When I found refuge with kind Karen I thought my nightmare was over, but it was only just beginning…
By Joanne Underwood, 36, from Rotherham
Pulling on my anorak, I yelled out to Mum as I slammed the door. ‘I’m going into town, see you later,’ I called out.
I pulled my hood back and listened for a reply, but nothing came. I was just 11 years old but Mum didn’t seem bothered about what I got up to.
I was heading into the centre to meet Arshid Hussain, or Big Ash as I knew him. I was smitten with the 15-year-old.
He showered me with treats like sweets and cigarettes and I thought I was in love. ‘Hiya,’ he called out when I met him. ‘I’ve got you some ciggies,’ he added, pushing the packet into my hand.
‘Thanks,’ I replied, stuffing it into my pocket. I was just a child but Ash gave me my first swig of booze too.
Ignored at home, it felt like Ash and his mates were the only people who wanted to know me. I thought they genuinely cared about me but the one day, things took a sinister turn.
‘Come on, we’re going this way,’ Ash said, taking me by the hand and leading me into an old churchyard.
I didn’t understand where he was taking me but once we were out of sight, he roughly grabbed me and pushed my head down.
Unzipping his jeans, he forced me to give him oral sex. ‘No, I don’t want to,’ I cried as I tried to wriggle free. But Ash had grabbed a fistful of my hair and was holding my head tight.
‘Just do it,’ he snarled as I pleaded with him to stop. Eventually I went through with it. I thought if I gave him what he wanted, he’d let me go.
But I was wrong. After that, it was as if I’d given Ash permission to do whatever he wanted, whenever he liked.
‘Please, no – I don’t want to,’ I sobbed when Ash passed me around his friends and brothers, Basharat and Bannaras, like a rag doll.
‘You owe us,’ they hissed, pointing out that they’d bought me food, booze and cigarettes. ‘You didn’t think it came for free did you?’ they jeered.
By now, I was spending all my time with Ash and his gang. They barely let me out of their sight and if I didn’t do what they wanted, they beat me.
Mum had washed her hands of me. ‘I was on my way to see someone about you,’ she snapped when she spotted me on the bus one day. ‘Seeing as you’re here, you can come with me.’
She barely said a word as I sat next to her on the bus. ‘Come on, this is our stop,’ she told me when we pulled up outside the social services offices.
‘I can’t cope with her no more,’ she told an officer once we were inside. ‘You deal with her.’
My eyes filled with tears as I watched Mum walk out of the office. She didn’t even look back. I was alone.
Social services did their best but I was moved into a care home where Ash and his mates had even easier access to me.
‘What are you doing?’ I cried one night, when Ash scaled the wall of the home and climbed right into my bedroom window.
‘Just coming to see you, that’s all,’ a sinister smirk spread across his face. ‘I missed you,’ he sneered, as his hands snaked over my little body, tearing at my nightclothes.
Ash brutally raped me in the care home, then pimped me out to the rest of his Asian mates. He even paid off his debts by offering me up for sex.
If I ever refused, I was beaten and burned with cigarettes. I would often return to the care home, bloodied and bruised – not that anyone noticed.
None of the staff asked me about what was happening and social services officers dismissed me as a promiscuous attention seeker.
But then, I met Shelley Davies and slowly, a glimmer of light shone into my dark world. At 16, Shelley was a big girl but she was friendly and was a good listener.
‘Listen, you can stay at my friend’s house if you like,’ she told me. ‘Karen will look after you.’
When Karen MacGregor, 59, offered me refuge in her posh two-bedroom house, I got a glimpse of a normal life.
‘You’re safe now,’ Karen told me as she showed me around. ‘I’ll look after you. Come and go as you please but remember, there’s always a warm bed and a hot meal for you here.’
Karen was caring and sympathetic, and she treated me like one of her own. It was almost too good to be true…
‘It’s time to earn your keep,’ she told me a few weeks later, as she locked the doors and windows.
‘I’ve got some friends coming round later, some men. You just make them happy, you understand?’
When Karen returned home from her job in the taxi office with an Asian man, my heart sank. Make them happy… I knew exactly what she meant.
I was woken in the middle of the night from the sofa bed in the living room, and made to have sex with the man, Qurban Ali, while Karen watched on.
Qurban was Karen’s boyfriend but that didn’t stop them. The next night she simply brought more men back with her.
‘Just do what they want,’ Karen hissed. ‘You can’t expect to live here for free.’
Karen was no fairy Godmother, she was an evil fairytale witch and what I’d thought was a safe haven was actually a Hansel and Gretel house.
I was trapped. On the worst nights, I was forced to endure sex with five different men, each pawing at me one after the other.
I flinched at their touch, heaving at the stench of their bodies, steeped with acrid sweat and the smell of Asian cooking.
I never saw money change hands but Karen was always getting new furniture for the house or new bedding. I knew she was buying it with the proceeds of my ‘rent money’. Sick.
Sometimes, Karen’s own young son and daughter were in the house while I was being repeatedly raped.
She’d send them upstairs to the back bedroom, while ushering the Asian men in to see me.
‘Shut up! Don’t you talk to them!’ Karen snapped if I ever tried to make conversation with them.
I felt utterly hopeless but one day, I tried to escape through the kitchen window. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Karen snarled as she and Shelley grabbed me by the ankles and dragged me back inside.
They beat me until I lay sobbing in a pool of my own blood. Other escape bids ended the same way and Karen even sent police away when they turned up at the house looking for me.
But after eight months in her house of hell, I eventually seized my chance and fled. Social services moved me to a different care home, eight miles from Rotherham.
Finally, I was safe.
Then one day, I came to find one of the care workers had left me a message. ‘It’s from your Aunty Kaz,’ she told me.
I picked up the piece of paper, puzzled. I didn’t have an Aunty Kaz…
I felt a sickening knot of dread tighten in my stomach as I realised it was Karen. She’d found me.
She’d moved to Sheffield and left me her new number. I ignored it and never rang her – but then one day, she turned up at the home.
‘Your Aunty Kaz is here to visit,’ the staff smiled as they ushered her to my bedroom. Frantic, I desperately tried to alert their attention.
Karen wasn’t my auntie… she was a monster. Once my bedroom door was locked behind us, Ash and one of his mates shinned up the drainpipe outside.
I froze with fear but thankfully, staff spotted them and all three were ordered to leave. But my relief was short-lived.
Later, when I walked outside, Karen and the two men pounced. They’d been waiting around the corner, and they swiftly bundled me into a car.
Fear gripped me as we drove to Karen’s new house and it wasn’t long before there was a procession of Asian men hungry for sex and I was plunged back into my living hell.
It wasn’t until I was 21 that I finally escaped Karen’s evil clutches. I was a young woman but I had no idea what a real relationship was. That was until I met Carl, 36.
It took a long time for him to win my trust but Carl taught me what real love was and in 2010 we had a son, Ethan, together.
I was determined to give him the stable childhood I’d been robbed of, but our peace was shattered when the police came knocking at the door.
‘We’re building a case against Ash, the paedophile ring – and Karen and Shelley. We need your help,’ an officer explained.
I hadn’t even told Carl what happened to me, I’d locked my past firmly away but now I was forced to explain. Now, was my chance for justice.
As the only victim of all the defendants I was the central witness in the case, and for three days straight, the defence barristers grilled me until finally, the judge returned his verdict – guilty.
Arshid Hussain, Qurban Ali, Basharat Hussain, Bannaras Hussain, Karen MacGregor and Shelley Davies were sentenced to a total of 102 years in prison between them.
Karen will serve 13 years. That witch is scum, she got what she deserves.
Karen tricked me into believing I was safe, only to abuse me in the worst way imaginable. To me, that’s the ultimate betrayal.