Welcome to her nightmare

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Three years after her abduction, Stephanie Slater is trying to put her ordeal behind her. But the fear remains. Angela Lambert talked to her Just over three years ago, Stephanie Slater underwent an experience beyond your worst nightmares. She was kidnapped and held in captivity for eight days by a man whom she describes as "an evil, evil monster": Michael Sams, the one-legged mechanic who later confessed to the murder of Julie Dart.

In January 1992, while Stephanie, an estate agent, was showing Sams round an empty house, she was attacked, gagged, blindfolded and forcibly abducted. Sams is now serving a prison sentence and is not expected to be released.

"He'll never come out?" I ask.

"Oh, God forbid, no, no! He's there, he's locked up. That's all I care about."

Stephanie is serving a life sentence, too. Memories of those eight days torment her. She dreams of devils and wakes in terror. She cannot bear to be alone. She locks her front door as well as that of the room in which we sit before sitting down to talk. Most of the time, she refers to the 25-year-old she was at the time of the kidnap as "she".

"The only similarity I have with her now is the name: that's the only thing we share. There's nothing left of Stephanie Slater in me: she died just after I was released. She was such a strong character - she was very pretty, and I'm not. She used to lookever so good and go to pubs with her friends. She was courageous and brave. I shy away from all that now. I keep to a very small circle of trustworthy and lovely people. I need them, I do need them. Sometimes I can relax and giggle about something; occasionally, I can be brave for a short time. If somebody needed help, I'd be there for them. But I couldn't be like she was."

She makes it sound as though "that" Stephanie Slater of three years ago has died.

"She did die in a way, yes. I spent those eight days in fear of my life - that never stopped, not once. When you use up so much energy just to survive, it takes years and years to replace.

"The first night of my captivity I was crushed into a narrow box, far too small for me, placed inside another box. He told me there were electrodes running alongside my body which would kill me if I tried to move - and there were wires, I could feel them- and boulders placed on top of the box that would crush me if I tried to get out. It was a bitterly cold January night. I lay without moving all night long, and passed from being rigid with cold to collapsing with cold. It was like lying in deep snow. I was sure I was going to die. My arms were locked above my head, my wrists handcuffed and I thought, I am dying.

"I was searching for the tunnel people are supposed to go through on the point of death. There I lay, blindfolded and gagged, and all of a sudden out of the darkness came the face of Christ. It was an image from the handkerchief of St Veronica that I hadseen many years ago as a child, in Godshill church in the Isle of Wight, when we were on holiday. I'm not a religious person, but I saw this beautiful face of Jesus Christ coming slowly towards me. His mouth was so full and his lips were so red and there were specks of blood on his forehead and I couldn't believe the beauty in his face.

"He looked so alive, as though if I touched him I would feel warmth, and to this day I think that what I saw in the box was the real face of Christ. I know now that he's there, he exists. I believe that was him and he's the kindest most wonderful person,and he gave me strength to go on. That night I called on my grandmothers (who are both dead) to help me, and I called on Christ."

After she had been freed, when she thought her ordeal was over, Stephanie found that many people recognised her. There were television appearances and press conferences; the Sun bought her story after Sams' trial and conviction. In Birmingham, where she had lived all her life, drunks in pubs would accost her, saying: "You must be worth a few quid now!" or, "Seen any good houses lately?"

Feeling she had to get away, Stephanie and a Birmingham friend came to live in the Isle of Wight. With happy memories of many childhood holidays spent there, the island seemed a safe and protective place. So it has turned out. The islanders never intrudewith awkward questions. They respect her privacy and for this she is immensely grateful.

"I do visit Godshill church quite a lot, but my way of thanking God for giving me back my life is that I appreciate nature much more and I try not to take from the earth. Some nights I sit outside and watch the skies turn from sunset to darkness and listen to the power of the waves and the sea and think, why have I never appreciated this properly before?"

For the time being, Stephanie and her friend Stacey rent a small holiday flat. The curtains are kept permanently drawn. The sitting room is dimly lit by a large candle and a three-bar electric fire. The flat is filled with animals - canaries, a cockatoo,tropical fish and gerbils - and ornamented with crescent, smiling moons on the walls and the rugs. There are moon candlesticks, posters and cards. I ask about the music playing softly in the background and she says: "Gregorian chanting: I find it very calm and peaceful." With her long hair, shaggy sweater and thigh-high boots, Stephanie Slater is outwardly an ordinary, attractive, rather New Age-ish young woman. Inwardly, she doubts if she can ever be ordinary again.

Just as she thought she was beginning to pull together the strands of her life, Michael Sams, from his prison cell, has upset her fragile equilibrium. He has reacted to the publication of her book, Beyond Fear: My Will to Survive, with the bizarre claim that during her captivity they had a secret love affair and that she consented to the rape of which she accuses him.

When I heard he had said we'd had a love affair, I had a sort of breakdown. I started crying and shaking. It was like being raped all over again. My conscience is clear - I've never been a liar. People realise what kind of person he is. The man is evil through and through. He lied throughout the court case. He's saying this because he craves attention.

"At the time, I had to behave in a friendly way towards him because I wanted to get on with him, to force him to see me as a flesh and blood person. From the very beginning, I kept telling myself, `Play it calmly; never let him forget you're human, too.'But really I was frightened all the time, and I often broke down and cried in front of him."

I ask whether being raped was the worst part of her ordeal. "To me, the rape was all part of the horror. You couldn't separate it out. There was the shame of having to let a stranger take you to the toilet. I was blindfolded and handcuffed throughout: hehad to lead me to a bucket and pull my clothes down. But looking back I think the rape was probably the dirtiest thing that happened to me. Yet I kept silent about it for months afterwards, until one night I just broke down and told Stacey. I felt so ashamed, but I thought it would kill my mother if she knew he had touched me.

"I was not only protecting my parents but also my own self-respect. I felt so dirty, I used to bath or shower four, five, even six times a day; I cut off all my hair because he had had his fingers in it. It's a terrible feeling because you blame yourself. I wish now I had told somebody about it from the beginning."

One of the most important things to have happened to Stephanie since her ordeal was a meeting arranged by a breakfast television show with John Peters, the RAF pilot captured during the Gulf War. She regards him with something close to hero worship.

Remembering his courage, she says: "The survival instinct is something we all have inside us but it rarely gets exercised. When I met John Peters, for the first time I thought, `Yes, you know what I've been through! You have drawn on those reserves.' He's the only person I met who's been able to know what I mean, and I could really relate to him. It gave me a good feeling to know that somebody else knows what it is to be captive and frightened and to have survived. That touched me a lot. It was a great honour to meet him. I really admire him."

What now? I asked Stephanie; does she look forward to marriage and having children?

"I don't think I will ever have children, but I wouldn't mind getting married. The next man I meet, I want him to be the one. I'm 28 now and I'm not going to waste my time on dates. I'd like to settle down. In the past, I've always been independent. Now it would be nice if I had someone who would just put his arms round me - I miss that - and say, look, it's going to be OK. I think a man sums up strength and that's what I'm lacking at the moment.

"I don't dislike children, but even the old Stephanie wasn't very maternal. I don't think I could cope with a child and look after myself as well. Some days I still sit and cry all day. I'd rather have lots of animals around.

"The pre-kidnap Stephanie was tremendously strong, but the new one is a totally different person: in some respects better. I've lost my dignity, I get very nervous. I've lost that sense of security which she had without thinking about it. But this is a much more peaceful way of life. I look at what she was - very ambitious, wanting a company car, wanting to live the high life - and my priorities have totally changed. I used to have faith in the essential goodness and safety of life; now I believe there are higher guardians who take care of us.

"And then I think of Julie Dart. She was only 18 - she was just a kid. She must have been so frightened, and I know that fear. The poor girl. The man's a maniac. You don't expect to meet people like him in your day-to-day life. You don't bank on something like this happening to you, do you?"

`Beyond Fear: My Will to Survive', by Stephanie Slater and Pat Lancaster, is published by Fourth Estate at £14.99.

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