Crime in Britain: A community robbed of its heart: Wakefield and its villages used to be a safe area. Now violence is commonplace. Mary Braid talks to the victims

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The Independent Online
AT TWO minutes past midnight on 4 April last year, Cynthia Shirtliff, 42, was savagely attacked only yards from her own front door. Such was the ferocity of the assault that the blows were heard in neighbouring houses.

Mrs Shirtliff, from Ryhill, south of Wakefield in West Yorkshire, was battered unconscious. She believes she owes her life to the woman next door who came to her rescue.

The attacker, David Helliwell, 45, from nearby Grimethorpe, was a stranger to Mrs Shirtliff; she, his random victim. In January, he was jailed for five years for indecent assault and grievous bodily harm. But Mrs Shirtliff, still recovering from appalling injuries, reckons he will be out in three. She considers it a pitiful punishment for the damage inflicted on victim and village.

'It is what he has done to Ryhill that upsets me most,' said Mrs Shirtliff, who has lived in the village most of her life. 'You used to be able to walk anywhere at any time.

'The only violent act I remember here was the murder of a librarian 40 years ago. Now people are afraid to walk alone, particularly the elderly who loved to wander down to the local pub.'

The neighbour who rescued Mrs Shirtliff and gave evidence at Helliwell's trial has put her house up for sale. She once considered Ryhill so safe that she left doors unlocked when she went shopping. Now she is afraid.

She said: 'You can't call this sentence justice. The law is an ass and society just doesn't take violence seriously enough. Many of us who gave evidence would think twice next time round.'

Mrs Shirtliff's strength of character and determination were crucial in securing a conviction, according to police officers, but she has never returned to the home where she was attacked. She lived with her sisters for 10 months before moving into a new flat.

There was a time when such brutality would have been as rare around Wakefield as the murder of a village librarian. But here, as in many other towns, violence is becoming commonplace. The latest statistics show a 6 per cent annual rise in violent crime nationally, with a 25 per cent increase in robbery. To this community, statistics have proved a poor substitute for raw experience.

In 1987, Wakefield Victim Support dealt with 22 serious assaults. Last year that figure was 63. Cath Saxton, who organises the 39-strong volunteer group, is particularly worried by the increase in attacks on old people by the young.

On the outskirts of Wakefield, Eva Robinson, 75, is recovering from an attack a few weeks ago in which her nose was broken, her pelvis cracked and her face bruised beyond recognition. A 14- year-old boy has been charged.

The frail old woman was attacked in her sheltered housing complex as she returned with another pensioner from an evening in the community hall. There was just pounds 3 in her purse.

Bruises still visible around her eyes, she said: 'He gave me a right hard thump and I fell on the pavement. Once he had the bag he didn't even run. He was right cocky. Two old women were no match for him.'

Since the assault, Mrs Robinson's sight has deteriorated and she has suffered her first epileptic fit in seven years. Her son, Gerald, a financial manager and a former policeman, scoffs at those who say young delinquents are themselves victims.

'It is nothing to do with government policy and unemployment. They are just born criminal and they come from criminal families. The country is increasingly lawless and the police's hands are tied,' he said.

His mother blames 'moral degeneration' on neglectful parents. 'Discipline should begin in the home,' she said.

In another recent case, two teenage girls broke into the home of an Asian widow on what they thought was the day of her husband's funeral. They were a day early and in the fracas that followed they dragged the woman by her hair down two flights of steps.

Ms Saxton said: 'The elderly are very vulnerable because their values belong to a safer age. The Asian lady was very upset when the girls were sent to jail because they were so young. That reaction is not unusual.'

Before starting the Victim Support group in 1985, Ms Saxton worked with offenders. 'At the end of the day people do have choices and there need to be strong deterrents. But reasons for the offenders' actions are also important in prevention,' she said. Victims, she believes, are more interested in punishment than cause: 'Most want offenders to be made an example of.' Few victims believe that punishment fits the crime. Two years ago James Alden, 51, threatened to shoot Jean Broome, 52, a Wakefield shopkeeper, unless she handed over the day's takings. After fleeing when she pushed her alarm button, he ran round the corner to his probation office to confess.

Alden had previous convictions for dishonesty and violence. When the case came to court, the judge said instead of locking him up for three or four years he would give him a chance. He was released for psychiatric treatment.

'The judge said he hoped the lady would understand - well the lady did not understand,' said Ms Broome, who has suffered from nervous illnesses since the attack. She has recently put the business up for sale and 'can't wait to get out', she said. 'I have lived in Wakefield all my life and it used to be a safe place. In one week four shops around here were burgled. For some it wasn't the first time.'

The reasons for rising crime is the stuff of complex national debate. But to the victims of Wakefield, their families and friends, the solution is simple: courts manned by tougher judges and a police force unfettered by new 'constraints' which prevent it doing its job.

(Photographs omitted)