Maggie Oliver at Bruche Police Training Centre in 1997
Yesterday, former police officer Maggie Oliver revealed how she won the trust of young victims of sex abuse gangs in Rochdale, convincing them to go on the record to give evidence. But just when she felt confident arrests would be made, everything seemed to fall apart — leaving her at a loss as to why her bosses didn’t seem to share her hunger for justice. Here, in the last part of our series, she reveals what happened next…
For a few months, I genuinely wondered if I was going mad. As a serving police officer, I was convinced I’d witnessed a gross miscarriage of justice — and yet no one seemed to agree.
At its heart were two vulnerable young sisters, who’d been aged just 12 and 15 when they were caught up in the tentacles of an Asian paedophile gang in Rochdale.
‘Trust us,’ we’d told Ruby and Amber. ‘We’ll do our utmost to bring all of these vile men to trial, so that no other children will have to suffer at their hands.’
But we hadn’t. Instead, we’d pulled back and let most of the abusers off the hook. And that made me boil with fury, particularly as it was me who’d coaxed the sisters over several months to relive their searingly painful experiences in a police interview suite.
But what could I do? I was just a detective constable, and my bosses refused to take my complaints seriously.
I appealed for help to the Police Federation, the Children’s Commissioner and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but no one would support me. I was completely on my own.
One of my kinder colleagues advised me to just ‘get your bum on the seat, take your wage and go home.’ But I simply couldn’t sit there, quietly waiting for retirement.
Not only had Amber and Ruby suffered an appalling injustice — but most of their abusers were still walking the streets of Rochdale.
Ruby had been 12 when the rapes began. Her sister, Amber, was 15. To begin with, neither wanted to tell me the details of their ordeal; they both despised the police, and saw me as just another officer who was bound to let them down.
(Top row left to right) Abdul Rauf, Hamid Safi, Mohammed Sajid and Abdul Aziz; (bottom row left to right) Abdul Qayyum, Adil Khan, Mohammed Amin and Kabeer Hassan. The men were all jailed for their part in the Rochdale abuse
Television programme, ‘Three Girls’, a dramatised version of the events surrounding the Rochdale child sex abuse ring
I could hardly blame them. Two years before, Rochdale police had launched an investigation into Asian paedophiles who were abusing children — but wound it up without charging a single man.
Instead, they’d arrested Amber on suspicion of procuring a child for prostitution, though never charged her. It was nonsense — what she’d done was to take along a friend, four months younger, to the takeaway where her abusers often gathered. No one had seemed to understand that Amber herself was the victim of paedophile grooming. So she’d been locked up in a police cell, an experience that left her utterly traumatised.
Roll on a couple of years. In 2010, Greater Manchester police launched Operation Span to take up where Rochdale police left off.
And they quickly realised that without Amber and Ruby’s testimony, many of the paedophile gang would walk free. That’s where I came in.
Over six months, I got to know the two girls and eventually persuaded them to do a series of taped interviews. As a police officer, I’d heard dreadful things, but what the girls told me was in another category altogether.
The mother-of-four (pictured at her home last month) persuaded girls who were being sexually abused to talk to police
Lured in by young men, the girls had been passed on to dozens of older Asians — chiefly Pakistani — for sex, and had even been threatened with a gun and a knife.
They’d been encouraged to drink neat spirits until they were drunk, bundled into cars and taken to other northern towns for sex with dozens of strangers. At 12, poor Ruby had become pregnant.
Between them, the sisters provided compelling and highly detailed evidence against 29 men. Already, Amber had identified nine of her abusers in video identity parades — and there were more to come. So I was feeling confident when the police arranged the first meeting between officers from Operation Span and the barrister appointed to prosecute the case.
As the officer dealing with the victims central to the case, I confidently expected to be there. But for some reason, I was excluded.
Later that day, one of the Operation Span officers came out of the meeting and walked over to my desk. ‘I can’t believe it, Maggie,’ she said. ‘They say they’re not going to use Amber any more.’
‘What!’ I looked at her with astonishment.
‘They’re saying she could undermine other witnesses,’ she continued. ‘I honestly can’t believe it.’
Unfortunately, I could. The police already had form on pulling back from prosecuting Asian paedophiles.
By ignoring what Amber had said on tape [the tapes], and all the evidence to back up her allegations, they’d hit on a convenient way to reduce the number of Asian defendants.
Pictured left to right: Children Danny, daughter Vicky, son Steve and son Matt with mother Maggie Oliver in 1989
Why? Because the people at the top perceived the ethnicity of the offenders and the low status of poor white girls as a toxic mix. I’d go further: by putting fewer Muslim defendants in the dock, the police calculated they’d be less likely to incite accusations of Islamophobia.
After six months of work, after pursuing Amber on the direct orders of senior officers, after all the gold-plated assurances we’d given the sisters that they could trust us this time — well, here we were again.
Yet Amber’s evidence made it impossible to pretend that there wasn’t an epidemic of abuse in Rochdale. How could I, as a police officer, live with that knowledge?
Incandescent with rage, and heartbroken that Amber had been tossed aside as though she didn’t matter, I confronted my supervisor. ‘I don’t believe what I’m hearing!’ I shouted. ‘After putting her through hell, reliving the abuse, months of interviews, drive-arounds, identity parades — and now this?
The supervisor looked at me patronisingly. ‘Maggie! Calm down, calm down,’ he said. ‘Remember, this is all just a game.’
I looked at him in total disbelief. ‘A game?’ I gasped. He nodded; the justice system, he insisted, was just a game.
It took every ounce of my self-control not to flatten him right there and then. Instead, with the whole office looking on, I grabbed my bag and coat and walked out.
I knew I was a good officer. The list of commendations in my file attested to that, and I’d even had one for Operation Span. I had to do something — but what? At home, I was so troubled that I couldn’t eat or sleep, and my doctor signed me off work for a few weeks.
During this time, I was expressly forbidden from contacting Amber, Ruby or their distraught mother. After months of almost daily contact, they must have thought my disappearance from their lives was deliberate.
Maggie (pictured) resigned from police force after claiming victims had been failed by officers
Then, one day in June 2011, Amber called with some critical information. One of our main suspects, who’d once threatened her with a knife, was living in a flat above a taxi company, she said.
This man was on the police national computer — ‘wanted’ for allegedly raping a child at knifepoint — and we considered him extremely dangerous. But so far, we’d been unable to find him
‘Maggie, he’s talking about fleeing the country,’ said Amber, after I picked up the phone. ‘He’s talking about going to Brazil, so you’ll need to catch him quickly.’
I immediately texted the head of Operation Span, who passed the information to a detective sergeant. Job done.
Amber called again 12 days later. ‘Why haven’t they arrested him?’ she asked. ‘He’s still there, living above the taxi rank.’
She sounded scared. ‘Maggie, he’s still [out] there. He could do this to another girl.’
I was flabbergasted, and once again texted my boss. All I could do was hope the man was arrested before he raped another child at knifepoint.
Two days later, a detective sergeant called me to say that a senior officer on Operation Span was demanding that I hand over my work mobile. What! The implication was clearly that I’d done something wrong, though I knew categorically that I hadn’t.
Why did they want it so badly? It felt as though someone was trying to silence me. I dug in my heels and refused to give up the phone.
About a month later, I received an extraordinary text from Lorna, the girls’ mother.
‘The girls are saying they are not doing any more [with the police] till you come back because it’s not the same,’ she said.
‘But [a male officer] said you weren’t doing your job properly. He said you were finished on this job, but Amber told him you are the best and it doesn’t matter how long it takes, she will wait for you.’
This was horrific: a colleague had made critical remarks about me to a witness. There was nothing I could do apart from report it up the chain.
Finally, I had a meeting with my boss, a detective chief inspector, about the girls. ‘None of this makes any sense,’ I said. ‘We worked so hard to bring this family on board — why are they being treated in this way?’
‘Look, Maggie,’ the DCI said, ‘senior officers make the decisions, and as a detective constable, you do as you’re told. Simple as that. You carry out orders — and if you can’t do that, then maybe you’re in the wrong job.’
I couldn’t help thinking back to a recent speech by the Manchester Chief Constable, in which he’d said the police should always ‘do the right thing’ and ‘challenge policies when we think they are wrong’.
That was precisely what I was doing, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere.
It was at this point that I had a light-bulb moment: my loyalty, I realised without a shadow of doubt, belonged to the children. And so I started raising my concerns with everyone I could think of, including the Chief Constable himself. He replied with a bland email.
In the end, my only recourse was to go through the police’s grievance procedure.
Among the things I pointed out in my complaint was my belief that Manchester police were ‘knowingly failing in their duty to properly investigate horrendous crimes . . . and as a result we are allowing offenders to escape justice and failing to protect the most vulnerable in our society’.
The verdict? ‘No case to answer.’
I was in the depths of despair. How could the police force be turning a blind eye to children who’d been raped on a daily basis? Why was I the only one who seemed to care?
I was forced to conclude that I didn’t believe in my job any more. I was just a pawn in the ‘game’. I’d dared to question my senior officers and they had closed ranks against me.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, there was a horrific development.
The Crown Prosecution Service had belatedly realised that they did need some of Amber’s evidence for the trial, after all. Unfortunately, they had alienated her to the point where they knew she wouldn’t help.
So they did something utterly inhumane. They listed Amber as an offender so that some of what she’d said on tape could be used in court. To cap it all, they didn’t even tell her.
This meant Amber couldn’t have access to legal representation and had no chance of defending herself. I’d never heard of anything like this in my life; nor has any lawyer I’ve spoken to since.
The ironies piled up.
Months before, the CPS itself had officially designated Amber as a victim; and now it was lumping her together with paedophile abusers. Yet everything she’d said on tape had been from the viewpoint of a witness and victim.
In short, the CPS tactic was screwed-up, wicked and bizarre. Yet I couldn’t alert Amber or her family, because to do so might jeopardise the trial.
The 2017 TV drama about the scandal, Three Girls. The abuse of young girls by Rochdale sex gangs is one of the great scandals of our time
Just 11 men were tried in the end. Had Amber’s testimony been used in full, the number would probably have exceeded two dozen.
As it was, the case was built around the evidence of Ruby and two other girls. Inexplicably, Ruby was asked only about the paedophile who’d made her pregnant at 12. Not one of her other abusers has ever been charged.
At the trial, in May 2012, eight men originally from Pakistan and one from Afghanistan were given sentences ranging from four to 19 years. Two men were acquitted.
By early 2017, all but two of the abusers had been freed. In addition, four of the offenders were granted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to fight deportation back to Pakistan.
At the conclusion of the trial, I wept as I watched Assistant Chief Constable Steve Heywood deliver a speech on the court steps.
‘This has been a fantastic result for British justice,’ he crowed. ‘These victims have been through the most horrendous of crimes, and I just want to commend their bravery.’
There and then, I decided I had to speak up about the abusers who were still at large. I needed to resign from my job and become a whistle-blower.
At least my resignation freed me to see the sisters again. When Amber opened the door, she didn’t mince her words. ‘What the f*** do you want?’ she snapped.
After I’d explained that we’d all been betrayed, and that I’d left my job, she told me that no one from the police had contacted her at all — not even to tell her the result of the trial.
So I had to break it to her that she’d been put on the charge sheet herself, as one of the gang of paedophiles. Amber stared at me in shock.
‘Oh my God — it all makes sense now!’ she said. Then she burst into tears.
Once she’d calmed down, she told me she’d been summoned to the family court a week earlier. Unbelievably, social services were trying to take away her two children.
And they hadn’t told her why. ‘I didn’t know why until now. It all adds up. That’s why I’m being treated as a criminal. Jesus, I can’t believe this . . . ’
Her eldest was two years old, and there had never been any complaints about Amber as a mother. On the contrary: I knew she was loving and responsible.
The previous November, she’d given birth in hospital to her second child. Social services had immediately put a tag on her tiny daughter and forbidden Amber from taking her home.
Fortunately, the ward manager asked to see the paperwork which proved that the baby was at risk. There wasn’t any. But from then on, a social worker turned up at Amber’s house to watch her for hours each day.
‘I told them, Maggie,’ Amber wailed. ‘I said: “I’ve never hurt my baby. I’m a good mum.”’
Fighting their corner: Former police officer Maggie Oliver, who was once at the centre of the Rochdale sex‑gang investigation
She was horrified to hear that she was considered a potential child abuser with skewed sexual boundaries.
Words failed me. The CPS had itself declared this defenceless girl a victim — not an abuser. But because they’d put her on the charge sheet, without her knowledge, she risked losing her children. And there was no proof that Amber was a bad parent.
The family court judge gave Social Services a month to come up with some evidence. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told her. ‘We’re going to fight this and I’ll help you.’
I quickly got her a lawyer and wrote a long statement, which was presented to the court. But Social Services had already placed her children on the Child Protection Register for a year, so the case remained open. They never did come up with any evidence, of course. For once, and against all the odds, Amber had won.
Around the same time as I called round to see her, I decided to go public. I chose BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme, File on Four, to tell the Rochdale story, and asked Amber and Ruby if they wanted to co-operate.
They did: although nervous about going on the radio, they were adamant that they wanted to prevent any other child going through what they’d experienced.
The programme was broadcast in March 2013. There was an immediate furore. Suddenly, lots of people seemed to want to know more about the real story of the Rochdale child abuse scandal.
Asked for a comment, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester said that I’d become too emotionally involved with the family. He seemed to be saying: ‘Go away, you silly little girl, and let the grown-ups get on with the real work.’ But the genie was out of the bottle.
Next, I worked closely with a scriptwriter on a three-part drama-documentary, called Three Girls, which featured actors playing us all.
It wasn’t perfect: I felt that it pulled its punches, and the actor who portrayed me, Lesley Sharp, played me as cooler and more distant than I really am.
Amber and Ruby, for their part, were upset because they thought the drama played down the amount of abuse they’d suffered.
None of this fundamentally mattered, though.
In May 2017, the Bafta-winning BBC series was watched by nine million people — nearly eight per cent of the population. The story of what happened in Rochdale was now general knowledge.
The authorities could never again claim that what girls such as Amber and Ruby experienced is a ‘lifestyle choice’. And the police were at last forced to take allegations of sexual abuse and grooming by gangs more seriously.
Amber, however, continues to be punished. Not long after Three Girls had been broadcast, I received a panicked phone call from her at 1am.
Someone had identified her and put a photo of her house on Facebook. Given that many of her abusers still live in Rochdale, she was understandably alarmed.
She followed my advice to call the police straight away to tell them she was in danger. But when officers looked her up on their database, they could find no record of her ever having been a paedophile victim.
So they refused point-blank to help her.
Adapted from Survivors: One Brave Detective’s Battle To Expose The Rochdale Child Abuse Scandal by Maggie Oliver (John Blake, £8.99). © Maggie Oliver 2019. To order a copy for £7.19 (offer valid until July 18, 2019), call 0844 571 0640. P&P free on orders over £15.