Closing in on the criminals that got away

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It was 9.30am and Philip Andrew heard a knock at his door. It was a call the 47-year-old from Milton thought would never come.

Twenty-eight years after he carried out a terrifying knife-point rape on a teenager in Southsea the police had finally caught up with him.

Now, thanks to Hampshire Constabulary's Operation Galaxy, other rapists who thought their crimes had gone unpunished can expect similar visits over the coming months.

Philip Andrew and Ian Gray are two who have already confessed to offences going back a number of years.

But the Operation Galaxy team is working its way through hundreds of other unsolved sex crimes in a bid to catch up with the culprits.

Detective Inspector Julian Venner, from the Serious Crime Review Team, said: 'We owe it to the victims and in the interests of justice to try to identify the offenders and bring them to court.

'What's particularly worrying to me is if we have an offender that is committing that level of crime 30 years ago what else was he doing at the time and what else has he done since in terms of the sexual abuse of women?'

Operation Galaxy relies on using the latest forensic techniques.

The police have divided the last 30 years into four priority groups, starting with 1980 to 1985, then 1998 to 2004, 1986 to 1997, a period previously looked at by the force and finally 2005 onwards.

So far they have established there were 124 stranger rapes in the first group, 286 in the second and 274 in the third.

They are currently waiting on the DNA results of 10 cases that are at the lab.

But going over cold cases is not without its problems.

'The difficulty we have had in this first year that Operation Galaxy has been running is virtually all police investigation paperwork prior to 1986 has been destroyed,' Det Insp Venner said.

'Effectively in this first priority group we have been relying on the paperwork sent by the original investigation team to the Forensic Science Services laboratory giving us details of who the victim was and exhibits submitted at that time. Outside of that we have nothing.

'In most cases we have no statement from the victim, we have no witness statements. Tracing people can also be a lengthy process and we often found that the victims' details have changed.

'In the best case scenario the laboratory will be directed to examine an old exhibit from which they are able to develop a full DNA profile of the offender. This will then be launched onto the National DNA database and we get a 'hit' matching a DNA sample taken from an offender.

'If that is the case the next problem we have is trying to trace the individual. That can be problematic, bearing in mind we are dealing with cases that are around 30 years old.'

If the DNA sample does not come up with an exact hit the next step for the team is to look at results with a close match – from families.

This works because many criminals come from a criminal family background. So while the offender might not be on the database a relative might be and so the sample will come up with a partial match.

The system could bring up thousands of potential matches but the team start by looking at the top 30 closest ones.

Once the police have the suspect in their sights they contact the victim.

'We have to be hugely sensitive as to how we approach these victims who may have had no police contact for about 30 years,' Det Insp Venner said.

'Understandably we have had a very wide reaction from very pleased that the police have got the person that committed this appalling crime to a great reluctance by the victim to re-engage with the police concerning a horrendous experience they have tried to forget about.

'We try not to approach the victim until we have some concrete evidence because what we don't want to do is resurrect a very traumatic experience that happened a long time ago without some good news.'

So far Hampshire Constabulary has invested a considerable amount of money financing further forensic work concerning Operation Galaxy – running into 'tens of thousands of pounds' – but it's reaping the rewards.

'We are determined that if you go out and commit an offence of that serious nature we will do everything we can, including using the latest advances in forensics to bring you to justice,' Det Insp Venner said.

'For many of these victims it's a life changing experience. They never get over it. By bringing the suspect to justice it hopefully gives them some form of closure.'

SEX OFFENDER CAUGHT OUT 28 YEARS LATER

Philip Andrew will be jailed next month after he admitted raping a woman at knife-point almost 30 years ago.

The serial sex offender attacked a 19-year-old in an alleyway near Clarence Road in Southsea in July 1982.

The 54-year-old was a suspect at the time but the police didn't have enough evidence to charge him.

There was no DNA database back then so officers could not check whether he was a match for DNA found on the victim and the rapist walked free.

But in March this year he was the first to be arrested as part of Hampshire Constabulary's probe into cold cases.

Andrew's victim Sharon McKerracher, 47, who waived her right to anonymity to speak out, said: 'Never lose hope and don't ever give up. I am living proof that they will get him.'

Andrew, of Whitcombe Gardens, Milton, Portsmouth, committed his first offence when he was just 14-years-old.

On that occasion he sexually assaulted a four-year-old child at a bus stop.

Eight years later, in 1978, he raped and assaulted a woman at Butlins in Bognor Regis, where he was working at the time.

He was jailed for the assault and on his release he carried out the rape that until now had gone unpunished.

Thinking he had got away with the 1982 attack Andrew carried on offending.

In 1989 he stole a key to a woman's home in the Portsmouth area, let himself into her house at 3am, took a knife from the kitchen and jumped on the woman in bed, smothering her with a pillow and threatening to rape her.

She managed to talk him out of the attack and Andrew was later jailed for five years.

JAILED FOR RAPE 13 YEARS AFTER ATTACKING WOMAN ON NIGHT OUT

Ian Gray was snared 13 years after he raped a woman as she walked home from a night out in Gosport.

The former soldier was not on the list of suspects at the time of the attack, in May 1997, and he later moved to Hartlepool.

But in May this year the 39-year-old was arrested for a public order offence.

He was let off with a fixed penalty notice but a sample of his DNA was taken. When it was put onto the system it matched a sample found on the victim at the time.

Gray, of Kerr Grove, Hartlepool, was jailed for 10 years last week after pleading guilty to rape at Portsmouth Crown Court.

The victim, who was 20 at the time of the sexual assault, told The News the last 13 years of her life had been hell.

Gray hit her over the head with a bottle before raping her as she walked in Reeds Road, Gosport, in the early hours of the morning.

She said: 'Hopefully him going to jail will give some hope to other victims that the person could still be caught, even after 13 years.'

Detective Sergeant Keith Huelin, who led the cold case investigation, said: 'This shows how important DNA is in policing.

'We contacted this woman in June 2009 to say that we were having another look at the case.

'She was very pleased.

'There was no doubt she wanted us to re-investigate it.

'She was obviously prepared to come to trial.

'She was prepared to face some awkward questioning about the offence. She was more than willing to do that to see him convicted.'