Dawn Watson dna rape
© Acquire Images
Justice: Dawn Watson has been able to rebuild her confidence after her rapist was finally caught - some 30 years after the attack
Dawn Watson was a promising teenage drama student when she was dragged from the street and raped by a stranger on wasteland in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

The unimaginable terror of the assault was to mark the start of an escalating nightmare.

For almost 30 years, Dawn was forced to live with the knowledge that her attacker had not been caught. She also had to endure the scepticism of police, who were not convinced her story was true.

So, when two officers arrived out of the blue at her door almost three decades later to tell her they knew the identity of her rapist, her surprise and relief very nearly overwhelmed her.

Dawn, who was by then a happily married middle-aged woman, recalls: 'The police said they wanted to talk to me about something that had happened when I was 16. I knew immediately what it was. I said: "Have you got him?"

'They replied: "Not yet. But we know who he is, and with your help we will." I felt as if I had won £10 million on the lottery. Better.

'I burst into tears. For nearly 30 years I'd buried this deep, excruciating pain, and letting out all the grief, the anger and the fear was like an exorcism. The police believed me at last. They had identified the rapist.

'They wanted me to remember every detail, and they came back in snapshots: footsteps behind me, the stranger's arms clamped round me; my screams and pleading; the pure, utter terror I felt, and then the primeval instinct for survival that kicked in. I lay there, limp and motionless, like a bird trapped by a cat, as he raped me. I thought if I didn't fight he wouldn't kill me.

'All these pent-up memories erupted, and I felt them like a physical pain. But the fact that the man who raped me is now locked up has allowed me to rebuild my confidence. Slowly I am moving on.'

Last October, former steelworker , 47, was jailed for eight-and-a-half years for the rape. The route that brought him to justice is an astonishing one.

Christopher Sykes dna rape
© South Yorkshire Police
Past caught up: Sykes may have thought he had beaten the system - but crucial DNA evidence saw him jailed for eight-and-a-half years
Dawn's case was re-opened in 2009 during a periodic reassessment of cold cases by South Yorkshire Police's specialist crime review team. They found an exact DNA match between samples taken after Dawn's rape and forensic evidence gathered in 1987, six years after she was attacked, when Sykes had been convicted of attempting to rape another woman.

The case echoes another that made headlines last week. Rapist Valentine Barnett was also trapped by his DNA for an attack on a woman 25 years earlier. He was caught after he called police to report a burglary at his home in Bristol.

Police took forensic samples and - as with Sykes - linked them to the rape that had happened many years earlier. Barnett, 60, who was also brought to justice thanks to a cold case review, was jailed last week for seven-and-a-half years.

Sykes initially denied raping Dawn, but the DNA evidence was so compelling he changed his plea to guilty at the eleventh hour.

'When I saw him again in court, even though so many years had passed, I recognised him,' she recalls.

'He didn't meet my gaze, but my eyes were burning into him. I was shaking and crying. The sentence was a just one, and I felt huge relief.'
dna police work
© Unknown
Breakthrough: DNA evidence finally trapped rapist Christopher Sykes for his attack on Dawn Watson (Picture posed by model)
Today, 46-year-old Dawn - who is warm, chatty and smartly dressed - talks animatedly about her job as an optical technician, which takes her to the homes of the elderly and housebound, to assess their sight.

She lives with her husband Tony, 58, an area sales manager for a commercial vehicle company, in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Although they chose not to have children of their own, Dawn is a devoted step-grandmother to Gracie, Tony's granddaughter from a former marriage.

It is hard to underestimate how changed Dawn is since Sykes was jailed. In the traumatic aftermath of the attack, she was dogged by depression. Once she took an overdose. Several times, she contemplated ending her life.

'In my blackest moments I felt worthless; a useless member of the human race,' she says. 'My confidence ebbed away after the rape. I often thought, "I want to go to sleep and never wake up".'

He was holding my arms, pinning me down, and I remember fighting and screaming

It was a night in October 1981 when Sykes pounced. At the time, Dawn attended a drama college in Rotherham, where a fellow pupil was actor Sean Bean. 'We'd just performed in a production of Cabaret together,' she recalls.

'It was a competitive course and I'd done well to win a place on it. I was outgoing, confident and so excited about everything going on in my life. I planned a career in acting, and in my spare time I was a musician. Since the age of 12, I'd played the organ in cabaret clubs.'

Dawn was also getting engaged to her boyfriend Craig: she was about to turn 17, and they planned a party.

On the night her life changed irrevocably, she had enjoyed a drink with Craig and his family, then taken one of the two bus rides back to her home, where she lived with her parents and younger brother.

'I decided I'd walk the rest of the way home. I was just approaching a patch of wasteland when a man passed walking in the opposite direction. I didn't make eye contact: I just walked confidently.

'Then I realised the man had changed direction and was following me. I quickened my pace. The next thing I knew, he had grabbed me with both arms.

'I dropped my handbag and umbrella. I screamed. I felt consuming fear; utter blind terror.

'I thought: "This is it - he's going to kill me." He was holding my arms, pinning me down, and I remember fighting and screaming, but I've no sense of how long it lasted.

'Then all my strength went. He dragged me onto a patch of grass behind some bushes. It was pitch black. I pleaded: "Please don't do this. Please let me go. I'm getting engaged. I'm having a birthday party next week." All daft things, really.

'He was silent. He pulled off my tights and pants. I thought: "If I don't put up a fight I might survive this."

'I know I've blanked out a lot, but after the rape I remember he said, "Don't tell anyone a thing about this, will you?" and I said I wouldn't.

'I can see his face now: white, with the dark hair plastered round it, wet with rain. I remember thinking, "He's not much older than me" - and he wasn't. He was 17.
Dawn Watson dna rape2
© Press Gang News
Proved at last: Dawn Watson was raped in 1981 - the case was re-opened in 2009 and last month justice was finally done
Afterwards, I dragged my clothes on. I ran to the road and flagged down the first car that passed. I shouted at the men inside, "I've been raped!" and they drove me home.

'I thought I'd walked into the house, but my dad told me I crawled in on all fours. There was blood all over my face, my lip was split; I was plastered with mud and dripping wet. I must have struggled so hard.

'My dad was too stunned by the shock to do anything. It was me who dialled 999. It was about midnight when the police turned up. My mum was just coming in from work. I can still see her stricken face.

'The intrusiveness of the doctor's examination was almost like being raped again. The elderly doctor said: "This is important - it is vital forensic evidence" and I thank God now that the evidence was kept for so long. My clothes were taken, too, and put in a paper bag.'

But there was no comfort or counselling for Dawn. In fact, she was treated with contempt. Even 30 years ago, the police's attitude to rape was unenlightened.

Many rape cases were written off early in investigations because women's testimony was doubted. If they wore revealing clothing they were often judged, in court, to have provoked the attack.

Dawn was also made to feel culpable because she was not a virgin. 'After the examination, the doctor told police: "She's no stranger to sex" - and it's true that Craig and I were having a sexual relationship.' This, she felt, counted against her.

They told me: "We've been to the place where you claim you were raped. There's a little hut next to it, and we found matches and cigarettes there. You had sex there with your boyfriend, didn't you? You made up the story about being raped."

'I was so frustrated I wanted to scream, "Please believe me!".'

Instead, Dawn retreated into herself. The confidence, sense of fun and self-worth that had earned her a place to study drama deserted her. She left college without a word of explanation; neither did anyone seek to help her.

Her relationship with Craig broke up, her relationship with her mother deteriorated, and her depression over the rape and her treatment at the hands of the police overwhelmed her, and she attempted suicide.

'I swallowed a bottle of pills,' she says. 'My mum called an ambulance, I had my stomach pumped, and I plodded on. I was anxious, depressed and totally lacking in confidence.'

The police also apologised. They said: "We're so sorry about the way you were treated you all those years ago"

The police, meanwhile, made only perfunctory attempts to track down her attacker:

'They took me to a factory and asked me if I could see the rapist as the men streamed out after work. It was fruitless of course.'

Her life changed dramatically when she met and married Tony in 1992. Tony, divorced and the father of a little girl, was approachable and kind. Dawn, who had spoken to nobody about her rape, felt able to confide in him. 'He was the first person I told, and it was such a comfort that he not only believed me, but also consoled me,' she says.

Tony sits close by now, in the pleasant sitting room of their neat home, listening as Dawn tells her story. There are times when she is overwhelmed by tears, and he steps in to continue the narrative. She recalls the day in 2009 when the police arrived, unannounced, with news of Sykes.

'I'd come home from work and was cooking dinner. The doorbell went: it was two plain-clothed policewomen. When they told me they'd found Sykes, I was sobbing with relief.

'They said they'd kept all the forensic evidence from 1981, and I felt huge gratitude to them and to all the cold case team. They're superheroes.'

The news lifted a shroud of fear that had enveloped Dawn since the rape. 'For 30 years I have scanned crowds for his face, and have lived my life always terrified by the sound of footsteps behind me.

'I felt bitter, too, that the man who had turned me from a confident, outgoing person into an anxious and withdrawn one, was walking free while I struggled with everyday life.'

The police also apologised. 'They said: "We're so sorry about the way you were treated you all those years ago" - and that felt good, too.'

At the request of the police, Dawn exhumed long locked-away memories and pieced together a witness testimony. In the event, it was not needed because Sykes pleaded guilty to raping her.

Dawn says that she is 'relieved and satisfied' by the sentence imposed on him. For the first time, too, she is also talking about the rape - 'It's a form of therapy' - and slowly her old zest for life is returning.

'I'm building up my confidence again. I'm moving on. I enjoy my work and being with my husband. Tony has been by my side through all the ups and downs.'

She looks fondly across at him and smiles. 'If I'm honest, he saved my life'.