On a crisp November night in 2009, a police convoy was closing in on a grey Vauxhall Zafira winding through the dark streets of South London at more than 60mph – slowing only for the speed cameras.
As the Zafira signalled to turn in to a maze of side streets, it was time to move in. If the driver was the man they suspected, this was serious.
He might even be seeking out another target. Suburban streets at the dead of night were his hunting ground.
‘Go, go, go, take him now,’ urged the team leader into a covert microphone. The convoy came alive, the wail of sirens and flood of blue lights forcing the Zafira to brake sharply and pull in to the kerb.
That driver was 52-year-old Delroy Grant, one of the nation’s most wanted men – a sex predator thought to have preyed on hundreds of elderly men and women across a swathe of the capital for two decades.
This was the Night Stalker – and his time was up.
It was seven months earlier, in April 2009, that I’d been asked to review Operation Minstead, the long-running Met Police investigation into the Night Stalker’s crimes.
They wanted a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ following my team’s success putting Levi Bellfield behind bars.
That investigation, over three long years, had sent that most infamous of serial murderers to prison forever for the murders of Marsha McDonnell, Amélie Delagrange and Milly Dowler.
I was 48 years old, two years away from the end of a 30-year police career. I knew that the Night Stalker would be my last and probably greatest challenge.
But every statement I read and every victim I spoke to made me more determined that we should succeed. The paperwork showed a litany of one man’s horrific abuse of the elderly.
The attack that – at the time – we thought was the first occurred in Shirley, south of Croydon, on a Monday evening, October 12, 1992.
The 89-year-old spinster victim was attacked in her bed by a black man wearing a balaclava.
Delroy Grant – the Night Stalker – was a sex predator thought to have preyed on hundreds of elderly men and women for two decades. Pictured: Delroy Grant approaching an ATM machine in Honor Oak Park in August 2009
He held her down, pinning her to her bed as she awoke to be confronted by a masked silhouette in the darkness, virtually blinded by the beam of his torch pointing directly into her eyes.
He had broken in by a side kitchen window, taken out her lightbulbs, disconnected her phone line and then raped her before stealing £25 cash, a pocket watch and jewellery.
Unusually, he had kissed her, both on the cheek and mouth, during her ordeal, pulling her face to his with such force that he dislodged her dentures.
It was not until six years later, in the early hours of Saturday, September 5, 1998, that a further rape was committed that yielded a DNA profile matching the 1992 offence. It was now a series.
The 81-year-old lady lived alone in a bungalow in a quiet cul-de-sac in Warlingham, Surrey. She had severe mobility issues after a double hip replacement, suffered from arthritis and was dependent on a stick to walk.
Her screams stifled by a gloved hand, she had told him, with unwarranted politeness: ‘I think you are thoroughly mean.’
The scientific examination of the scene was to prove most crucial: the intruder had attempted to force his way in through a window using a screwdriver, which had left a distinctive 1cm indentation mark on the frame. This would prove extremely useful, as he used the same tool during several later crimes.
Twelve further attacks in 1999, linked by DNA or tool marks, showed the Night Stalker was becoming a creature of habit.
The panes of glass removed from their frames, the disabled lights, the disconnected phone lines, the clothing, the torch, the masking and the manner of dealing with the victims after waking them from their sleep – his signature methods were very distinctive.
The most harrowing of all these disturbing reports involved an 88-year-old woman in Orpington.
At three in the morning on Thursday, August 5, 1999, she was woken by a noise and saw a figure at the foot of her bed who subjected her to an assault so violent she needed extensive emergency surgery.
It was the closest the Night Stalker ever came to killing a victim there and then. She never returned to her tidy little bungalow, being discharged from hospital to sheltered accommodation. And while her injuries were repaired, her mind never healed.
In 2009, when we looked back at all similar crimes, it became clear that the scale of the Night Stalker’s offending was much wider than had been thought.
Between the ‘first’ and ‘second’ rapes, in 1992 and 1998, it was possible to list a further 32 offences likely to have been committed by him.
Somehow, no thought had been given to unusual features that suggested a one-man crime wave – despite the reported offences being shared across just five divisions of the Metropolitan Police and the Surrey force.
It took a moment for this to sink in. Part of me hated feeling so critical of my colleagues. But mostly I was shocked. And angry.
Because it was becoming clear to me that, with this extra intelligence, it might have been possible to nip the whole Night Stalker horror in the bud.
Dozens more offences took place from 2002 onwards, each with the same features or DNA to suggest it had almost certainly been him. But Operation Minstead had never changed its primary strategy.
Each new offence was treated as if it were a homicide, with forensic examination of the scene, house-to-house inquiries and so on.
The main task, as Operation Minstead saw it, was to obtain DNA samples from a list of 30,000 possible suspects – all black, as every victim had described their assailant – living in the Night Stalker’s territory of South-East London.
Those suspects had grown up as black men in London in the 1970s and 1980s and would have reason to be suspicious of the police. And they were likely to refuse a swab.
It confirmed my long-held belief that DNA screening ought only to be a tactic of last resort.
When I asked the investigation’s lone detective inspector, Nathan Eason, about the success rate of the swabbing operation he admitted: ‘Last week we got one. Just one.’
It dawned on me that we didn’t need to prove who had committed the new offences because the DNA from the old ones would ensure that, once caught, the Night Stalker would go to jail.
All we needed was to find out who the hell he was. And so was born the idea of ‘Minstead Lite’.
The basis of my plan was that all new offences should be treated not as crimes to be fully investigated but as intelligence opportunities, which would greatly reduce the workload.
Grant, 52, (pictured) was found guilty of a total of 29 offences including rape, indecent assault, burglary and theft stretching from 1992 to 2009 and was sentenced to 27 years
We also started looking at all offences likely to come within the scope of Minstead, including those ‘screened out’ because they didn’t have all the telltale signs of his modus operandi (MO).
This would turn out to be one of my most important decisions and it took just a few days for this new policy to be justified.
In the early hours of May 25, 2009, a burglary took place in Bromley, home of an elderly woman and her son.
It was reported to our team but discounted because the perpetrator hadn’t stolen anything and had not interacted with the victims.
But when the son noticed the volume of orange juice in a carton in the fridge had reduced overnight, it was swabbed. The DNA was an exact match to the Night Stalker.
I now had evidence that if we were to carry on screening out offences that didn’t exactly match his MO, we were going to miss vital intelligence opportunities.
We also found, on a neighbour’s CCTV, footage of the bottom half of the Night Stalker as he walked to the house.
How many other opportunities like this had been missed?
Crucial information also came from victims’ debit cards. After one offence, three attempts were made to use a victim’s bank card at a cash machine in Honor Oak Park in South-East London.
The same machine had been used by the Night Stalker two years previously. Simon Morgan, the senior investigating officer, had arranged for CCTV to be installed in case our suspect returned.
I watched as, at 3.51am, a medium-height, medium-build man in a mid-blue cagoule zipped up to his nose, hood pulled over his head, walked briskly towards the ATM.
I decided to put surveillance on this machine, from midnight until 5.30am. Four or five nights later, the Night Stalker was in the home of an 82-year-old woman in Lee. At 5.36am the officers left their post.
But seven minutes later, at 5.43am, the Night Stalker appeared on the cameras to make his illicit withdrawal. They had missed him by the narrowest of margins.
The pain of that failure remained with us until we finally arrested him. And when we did, those pictures of the blue cagoule were to become very important.
The offences had been coming in steadily during September 2009, 16 reports in 19 days. It was time to put a new strategy into action.
When I was a young PC in Tottenham, we’d captured two lone serial criminals simply by keeping watch across the neighbourhoods in which they were offending. To do the same to capture the Night Stalker meant covering a much larger area – his territory was a quarter of London.
But our analyst, Richard Moore, found his favoured hunting ground was around the A232 at Shirley, east of Croydon. Restricting our watch to an area of two miles would make it just possible to contain.
A detailed plan evolved. We knew that the Night Stalker walked to the home he wanted to attack, at least for the last part of his route, and that he probably used a vehicle before that. The area we were to target was largely residential, with little pedestrian traffic after dark.
By observing every inch of the pavement in the target roads, with about 70 officers hiding in houses and buildings, and with hidden cameras to fill the gaps, we would ensure nobody could walk in or out without us seeing them.
We would also have use of a control room at Central 3000, an anonymous office block near Vauxhall.
This had a bank of 18 TV screens across one wall, into which the feed from any of thousands of local authority or Transport for London CCTV cameras could be piped and recorded, as well as images from our own hidden cameras.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009, was the first day of surveillance.
In November 2009, a police convoy closed in on Grant’s Vauxhall Zafira in South London and his time was up. Pictured: Crowbar in the Vauxhall, which Grant used to enter a house on October 18, 2009
The Night Stalker had been busy. While we were all watching the Shirley plot, he had committed three burglaries.
Two were near Elmers End, less than half a mile from the north-west corner of our plot. The third was towards the rear of Bethlem Royal Hospital. I picked up the map, incredulous.
The next thought brought me goosebumps. The timespan between them – less than 30 minutes from the second to the third – made it virtually impossible that he could have got between them by foot.
He had to have been driving, and the most logical route would have been down Orchard Way – straight through the middle of our plot.
We had definitely seen no black male pedestrians, so one of the handful of cars we had watched go past just a few hours ago had to have been the Night Stalker.
CCTV from a school revealed what had to be our target vehicle passing south at 5.13am. It was silver or grey, possibly an estate.
I knew where our next inquiry would be made – Andy Wooller, at the Transport Research Laboratory, was my go-to person for identifying cars, having turned up trumps in the Levi Bellfield case.
Within 20 minutes, I had my answer. He was 75 per cent certain it was a Vauxhall Zafira, the B model.
On the second night of surveillance, an alert came from Lambeth, the furthest north of any of the offences.
The victim had called 999 when she heard an intruder, and an officer in a response car had spotted the fleeing figure and given chase on foot, only to lose him.
My first concern was that he might have changed his target area so significantly because the surveillance detail had leaked. Perhaps more worrying was trying to imagine how the Night Stalker would react to this very close shave.
If he stopped offending, the surveillance operation would be useless and we would be back to square one.
For a couple of weeks, this slick and intensive surveillance came to nothing. Then on a Saturday evening, November 14, ironically my first weekend off, I was jolted awake by my mobile at 1.30am.
‘It looks like we’ve got him,’ DI Nathan Eason said.
Surveillance officers had noticed a Vauxhall Zafira on Orchard Way, a black man jogging towards the car and driving away. In Central 3000, Nathan had made all the right calls.
The mobile surveillance team sprang into action, following him for about three miles until intercepting him as he turned into a street of 1930s terrace homes, typical Night Stalker territory.
In the glove compartment was the black balaclava, the blue cagoule was tossed on the passenger seat.
That the clothes were accompanied by a crowbar, a torch and what was later to prove the screwdriver that had left so many distinctive marks was the icing on the cake.
We had done it: after 17 years of Minstead, the new strategy had got him in 17 days. The emotion, the pride and relief were similar to what I had felt when Levi Bellfield had been convicted. It was what I went to work for.
Grant – a doting husband and kindly neighbour who led an appalling double life – was found guilty of a total of 29 offences including rape, indecent assault, burglary and theft stretching from 1992 to 2009.
He was sentenced to 27 years, and will not be released until he is at least 80. I’m often asked how many crimes I think he committed. The best I can offer is an ‘at least’ figure, a total of 204 offences from August 1990 to November 2009.
Delroy Easton Grant was unique: a man the like of which had not been seen before and, we must hope, will never be seen again.
© Colin Sutton, 2021
Manhunt: The Night Stalker, by Colin Sutton, is published by John Blake on September 16, priced £8.99.
To pre-order a copy for £8.09, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before September 26. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.