A MASKED sex attacker has been jailed for ambushing two complete strangers as they walked back from the same night club exactly a week apart in Barnstaple.

Nicholas Ashby lay in wait in his car near the entrance to a cemetery in Bear Street, Barnstaple and attacked both young women as they walked past on their own at about 3.30.

He wore a mask which covered his face when he attacked the first victim, who was only 18, and strangled her into an arm lock until she passed out. He then pulled down her tights and slapped her bottom.

He struck again exactly a week later as a young mother was walking home. This time he was parked next to the cemetery and followed her into a lane nearby where he pulled a knife and started to take off her trousers.

A judge at Exeter Crown Court praised the courage of the two women who both succeeded in fighting him off and were able to give police accurate descriptions of him and his car that enabled police to track him down.

The two attacks led to a massive police operation in Barnstaple last autumn which led to his arrest in November when a DNA sample he had given matched evidence from the second girl’s belt and trousers.

Married father-of three Ashby, aged 41, of Sowden Park, Barnstaple, admitted sexual assault and attempted rape and was jailed for nine years, 11 months with a three year five month extended licence by Judge David Evans.

He said Ashby posed a risk to women and had planned the two attacks to target lone women and minimise the risk of being caught or disturbed.

He 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.'

Mr Lee Bremridge, prosecuting, said Ashby parked his car in Bear Street in the early hours of Sunday September 25 and October 2 and got out when he saw the women on the pavement.

He throttled the first with such force that she passed out and woke on the pavement with him slapping her bare bottom. He pulled a knife on the second and she suffered cuts to her hands and body as she fought him off.

Miss Fiona Elder, defending, said Ashby suffers from autism and had been diagnosed as suffering from a psychological problem what created a sexual compulsion that he felt he had to act out.

She said both attacks had been opportunistic and had not involved significant planning.

After the case, the officer who led the Major Crime Unit’s investigation 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.

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, Assistant 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: '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.'