Man who raped 11-year-old girl in Cardiff in 1970s is finally caught - but won't be jailed

For the first time ever, Michelle, who was the victim of a rape in the 1970s, has spoken about her horrifying experience. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

WARNING: The ITVX exclusive report by ITV Cymru Wales journalist Hamish Auskerry contains very distressing themes. Additional reporting by Helen Llewelyn.

A man who raped an 11-year-old girl in Cardiff in the 1970s has finally been caught - but won't be going to jail.

The victim, who we are referring to as Michelle, has made the brave decision to speak publicly about her horrifying experience for the first time.

It's just after 8pm on a cold Monday night in the autumn of 1977. An 11-year-old girl called Michelle is walking home from Guides in Cardiff, walking the final five minutes of the journey by herself.

Her mum usually met her for this part of the route, but her younger brother was unwell, so she proceeded alone on her way home.

“There was a guy on the pavement and as I was walking towards him, I realised he wasn’t moving out of my way," she tells ITV Cymru Wales.

“From there, it escalated and then my life changed drastically."

Michelle is not her real name. She has a legal right to lifelong anonymity due to the horrific nature of what happened to her.

As she walked up a lane close to the end of her route, a man stopped her, grabbed her by her shoulder and told her "right, you're coming with me".

She was taken to the back of a set of garages. There, in the pitch black, she was raped.

Her attacker told Michelle to stay there and count to 50 before she moved. After he left, she did as she was told, counted to 50, and then ran home.

When Michelle's mum asked her "where have you been?" she told her what had happened. Her mum phoned the police and Michelle was taken to a station where she was questioned and examined by a doctor.

It sparked a huge police operation. They took swabs and kept Michelle's clothes as evidence. The local press reported that 80 detectives spent the first few days after the attack speaking to more than 1,000 people in the area, including the pupils from 10 of the local schools.

“Absolutely terrified", she says of how she felt. "A lot of it I have pushed to the back of my mind and it’s a blank only because I was so young and I was just trying to cope with life at that time.

“I was just thinking 'am I going to be able to make it home?' That was the most traumatic thing for me."

Newspaper coverage of the attack from 1977. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Michelle said the trauma of the attack, as well as her family’s well-intentioned efforts to shield her from the worst of its effects, removed a lot of her joy when she was growing up.

“I was just wrapped up in cotton wool," she remembers. "I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything, and all because of one person.

“I didn’t have a childhood and I think that was the worst part of it. When I should have had fun, laughing and being happy with my friends, I just had this in the back of my mind the whole time."

A man was tried for the crime the following year, but was found not guilty.

The case would remain unsolved for a total of 46 years.

Michelle's clothes, complete with the DNA sample her male attacker had left, had been kept in a police evidence room for decades before South Wales Police reopened the case in February 2021.

The DNA sample was sent away for testing using technology that police in 1977 could only have dreamt of. Incredibly, the sample came back with a match.

  • Rapist finally caught thanks to DNA technology advances

The man who attacked Michelle that night was Denis Coles, from Cardiff. He was in his 20s at the time, and has lived his life as a free man.

Now in his 70s, his crime has finally caught up with him.

Semen found on a number of items of clothing belonging to the victim matched his DNA.

In July 2021, Coles was arrested at his care home. He told officers: "I haven't raped no one."

He could not provide any explanation as to why his DNA was found on the victim's clothing.

At one point he told officers: "I might have been drunk". On other occasions he said: "I don't know what happened... it might have been. I don't know. I can't remember. I was always drunk."

In 2023, a court trial took place at Cardiff Crown Court. Various professionals were asked to assess whether Coles was fit to stand trial for the rape of a child, and eventually it was decided that his health meant he was not.

That led to what is called "a trial of the facts" which happens if the accused is found unfit to stand trial. This allows for the evidence against the defendant to be tested to some degree.

Under the Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act 1964, an unfit defendant may be fully acquitted of a crime, but they cannot be found guilty. That's because the jury cannot assess the mental state of a defendant who is accused of committing a crime if they cannot themselves give evidence.

That meant that a jury was only able to find Coles "guilty of the act", rather than guilty of the criminal offence.

This means that whatever sentence a judge passes down to Coles later this year, it will fall short of jail time.

ITV Cymru Wales reporter Hamish Auskerry speaks with the victim. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

"It’s not the justice I wanted," Michelle tells us. "In different circumstances I think he should have gone to prison.

"But I’ve accepted what’s happened and I just want to get on with my life. I’m so grateful to all the people in the police who worked to get it this far.

“To think someone could have got away with this after all these years, I think it’s amazing what DNA was able to do."

Does Michelle have a message for the man who subjected her to such a horrific, life-changing attack?

"No, because it’s not worth thinking about. I’m a better person than he’ll ever be. And I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Coles is due to be sentenced at Cardiff Crown Court in July.