TASNIM Lowe was just an innocent 16-month-old baby when, on a crisp, star-studded late-summer night in 2000, her father, Azhar Ali Mehmood, entered her home in Telford, Shropshire, wrapped her in a blanket, and carried her out into the back garden, laying her delicately beneath an apple tree.
Now, 19 – She is, of course, unable to recall what happened next – a horror story handed down to her throughout the years in murky dribs and drabs from news articles and the solemn sensitively-delivered accounts from still grieving relatives. And yet, in essence, it is a story – despite her naturally feeling disconnected from it – that she herself has perhaps been most affected by; the night that any priceless bond with ones parents – a special connection commonly taken for granted – was stolen from her.
No-one will ever know what final words Azhar spoke to his infant daughter that night – just before he left her nestled in the tree’s protruding roots, walking back into the house where Lucy, her 48-year-old mother Eileen, her father, and 17-Year-old sister Sarah were fast asleep, doused the place in petrol, and burned little Tasnim’s family alive.
Over the following years – with the case recently receiving more vital attention following the exposure of the mass scandal of Muslim grooming gangs operating in the Lowe family’s home city of Telford– pieces of the jigsaw have been pulled from the ashes, further unravelling the tragic mystery surrounding Tasnim’s mother, 16-year-old Lucy Lowe’s brutal murder.
“I’ve been told that she was just like any other teenager” Tasnim Lowe tells me during our thought-provoking interview that drifted well into the night. “She was quite rebellious, would sneak out late at night and meet friends. My Nan ended up taking most of the responsibility for me. I mean, Lucy was only 16 at the time”.
“She was also interested in art, and some of our family would teach her how to paint”.
“After a while of Lucy sneaking out every night, her parents, my Nan and Granddad, whose house we lived in at the time, ended up having to just start leaving the back door unlocked to make sure she could at least get back in. But of course he [Ali] knew about that”.
Tasnim’s grandfather, George Lowe, 73, was the only person inside the family home at the time to have survived the fire.
“Sarah, my aunty, always slept with my Nan because she was afraid of the dark. Late that night, Granddad heard a car door slam hard, but thought nothing of it and went back to bed. A little while later though, he heard it again, and then he smelt smoke, panicked, and started seeing flames everywhere”.
“He tried to open the door but couldn’t, so decided to jump out the bedroom window and find another way back into the house to help get everyone out. But by the time he managed to get outside there was nothing anyone could do. People had to hold him back to stop him from going back in. The fire was just too far gone. I can only imagine what he was going through. After they found me under the tree, we were sent to sit down at a neighbour’s house and an ambulance was called”.
Azhar Ali Mehmood was arrested shortly after.
Now revealed to have been linked to a child grooming gang that has been estimated to have produced over 1,000 victims in the Shropshire town alone, taxi driver Azhar had been 24 when Lucy, at just 14-years-old, gave birth to his daughter, Tasnim. He’d groomed her beforehand, raping her multiple times, forcing her to take the morning after pill, and even being brazen enough to – as her ‘official’ boyfriend – regularly pick her up from school when she was just 12-years-old; right under the noses of school officials who (later joined by the Police Force) negligently failed to act.
“I think that back then there wasn’t much known about mental health” Tasnim tells me. “And yet the psychological and physical grooming that took place would’ve taken a serious toll on Lucy’s mental health, which might explain her behaviour as a teenager”.
“From what my Granddad and others have said, I know that he [Azhar] was a jealous boyfriend. But even long after the fire I didn’t know the full truth about what happened”.
“I guess I never really connected it with any other crime because I just knew that he was in prison for murder. I never made the connection until I was in foster care and I was at the age where I started asking questions like ‘why didn’t I know much about it?’, ‘why hadn’t I been told the full story?’ Then I suddenly realised; It’s obvious – just look at the age gap! But at the time it all happened, none of my family made that connection ether; my sister, my Granddad, my Nan. Granddad didn’t even understand the concept of grooming. It was just all alien to everyone and completely under the radar. But my Dad also lied about his age and said he was a bit younger than he actually was.”
Remarkably, Mehmood – who had allegedly groomed, drugged, and repeatedly sexually abused a string of girls around the time that he targeting Lucy in 1997 – was never arrested nor ever charged in connection with any child sex crimes. Nor has he ever been charged over the illegal relationship with a schoolgirl that resulted in the birth of his daughter.
“I think that the U.K has many amazing benefits, but there’s definitely a big problem with child grooming” Tasnim admits, her voice and the content of what she says extremely confident, even daring, particularly for her age. “People need to start understanding what’s happening, to show more interest, there needs to be better prevention in place, and we need to stop brushing the issue under the carpet. Because, meanwhile, at the end of the day, it isn’t just the victims who have to suffer; everyone around them do too”.
“We’re currently giving out the wrong message by covering things up or ignoring them. We’re saying that it’s okay to do these horrible things to children. It’s mad. I don’t want to have to live in a generation where we still have to constantly worry about the safety of our children”.
Tasnim’s father, Mehmood, was one of seven men eventually brought to semi-justice following a police sting nicknamed Operation Chalice, including Azhar’s brother, 34-year-old Mubarek Ali, who was jailed for sexually abusing, trafficking and prostituting young (predominantly white) teens.
At Mehmood’s trial at Stafford Crown Court, the jury were shown CCTV footage that clearly captured the taxi driver filling-up cans at a nearby petrol station on the night of the murder; a murder that some local victims have suggested might have been a warning to anyone considering speaking out about the abuse that they have endured in the area. But then, surely this implies that Lucy’s murder was motivated more out of Mehmood’s fear that Lucy might talk about their relationship, rather than by jealousy alone; perhaps fuelled by the birth of his daughter; living proof of his crimes?
Tasnim, however, isn’t completely sold by the idea.
Never-the-less, in more recent times, the community has been blighted by rumours and further scandals relating to the case of Lucy Lowe, with anonymous threats being made to Tasnim’s Grandfather to attempt to silence his calls for a proper inquest, and even – as recently as March of this year – another victim coming forward and revealing that she had been forced to flee Telford after being warned that she would be burned alive in her home should she speak out about the historical child sex crimes carried out against her.
Telford has the third highest number of child sexual offences recorded in the UK, just behind Blackpool and Rotherham. Clive Jones, director of children and adult services at Telford and Wrekin Council, said he was not aware of any murders associated with child abuse in Telford and said that he did not recognise the figure of 1,000 potential victims, also rejecting calls for an inquiry and claiming that the local council had “worked hard to tackle child sexual exploitation” and that victims now had greater confidence to report abuse. This claim, however, was soon to have doubt cast on it following recent reports of historical negligence and in some cases what appear to have been intentional cover-ups by the West Mercia Police force and by local authorities.
In 2016/17 the local authority received 337 contacts raising concerns about child sexual exploitation relating to 224 young people, more than half of whom were referred to child protection teams.
“From the start of the year, there were already a lot of things happening” says Tasnim. “He [Ali] applied for parole, so we had to fight that, our family history’s been raked-up again in the press, so I’m constantly finding out little bits of information, and apparently there are quite a lot of other victims he might be responsible for”.
In October 2001, Azhar Ali Mehmood was sentenced to life imprisonment, with his request for parole in March of 2018 denied.
It would take Tasnim over a decade to eventually meet him for the first time. “I guess I just still wanted answers,” she says. “It was curiosity mainly, because of the things he could tell me about Lucy. I wanted to understand why he did it”.
“Two weeks before the prison visit, he sent me a 16 page letter and wrote into it his version of what happened. He’d sent me letters before, through Social Services, but I’ve never written back. I did know though that I had to speak to him face-to-face, so requested to meet him”.
“When I finally saw him, it was a very big, surreal experience; difficult to put into words. Even now it’s very overwhelming to think about. It was an hour’s meeting, but for at least the first 10 minutes I just sat there thinking ‘wow – this is happening’, and looking at him. He showed me baby photos of me given to him by his family, asked how I was doing at College, and then we spoke about what happened. But he showed no remorse, gave me no explanation. I think I expected that from him though”.
Tasnim is now studying for a qualification in Business and is moving on with her life.
“The main focus now is just mine and my family’s emotional health. This year has brought everything back up, but I could let all that’s happened ruin my life, or I can grow strong from it and look for the positives”.
“I’ve had quite a lot of victims of grooming reach out to me as a result of me speaking out, but also people who have come forward and have gone to the police after reading Lucy’s story. Some told me in confidence and didn’t want to go to the police though, mainly through fear. But it’s still good to talk and to get it all out”.
“I’ve got a weird balance, but it’s working – I can talk about what happened; I haven’t lived it, but my life’s been moulded from it. In a way that gives me an insight into what Lucy went through. It’s also made me realise who I want to be as a mother.
Throughout our interview, I can’t help but find poignancy in the fact that Lucy’s surviving daughter would refer to her not as “Mother” or “Mum”, but simply as Lucy. It was not of course a choice she had made out of disrespect or disregard for the fact that Lucy Lowe had indeed been her biological mother. It was – one could quickly ascertain within just a few minutes of talking to her – a completely natural, yet just as saddening by-product of the tragic event that both deprived her not only of a father figure and of her mother, but even of that connection – that natural instinct and happiness to call a person only the name “Mum” or “Dad”. Yet of course, to a girl who has grown-up her entire life from foster care and then into the care of her loving Grandfather, with no mother or father to ever give such titles – it would perhaps feel Unnatural to even attempt the contrary.
When I ask her about it, she seems taken aback, admitting that although she hasn’t ever been asked the question, it’s something that she always thinks about and feels glad to get off her chest.
“I often think about her and ask what would my life have been like, but I’m grateful for the life I’ve got. I wouldn’t be as close to my Grandad or as motivated to help other victims. Yes, I’ve missed out on a lot, but have been brought up by an amazing man. I guess, as sad as it is, I just don’t have that connection with Lucy. I never got that opportunity to be a typical kid asking ‘Mum, can you take me to the park?’ or ‘Mum, what’s for dinner?’ In a way it just feels wrong; how can I be older than my own Mum? Who’s going to teach me how to be a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old, and so on? As bizarre as it sounds, sometimes it feels like my life shouldn’t be running its course until hers is, ahead of me.”
“She was a teenager when she died. When I think about her I can’t see her as a Mum – all I can see is her in her school uniform walking home. She’s still frozen there.”
Jay Beecher’s book, The Fifth Column: An Investigation Into Islamic Extremism, is set to be released towards the end of winter 2018 following delays brought about by an influx of victims coming forward to tell him their stories. It includes exclusive interviews with survivors of grooming gangs and terrorist attacks as well as with MPs, Lords, activists, and extremists themselves.