There is only one reason why women take to the derelict streets just yards from Bradford's city centre to sell sex for £20 a go – to buy the drugs on which most have been dependent since they were teenagers.
The urgent need for heroin – either smoked or injected – and crack, normally topped up with a prescription of methadone and further fuelled with strong cheap alcohol, is what drives them out to take risks by climbing into a stranger's car.
And at least three paid the ultimate price. Suzanne Blamires, 36, Shelley Armitage, 31, and Susan Rushworth, a 43-year-old grandmother were murdered in the last year. Today Stephen Griffiths, 40, a PhD student in criminology, will appear before magistrates in the city, charged with the murders.
The case has, unsurprisingly, been compared to that of the Yorkshire Ripper who terrorised these streets more than 30 years ago. It has also highlighted a world that is often overlooked until those that inhabit it meet with tragedy such as the 2006 Ipswich murders of five prostitutes by Steve Wright.
Stick thin, with her black hair scraped back off her face, disintegrating teeth and stained lips, Mary (not her real name) looks at least two decades older than her 26 years, due to a seven-year hard drug problem. She said she was too scared to sell sex to strangers herself, but she knows what it feels like to be desperate.
"They normally come here when they start feeling ill when they are withdrawing. It's like a really bad flu, you feel cold and have hot flushes. Sweating like. Shelley (Armitage) was doing it since she was 15. They do it for the money. They might want to keep a bit of extra for the day after but it is all about drugs, everyone is on something and that is why they are here. She didn't deserve to die. She was a nice person," she said in a lilting mix of Irish and Yorkshire.
It is a refrain that is all too common among the people that, until the arrival of police on Monday night, lived and worked in the midst of the city's notorious sex industry. In the mid 1990s, Bradford's prostitution problem was physically moved on by Asian elders from its traditional home on Lumb Lane. At busy times on a Friday and Saturday night up to 20 women line the streets off Thornton Road where Griffiths lived in a converted mill.
Griffiths, who was studying serial killers as part of criminology course at the University of Bradford, was arrested after police were called to the block of flats where he lived.
The building's caretaker had found CCTV images of a woman, believed to be Suzanne Blamires, being attacked and knocked unconscious by a man before being finished off with a crossbow. Her dismembered remains were later found in the north of the city in the River Aire. She was friends and a close neighbour of Shelley Armitage, who had not been seen since last month. Griffiths was also charged last night with killing Susan Rushworth who disappeared nearly a year ago.
Peter Mann, from the Crown Prosecution Service said he had brought charges after carefully considering all of the evidence in the case. He said he had met the families of the three victims and explained the legal process.
Neighbours described yesterday how Griffiths spoke of his solitary existence. They said he was rarely seen in the company of others instead preferring to communicate through social networking sites on the internet where he styled himself "Ven Pariah" and posted bare-chested pictures of himself.
The red-light area around his flat consists of boarded-up houses and warehouses. It is as run down as it gets in a city which has some of the worst poverty and drugs problems in Britain. But here the women can earn £200 a night from having sex with up to 10 men that travel not just from Bradford but from all over the north of England. Since the migration of the sex trade there are no pimps and the women work for themselves – keeping all their earnings before they hand it over to their predominantly male drug dealers.
But sex workers said yesterday that the latest murders were tragedies waiting to happen claiming that a series of laws passed by the previous government had made the business more dangerous than it used to be.
Cari Mitchell, from the English Collective of Prostitutes, said: "During Labour there was a government-led moral crusade against prostitution which viewed all sex work as violence against women. Raids are on the increase and women are being forced further underground," she said.
Top of her complaints list is the Policing and Crime Act, which came into force in April this year and aims to make local police forces more accountable to their community. She said the act had increased police powers to arrest and detain sex workers who were deemed to be loitering or soliciting, and coerce them into "rehabilitation" programmes under the threat of imprisonment.
When the Bill was making its way through Parliament, Chris Huhne, then the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman and now a member of the coalition cabinet, said it would "drive sex workers underground, into less safety and greater isolation."
The English Collective of Prostitutes said increased raids had already led to the closure of brothels, forcing women on to the streets to sell sex, often alone and without support. "Everyone is very nervous," said Ms Mitchell. "Women are being driven out on to the streets by these raids."
There are also complaints that new "proceeds of crime" legislation, which enables police forces to seize and use portions of money gained from a criminal activity, has given officers a financial incentive to raid brothels, which in Britain are classified as any place where two or more women are selling sex.
Laura Lee, an escort who works out of her flat in Glasgow, said prostitutes were being discriminated against by the legal system. "The state has blood on its hands. If three female accountants were killed there would be an absolute uproar, the Government would do everything it could to make their work safer. But there will be nothing done about three prostitutes."
Back in Bradford those that knew the dead women yesterday said the police seemed to prefer to contain the problem rather than crack down on it. They said they were shocked by the deaths of these women who were part of their community no matter how troubled they were.
Nicky Blamires, 55, last night spoke of her "bright and articulate" daughter, saying she "went down the wrong path". She said her daughter went to college and was training to be a nurse. She said: "My daughter went down the wrong path and she did not have the life she was meant to have. What has happened to her will haunt me to the day I die."
Emile (no surname), 27, who worked in a local soup kitchen said Miss Armitage was "bubbly and lovely, a really nice person." He said: "She would always say hi, always got friends." Taxi controller Imran Fazil, 30, got to know most of the women who came to his office. "We have seen everything here. Sometimes the punters come running up here saying they have been robbed of £1,000 or the girls just start screaming and they lose their money. We have had them fighting in the office," he said. "But they are not bad girls and they didn't deserve to die. We are not here to judge them. We just get them taxis."
By Jonathan Brown and Jerome Taylor
Friday, 28 May 2010