THE red triangle announcing a hazard ahead on the B704 in Midlothian has been altered to read “RAPIST”.
From a distance, a cloth billowing from the open window of a semi-detached stone cottage nearby could be a leftover from a jubilee party. But closer inspection reveals it has “Put the beast in a cage” scrawled across it in red paint. A cardboard sign reading “monster” comes with an arrow pointing to the house next door, the interior of which is obscured by thick blue curtains.
Outside, preparations are being made. Cans of spray paint lie near the doorstep; a man straightens up one of the signs as if it is a prized artwork. Soon the road will be closed and protesters will arrive – as they have every night for the past week, sometimes 1,700 strong – bearing megaphones and a deep-seated sense of injustice.
Their ire is directed towards Robert Greens, the so-called Da Vinci rapist, who is living in their midst. The shockwaves caused when he sexually assaulted a Dutch student near Rosslyn Chapel – featured in Dan Brown’s global bestseller The Da Vinci Code – in 2005 are still rippling through the former mining towns of Bonnyrigg, Gorebridge and Newtongrange, which form a triangle round his new home.
Many of the locals had known him and his family all their lives. They sympathised with the 19-year-old girl, who was on her way to visit a friend when Greens attacked her, were horrified by the description of her injuries as being like a car crash victim’s, and they celebrated when he was sent to Saughton jail. Seven years later, they are certain of one thing: they don’t want him back.
There are many aspects of the case the villagers are angry about; they are angry Greens has been released after serving just six years of a ten-year sentence; angry he has been rehoused so close to the scene of his crime; angry that the security operation that surrounds him is costing hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in an era of austerity.
“They say he has served his time, but that girl has to live with the memories of what he did to her,” says Amanda Ramsay, who has been involved in putting up some of the signs near Greens’ home.
As soon as word spread that Greens had returned, the community mobilised; as well as the nightly protests, there has been a march, a Facebook page which has attracted 7,000 followers and a petition with 1,500 signatures, as well as meetings with Midlothian Council, the authorities tasked with managing the resettling of offenders, and the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. Everywhere they have found sympathy, but little in the way of concrete action.
Greens may have spent only six years in prison, but automatic early release means he is entitled to be freed after serving two-thirds of his sentence, regardless of whether he has been rehabilitated.
Because he is from the area, Midlothian Council has a statutory duty to rehouse him. It has, it is rumoured, asked every other local authority in Scotland if they will take on the responsibility, but none is willing. The irony is that the more of a stink the community raises, the more notorious Greens becomes and the less likely anywhere else is to accept him.
The case underlines one of the most intractable problems society faces – what to do with individuals who have been released, but are nevertheless regarded as a danger to society at large. Should their names and whereabouts be released so the public can be protected? Or does broadcasting their existence simply encourage vigilantes to mete out their own summary justice?
A report led by Lady Cosgrove suggested sex offenders were least likely to reoffend if they could be reintegrated into their own communities. But their own communities are likely to be the very places which feel most strongly about the crime, particularly if the victims are still around.
It is easy to dismiss the Midlothian protests as little more than lynch mob rule. However heinous the crime, it is unedifying to see words like “beast” daubed on placards and walls. Equally discomfiting is the frisson of excitement one can sense when disparate, and sometimes deprived, communities unite behind a banner of hatred.
But on the street in Midlothian it is possible to see beyond the barracking to the plight of those involved in the campaign. The house Greens has been placed in is at the end of a row of six in an isolated spot surrounded by woodland. On the other end of the row lives Yvonne Chisholm and her family. Chisholm knew Greens years ago when she used to be friendly with his sister. She says he and his twin brother were forever asking her out.
When the police arrived at her door to tell her he’d been moved there, they said she shouldn’t worry too much. Greens was not a paedophile, so her children, at least, would be safe.
Outside the cottage, the rain has stopped and the sun is streaming through the trees. But Chisholm’s son is playing on his computer in the half-light of the front room. “He hasn’t been to school all week,” she says. “He’s too feart to go out. We’re all feart.”
The protesters – when they’re there – give Chisholm a sense of security, although the noise of the council removing the barriers they use to close the road at 5am every morning means she isn’t getting much sleep. But she is worried about what will happen when the demonstrations stop; not only because she is scared of Greens himself, but because she fears that, living on the end house, she might inadvertently become the target of vigilantes.
She says she has been told she can have a transfer (two other families on the row have already said they’ll leave), but she has been living there for nine years and doesn’t see why she should be forced out. “The feeling I get is they would rather move every one else in the area than move him,” she says.
The circumstances surrounding Greens’ release provide little comfort for Chisholm or other locals. Diagnosed as a “psychopath”, he has been categorised “level three” or high risk under MAPPA – the Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements which deal with such cases – and police say he poses a considerable danger. The terms of his licence include electronic tagging, a curfew and monitoring by police. He is also the subject of a Sexual Offenders Prevention Order, which contains 23 restrictions, including a ban on approaching women or children, no internet access and having to notify police of any change in his appearance.
But less than three months after his release, Greens’ supervision package was downgraded by Midlothian Council, with two social workers who were providing 24-hour cover dramatically removed, and the prevention order is to be reviewed this week.
At a bus stop in Newtongrange, Kerry Morrison has every reason to celebrate. The 21-year-old has just graduated with a first-class honours degree in psychology. But her happiness has been undercut by the sense of unease which has enveloped the community. “When I first heard where Greens was, I realised I had cycled right past his front door. I was on my own. I could have easily have stopped for a drink. I wouldn’t cycle there now,” she says.
Even those who are less than enthusiastic about street protests support the campaigners. “I’m not normally for mob rule,” says a man, who doesn’t want to be named. “I understand he has to be rehoused somewhere but, at the end of the day, all this protection comes at the expense of law-abiding taxpayers. In his case, I don’t think the punishment fitted the crime.”
Across the road, at Sharon’s Cafe – with its bright red fittings and board advertising an array of Scottish breakfast combos – Sharon O’Donnell, who is organising the protests, says backing for the campaign has been almost universal. “We did have a couple of comments on the Facebook page complaining about the road closures and saying this is affecting our businesses,” she says. “But those have been far outweighed by the messages of support from individuals and companies, many of whom are affected by him being here. The Cat Rescue Centre up the road from his house has young girls working there – how will they feel?”
Last week, O’Donnell met representatives from MAPPA and Kenny MacAskill, but was less than impressed to hear the Scottish Justice Secretary’s hands were effectively tied. Yet even she can’t answer the question: if not in Midlothian, then where?
Greens’ solicitor Tony Kelly is the first to acknowledge the right of locals to be angry. “Lady Cosgrove’s report says if released offenders are housed within communities and their relationships are rehabilitated, they are not isolated and that leads to a greater stability and less chance of them reoffending,” he says.
“If people go out completely unsupported into a nomadic existence, they are probably going to fall back into an offending cycle. With notorious offenders, however, it is extremely difficult. A community that has been offended against will clearly lash out at those who are returned to it. That is why it so very sensitive and so very difficult.”
Those tasked with resettling Greens find themselves in a no-win situation; if they dig their heels in and refuse to move him, the area could face months of costly demonstrations, with every new wave of publicity making it less likely he will ever be treated as anything other than a pariah. But if they move him again, they send out a message that such protests are effective, and make it almost inevitable the scenario will be repeated at the next location.
“There is no easy solution; the balancing of all of those interests – public protection, the community’s right to be appalled at what has been done to it,” Kelly says. “But if you look at the future and want to have some kind of mature debate, offenders must leave jail and they must be able to be housed somewhere, and the best chance of there being a reduced rate of offending is if they are rehabilitated within their own community.”
It seems unlikely his words will have any impact on the campaigners, who were, last week, busy hatching plans for an all-night camp-out. “Our protest is really taking off. People are sitting up and taking notice and the more publicity we get, the greater the pressure on the authorities,” O’Donnell says as one customer leaves her cafe, clutching a gigantic tin of coffee for the night-time rendezvous.
“No-one should underestimate us. We won’t stop until we’ve forced Greens out of Midlothian.”