Tributes to brave quadriplegic man as his evidence helps jail pair who robbed him of £7
14:01 28 February 2014
The family of a wheelchair-using quadriplegic man, who was kidnapped from a Norwich resource centre and taken to a nearby park where he was robbed of £7 and abandoned, have paid tribute to his bravery after the couple responsible for the “despicable” crime were jailed.
Stephen Dooley, 38, who was struck down with meningitis at just nine days old and as a result has been left profoundly disabled, was waiting to be picked up from the Vauxhall Resource Centre when Adam Webster, 38, and his girlfriend Sarah Harcourt, 35, wheeled him to Chapelfield Gardens where he was robbed of £6 he kept in a bag.
Harcourt, of Gipsy Close, Norwich, had already admitted robbery and kidnap on August 8 last year, but Webster, of William Kett Close, Norwich, was found guilty of both offences following a trial at Norwich Crown Court last month.
Sentencing Webster to six years and Harcourt to four years and 12 weeks at Norwich Crown Court yesterday, Judge Anthony Bate said they both had “appalling criminal records” and became “partners in opportunistic crimes”.
He said: “This was a despicable joint crime driven by self-centred greed and, as usual, an utter disregard for your victim’s feelings.”
In a statement issued after the pair were sentenced, Mr Dooley’s father, Rev Gerald Dooley, said he struggled to comprehend why two people would do this and said the crime was “way outside humanity”. He said: “You hear things all the time, but you never think something like this will happen to your family.”
His sister, Vicky Shucksmith, said she admired her brother’s bravery to give evidence in court. She said: “The trial lasted for three weeks and Stephen gave evidence over three days.
“It was hard for us and distressing to see, but he wanted to do it. He didn’t want them to get away with it.”
The court had heard how Harcourt and Webster took Mr Dooley from the Vauxhall centre against his will before pushing him to Chapelfield Park where he was robbed.
The defendants then abandoned Mr Dooley, who managed to make his way back to the centre alone, where staff raised the alarm following the incident.
Harcourt and Webster, who were partners at the time, were arrested 40 minutes after the incident was reported to police and were identified as a result of CCTV enquiries.
Giving evidence during the trial from behind a screen with the help of an interpreter and intermediary, Mr Dooley told Richard Potts, prosecuting, how he felt “afraid and scared” when he was taken from the centre. The court heard Harcourt had also admitted an offence of attempted theft on June 13 last year and a further offence of theft on August 1 last year.
Webster had been dealt with at the magistrates’ court for the attempted theft in June and received a 12-week sentence.
Investigating officer Det Con Jim Starling, from Norwich CID, said: “Harcourt and Webster really are the lowest of the low.
“For two people to target a man who clearly has no means of defending himself, or even calling out for help, is, quite simply, beyond belief.
“Stephen would have been visibly distressed during the incident, but this didn’t stop them from pushing him to the park and robbing him of the few pounds he had before abandoning him on the street.
“Stephen needs constant care and is never alone and, understandably, has been left very distressed by what happened.
“We’ve got to know Stephen through the course of the investigation and it’s incredible to see the improvement he’s made.
“Harcourt and Webster are prolific offenders and it’s very pleasing to see that both of them will be behind bars for several years, where they belong.”
Det Sgt Richard Dickinson also worked on the case and praised Stephen and his family for their patience and perseverance during the police enquiry and subsequent trial.
He said: “Giving evidence in a court of law is undoubtedly a traumatic experience for any victim of crime, but it’s particularly poignant in Stephen’s case as he has limited means of communicating.
“He did extremely well and I believe that his evidence was absolutely crucial in securing a guilty verdict against Harcourt and Webster.”
Jonathan Morgans, for Harcourt, who has 43 previous convictions for 97 offences between 1992 and 2013, said his client wanted to “apologise” and say “sorry” for what she had done. He said the offences were committed against a background of an “out of control drug addiction” to heroin.
Mr Morgans added she should be given full credit for her pleas.
Lori Tucker, for Webster, who has 37 convictions relating to 117 offences, said her client was a “subordinate” in the offence.
She said that he too had an addiction to heroin from the age of 13 after an “extremely unhappy childhood” during which he was the victim of abuse.
Catherine Underwood, director of integrated commissioning at Norfolk County Council which ran the Vauxhall Centre at the time of the offence, said: “I know that staff were really saddened that anyone would visit the centre and act in this frankly abhorrent way towards someone who needs extra support. “The Vauxhall Centre is part of the local community and used by a wide variety of people in different ways, and it’s important that it feels welcoming and inclusive.
“It’s a real shame that anyone would try to undermine this and I’m just glad that the perpetrators have been brought to justice.”
Stephen Dooley had attended the Vauxhall Centre for more than 10 years and regarded it as a home from home, but following his ordeal has been left too afraid to venture out.
An extract of a victim personal statement read out at court yesterday from Mr Dooley’s father described how the centre was “a really big part of his life” but that he “does not want to leave the house” now and “is afraid and has become introverted”.
In his own victim statement Mr Dooley said: “Working on the book stall was the one thing I did by myself. I enjoyed doing this and I miss it lots. I could go alone in a taxi. It was nice to be able to go to the centre without my family, but now I am too scared to go.”
After sentencing both defendants, Judge Bate paid tribute to the “spirit” and “strength of personality” of Mr Dooley.
He said: “Whilst this experience has undoubtedly been distressing for him, I hope that, with time and the loving support of his close family, he will gain a measure of closure and begin to engage again with the outside world, which I believe is enriched by his company.”