‘He was the guy all guys wanted to be, and the guy all the girls wanted to be with. I just wanted to be around him all the time’, Jo Bakare remembers.
When she was 14, Jo fell head over heels in love with Jay, in his mid-twenties, who made her feel safe and adored. He drove her around London and lavished her with expensive bags, clothes and jewellery.
The teenager had no clue what his real motive was, and that Jay would soon coerce her into selling drugs and place her in life-threatening situations.
Jo had grown up in foster care, leaving her a target for criminal exploitation. ‘I wanted to belong and predators can sense that vulnerability in you,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘So when Jay started paying attention, I was drawn in. In hindsight, I can see how inappropriate it was. But at the time, he made me feel good. He made me feel beautiful and told me all the right things.
‘I thought I was in a relationship with him. But it was all part of the process. People thought that I was promiscuous. But I was being groomed.’
Jay would disappear for days at a time, leaving Jo wondering where he was. Desperate to know, she’d ask to go with him on his trips – but at first he refused.
When he eventually acquiesced, Jo was overjoyed and unwittingly fell into working for his county line gang.
While Jo’s experience may have been over 20 years ago, the shocking world of drug trafficking via innocent children – known as county lines – is more prevalant than ever.
Just last month, an inquest found that 16-year-old Ben Nelson-Roux died in a hostel in 2020 – probably of multiple drug use – after being groomed by a county lines gang.
Ben had ADHD and started using cannabis at the age of 12. By the time he was 15, he was selling on behalf of dealers who kept him close by getting him hooked. While Jo was vulnerable because she was in care, Ben had a good education and was loved by his family, who were unable to stop him from being exploited.
There are more than 2,000 county line networks across the UK, with around 27,000 young people involved in dealing and transportation, research shows. Young people are either drawn in through cash, drugs or other gifts, or coerced through violence. More recently, teens as young as 13 have been lured in by being offered phones, vapes and clothes, or invited to take up ‘business opportunities’ promoted on social media.
‘There is a very thin line between victim and perpetrator and many perpetrators start off as victim’, Jo says, explaining that her nightmare began when Jay agreed to take her away on one of his ‘business’ trips.
How are children being targeted by county line gangs?
County lines sees drugs being transported from a city into outlying areas, usually by children or vulnerable people who have been coerced into it by gangs. It’s a pattern duplicated across the UK and can have devastating effects.
Recent improvements in tech mean grooming has moved online, enabling perpetrators to attract more kids than ever before.
The pandemic exacerbated the problem as children spent more time online, and county lines are springing up more frequently in rural areas where reductions in youth services and support have left young people without protection.
County lines plots have appeared in Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Eastenders.
She remembers: ‘Jay pulled up in a car with two guys. I thought it was just going to be the two of us. I didn’t know where I was going and we drove in silence. Once we had driven so far out of London that we were seeing countryside I realised something wasn’t right. I started to get a bit panicky. I got the courage up to ask him and that was the first time that I saw his persona change. That sweet, nice, loving guy wasn’t there. His response was so abrupt and aggressive. He dismissed me, told me to shut up and stop asking questions.’
They ended up in one of the home counties – Jo still doesn’t know which one – at an estate of flats. She was taken up to a ‘bando’ – an abandoned flat that was used as a crackhouse, where the gang would shift ‘food’ – drugs.
‘I’ll never forget the stink of sweat, dirt and crack – like melted plastic; acrid and overwhelming,’ she remembers. ‘I didn’t know what was happening or what I was doing there. There were a couple of older men there – drug users. And young girls. One of them was performing a sexual act on the man. I was shocked. I wasn’t naïve but I had never seen this kind of thing before.’
Jo was given two parcels of heroin and a burner phone, shut in a room and instructed to pass on the deals and collect the cash. She was terrified. She’d never seen hard drugs before. But she wanted to please Jay so she did as she was told.
After a number of sales and a few hours had passed, Jo needed the toilet and crept out. ‘That was when it dawned on me how bad it was,’ she says. ‘The house was derelict. The carpets were sticky. Cigarette butts all over the floor. The bathroom was disgusting; the bath was riddled with limescale and rot and the toilet didn’t flush.’ Back in the bedroom, desperately frightened but pretending not to be, Jo carried on with her task.
It was two days before she heard from Jay. Hungry and thirsty, but too terrified to leave, Jo was overjoyed when he returned with a bag of chicken and chips. She expected him to apologise, thank her and take her home. But, she remembers: ‘I didn’t recognise the person that came through that door. There was no emotion. And that’s when it hit me; I saw the situation for what it was: I was being used. I was scared. I realised I could be in danger. So now I was trying to please him because I was frightened.’
Jo slept on a dirty mattress on the floor of that room for days. Then one day, she heard the front door being kicked in. There was a commotion and she could hear people getting hurt. Knowing it could be a raid from a rival gang, Jo hid the drugs as three men with guns burst in and pointed their weapons at her. Fortunately, they found nothing and left.
At this point, Jo knew she’d be safer on the streets. Before leaving the house for the first time in two weeks, she went into the filthy bathroom to splash some water on her face. Barefoot, she stepped on a needle.
’It was one of the scariest moments in my life,’ she recalls. ‘I just ran and didn’t look back. It was dark and I didn’t know where I was. I ran from a dangerous situation into what could have been even worse. I flagged down a car and thank god the person that stopped was a good citizen and not someone who wanted to take advantage of me. He dropped me at the nearest police station. I had been reported as a missing child and was taken back to the home.’
Jo never saw Jay again, and was much more careful about who she could trust. She realised she had had a lucky escape, and never looked back.
‘They would bribe me with gifts, clothes, trainers’
17-year-old Emma*, from Coventry, managed to steer clear of county lines after criminals tried to groom her. However, she says that her peers – who took a different path – have now fallen into crime.
‘It started when I began mixing with the wrong people. In school I was getting in trouble and I started to make some bad decisions. I was drinking a lot, smoking weed and hanging around town with people who were friends with drug dealers. These older people, big personalities with a lot of money, would give me free weed and try and try to get me involved. It was clever, they way they did it. They would draw you in – they would give you some weed and say – just take this round the corner really quickly, before you even have a chance to think about it. It was only afterwards I would realise – I shouldn’t have done that.
‘After these little jobs, they would offer me more. They were selling cocaine, ket, MDMA and they told me I was perfect for the job, that I could make loads of cash. They offered to buy me my first car, pay for my driving license. They would bribe me with gifts, clothes, trainers. I was offered loads of money. I was asked to take drugs to different places – both locally and long distance – another guy asked me to answer phone calls for him. They were friendly, and persistent. They would make you feel good about yourself too, bigging you up and making you feel like you’re friends. I was very tempted. Everything they offered was exactly what a teenager wants; a car, money! But I knew it couldn’t be as good as they made out.
‘I knew they would want something in return. But they made it hard to say no. I would tell them that I wouldn’t be very good at it. That I wouldn’t know what to do. That I wasn’t the person they wanted for the job. But they were pushy. It was scary. I knew they weren’t nice people. They had convictions for violent crimes and it was intimidating. So I just started avoiding them. I stopped going into the town centre, stayed off social media.
‘I don’t see them anymore, but I feel like if I did, there would be a problem. Once you’re involved, it can be very difficult to get out of it. I’m always worried that I will bump into them now. It’s only now that I look back on it that I realise I was being groomed. I would say to others – if you’re around a lot of older people, and they are giving you lots of stuff, that’s a red flag. If they’re being nice to you, remember, it might not be as good as it sounds. They could be taking advantage of the fact that you’re young and you don’t know you’re being exploited.
‘A lot of my friends got involved; doing drugs, buying drugs, dealing drugs. A lot of them are in trouble with the police now. I didn’t want that. That would have ruined my plans for my future. I’m glad I stayed out of it. I know I made the right decision.’
*Name has been changed
Dr Tirion Havard, associate professor at London South Bank University, has carried out extensive research into drugs gangs and says that girls and young women from all demographics are targeted because they want ‘clean skins’ – people who aren’t known to the police. They are often manipulated through coercive control.
Dr Havard explains: ‘Gang members regularly use social media to recruit young women and girls from all backgrounds to parties. Here, they are plied with drink and drugs and sexually exploited, often by several gang members at a time.
‘They are often too drunk to give consent or too frightened to say no, and the rape is filmed. Armed with evidence of her alleged promiscuity, gang members then threaten to expose her by posting the footage and their personal information on social media.’
Once they have their phone numbers, older gang members can track young women through GPS apps on their phones. Dr Havard adds: ‘Fear traps the girls in gang life and forces them to comply with the demands of gang members. We need to recognise that all children are vulnerable to recruitment and that their decisions, however unwise, may be a consequence of fear and control.’
Evan Jones, Director of Child Exploitation Development at St Giles Trust, which delivers specialist services to support children who experience criminal exploitation, says seven in ten youngsters that work with his organisation manage to escape the abusive relationships that keep them in criminality.
‘Why we need a national network approach to provide flexibility, consistency and a truly joined up approach to ensure no one falls through the net,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Our rescue workers with relevant lived experience as well as dedication, ability to work with the police and other services are best placed to meet this need.’
As for Jo, an HIV test revealed that the dirty needle had not infected her. But the traumatic experience remained, and with hindsight, she believes Jay was exploiting other girls in the same way.
She now works for St Giles as a team leader with the SOS+ Project (prevention), working with young people to protect them from the same exploitation.
‘Looking back now, at the time I was desentisitised to it,’ she admits.
‘When you go through experiences like that, you lock them up in a little box, and you don’t address them until later. I have since been through a healing process. Now, working young people, and because I have two children, I’m so aware of how easy it is for children to get drawn in.
County lines are much more prevalent these days. It’s so important that parents realise the risks and that we provide kids with the tools and knowledge they need to protect themselves. Parents need to know how real this is.’
Jo issues a warning for others falling into a bad crowd: ‘People think it’s a glamorous lifestyle. But the reality and consequences can be dire.
‘A lot don’t realise they are being exploited until it’s too late. Social media and music glamorises this lifestyle. But people need to realise how dangerous it can be.’