|When Lara fell victim to the notorious Oxford child sex ring, her mother tried |
everything to save her. Now, the two tell Nick Harding how they're trying
to put the past behind them
To the neighbours in the quiet cul-de-sac where they live, Elizabeth McDonnell, 64, and her daughter Lara, 22, are just two women getting on with their lives.
Lara, a mother-of-two, works as a carer in a nursing home. Elizabeth is a retired high-flyer who headed national charities. Both are single and both are devoted to the two young children in their household, Noah, six, and Olivia, six months. They are friendly and warm but do not make a habit of talking about the past.
Elizabeth and Lara are not their real names. When they arrived four years ago in the small south-west market town they now call home, they were fleeing a nightmare.
Lara was a victim of an infamous child sex trafficking ring based in Oxford. In 2013, seven members were jailed for a total of 95 years. She was one of six brave girls who gave evidence against their abusers. She was groomed from the age of 12 and for five years endured unimaginable physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Elizabeth frantically tried to save her and raise the authorities from an apathetic slumber, the type of which allowed similar gangs in Rochdale, Rotherham and other parts of the country to exploit young, vulnerable girls with impunity.
Lara was born to alcoholic parents. Her mother was a drug addict and a prostitute, her father was a sadistic alcoholic. Along with her four siblings, she was taken into care aged four. For the following six years, she tumbled through the care system, where she was sexually abused. Elizabeth adopted her when she was 10 and already deeply disturbed.
Elizabeth picked Lara from a book that was distributed to prospective adoptive parents by an adoption charity. "Like an Argos catalogue for children," she explains.
Elizabeth was never made aware of the full extent of Lara's early problems. "I was taken through the sorts of issues a child might have and asked if I could cope with things like learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and behavioural problems. The one area I wasn't sure about, because I didn't know anything about it, was victims of sexual abuse. But that was the one thing they didn't make me aware of," she says.
Elizabeth lived in a Victorian town house in Oxford near the river. Her Oxford was the city of dreaming spires. Her social circle included academics and professionals. Deeply insecure, Lara struggled to settle. "I remember feeling that I had come into a happy home and I was going to mess it up. All Mum's friends and family were very different people to where I had come from and I was never going to fit in," she says.
|The seven members of the child sex trafficking ring:(Top row from left) |
Akhtar Dogar, Anjum Dogar, Kamar Jamil; (Bottom row from left)
Assad Hussain, Bassam Karrar, Mohammed Karrar and Zeeshan Ahmed
"They refused and said it was not their problem as Lara did not come from Oxford," she explains. "I was saying very early on that I felt she needed therapeutic support to process what had happened to her. But social services didn't entertain it and felt she was just badly behaved. I was told she was a young person making choices, and although she was making the wrong sort of choices, she should be supported to make those choices regardless."
At 12, Lara came to the attention of a local drug dealer, Mohammed Karrar. He ran a crack den in a run-down part of Oxford. Manipulative and well versed in child grooming, he befriended Lara and she began to spend increasing amounts of time with him and his associates in the Cowley Road area of the city.
"At the time, I was very naive, mixed up and confused about who the right sort of people to associate with were, especially men," Lara explains. "I was bored of being me. I wanted something different. Mohammed was initially charming and that's what I responded to."
Over the following months, Karrar carefully gained Lara's trust, feigning sympathy when she told him about her troubled childhood. "He found out everything he could about me and used it to manipulate me. He knew I was impressionable and he pretended he cared," she says.
Karrar gave his victim with alcopops and cigarettes and encouraged her to run away from home. Eventually, he encouraged her to take crack cocaine and began feeding her drugs. Soon after, he forced her to have sex with two men, demanding the act as payment for the drugs he had plied her with. He continued to feed her addiction, sold her to men around the country, beat her and threatened her and her family if she didn't do as he commanded.
In one incident when she was 14, Lara was imprisoned for eight hours in a guest house on a main road in Oxford and violently raped by Karrar's brother Bassam. Police were called by another guest, who heard her screams through the walls. Despite having witnesses and DNA evidence, it was decided not to pursue a prosecution when Lara declined to testify after being coerced by the gang.
"People say, 'Why didn't you walk away?' and I ask myself that question every day. But I was out of my depth and terrified," she explains.
Lara was reported missing around 100 times. Elizabeth drove all over the country to rescue her daughter. Each time, she returned home distressed and often injured.
"Lara would allow me to be protective for short periods, and then the call of the wild came, some pull that was inaudible to me, and off she would go," Elizabeth explains. "In the early days, I tried to physically stop her leaving, but I couldn't, and the police advised me not to because one or both of us would get hurt.
"It became normal life. All I could do was stay as sane and calm as I could and be there to pick up the pieces, or go and find her and bring her home. If she was gone for more than a day, I waited for the police to come and tell me they'd found her body. The thing that kept us both going was the fact that we had lots of good times in amongst it all, particularly when we weren't in Oxford. That was the real us."
Lara agrees: "I would consider the effect it was having on Mum and cry. When I was away, I knew I needed to get home, to get to her. It must have been horrific for her. I was never running from her. I was running away to protect our little family because the gang told me if I didn't do what they wanted they would kill her."
Lara eventually escaped the gang when, on the eve of her 18th birthday, she asked to move away. By that time, she'd had her son, the product of a relationship with an older man unrelated to the gang.
Two years after fleeing, Lara was approached by officers from Thames Valley Police who had been investigating a number of linked sex crimes against young girls in the town. She agreed to give a statement and eventually gave evidence at the trial. Elizabeth was also a witness.
Elizabeth says: "The judge handed down all these life sentences and in a terribly matter-of-fact voice summed up this catalogue of depravity – a lot of which can't be reported because of how terrible it is. I sat there. I knew it was bad but I hadn't heard all that. There were people in the room with tears pouring down their faces. It took everyone's breath away. Suddenly, the sense of triumph I had when the sentences were read out went, and all that was left was an absolute sense of horror at what had happened."
Today, mother and daughter deal with the past in different ways. Both have written books about their experiences. Elizabeth is a vocal critic of the failing systems that allowed the Oxford gang and others around the UK to execute such well-organised abuse.
Lara has been diagnosed with clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and wants to put the past behind her. The one thing they both have in common, however, is an unshakeable mother-and-daughter bond.
"She was a single mum to a 10-year-old adoptive child with issues and went through all that and she's still here. She's amazing," Lara smiles.
"There was never an option to give up on her," Elizabeth says. "She is my daughter and I love her."
'Girl for Sale' by Lara McDonnell (£6.99, Ebury Press) is out now