Care home rapist Colin Stokes has been jailed for 14 years after a judge heard cost-cutting measures meant he was alone at night to prey on vulnerable women with learning disabilities in Gloucestershire.
Sentencing, Judge Jamie Tabor QC said it was "difficult to imagine a greater breach of trust than taking advantage sexually of highly vulnerable persons entrusted into your sole care".
"These three ladies had the bodies of adults but the minds of children, and little children at that," Judge Tabor told Stokes, 48. "They were every bit as vulnerable as little children and in some ways they were more vulnerable. I have no doubt that you chose them as your victims because of their respective vulnerabilities. Such behaviour was cruel and depraved."
The Gloucestershire care home, which cannot be identified to protect the identities of the victims, had reduced night cover to one worker, Gloucester Crown Court heard yesterday.
Stokes, of St George's Road, Dursley, admitted raping the women, aged 32, 54 and 50 between January 2012 and April 2013. The whole sentence imposed was of 20 years – he will spend up to 14 years in prison with an extended licence period of six years.
As he was sent down, relatives of the victims shouted abuse at him. "Rot in hell Stokes," said one.
He denied a second rape on a 49-year-old woman and a sexual assault on a fourth woman. The prosecution accepted those pleas.
Prosecutor Sarah Regan said Stokes had been questioned over an allegation that he exposed himself to a woman at a care home in 1997, but the matter was not reported to police. In 2007, he was arrested and questioned over allegations he incited sexual activity with a mentally ill woman at the care home where he raped the women, but charges were not pressed.
"More often than not, he was the only member of staff who was on duty at night," said Mrs Regan. "And that allowed him to carry out the horrendous acts that he did. Workers provided 24-hour care – this resulted in cost-saving measures being brought in and the overnight care was brought down to a single person."
Stokes slept in on duty, and attacked the women at night. Despite her difficulties in communicating, one victim managed to tell a whistle-blowing care worker that Stokes had raped her. The whistleblower called police, who interviewed two of the victims.
Detectives who worked on the case to convict Stokes – Operation Innisbrook – said they were pleased with the sentence.
"We would also like to thank the person who first reported this to the police," the force said in a statement. "It took great courage but it brought to light one of the worst examples of the abuse of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Stokes is now where he belongs."
Detective Sergeant Mike Rich said Stokes denied the offences initially.
"I think perhaps he thought he could get away with it. When he came to court on January 23 there was no option but to plead guilty.
"I wish he had done it earlier because it was hanging over the victims' families for a long time."
DNA evidence gave Stokes little option but to admit his evil crimes.
Police had arrested and questioned Stokes over serious sex assault allegations in 2007. But he was never charged – and he continued to work at the same home. He was arrested on April 18 of that year, on suspicion of inciting sexual activity with a mentally ill female at a care home. He was questioned and bailed.
On July 30, after a police investigation and referral with the Crown Prosecution Service, no further action was taken.
Rachael Scott, head of the Crown Prosecution Service South West Rape and Serious Sexual Offence unit, said: "All offences of a sexual nature are considered serious and every effort is made to prosecute such cases subject to the Code for Crown Prosecutors being met. In 2007, a complainant made an allegation of a sexual assault by Colin Stokes. Stokes was interviewed and denied the offence. This was one person's word against another. In the absence of any corroboration, the decision was made that there was insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.
"In 2007, the statutory process of using intermediaries was not available to us. Furthermore, the recognised benefits of using an intermediary were in their infancy and their effectiveness was not known. The stance the Crown Prosecution Service takes today is fundamentally different to that in 2007. We no longer see the lack of corroboration as a bar to bringing a case to court.
"Furthermore, in this case the police immediately recognised the need to obtain intermediaries to elicit the best evidence from the complainants. The CPS recognises that vulnerable adults and children are targeted by sex offenders because of their vulnerability, so we ensure every effort is made to ascertain the evidence in order that a case can meet The Code test and proceed to charge."
Gloucestershire Constabulary called in an interpreter who helped the victims tell officers what Stokes had done to them, using sign language.
Detective Inspector Bernie Kinsella said police and social services work together very much more closely now, and did so on this investigation.
"We communicate on a daily basis," he said. "In 2007, there was a full and thorough investigation but the CPS have to make that call about how strong the evidence is, and it wasn't strong enough in this case. This was a really impressive investigation in 2013 and we had strong evidence against him. We had a specialist team of officers investigating this case and they had a much closer working relationship with partner agencies, including social services.
"We exchange information with them very frequently – we are much more victim conscious when it comes to vulnerable witnesses."
When the first victim blurted out to a care worker what Stokes had done to her, she was shocked to the core.
But the worker, who cannot be named to protect the identity of the victims, believed her and contacted the home's owners. Eventually, police were alerted and a full-scale investigation was launched.
"She just came out with it, out of the blue," she said. "She was devastated. She told me he came in to her room and he was abusing her. I was completely shocked. I was very upset but I knew it had to be dealt with appropriately and quickly.
"I rang the provider – they came in and I did not feel they dealt with it appropriately at all. They were there for half an hour and did not call police. They did not speak to me, then I was off shift. I later rang the police because I did not trust them. I had my suspicions about him – he had asked a female member of staff if she wanted to watch a pornographic film with him. As far as I know, nothing was done about that. But when I called police they said he was known to them."