Sammy Woodhouse fought for years to bring the leader of a child grooming ring to justice. She is now revealing the gruelling experience of giving vital evidence against him in court in her new book.
Four-and-a-half-years ago, Sammy Woodhouse set in motion a chain of events that brought the true scale of Rotherham’s child sexual exploitation scandal to light - and brought an evil grooming gang to justice.
The 32-year-old’s account to journalist Andrew Norfolk in 2013 about how she had been sexually and physically abused by the age of 14 by grooming gang ringleader Arshid Hussain led both to the ordering of the Jay report which revealed at least 1,400 children had been sexually exploited in the town and the start of Operation Clover - a landmark police investigation that eventually resulted in 13 people being jailed for a combined 199 years after three trials.
In an exclusive extract from her new book, Just a Child, Sammy explains what it was like to give evidence in court against the man who had made her pregnant twice and whose child she had at the age of 15 - and ruined the lives of many others:
“It was June 2015 when I got the news I’d been waiting for from Operation Clover. Ash had finally been charged with multiple child sexual exploitation offences, as had his brothers Bash and Bono. Of the 54 victims the police identified as being linked to Ash and his brothers, 21 had testified and 12 were giving evidence in court. Eventually I found out there were five other defendants, all associates of Ash.
I could hardly believe that my speaking to Andrew Norfolk two years previously had ultimately triggered Operation Clover and fetched us to this point.
It was daunting thinking of what lay ahead in court, but I also felt impatient and was thinking, bring it on. Justice was within touching distance.
The trial was set to start on December 7, 2015. In addition to Ash, Bash and Bono, three other men and two women were also in the dock for various child sexual exploitation offences.
Throughout the trial, I would be referred to as Girl J.
“It was here at last – the day the trial was finally starting. I woke up on the morning of December 7 feeling like Superwoman, ready to take on the whole world. I was brimming with strength and determination, and nothing was going to get in my way. I was raring to go, longing to have my moment in the witness box.
This buzz lasted for several days, but once the victims started taking the stand my mood began to slip. I was listening to the news at home and hearing headlines about what was coming out.
It was very disturbing, and when I was on my own fears started to creep in about how this was all going to end.
Some of the other victims had been subjected to types of abuse I’d never encountered. I became filled with doubt. What if the jury believes Ash, not me? What if they can’t see through his lies to the gullible little girl I was when he exploited me?
The court heard that girls were ‘targeted, sexualised and in some instances subjected to acts of a degrading and violent nature’ when they were teenagers.
One survivor told the jury how she was abused from the age of 11, and that Ash passed her on to his brother and friends, often as ‘payment’ for debts. She was beaten, had a cigarette stubbed out on her chest and was tied up and raped, often by numerous men, one after another, ‘at the say-so of Arshid Hussain’.
It emerged that I wasn’t the only victim who had become pregnant as a result of the abuse.
The distressing stories kept coming. One survivor told how she thought she was going to die when her hands and feet were tied and she had petrol poured over her by her abusers. Another described how Bash took her to the Peak District and subjected her to two hours of physical and verbal abuse before knocking her to the ground, spitting on her and telling her to dig her own grave. I felt sick.
When my turn finally came to give evidence I went to court with two police officers who’d been assigned to look after me, plus a social worker.
We all sat in a little room at the back of the court while I was waiting to be called in. I’d dressed in smart trousers and a polo neck jumper and jacket, and on the outside I looked calm and composed. Inside, my stomach was going crazy.
Suddenly I was being led down loads of corridors, past the judge and barristers and taking the stand in front of the jury, some of whom smiled at me, so I smiled back, instinctively.
When the questioning began from the defence barristers I remembered everything I had been told, and I began by sticking to yes and no answers and keeping my replies brief and to the point. I spoke about various events and I described how I felt mesmerised by Ash. ‘It was like he put a spell over me. He made me feel really good about myself.’
Ash’s barrister suggested to me that I was Ash’s equal, and at that point my blood rose and I decided I wasn’t going to stick to a yes or no answer. I took a deep breath and said: ‘He was an adult and I was a child. There’s nothing equal about it, so no, I wouldn’t say we were equal. It’s only now I realise he wasn’t my boyfriend. It was abuse.’
When we had a break at dinner time I felt so drained I lay down. My eyes were burning and it felt like I had a plank of wood across them. Once I was back in court I felt revived, and I rallied. As soon as I started speaking I zoned everything else out and concentrated fully on what I was saying.
I felt the barrister was trying to trick me at every opportunity, and he was patronising too, but I paid no notice to this. As much as I didn’t like the fact, his job was to put his client back on the streets. I knew he was simply doing what he was employed to do, and this thought kept me calm and very focused.
I became bolder as the day went on. I didn’t want to say, ‘Yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir’. This was my evidence, my life, and my justice. Once I started talking nobody could shut me up.
I was only meant to be in court for a few hours in total, but by the end of the day I hadn’t finished giving my evidence. It was a Friday, and I was told I would have to return on the Monday.
I went home feeling nervously exhausted. I couldn’t eat or concentrate on anything.
I felt like I was having a complete breakdown: my nerves were shredded and I was crying at everything and anything.
At one point Bash claimed that he had never met me in his life before. This gave me an extra shot of determination to prove the liars wrong.
My evidence was completed on Monday, and I left the court feeling absolutely wretched and wrung out."
“I was in bed at home when I got a text message from Andrew Norfolk, telling me the verdicts were in. He was in court so I couldn’t phone him. I took a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before I texted him back. ‘What is it?’ I wrote, holding my breath and hiding under the duvet. I felt I had the whole world resting on my shoulders.
Ash faced five charges specifically relating to me: one of rape, three indecent assaults and one of child abduction. He had initially faced six charges but one count of child abduction was dropped halfway through the trial, due to the fact my foster carer had allowed Ash to have access to me.
‘Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty,’ Andrew texted.
In total, Ash had been found guilty of 23 serious child sexual exploitation crimes. Bash, Bono, their uncle, Qurban Ali, and the two women, Karen MacGregor and Shelley Davies, had also been found guilty. Yet more victims came forward after the verdicts, which I was so pleased about, because this trial had only scratched the surface of the 1,400 to 2,000 estimated cases of CSE in Rotherham.
Two further Operation Clover trials would follow, as well as Operation Thunder, in regards to non-recent abuse. Eventually, a further 20 were convicted after 21 survivors gave evidence, sentencing criminals to 290 years and 6 months. Others were subsequently jailed, running to the final total of 360 years’ imprisonment for multiple perpetrators. The National Crime Agency would investigate the rest, making this the biggest abuse investigation in history.”
Just A Child by Sammy Woodhouse out 19th April RRP £7.99 (Blink Publishing)