Thu. May 13th, 2021


Alice Ruggles was described by her friends and family as vibrant, witty and “sharp as a tack”. She loved life. Then, in January 2016, aged 24, she met Lance Corporal Trimaan “Harry” Dhillon, who was 26. She didn’t know that he had a restraining order taken out on him by a previous girlfriend.

Dhillon began to coercively control Ruggles, isolating her from friends. In July, having learned that he was cheating on her, she ended their seven-month relationship. Dhillon turned into a stalker. He frequently drove 100 miles from his camp in Edinburgh to spy on her, leaving unwanted flowers and chocolates. He continually texted and threatened to post intimate photographs. He told her on voicemail that he didn’t want to kill her, he wouldn’t kill her.

On 12 October 2016, 10 months after their first meeting, he broke into Ruggles’s flat in Newcastle, and cut her throat in what the judge called “an act of utter barbarism”. He was sentenced to a minimum of 22 years.

This article is about Alice Ruggles and 271 other young women aged 14 to 25 who were killed during a 10-year period from 2009 to 2018. Their deaths were recorded on the unique database of the Femicide Census. Among the recurring themes that mark these fatalities are stalking, coercive control, the impact of pornography and some men’s inability to handle rejection. One in two of the killings of the 272 were “overkills” involving excessive violence.

The census, given pro bono support by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, the international law firm, and the consultants Deloitte, was established in 2016 by Clarrie O’Callaghan, a former solicitor and now restaurateur, and Karen Ingala Smith, the chief executive of Nia, a sexual and domestic violence charity. The census builds on Counting Dead Women, the record of femicide which Ingala Smith began in 2012 with the killing of 20-year-old Kirsty Treloar, stabbed 29 times by her boyfriend Myles Williams, 19.

Clarrie O’Callaghan co-founder of the Femicide Census.
Clarrie O’Callaghan co-founder of the Femicide Census. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

“Eight women were killed by men in the first three days of 2012,” says Ingala Smith. “Yet, one of the early assaults was described as ‘an isolated incident’ and that made me rage. I became increasingly aware of the value of the data I was collecting but good data becomes almost meaningless if it isn’t a catalyst for change.”

Karen Ingala Smith, co-founder of the Femicide Census.
Karen Ingala Smith, co-founder of the Femicide Census. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

On Thursday, the domestic abuse bill will receive royal assent and become law, after a campaign conducted by women’s groups, MPs, lawyers and survivors that began in 2017. Among its measures, the bill has a more accurate definition of abuse, including economic abuse. It makes non-fatal strangulation a specific offence, includes post-separation abuse and makes it illegal to share intimate images without consent. However, it fails to extend support to migrant women who have no recourse to public funds.

“It’s disappointing that this so-called landmark legislation is not sufficiently addressing some of the harms that are already known about, for instance the impact of pornography in shaping men’s attitudes to women and girls and the barriers to immigrant women,” says O’Callaghan. “We can learn much from the patterns identified in the Femicide Census but for it to make a difference, what we learn has to be acted upon by government.”

So, who is killing our daughters? And what urgently needs to be done so that 27 young women a year on average don’t have their lives brutally stolen before they’ve hardly begun?

The scale of abuse and harassment experienced by teenagers and young women is vividly signalled by the response to the killing of Sarah Everard and the rising numbers of testimonies published on the website Everyone’s Invited. What was already known is that 4.9 million women in England and Wales will experience a sexual assault in their lifetime. Those under the age of 25 are twice as likely as older women to be victims of domestic violence.

However, the Crime Survey for England and Wales undercounts violence against women and girls. It measures households but not institutions. In 2017-18, a survey of 4,491 students in 153 educational institutions indicated that 70% of female students had experienced sexual violence, rising to 73% of students with a disability – only 6% had reported the offence to the police. Eight per cent of the women had been raped on university premises. According to a report published in 2016, 600 rapes and 5,500 sexual offences were recorded from 2012 to 2015 in UK schools.

Alice Ruggles, 24, was murdered by Lance Corporal Trimaan “Harry” Dhillon, 26, in Gateshead in 2016.
Alice Ruggles, 24, was murdered by Lance Corporal Trimaan “Harry” Dhillon, 26, in Gateshead in 2016. Photograph: Northumbria Police/PA

That these experiences aren’t officially counted makes the findings of the Femicide Census all the more valuable. It tells us that proportionately twice as many young women aged 14 to 25 (14.6%) were killed by a stranger than in the older age group (7.59%); the family is also more lethal for younger women, 7.3% were killed by a family member compared with 1.2% of older women. Jitendra Lad, in 2014, stabbed his wife and two daughters, Trisha, 19, and 16-year-old Nisha, multiple times before hanging himself. Young men aged 18 to 25 made up 40% of killers of women of their own age (11.36% of killers of older women). More than half of the young women (54%) were killed by a current or former partner (57% of older women) but the relationship is likely to have been of much shorter duration than for many older women.

In 2005, for instance, Clare Bernal, 22, had stopped seeing Michael Pech, 30, after only three weeks. He stalked her, threatened her and finally shot her and himself. In 2010, 16-year-old Joshua Davies went out with Rebecca Aylward, 15, for three months. After they broke up, he lured her to woods and battered her with a rock. Swansea crown court heard he had often spoken of murdering her. Not believing he was serious, his friends had promised to buy him a breakfast at their favourite cafe if he went ahead.

The three most striking aspects of the killing of young women over the decade is the repetition of fatal errors by authorities including police and other agencies; the inadequate collection of data such as on ethnicity; and the impact of campaigning mothers and fathers, mourning their daughters, trying to improve a jalopy of a system that fails again and again.

Trisha, left, 19, and Nisha, 17, Lad were murdered with their mother Duksha, 44, by their father Jitendra, 49, in Bradford in 2015.
Trisha, left, 19, and Nisha, 17, Lad were murdered with their mother Duksha, 44, by their father Jitendra, 49, in Bradford in 2015. Photograph: Family handout/PA

Samantha Shrewsbury’s daughter, Jayden Parkinson, “a tomboy in a tutu”, was 17 when she was killed in 2013 by her violent ex-boyfriend, Ben Blakeley, 22, after she told him she was pregnant. He strangled her and buried her body in the grave of his uncle. During the short relationship, Blakeley had forbidden Jayden to leave her room so she was forced to urinate in empty milk bottles. He took her phone, controlled her social media accounts and threatened the family.

In court, it transpired that he been violent towards three previous girlfriends including pushing one, pregnant with his child, down the stairs. Campaigners had hoped that the domestic abuse bill would mean serial domestic abusers, like Blakeley, and stalkers would be included in the Violent and Sex Offender Register. This won’t now happen, it is said, for financial reasons. Yet, the Home Office estimates that each killing costs a staggering £3.2m. The value of saving a life is rarely if ever quantified.

“If Blakeley’s name had been on a register, Jayden would be alive today,” Shrewsbury says. “Instead, I don’t have my daughter and I don’t have a grandchild who would have been eight. I’ll continue to campaign for the inclusion of serial domestic abusers and stalkers because I believe it might save another girl’s life.”

Clare Bernal, 22, was shot dead by Michael Pech, 30, in 2005.
Clare Bernal, 22, was shot dead by Michael Pech, 30, in 2005. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

In the case of Alice Ruggles, a 2018 domestic homicide review to analyse what went wrong, and how to put it right, subsequently made 20 recommendations. Both the police and the military had fatally failed her.

National Stalking Awareness Week, held annually, ended last Friday. Dr Sue Hills, Ruggles’s mother, says that five years ago when her daughter was killed, neither she, nor the police, nor Ruggles’s friends, nor Ruggles, understood the trauma and jeopardy that stalking inflicts on a victim. “I feel guilty that initially I thought, ‘A bunch of flowers? That’s quite nice.’ Later, I realised, it meant, ‘I’m watching you outside your bedroom window.’ Alice thought she had a problem with an ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t go away, not that she was in danger. Too often, that’s still the case.”

After the killing of her daughter Clare, Tricia Bernal co-founded Protection Against Stalking. She also successfully campaigned to strengthen stalking legislation. Still, in March 2016, 19-year-old Shana Grice was fined £90 for “wasting police time”. She had reported her stalker five times over a six-month period but failed to disclose their previous relationship. Five months later, Michael Lane, 27, broke into her home and cut her throat.

“The police assessment of stalking risk contains 11 questions,” Bernal says. “But it’s not a tick-box exercise. It needs specialised training or more lives will be lost.”

The Stalking Protection Act 2019 means police can now issue a protection order to limit a stalker’s activities. Victims suffer 100 incidents or more before reporting to police whose response is a postcode lottery. Younger women are particularly vulnerable says Alison Bird, one of the first independent stalking advocacy caseworkers and clinical lead on stalking at Solace Women’s Aid.

“If a young woman contacts the police their age is a barrier. That’s why an advocate is so important because she can say to the police, this is the legislation, this is the crime, it’s not a series of isolated incidents, join up the dots, this is what you should be doing. Most young women don’t have that information or the confidence.”

Currently, there are only around 30 caseworkers like Bird in England and Wales.

At the University of Suffolk, Bird has conducted research into a stalking victim’s right to review when police have interviewed a suspect under caution and decided there will be no further action (NFA). In Ruggles’s case police didn’t even speak to her killer. In 2017-18, 10,241 cases of stalking were recorded, of which only 25% led to a charge. Out of 49 police forces in the UK, for Bird’s study, 17 forces declined to supply information. In her findings based on the responses of 27 forces, only 4% resulted in an NFA overturned and the case referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. A third of the police forces were unable or unwilling to provide data.

Sue Hills, whose daughter Alice Ruggles was murdered in 2016.
Sue Hills, whose daughter Alice Ruggles was murdered in 2016. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Observer

“Police are supposed to inform a victim of a right to review,” Bird points out. “Some officers tell a traumatised victim she has to make a report in 10 days. In fact, a victim has three months to respond. The whole system needs better data, improved resources, better police knowledge and greater transparency.”

Ruggles’s family have set up a trust in her name to improve awareness of stalking and coercive control, and provide relationship training in schools. “Our approach to the police is not to blame,” says Hills. “It’s to say if somebody else comes along like Alice, you have to deal with her differently. We all have to call out stalking and coercive control, just as we now call out drink driving. It’s everybody’s responsibility to save lives.”

On the day Hannah Pearson, 16, met James Morton, he gave her wine, port and beer, then strangled her. Hannah was a friend of his girlfriend. He was jailed for 12 years for manslaughter. He had been pursuing “a sexual thrill” having watched the behaviour in pornographic films.

Christine Barter, professor of inter-personal violence prevention at the University of Central Lancashire, was part of a team who conducted research into the impact of pornography in five European countries including the UK. It involved 4,564 young people aged between 14 and 17.

They found a significant association between boys’ regular viewing of online pornography and their use of sexual coercion and abuse. Boys who regularly watched online pornography were also significantly more likely to hold negative attitudes towards females. What isn’t known – a longitudinal study is required – is whether the behaviour comes first and viewing pornography reinforces it or pornography influences the behaviour.

Emotional abuse of boys and girls was common. Almost a third of girls and 16% of boys had been subjected to some form of sexual violence; 43% of girls and almost two-thirds of boys had told no one. One in five cases involved pushing, slapping, hitting, holding down. In 8% the violence had escalated further to punching, strangling, beating up with an object. These are teenagers.

“Many girls told us they aren’t confident about saying no. Some girls said they had been raped at the age of 12. It begins much earlier than we are prepared to acknowledge,” Barter, the mother of two teenage daughters, says. “We can’t stop young people looking at porn but alongside we need an analytic and gendered deconstruction of the messages of porn. Often porn is watched in a vacuum with no real understanding what a healthy, equal, joyful sexual encounter looks like.”

Christine Barter, professor of inter-personal violence prevention, at the University of Central Lancashire .
Christine Barter, professor of inter-personal violence prevention, at the University of Central Lancashire . Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Observer

She adds: “We have relationship education but no long-term evaluations of what really works and too little proper training for teachers. “A lot of boys we talked to described their behaviour as ‘just a joke’, and ‘that’s what kids do’.

“If we raise awareness that some relationships are harmful, do we then have the services to respond to both young victims and perpetrators? In most European countries, there are almost no services to which young men aged 15 to 25 can self-refer because they are concerned about being abusive.

“This is a huge issue. We are battling with pervasive misogyny. The peer group is all-important. Often peers know what’s going on, they see the behaviour but they don’t challenge it and that needs to end.

“In addition, too many agencies seem to think that when a teenager ends a relationship, she is safe. But what if she and the perpetrator attend the same school? We know this is the most dangerous time for adult women so why don’t we acknowledge the danger for young women? Too often, it’s the girl who is blamed and the responsibility is put on her to stay safe not the perpetrator to change his behaviour.

“We need a massive systemic change,” she stresses. “It’s been left on the shoulders of young survivors to move this issue on. Social media has changed the nature of the abuse but it has also changed the nature of the resistance and that’s fantastic. But this has been going on for years, and very little appeared to happen until young survivors came forward with their testimonies. That cannot be right.”

Case study

Ellie Gould had been going out with Thomas Griffiths, both aged 17 and sixth formers in Wiltshire, for three months when she ended the relationship because she found him “suffocating”. The day after – two years ago, next month – he strangled Ellie then stabbed her 13 times during a morning when she had stayed home to revise.

Carole Gould, Ellie’s mother, has now joined forces with Julie Devey. Her daughter, Poppy Devey Waterhouse, 24, from Somerset was a gifted mathematician who loved to travel. In 2018, she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Joe Atkinson, then aged 25. She had more than 100 injuries. She had ended the relationship two months earlier.

Ellie Gould, 17, was stabbed to death at her home in Calne, Wiltshire.
Ellie Gould, 17, was stabbed to death at her home in Calne, Wiltshire. Photograph: Wiltshire Police/PA

Atkinson was sentenced to 16 years and two months. Griffiths was sentenced to 12-and-a-half years.

“As a parent, my basic duty is to keep my children safe,” Devey says. “I failed and I have to carry that failure with me.”

A killer over the age of 18, who takes a weapon to the scene of the crime, faces a minimum term of 25 years. Both Atkinson and Griffiths used knives taken from the scene of the killing so the crimes were not deemed premeditated, even though Griffiths had invested a great deal of time in forward planning to conceal his visit. Griffiths was under 18, so he received a sentence that, at the time, was the same as one that could potentially be given to a 10-year-old.

As a result of campaigning by Gould and Dever, sentencing has now been toughened under Ellie’s Law. Teenager killers convicted of terrorism could now receive a sentence of up to 27 years but, still, much less for a domestic homicide. “The sentence for ferocious and brutal domestic murder in the home is still woefully inadequate,” Gould says. “The government has introduced a sliding scale and has the audacity to call it ‘Ellie’s Law’ but it means Griffiths’s sentence would only increase by two years, while a 16-year-old will see his or her sentence actually reduced to 10 years, even more lenient than before. And, a 10-year sentencing gap still exists between a killing on the street with a weapon taken to the crime and a domestic killing. We won’t stop until that gap is closed.

“It hurts that Griffiths will be out as a young man to begin again but we no longer have our daughters.”

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