Rumours fuel mob on trail of paedophile
Times, The (London, England)-April 25, 1998
Author: Simon de Bruxelles

Simon de Bruxelles on protests that became a riot

THE rumour spread swiftly among the small crowd outside Yeovil police station: Sidney Cooke, paedophile and convicted child killer, was in Burger King, queueing with a plain-clothes police officer.

The story may or not have been true, but the chief rumourmonger had her answers ready. What was a man, supposedly under lock and key in a police station, doing in a fast-food restaurant, she was asked.

“Staff in the police canteen have refused to serve him and no one will go out to buy food for him, so he has to get his own,” replied the woman, who was in her early 20s. No, she had not seen him herself, but she had spoken to a man who had. Across the West Country, alleged sightings based on even flimsier evidence triggered hostile demonstrations in four towns and a riot in Bristol.

Trouble began for Avon and Somerset police as soon as Cooke, 71, moved to the West Country last weekend, two weeks after his release from prison, where he had served nine years for the sexual killing of 14-year-old Jason Swift. Police had left him in no doubt that his life would be in danger unless he agreed to stay in voluntary custody until his long-term future could be organised.

When word spread last weekend that he was in Yeovil, hundreds of people took to the streets. As the protests became more vociferous and the threats more dire, police decided to stage what most locals are convinced was a charade.

Screens were erected at the entrance to the modern police station and a man brought out under a blanket. He was bundled into a police van and driven off at speed. If police hoped that the protesters would believe it was Cooke and go home, they were to be disappointed. Their troubles multiplied. Demonstrators at Yeovil were convinced it was a ruse and stayed put. Meanwhile, word spread in Bristol, Bridgwater and Minehead that Cooke was in those localities instead.

Despite assurances by Stephen Pilkington, the Chief Constable, that Cooke was in “secure accommodation” and posed no threat, his refusal to give Cooke’s whereabouts only spread the protests.

The tactic backfired most spectacularly on Thursday in West Knowle, Bristol, after a claim that a man hidden under a blanket had been smuggled into the police station. Within minutes a crowd of 300, including mothers carrying children, had gathered outside the station.

As evening fell, the peaceful protest gave way to chanting by dozens of youths, many of them drunk. As officers in riot gear were deployed, the mob tried to storm the police station, pelting it with bricks and petrol bombs and breaking several windows.

There were appeals for calm from a loudspeaker on a police helicopter as more than 100 officers used dogs and armoured vans to try to force the youths back. The violence left 46 police officers hurt, mostly with minor injuries, and 12 people under arrest.

Chief Inspector Colin Benson yesterday blamed the “malicious” caller to local newspapers and radio stations who had begun the rumour. He said: “There was no such prisoner taken to Broadbury Road in those circumstances.”

Tony Burton, Chief Constable of Gloucestershire and the Association of Chief Police Officers’ spokesman on sex offenders, said: “They claim that the public has a right to know where these people are. But there is no right to know when he is in secure custody and no danger to the public.”

Protesters in Yeovil are determined to continue their nightly vigils outside the police station until they are told whether Cooke is inside. The mere possibility of his presence has led to near-panic in the town. More than 50 children were kept out of two primary schools this week. Paul Perry, 32, one of the organisers of the vigils, said his three children had not been at school all week. “I am genuinely afraid for their safety,” he said. “The police say Cooke is no threat to anyone, but how can they guarantee that? In the eyes of the law, he is a free man and can walk out any time.”

A few protesters accepted that there must be somewhere for paedophiles to go once they had served their sentence. “We want to make him so scared he won’t dare set a foot outside,” said Ivor Charles, 59, a grandfather of four.

Most demonstrators admitted that they just wanted Cooke to leave town and become somebody else’s problem. They intend to hold a march this morning to confront Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrats leader and Yeovil MP, who denounced the protests as a witch-hunt.

Rumours fuel mob on trail of paedophile (25.4.98)