ON A sunny Saturday morning in August 2014, Pauline Stocker and her husband, David, a retired vicar, were shopping in W. H. Smith’s, in the centre of Crewe.
Mrs Stocker was looking for a birthday card; her husband was browsing the magazine stand across the aisle. The next thing Mr Stocker knew, his wife had been knocked to the floor by a man armed with a kitchen knife that had a six-inch serrated blade. She had been stabbed four times.
“I was facing the other way,” Mr Stocker says. “Only when she screamed did I turn around, and then I saw him standing over her. Then he turned towards me. I managed to push him out of the way, and first he went back to her and then he finally decided to leave.”
Mrs Stocker was bleeding heavily from her left side. Her husband raised the alarm, and the shop staff rushed to their help. “The staff were brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and so were the emergency services,” he says. Within two or three minutes, a policeman arrived, swiftly followed by the paramedics and an air ambulance. His wife was airlifted to North Staffordshire Hospital for emergency surgery.
Her attacker was a man later identified as Matthew Bullows; CCTV footage revealed that he had walked calmly out of the store. He escaped detection until an hour later, when he attacked a man called Colin Turner, in the car park of the ASDA supermarket. Despite his efforts to fend off his attacker with a supermarket trolley, the second victim still received four stab wounds to his lower back. He was treated in the same Accident and Emergency unit as Mrs Stocker, but was allowed to go home that night. Mr Bullows, meanwhile, was arrested and detained.
Mrs Stocker was seriously injured. Because it was summer, she was wearing only light clothes which offered minimum protection against the knife. Three of the four blows struck her handbag; the fourth pierced her abdomen.
“I felt what can only be described as a hard thump,” she says. “I nearly died. Had he managed to stab through my handbag, I think I would have [done]. But the knife couldn’t get through. A friend who is a surgeon said to me afterwards, ‘I don’t know how you got away with it. He didn’t damage your vital organs.’ My husband always says I have too much in my handbag, but it saved my life.”
Mr Bullows has since been diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, and, in January this year, was sentenced to be detained for life in a secure psychiatric unit. He will be released only with the Home Secretary’s permission.
It emerged that he had a previous conviction (in 2006) for assault, when he received a four-month suspended sentence for an attack on a chef at a hotel where they both worked. He was handed a community service order, and sent on a drug rehabilitation course. Somehow, after that, he went off the authorities’ radar: he lived alone, having cut himself off from his family, and, by 2014, was unknown to social services or the probation service.
NO ONE knows what motivated the attacks that day. It later transpired that a postman had seen Mr Bullows looking agitated earlier that morning. But when he stabbed Mrs Stocker, there was no warning.
“We were both aware he was there, wearing a baseball cap, but didn’t take any notice,” Mr Stocker says. “He was expressionless. There was no anger or rage. He never spoke. He wouldn’t speak to the police, either.”
Both Mr and Mrs Stocker feel sorry for Mr Bullows. “He’s only 30. It’s a waste of his young life, and tragic if he does spend the rest of his life in a secure unit,” Mr Stocker says.
Forgiveness does not come in to it, his wife says. “He’s ill, and he wasn’t in control; so there’s nothing to say.”
Their greater concern is that something like this could happen totally out of the blue. “There ought to be more supervision of people with serious illnesses like this,” Mrs Stocker says. “We don’t know how he slipped through the net. He’s dangerous, and there are too many people like that.”
They are both relieved that the outcome wasn’t worse — that Mr Bullows did not, for example, run amok among families or children out shopping. But, Mr Stocker says, after all the years they lived in vicarages, it was something of a shock that the attack came in a high-street shop on a lovely summer’s day.
“In ministry, over 40 years, [we faced] the usual large number of people calling at the door, and that can be quite frightening. But nothing ever happened,” Mr Stocker says. “We always tried to befriend callers at the door; to give them food and money. It’s all you could do. Obviously, some of them were psychologically ill. In those days, with my study in the vicarage, when you had a young family, it could be quite worrying. People can be quite demanding. But now the drug problem is much worse.”
Mrs Stocker agrees. “When David retired, I was pleased to have a house that was not a vicarage.”
The attack in Crewe was a total shock. “Everyone goes on about gun crime, but this was a kitchen knife. I know it’s a crime to carry a knife, but that’s not going to stop people. With all the cutbacks, they have closed lots of hospitals, and people are out in the community. It’s definitely got worse. It’s as if mental health is the poor relation. More money needs to be spent on mental health and the supervision of people who are in the community.”
The experience has inflicted permanent scars. Mrs Stocker’s walking has been affected, because the stabbing severed her stomach muscles. More significantly, she is anxious when she is out. The couple recently moved away from Crewe to be nearer their daughter, largely because of the attack.
“It was awful,” she says. “It’s changed things. There are places you don’t want to go any more. If anyone looks a bit suspicious, by the way they’re dressed, you don’t want to go in their direction — even in the countryside, which is a bit ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense when this happened in Smith’s.
“But I think of that man who was stabbed to death on a station in London. He was only stabbed once, and died. I was lucky.”