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The Beast of Bermondsey

Crime Files
The Beast of Bermondsey

"A nice place to raise a family"

To outsiders, Bermondsey, Southwark in the 1980s was just another urban inner city part of the capital. But to many who lived in the South London district, it was more like a suburban close-knit community. Neighbours knew each other, and people still respected their elders.The regeneration of the area was starting. Rich residential gated communities were being planned and developed. But back then, a lot of people lived in council and social housing. For them there seemed little reason not to leave their doors and windows ajar in order to let their children and pets come and go.It was this very sense of security that one man would exploit. He would stalk his victims to make sure his prey was weaker than him. He’d carefully carry out surveillance on their homes. And calmly plan his attacks for when they were alone.He’d enter. And once inside, his evil would explode.

The police, the press and public would be powerless to stop his two decade reign of terror. Many would demonise the man who terrorised them as ‘The Praying Rapist’, ‘The Southwark Rapist’ and ‘The Beast of Bermondsey’.In truth, the person behind these tags was actually a decidedly average, some would say physically unattractive, petty criminal. But when he combined his breaking and entering with his propensity for domestic violence, and targeted vulnerable individuals, he became a monster; a monster that seemed unstoppable.That was, until science caught up with him.

The Aftermath

Unlikely he will ever be free

Bob Meade and others believe that Roberts will never change. If he’s released, he’ll reoffend.“He deserves to stay in prison. He spent far too long out of prison. As far as I’m concerned he should have gone to prison 20 years ago.”Sarah Mustoe, forensic investigator“There was no need to beat them black and blue, to break their jaws, to do the terrible things that he did to them. It was just...dreadful, evil violence.”Brian Bowden-Brown, Detective Chief InspectorIn November 2012 Roberts had his sentence reduced to twenty five years on appeal.He will be eligible for parole in 2037.The judge said, however, release was unlikely.Another judge has said that locking up some criminals for the rest of their lives is not in breach of their human rights.

The Trial

standing trial after decades

Roberts went to trial in 2011 at Southwark Crown court, close to the suburbs he’d stalked.Despite the evidence against him, the 45 year old of ‘no fixed address’ denied all the charges. It was left to a jury to decide his fate.They heard from two women who had lived with Roberts, Julie Warner and Leanne Ward. He had been violent to both.Miss Ward stated he was a petty criminal who often returned home late. He would bring back stolen handbags. She said he scanned the news. She believed he was checking to see if they were linking him to burglaries, but not to rape. She also added he had a pale green tracksuit, similar to one described by his victims.It didn’t take the jury long to come back with unanimous guilty verdicts.Roberts was convicted of two counts of indecent assault and inflicting grievous bodily harm, three counts of rape and four counts of burglary.

The judge sentenced him to four life terms. Roberts would spend the rest of his life behind bars.In so doing, Michael John Roberts became the first man to get a ‘life means life’ sentence for rape.“I do sentence you to imprisonment for the rest of your natural life...your utter depravity knows no bounds, these are very grave offences.”Judge RobbinsRoberts tried to protest his innocence. Prison guards took him away before he could finish his statement.The Detective Chief Inspector Brian Bowden-Brown broke down into ‘floods of tears’ after the verdict.None of Roberts’ victims lived to hear the result. None saw him face justice. Many of them died knowing their attacker was still at large. That he could strike at any time. One of the victim’s sons did attend. He was as happy as any son could be that a man who had destroyed his family wouldn’t be able to again.The killer of Irene Grainey remains to be charged. Due to the lack of forensic evidence, it is unlikely the person responsible will ever face justice for their crime.

The Interrogation

Police get their man

With Roberts in custody the police took a mouth swab to obtain a new DNA sample. One of his victims had said his attacker had had a lot of moles on his back. The police asked Roberts to remove his shirt. His back was covered.The swab was sent to a specialist lab in Denmark.Nearly three long ‘agonising’ weeks later, the tests came back.The match was positive.Roberts matched the old fashioned generic fingerprint from the first victim and the modern day DNA samples from two others.But even with the new evidence, the case wasn’t overwhelming.So they interviewed Robert’s former partners.It turned out that Roberts had told one that he had ‘done’ one of the victims but contrary to press reports, he hadn’t raped her. Only Roberts knew this to be the case. Fearful of his retaliation if she reported his confession to the police, she hadn’t talked. Twenty years later, she was now ready.

Unlike Roberts, who throughout his interview answered every question with...“No comment.”Roberts simply stared at his interrogators. His only contribution was to say that he felt ill and tired. At other times, he would studiously write down every word asked of him.“He’s probably one of the most cold people I’ve ever interviewed.”Bob MeadeThey searched his house. They didn’t find anything linking him to the crimes. But they did find a copy of an anger management course he’d been on. In it he described how if he lost control, he’d be capable of incredible violence.During his course he’d said he never targeted those known to him. It was revealing that in his mind, those who he didn’t know, didn’t matter.But despite the circumstantial evidence and the similarities, there simply wasn’t enough evidence to charge Roberts with the Irene Grainey murder.There was, however, to charge him with the four other sickening attacks.Twenty years on the run and nearly twelve years of cold case review had come to an end.

The Arrest

Caught at last

Brian Bowden-Brown was part of the ‘Cold Case’ team of elite detectives set up in 2000 by the Metropolitan Police. In his caseload was the decade old unsolved murder of Irene Grainey. Brian speculated her murderer could have been the ‘Beast of Bermondsey’?He hoped that a combination of obsessive work and plain luck would combine to give some fresh lead.After four years, he had nothing.Sarah Mustoe was hired as part of the forensic review team. The National DNA Database had been launched in 1995. Now DNA could be checked against a list of known offenders. The DNA from the first two attacks showed it was the same attacker. But the extracts of DNA had been used up to establish this. None remained to be added and updated into the database.And worse, the original swabs hadn’t been retained either.So the team once again appealed on ‘Crimewatch’. The Met Police put up a £10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.With a financial incentive, a renewed national television appeal and a dedicated team of police and forensic investigators, hopes were high.They came to nothing.But Sarah had been working through an old store of forensic exhibits. She told Brian that she’d found some old tapings from the victims clothing.Fifteen years after they were first taken, Sarah had rediscovered microscopic fibres taken from the victims of the third and fourth attacks.They were the DNA of the attacker.

The exhibits had such minute particles of bodily fluids that they would have to do ‘low copy number analysis’. This is an extremely sensitive form of DNA profiling.Because such a method only provides a partial DNA profile, it couldn’t offer a one in a billion match. But it could narrow down the list of potential suspects.A full profile is effectively twenty matching numbers. The partial profile had only six or seven numbers increasing the numbers of people who might match.There was a chance that the investigation would go from having no suspects to being overwhelmed by possibilities. And all in the knowledge that even if all the matches were investigated and interviewed, they may not have the right man in the first place.The results came back.There were twenty six suspects. This was a manageable amount.The police first excluded those who were children at the time of the crimes, then those with infallible alibis proving they were in a different location. In some cases, the fact that the criminal suspect was in prison at the time of the original attacks was the reason they were ruled out.One former convict’s name stood out of the remaining suspects:Michael Roberts.He lived near the first Southwark attacks and had moved to Rotherhithe around the time the attacks there had occurred. His hair was down in a fringe. He had a crooked or broken nose.But all this, with only a partial DNA profile, wasn’t enough to press charges.The first attack of an elderly woman on Boxing Day 1987 had no modern DNA link. All the police had was a primitive genetic fingerprint that couldn’t be compared to modern DNA.It would require Roberts to offend again to secure a genetic fingerprint to make a match. For once, the investigators wouldn’t have to wait long.Roberts was a careful attacker. Despite the violence of his attacks, he ensured there was no forensics, like fingerprints, to link him to the crime scene.But all of his usual counter-measures meant little when he dropped an item belonging to his stepson. In the home of his latest victim, he left his stepson’s bus pass.The police went to Robert’s latest address and arrested him.

The Investigation

The Police can't catch him but Science can...

When the attacks started back in the 1980s, there was no standard street CCTV and DNA was in its infancy. But by geographically profiling the first two rapes, the police suspected the attacker lived nearby to his victims.There were no witnesses to the attacks. But because the surviving victims noted the curtains were closed, the attacker hid his face, or covered theirs; the police thought they were probably looking for ‘a distinctive looking person’. And amazingly, despite being badly injured, the first victim helped detectives draw up an image of the suspect. She added he smelt of alcohol and stole cigarettes.A young PC, Bob Meade, started knocking on doors. He attempted to find out on a day to day basis who might have been hanging around the flats and draw up a list of suspects. He was also trying to identify areas where they could set up surveillance operations. Police coverage was comprehensive."If you were a young man out in the streets in Southwark in the early hours of the morning, by yourself and wandering aimlessly around… you would definitely get stopped."Bob Meade

From her hospital bed, the second victim was able to give a photo-fit of what she thought the rapist looked like. She described a white man with short dark hair in his twenties or thirties.But due to the severity and suddenness of the attack, the age of the witnesses and the poor lighting, the police couldn’t rely on this. They worked out that the attacker wasn’t an opportunist. He must have carefully planned and selected his victims. He would have also done periods of surveillance to gather more details. The police tried to establish occupation or activities that would have meant the attacker was around on the days he decided to actually to follow through.They searched back and found the victims had been victims of burglaries beforehand. The attacker was using the burglary as an opportunity for reconnaissance. Once inside, he could confirm the person lived alone, was elderly, and most importantly, was vulnerable. He particularly targeted those with walking sticks and Zimmer frames.When the attacks moved to Rotherhithe, the police suspected it was because of press appeals. Press and public attention had forced him away from his home base. The next victim was able to give an artist’s impression. Some patterns began to emerge.The attacker had a distinctive hairstyle. He wore his hair with a fringe. One victim said he had a crooked or broken nose; another that he had a lot of moles on his back. One said that he had long fingers like a pianist. He was also said to have worn a pale green tracksuit.The police took the press appeal from local newspapers onto national television. But despite a ‘Crimewatch’ appeal for information on the rapist of three elderly women, no progress was made. The police believed they were after a 25 year old, 5ft 6in tall man of stocky build. They were on the right track. But it wasn’t enough to stop another attack two months later.Although DNA technology was just beginning to become a practical tool in 1990, detectives did start to gather scientific evidence. Each crime scene gave up various bits of the attackers DNA. Blood, saliva and semen were found on the victim’s clothes and around the scene. A genetic fingerprint of the attacker was being put together which one day would unlock the case.But with no DNA database with which to compare their findings, the offender remained at large. Then Irene Grainey was killed. Had the ‘Southwark Rapist’ moved from sexual sadism to homicide? Everything apart from the fact that she was murdered seemed similar to the previous attacks.But as the police commenced a large scale murder enquiry, the crimes suddenly stopped. There were no more rapes. And no more attacks on elderly women. Had their man moved? Or had he been jailed for another crime?With no new crimes, and despite numerous appeals, the trail went cold.

The Crimes

"The Beast"

“Any human being, whether you’re a police officer or not, would be absolutely appalled at this.”Brian Bowden-Brown, lead investigatorIn the late 80s a spree of rapes and burglaries is terrorising a South London community.It begins when a lady of 57 years returns home after a festive family Christmas get-together. She lives alone in a block of flats on Borough High Street. It’s just yards from a police station. It’s dark by the time she puts the key in her door.Inside, someone is waiting for her. He’s armed with an iron bar.The first blow to her skull stuns her. He proceeds to repeatedly beat her round the head till she’s totally subdued. She is by now bleeding heavily. When the lady is utterly defenceless and incapacitated, he rapes her.By the time he’s finished, she’s critically injured. He proceeds to ransack her flat. After stealing what he wants, he then leaves her, with a fractured skull and jaw.Its 24 hours before her family discover her.

The second attack takes place in the same block of flats. You can see the first victim’s flat from the second. They’re just 40 yards apart.He breaks in through the back door.The woman is 77 years old. Again, she lives alone. Her only company is her cat.He seriously sexually assaults the elderly woman.“The level of far more than is necessary just to gain the compliance of the seems to me that the goal is the infliction of physical injury. And the rape is just a secondary way to make the woman suffer.”Kerry Daynes, forensic psychologistBoth victims have been beaten and raped. Both have been robbed of small amounts of change.But the attacks aren’t intended to subdue the victim in order to steal their property. The physical and sexual attacks are the primary motive. They’re intended to degrade.His third victim survives nearly four hours of his ‘terrible, terrible sexual assaults’. She lives alone in a downstairs flat on Rouel Road.She is 66 years old. In between being raped, she tries to make cups of tea for him in order to break the cycle. She asks him not to rape her again. She tries to go to the toilet.Nothing works.Like the other victims, she notices her attacker smells strongly of alcohol.The attacker is gaining in confidence. He feels secure enough to spend an extended period of time in a victim’s home. He’s following a common pattern amongst sex offenders. His fantasies are developing.He conceals his identity. He draws the curtains in the victims’ flats to reduce the light. He attacks from behind. He tells his victims not to look at him. He covers the victim’s face.His fourth victim is 83. She is disabled.He breaks into her flat on John McKenna Walk. Unusually, there’s no rape. But his physical assault is just as savage and sadistic.After the attack, the lady never regains her speech.Other attacks start to be linked to the attacker.One in particular makes headlines.An elderly woman claims her attacker crosses himself and mutters a Catholic prayer as he completes his violent assault. The press dub him ‘The Praying Rapist’.It’s April 1990. Irene Grainey is a 68 year old woman living alone in Bermondsey. She is attacked in her own home. There are other similarities to previous attacks. But this time the offender is armed with a kitchen knife. Irene Grainey is stabbed to death.Irene lies in her ground floor council maisonette flat for over six weeks before her body is discovered. During this time, vital forensic evidence is lost.When an 82 year old man answers a knock on the door of his South London home, he’s punched straight in the face. This breaks his jaw and knocks him unconscious. He’s dragged inside. His flat is ransacked. The attacker washes any taps used. A cloth is used to wipe away any fingerprints.Over the next two decades, the attacker responsible remains at large. The surviving victims spend their remaining years living in fear.

The Key Figures

The key players

The Good Guys

BRIAN BOWDEN-BROWN: The lead police investigator of ‘The Southwark Rapist’. He came out of retirement to bring the rapist to justice. During his career, this seasoned Detective Chief Inspector had dealt with many murder inquiries, including a dismembered body from a suspected gangland hit. But few cases would affect him as traumatically as this case.BOB MEADES: A young PC on the Crime Squad at Southwark when the crimes began. As a PC, he’d do the house to house enquiries. Later, as a detective, he’d eventually be face to face in interrogation with the coldest human he’d ever met.SARAH MUSTOE: The forensic investigator assigned to the Cold Case review. Her microscopic attention to detail would help bring the abuser of the elderly to justice.

The victims

THE VICTIMS:His youngest victim was a 57 year old woman. She was left with a broken jaw and a fractured eye socket.His oldest victim was 83. She was so damaged by the attack that she never spoke again.

The Bad Guy

MICHAEL JOHN ROBERTS: Roberts was born in London in 1966. He started offending aged just 14. By then, he was already known for drink and drug abuse. He soon added burglary to his convictions. Much of his stealing took place in the Southwark area. His MO was to target the homes of elderly or vulnerable people. An average man of average physique he made sure his victims were at a disadvantage. He often waited till they were out shopping before he broke in. As his crimes carried on, the violence he used increased. The petty criminal soon became a fully fledged alcoholic and drug addict.A neighbour remembered hearing Roberts beat up his ‘girlfriend’. The woman remembers Roberts counting to ten in an effort to calm his rage. Often it didn’t.Roberts lived just two or three hundred yards from where the first series of offences took place. His victims would all be less than a mile from his then home address.He wore his hair in a fringe to hide a distinctive scar. And he didn’t like to take off his top as he had many moles and marks on his back.After his savage attacks, Roberts would often walk the short distance home and have dinner with his girlfriend.