In October 2015, Christy Norman says, she was living alone in a one-bedroom bungalow close to the Dorset coast, surviving on a state pension.
The 70-year-old says she had been without work for seven months and needed a job to see her through the winter. So it seemed like good timing when she met a friend on a bus, who told her of a cleaning job going at a flat above a shop in Charminster, Bournemouth.
She says she attended an interview and was taken on to work two days a week, for which she would be paid £6 per hour. Norman says she initially thought she was cleaning the home of the woman who interviewed her. But shortly after starting her new job, she says, she realised that the premises were being used as brothel.
Two years later and following a court hearing this week, she now has a conviction for assisting in the management of a brothel. All for, she says, trying to save a man’s life. And, Norman says, the brothel is still open, despite police promising to "robustly deal with anyone believed to be involved with the management of such places".
Norman normally worked at Bunnies Ranch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but had gone to work on Thursday 19 May last year to catch up on some extra cleaning.
It was on that day that Norman was arrested for the first time in her life, after a man walked into the brothel, asking for a massage and saying he felt unwell. She told him that the manager, who she named in court, was not there and he would have to come back later, but he asked if he could wait inside for a while as he was feeling ill.
Norman allowed the man to sit on one of the sofas and wait, and returned to her work. Soon afterwards she heard a thud, and ran back into the room, where she found him lying on the floor.
She called an ambulance – from her own mobile phone – and spent eight minutes trying to resuscitate the man, who was later pronounced dead.
She said when she found him, his skin was pale but his face a burgundy colour. “I knew he'd died,” Norman said in court this week. “He wet himself and the death rattle came in my face.”
By the time emergency services arrived on the scene, the other staff had fled the brothel, leaving Norman behind “holding the baby”, as she would later say in court.
The day of her arrest, Norman spent the night in a cell. She was initially charged with keeping or managing a brothel used for prostitution, but this was downgraded to assisting in the same offence.
In her first police interview – with a duty solicitor present – Norman provided a written statement, but on the lawyer's advice did not answer any further questions. For her second interview, the following day, her solicitor was not present.
In court this week she said he “popped his head around the door” and said to her: “I'm ever so sorry, I've got to go to court in five minutes. I can't be there, but you'll be alright.”
“I've got a bit of a problem with abandonment, and I wasn't alright,” Norman said in court. “He didn't even come into the room to talk to me.”
It was in this second interview that Norman admitted to posting one advert for one of the women working at the brothel on a local sex site. She later claimed she was asked the same question three times and felt pressured into making the admission, and denied that she had posted the advert – but the court did not accept her defence.
Norman said she hadn't asked for another solicitor as she “just wanted to go home” and “didn't want to cause any problems”.
Following the second interview, she was offered a caution by police but turned it down, maintaining that she had not been running the brothel. She said she refused to accept the caution because she was worried that a criminal record would affect her job and travel prospects. As a consequence, she was prosecuted, and appeared before a district judge in Poole on Tuesday.
Norman represented herself at Poole magistrates’ court – she told BuzzFeed News she couldn't afford a solicitor and was not aware she was entitled to legal aid.
She told the court she has had many jobs over her lifetime, including as a border official and a teacher, and before taking the job in the massage parlour she worked as a trainee gardener, but she was laid off at the start of the winter.
“At my age, it's not easy to find work,” she told the court, adding that she needs to be employed for the benefit of her mental health.
She carried on working at the massage parlour, she told the court, because she did not think she was doing anything wrong. Church outreach visitors, paramedics, police, and community officers all came in to the flat on a regular basis, she said, speaking in her own defence, “so why would I think I was doing anything wrong by cleaning there?”
Norman said her job involved a variety of tasks, which included ironing, washing the bed linen, vacuuming, and changing the bins. She said: “I wasn't crucial to the running of the place, I wasn't there most of the time.” She added: “I had no keys to the premises.”
“I was the cleaner, standing there because I had tried to save the life of a human being,” she told the hearing, reading from a prepared statement dozens of pages long.
She told the court: “The house had been there and they [the police] knew of its existence for seven years.
“The house was opened up again several weeks after, on 9 July. There are still adverts and the same people are working there.”
She added: “This is the first time I've been arrested and appeared in court. I was a cleaner at this establishment. [Because of] a course of events where I've tried to save a person's life, I've ended up in a situation way beyond my control.”
Arguing for the crown, prosecutor Lee Turner in part relied on the fact that Norman had kept records of client visits. She claimed in her defence that this was to protect herself, as money had gone missing in the past, but the court did not accept her explanation.
The fact that Norman had admitted to “helping the girls with their hair and nails” was also relied on in court.
In her defence, she said: “One of the girls, Keeley, said ‘Alex [Norman's middle name, which she was known by in the brothel], will you straighten my hair?’ I never had children, so I got involved in straightening her hair.”
She added: “My kindness is because I've got no family. I straightened Keeley's hair, I went to the shop for them for a bottle of water, but I didn't get involved.”
Norman was found guilty of assisting in the keeping or managing a brothel used for prostitution, and was given a 12-month conditional discharge.
District Judge Stephen Nicholls said: “In my view, while you have been convicted of this matter, clearly you were very much at the lower end and not highly involved.”
Norman, who lives on a basic state pension, was told to pay £400 of the £650 in costs requested by the prosecution, at a rate of £10 per fortnight.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News after the hearing, Norman said she felt “outraged” at the fact that she was the only one who had been convicted while, she said, the brothel is still up and running.
“I don't think it's fair, it's just totally unfair. I'm fuming really – they're still getting loads of money. It gets right up my nose.
“I'm outraged because they ran off and left me there. I tried to save the life of a man – I had 23 minutes to walk away.
“The GUM clinic nurses, NHS nurses, gave condoms out of taxpayers' money. Nobody does anything to close it, they're all complicit.”
She added: “If they'd have given me a solicitor in that second interview, none of this would have happened – I was without representation.”
Cari Mitchell from the English Collective of Prostitutes, which has been supporting Norman, was present in court and said the “prosecution flies in the face of the National Police Chiefs’ Council policing strategy, which recognises sex workers as ‘a vulnerable group that we have a responsibility to protect’.”
She added: “It is a terrible injustice that a woman who performed a civic duty by trying to save another human being's life should find herself with a criminal record for her efforts.
“Shame on the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the judge. If they had any morals or were in any way concerned for women’s safety this prosecution would never have been brought or Ms Norman would have been found not guilty. How was prosecuting Ms Norman in the public interest?”
In a statement, Dorset police said the force will “robustly deal with anyone believed to be involved with the management of such places”, but the massage parlour is still advertising services online, and in her interview more than a year ago, Norman told police who was allegedly involved in running the venue.
Defending the prosecution, Detective Sergeant Scott Johnson of Dorset police said: “Dorset police is committed to protecting vulnerable people located at brothels and actively works with other agencies to support and help them.
“However, we will robustly deal with anyone believed to be involved with the management of such places and in this case the district judge and the Crown Prosecution Service were satisfied that Christy Norman, based on the evidence provided, was involved in the running and management of the brothel.”
In a statement, the CPS also defended the prosecution, saying Norman was “clearly involved in the running and management of the brothel”.
District prosecutor Tim Cole said: “She had been publicising the Ranch's services on local sex sites and was keeping a book where she would record the sexual practices of the employees with their clients.”
A spokesperson for Dorset police added that the force “will take action if an address is identified as being used as a brothel, as it was in the case involving Christy Norman. We act on intelligence from the community and make regular unannounced visits to premises where concerns have been raised.
“If the address on Charminster Road is again identified as being used to commit offences, we will investigate this further. Anyone with specific information about this address should contact Dorset Police. A proportionate investigation was carried out and no one else was identified in relation to keeping or managing the brothel.”
Hannah Al-Othman is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hannah Al-Othman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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