Watch ITV News' film Decoy on how the 'Clifton Rapist' was snared in a huge police operation
‘The Clifton Rapist’ stalked the Bristol Downs during the 1970s carrying out a series of sex attacks on women, but it was a young female police officer who caught him and sent him down in a ground-breaking decoy operation.
Young female police officers were sent out to walk the streets of Bristol at night in a bid to capture murderer and rapist Ronald Evans – Britain’s longest-serving prisoner.
Michelle Leonard was one of those officers and in March 1979 – in a last-ditch attempt to capture Evans – she lured him into a honeytrap on a darkened side street and into police hands. She won a bravery medal for capturing Evans.
Michelle, who was 23 years old at the time, told ITV News: “I was frightened...I thought ‘keep walking, keep walking’ I could hear him. And while I could hear his footsteps I thought ‘that’s all right, he’s behind me,’ then I couldn’t hear him any more.”
Evans was jailed in 1979 for 52 years and an ITV News documentary can reveal he has been released from prison.
The story of the covert operation is now being told for the first time in ITV News’ film ‘Decoy’.
At the time, Evans’ attacks were overshadowed by the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ murders, but they struck fear in Bristol, of a man preying on women as they walked alone in the Clifton, Redland and Westbury Park areas and sexually assaulting them.
The first attack happened in the early hours of July 16, 1977, when a woman in her 20s was assaulted as she walked home from a nightclub.
Over the next 18 months, six more women were assaulted and each victim gave detectives a description of the attacker, their photofit images bore haunting similarities.
Police tried in vain to capture the attacker and in January 1979, they launched ‘Operation Angus’.
The force asked young women police constables to volunteer to take part in a decoy operation and 12 women – some just 18-year-old probationary officers – were sent out on the streets under the eyes of observation officers to lure Evans into a trap.
They wore no stab vests, were unarmed and only given basic self-defence training. The women police officers were sent to walk along Bristol’s Whiteladies Road – a main thoroughfare in the city’s Clifton district.
But after weeks of the operation, the ‘Clifton Rapist’ had still not struck, so in a further desperate, senior officers deployed male police constables in drag.
Wearing make-up, wigs and heels, PCs Christopher Gould and Robbie Jones were sent out to walk the darker side streets in the hope the ‘Clifton Rapist’ would attack them.
“It would take me at least two hours to get dressed,” said Mr Gould. “It was a big thing to do. It was an extraordinary insight into being a female in society. The constant fear of being on the street on your own.”
Chris Gould made 36 arrests dressed in drag – but the ‘Clifton Rapist’ was not one of them.
The cost of the operation was exorbitant, with a team of 10 observation officers, backup in vans and further support in inquiry rooms every night, so police bosses gave it one more night.
Michelle Leonard was dropped off near Whiteladies Road on March 22, 1979, and soon enough a man matching the attacker’s profile was spotted driving a yellow Ford Capri.
Minutes later, Michelle heard in her earpiece: “There’s a killer on your track.”
She faced an agonising choice. Michelle knew all the attacks had happened on the darkened side streets, and so had to decide whether to put her own safety first and stay on Whiteladies Road, or head onto a side road where the attacker was more likely to pounce.
She turned off Whiteladies Road.
“I was frightened,” she told ITV News. “I thought ‘keep walking, keep walking’. I could hear him. And while I could hear his footsteps I thought ‘that’s all right, he’s behind me,” then I couldn’t hear him any more.
“All I had in my mind is I have to get under a street lamp, so I can be seen. I stopped under the street lamp and turned around and there he was behind me. I thought ‘that’s him, that’s the photofit.”
The man grabbed Michelle and said "don’t scream or I’ll kill you" and started to drag her into a garden.
Michelle pushed him away and the man was caught by Andy Kerslake, an observation officer.
The offender was identified as Ronald Evans, a 38-year-old married father. After a police interview, he admitted five of the assaults but denied two of the attacks.
It emerged Evans had been convicted in 1964 for the murder of a 21-year-old shop worker, Kathleen Heathcote, the previous year. He had been released from prison in 1975 on life licence and had got a job as an electrician in Bristol and had married for a second time after his release.
“It was a shock how he could have moved without us knowing about him. That was the biggest let-down. It was a failure for all those women who got attacked. It could have been avoided,” Michelle said.
“Life should mean life. If he hadn’t had been caught, I think he would have murdered again. Somebody would have resisted."
Evans was sent back to prison. In 2004, a cold case team linked him forensically with the two assaults he had denied in 1979. He was sentenced to another 10 years in prison.
But after a total of 52 years in prison, Evans was released from jail in January 2019.
“I suppose I’m horrified,” said Gary Mason, who headed Avon and Somerset Police’s Major Crime Review (Cold Case) Team. “The last time I knew him in 2004, he was still a danger to the public as far as I was concerned.”
The Ministry of Justice told ITV News it does not comment on individual cases of prisoner release and that it is reforming the parole system.
It said: “Parole Panels hear from professionals such as probation officers, prison psychologists and victims about the impact the crime has had on prisoner’s lives. In order to direct a release, the panel must be satisfied it is no longer necessary for an offender to be in prison in the interests of public protection.”