A man who sexually assaulted a woman and attempted to rape another woman as they walked home has been sentenced to eleven years and four months.
Nicholas Ashby, aged 41 and from Sowden Park, Barnstaple, was sentenced on Monday 31 July at Exeter Crown Court for one count of sexual assault and one count of attempted rape. Ashby was told he would serve a minimum of seven years and 11 months.
He will also be put on the Sex Offenders Register for life.
Ashby had previously pleaded guilty in May 2023 to the sexual assault of a woman in Barnstaple in September 2022 and the attempted rape of another woman in Barnstaple in October 2022.
WATCH: The moment of arrest
The first incident occurred in the early hours of Sunday 25 September, when the victim was walking home alone after a night out with friends. As she walked along Bear Street, near the entrance of Barnstaple Cemetery, she noticed a car pull into a lay-by ahead of her. Once she had passed the vehicle, she was approached by an unknown man who sexually assaulted her and put his arm across her neck causing her to momentarily pass-out. When she woke, the offender returned to his vehicle.
The woman hid behind a nearby vehicle; fearful that the offender would return. It was here that the victim instinctively noted down as much detail as she could of the man and his car on her phone- an act which was commended in court. Once at home, the police were alerted, and an investigation was launched by Barnstaple CID, while a Sexual Offences Liaison Officer was allocated to support the victim.
Immediate enquiries were carried out to identify the suspect based on information the victim had given and a public media appeal was issued.
The following week, in the early hours of Sunday 2 October 2022, a woman was attacked on Beaufort Walk while walking home. The victim had been on her phone to a friend when her battery suddenly died. A short time after, she was approached from behind by a man who threatened her with a craft knife, telling her that if she made a sound, he would hurt her. Ashby pinned her to the floor, marking her with the blade and continued to attack her before running from the scene.
The victim managed to get to her home address and alert police. Specially trained officers and an ambulance crew attended.
Both cases were linked, and detectives from the Major Crime Investigation Team progressed fast-track enquiries. CCTV analysis of both incidents identified a black Mercedes E class estate which was seen driving through and around the area on both nights of the attacks.
Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Inspector Rob Back, said: “Having reviewed the images of the suspected car recovered from CCTV images, the model of car was believed to be a Sports or AMG type. We knew that this vehicle was going to be key in identifying the suspect, so it was imperative that it was identified and located.
“Following intensive forensic review, we could not detect a number plate. We decided to cast the net wide and seek the details of every registered keeper of that Mercedes type who lived in the Exeter and Barnstaple areas.”
Officers visited the addresses of the registered keepers with a questionnaire which ascertained if they were still the owner and obtain details of who else had access to the car. Further questions were asked to establish where the car was at the times of both offences.
DI Back continued: “If the owner was of the description of the person we were looking for; a man aged 17 to 40-years-old, then they were asked to supply a voluntary DNA mouth swab.
“These were then submitted to the forensic science laboratory to be placed on the national DNA database for comparison against the DNA profile that we had recovered from the victims’ clothing.”
Officers received information from the forensics team stating that the DNA taken from Nicholas Ashby matched the profile to that of the DNA identified on the victim’s clothing and his arrest was sought.
His car was tracked to the M5 where traffic officers were waiting for him. Ashby was arrested on 5 January while out driving in his car and even though he provided ‘no comment’ during Police interviews, he was charged and remanded for both attacks.
With an overwhelmingly strong case presented by the prosecution team, Nicholas Ashby pleaded guilty in May 2023.
Upon sentencing, Judge David Evans said: “It is a significant feature of both cases was the reaction of the victims to the horrible experience you subjected them to that enabled the police to identify you. They are both to be commended for that. I have read in full the victim personal statements and it is quite clear that you have caused each of them very real trauma. This is the sort of thing which doesn’t go away any time soon.”
Judge Evans told Ashby: “In my judgement, you pose a significant risk to women.”
DI Back said: “The guilty plea is testament to the hard work of my team and the evidence we have put together that proved beyond doubt that Ashby attacked these innocent women.
“Receiving a guilty plea spared the victims any further trauma of having to re-live the attacks in court as part of a trial.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank the two victims of this case. Their bravery and courage has been key in us bringing Nicolas Ashby to justice.
“The resolve the victims have shown in seeking justice has been incredible – including the quick thinking of the first victim who wrote down the information she could on her phone, which time-stamped the incident for us, which assisted in the investigation.
“Both victims were supported by Sexual Offences Liaison Officers who worked with them throughout the investigation, navigating them through criminal justice system process. I hope this offers reassurance and hope to other victims out there that there are support measures in place for victims.”
Devon and Cornwall Police lead for Violence Against Women and Girls, Temporary Deputy Chief Constable Dave Thorne said: “Our message is simple. You cannot hide, we will do everything we can to identify individuals who think it’s acceptable to prey on, and attack women. Tackling violence against women and girls is a top priority for us as a Force, and we won’t stop in our relentless pursuit to bring offenders to justice.”
North Devon Commander, Superintendent Toby Davies said: “First and foremost, I would like to take this opportunity to thank and commend the incredible bravery that these two women have shown. They have been remarkably resilient throughout.
“The criminal justice process can appear daunting. Both the victims in this case were supported from the outset by specially trained Sexual Offences Liaison Officers and together they have helped ensure Ashby has been brought to justice.
“In the early stages of this investigation, it understandably caused significant community concern in Barnstaple. The early identification of Ashby, his conviction and eventual guilty plea is a testament to the thorough and extremely detailed investigation carried out by North Devon Crime and D&C’s Major Crime Investigation Teams.
“These incidents had a huge impact on our community. It put the fear of crime into women and girls going about their daily lives. It is a basic right; women should be able to walk alone free from the fear of violence.”
(Source: Devon & Cornwall Police)