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Detective's Casebook: John Rodney

How a Swindon detective inspector led the first investigation of its kind to bring justice for a group of women deliberately infected with HIV.

John Rodney was jailed for eight years for infecting at least three women with HIV. He was diagnosed in 2013 yet continued to have unprotected sex for years, lying to his victims about his health.

Wiltshire Police and its team of detectives, scientists and health professionals undertook the incredibly complex and sensitive investigation over two years that brought together different strands of policing to bring the perpetrator to justice.

The first woman came forward in June 2017 to tell the police she had tested positive for HIV after having sex with Rodney. Combined with her account and their own local intelligence, the force were aware of more women likely to be in the same danger of infection from Rodney.

Leading the case was Detective Inspector Helen Jacobs, of Swindon CID.

She said the main challenge and focus was trying to manage the risk posed to other potential victims faster than the criminal justice system would allow them to remand Rodney in custody.

On his first arrest in early July 2017 for Grievous Bodily Harm by transmitting the disease Rodney was issued with a disruption notice.

However Det Insp Jacobs said: “We knew full well that wasn't really going be worth the paper it was written on.”

The second step was issuing him with a Sexual Risk Order (SRO) with some “very draconian prohibitions”.  The team were aware of the human rights implications of these restrictions, but were able to secure all of them at Swansea Magistrates Court.

While officers were in the process of applying for the SRO, Det Insp Jacobs went to the then Chief Constable Mike Veale to get his permission for an exercise of disclosure to anyone they identified as being at risk from him. CC Veale granted this sanction, which Det Insp Jacobs described as the most innovative aspect of the investigation.

This was a breach of his right to privacy by disclosing confidential medical information and was met with some concern from Sexual Health Swindon.

But CC Veale made the call “decisively” according to the investigation team. Det Insp Jacobs said: “it was pretty obvious that there was no other way that we were going to be able to quickly safeguard a very vulnerable group of women in Swindon”.

A team of officers then went out with a detailed contact strategy to reach more than 50 women, a lot of whom were sex workers.

If they confirmed they’d had sex with Rodney they went into the channel of victims focus. If not, they were informed that he was HIV positive.

The next step was to take blood samples from him and the victims and present them for analysis. This analysis was done by a team of experts at the University of Oxford led by Professor Peter Simmonds and had to be done within 24 hours of obtaining them.

It showed all the women and Rodney shared the same strain of the virus, which can be specific enough to show they must have got it from the same source.

It was then necessary to rule out other sources of infection over a set time period, such as tattoos, blood transfusions, intravenous drug use or any other sexual partners by conducting “very intrusive” interviews.

The shortest period was three months and the longest three years. This charting took a lot of time, patience and cooperation from the women and was, as Det Insp Jacobs said, the “main evidential challenge”.

The combination of this mapping and the analysis of the DNA of HIV  was critical.

Experts from Oxford University advised it was implausible that the women were infected from a source other than sexual intercourse with Rodney.

Det Insp Jacobs says that without that conclusion there would have been too many holes in the case for the CPS to pursue a prosecution.

One requirement of Rodney’s SRO was to inform the police if he had sex with anyone. The force were made aware that he had breached it through their network of local intelligence.

Another condition was having monitoring software on his computer. Rodney refused the police access to install the software which meant they were able to arrest him and subsequently found digital evidence of him having sex with women.

He was jailed for these breaches for two and a half years in October 2018.

60-year-old John Rodney

“So it was a mixture of channels but again, all sorts of part and parcel of the legwork of going out and speaking to the sex working community and following up the SRO,” Det Insp Jacobs said.

She said people are more likely to speak to their GP about sexual health and encounters before they would go to the police, and may not even know what constitutes an offence.

“So we knew that sexual health and medical records would hold an awful lot of information and an awful lot of potential for risk management as well. So we had to work very closely with Public Health and Sexual Health to not only identify those that had been put at risk, but to make sure that sexual health were acting with us effectively as risk managers".

Wiltshire Police provided details of the case and contacts to Sexual Health and then they reached out to anybody that they had on their systems who they believe had been put at risk.

“Sexual Health Swindon were absolutely key to this, we couldn’t have put the evidential case together without their cooperation and we couldn't have done most - if not all - of the risk management without them,” Det Insp Jacobs said.

When the case came to court in, Mr Rodney admitted three charges of inflicting grievous bodily harm by recklessly infecting three women.

He was given a 12-and-a-half-year sentence, eight of which he would serve in prison.

Judge William Hart commended police and prosecutors for their work at Bristol Crown Court.

One victim who had attended the court, along with other witnesses in the public gallery, clapped and told the judge she agreed with his praise of the work of law enforcement.

Speaking after the case, Ian Harris, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "This was an exceptionally complex case to prosecute.

"The use of GBH charges relating to the transmission of a virus are highly unusual and rare.

"As the GBH cannot be seen in the same way as, for example, a stab wound, it is inevitable that detailed scientific and medical evidence will need to be used at any trial.

Mr Harris also thanked the bravery and courage of those who had come forward and helped to secure the conviction.

Despite being pleased with the result, Det Insp Jacobs said one frustration was how “actually the law doesn't really fit a crime like this”.

“One of the issues we had, and it was very hard to explain to the women involved, was that it didn't meet the criteria for Section 18 GBH with intent. We could only ever consider a reckless because whilst we were in layman's terms, what he was doing was intentional,” she said.

“Unfortunately, as the legislation stands that only fits a reckless because, as the lawyer put it to me at one point, we've got more than enough evidence to prove his intent to have sex.

“What we haven't got is that his motivation or his intent was to actually infect those people.”

Det Insp Jacobs said the only similar case similar where a Section 18 GBH conviction was successful was the Daryll Rowe case.

Rowe infected 10 men in total - five men he had unprotected sex with and tampered with the condoms from another five encounters. After he sent texts to his victims, taunting them with the fact he had HIV and had not used protection.

He was convicted of five counts of causing GBH with intent and another five of attempted GBH with intent at Brighton Crown Court in 2018. He was jailed for life with a minimum of 12 years.

Even though one of the women in Rodney’s case asked him outright if he had HIV and he lied and said no, that didn't constitute enough to get intent.

“So that always meant we were going to be facing a lower sentence than the women involved felt would be appropriate,”Det Insp Jacobs said.

“As things turned out I’m very, very happy with the judge's decision and sentencing because he's clearly seen that gap and gone with the higher end of Section 20.

“But it felt like it was downplaying the severity of the offence, certainly, as the women saw it.”

In Scotland, a person can be prosecuted for putting someone at risk of infection even if there is no transmission.

Wiltshire Police had cases where they knew Rodney had unprotected sex with women but they tested negative. This did not constitute an offence, but if it was under the Scottish law, he would have been guilty of recklessly putting someone at risk of infection.

Det Insp Jacobs said: “I certainly think it's something that needs to be looked at because it is a bit of a gap.

“I think there is scope for a change in the law or something that says people should be reasonable and responsible. And if they're not, there needs to be a more proportionate response in the law,” she said.

“We had to throw so much at this, so much money, time and resources to get this result. It should actually be a simpler offence almost because it's so blatantly reckless and harm causing.

“Where's that line between reckless and intentional?”

If you have been a part of an innovative investigation which our readers could learn more about in our next Detective's Casebook, please get in touch by emailing editorial@policeoracle.com.

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