the women working the streets from those days. Before agreeing to meet at their small office in the town center, there are certain lines to be drawn; there's been so much written on the topic, some good, some beggaring belief. In person, Tobin cuts a jovial figure. Within minutes of conversation, he offers to act as a guide of London Road.

As we walk, Tobin mentions that, even now, the killings are the first thing that come up when he mentions where he works. "It's the murders, straight away, nine times out of ten. If they've heard of Iceni, it's, 'Oh yeah, the prostitutes,' he says as we pass Jeff's Cafe, at the point the road runs into the maws of an industrial estate that was once a haunt for the women and their punters. The cafe was a sort of makeshift sanctuary, a place to stop for hot drinks and exchange gossip as the nights lingered on.

Iceni started life in 1999, housed in a converted bathroom in the town center. "We had to move the sinks and urinals ourselves," laughs Tobin. At first, the charity's work mainly honed in on individuals struggling with addiction, before widening out to work with families and away from the symptoms, to try to address the deeper underlying causes and help those who need it into intensive treatment.

Treating the drugs in themselves will only get you so far, as Tobin's prior work in Essex and London taught him. To ignore the complex matrix of issues was like trying to patch a cracked bone with a band aid. Many of those who Iceni work with have experienced profound traumas at the developmental stage of life. They have six full-time members of staff, including the office manager, to work with 140 families, with money still a concern, as it almost always has been.

Upon losing a vital contract in 2010, Iceni realized they wouldn't be able to survive the next financial year. Needing to raise several hundred-thousand dollars, they put out a public appeal, exceeding their target with ease. Handwritten notes would arrive, Tobin recalls, thanking them for their work before, during and after the murders. "We got about £180,000 [$235,900] from the people of Ipswich and Suffolk [alone]," he says proudly.

Ipswich is not a wealthy place, a fact that outsiders are sometimes slow to grasp. For Iceni, it's an unhelpful perception when it comes to securing continued funding. Though Suffolk is generally a rich county, there is poverty here. Some of it is desperate, with almost 30 percent of children in the town living in deprivation, and two or three pronounced pockets of hardship clustered in the center.

"The craziest question anyone ever asked me was, 'Is there still a drug problem now [in Ipswich]?'" Brian says, disbelievingly. "When someone asks that, you just have to roll your eyes." This is still a mid-sized town, with a typical mid-sized town's problems, even if the focus has since drifted to some of its other inner wards.

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The offices of Iceni, Ipswich

The winter dark played on the panic and suspicion. Women on London Road were being killed, and no one knew when it would stop. It was frightening, Tobin says. How could you call it anything else. The taxis were full every night, as the offices in town began to empty. One local businessman put up a £25,000 [$33,000] reward for the killer's capture—justified with reference to his own 17-year-old daughter and the "many young girls" his company employed.

It's weird the things you remember, but it's hard to forget the police officers lined up in town and along London Road selling rape alarms for a dollar a-piece.

It seemed like every media outlet in country had sent a delegation, with hotels crammed and the streets heaving with reporters, Tobin remembers as we hit the midpoint of London Road. As he describes some of their tactics and intrusions, the exasperation is clear, even if there was some belated effort to treat the victims with dignity and care, not just as "prostitutes" or melodramatic fallen woman archetypes. With just over 130,000 residents, Ipswich is not a metropolis. Many residents had direct links to the dead women. As one journalist later said, "[It seemed like] everybody knew the victims or had gone to school with one of them."

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Jack's Cafe, Ipswich

Few debates are as complex, acknowledges Alan Caton, the former District Commander of Suffolk Police. Speaking to academics and activists, you'll hear arguments for the full decriminalization of sex work. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe it's a simple case of exploitation of women by men. Caton is clear that his sympathies lie further toward the latter, a position influenced by his experience on the job.

As we loop back toward town, I ask Brian his thoughts. It's like being entangled, he sighs. Even now, there is no unified national approach to street prostitution, but a piecemeal mishmash of competing policies with "one city having a zero tolerance zone, one arresting the women, one arresting the gentlemen callers." You sense a still-live source of intense frustration. "Back then [there were] still a number of women who were reluctant to give it up... they were earning £200 [$260] a night on average, you know? For any heroin or crack addict, that's not bad—that'll keep them going."

And removing the street work without supporting drug treatment? Misery, of a different kind, laced with the best intentions.

Not everyone agreed with the course of action taken in Ipswich after 2006. Many still don't. Holbeck lies on the southern fringes of inner-city Leeds and is home to the UK's first "managed zone" as of October, 2014. Sex work is effectively legal between 8 PM and 6 AM, on specific non-residential streets, with the aim of getting more vulnerable women to engage with services.

The initiative was brought to life after a decade of failed attempts to end street sex work in the area. Many have since reported feeling safer, with six in ten women now reporting any violence to police. In 2013, that number stood at one in ten. Mind you, it's neither simple, nor perfect. For some, Ipswich's "Nordic Model" approach was still far too punitive, yet its defenders point to the manifold problems Holbeck is currently dealing with, including the murder of a women by a client in 2016.

Today, there's still occasional talk and sightings of women returning to the streets of Ipswich. The ten-year anniversary sparked a minor media scrum in 2016, with one Sky News segment splashing on reports of an apparent return of the street trade. There were rumblings, Tobin says, up on Norwich Road—not far from the old hubs—but they were cracked down on swiftly. Sex work hasn't disappeared entirely, but that isn't the point, he stresses. There are still massage parlors and a booming online trade. He often hears complaints that all they achieved was "pushing it underground," but "how much further underground do you want it to go? It's never going to be totally safe."

How do you eradicate murder? When Justice Gross turned to Steve Wright at sentencing, he closed with these words: "Drugs and prostitution meant they were at risk. But neither drugs nor prostitution killed them. You did."

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"PLEASE TAKE AWAY FREE!!"

For Brian Tobin and Alan Caton, the demise of street-based sex work stands as the most worthwhile legacy for the women who died in Ipswich. "How they hated it," Brian says, "how they loathed doing what they did. And now when I see three or four of the women occasionally, they pop in with their kids, they can't believe that they... that that's what they used to do."

A few years ago, a decision was taken. No more interviews with the survivors, aside from Jade Reynolds, who still campaigns in Ipswich on addiction treatment and awareness. The 35-year-old has spoken about Iceni and the daily support she received in her darkest days. "God bless them," she told the Ipswich Star in 2016, "they were there with me daily. They did an amazing job for us girls. I'm healthy. I'm clean. I've got a wedding to look forward to. Life is 100 percent better than it was ten years ago."

Of the 32 women Iceni worked with in the slow, difficult time after the killings, Tobin says they still know the whereabouts of all but two.

To some of the women it has meant a fresh start in places untainted by all the trauma, all the memories of lost friends and the dark, painful nights of a different time. Others have stayed. They have done what works, for them. But life is seldom a fairytale. "Some of them still struggle with addiction and may well do for the rest of their lives," says Brian.

Last month, it was reported that Kerry Samain had died as the result of an overdose. The 39-year-old had been reported lost—though was later found—at the time of the killings in 2006. She was well-known to Iceni, with Tobin quoted in a BBC report remembering her as "tortured but lovely… [it's] tremendously sad. She had some fantastic times and some terrible times, but she was lovely to have on the premises."

Ipswich was changed forever by those events 12 years ago. In what world could it have been otherwise? A small market town with the world's glare fixed on its underbelly over the course of a few long, nightmarish months. "Street prostitution" has been almost entirely consigned to the recent past, communities have altered and regrouped, life has settled back into a recognizable groove.

But no one from those days has forgotten. It's doubtful they ever will. There will always be scrutiny and unwelcome anniversaries. If the collective memory of a place exists, then its horrors form part of its inheritance, though not entirely. There are always other things to recall, too. Tania Nicol's father, Jim spoke to that at a press conference on December 13, 2006:

"They can't take away our memories. They can't take away our love, our fortitude, our courage. Grieve for our daughters but not unnecessarily. Live your lives through our departed daughters, as they would want to see us getting on with our lives and not going around with our heads bowed down. A time for sadness and a time for gladness. A gladness that they belong to us. A gladness of the happy times we shared. The joy they brought to us. A thankfulness that they are now at peace."

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