'My daughter will never recover.' Father tells of stabbing in 'safest corner of England'

Fears for future of 21-month-old child who saw the savage attack on Abigail Withchalls. Julia Stuart and Andrew Johnson report
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The Independent Online

The father of a young woman left fighting for her life after being stabbed in front of her baby son spoke movingly yesterday of how the attack had "devastated her life and ours".

Fighting back tears, Martin Hollins, a science teacher, also told of his concern for 21-month-old Joseph. He was found clinging to the prone body of Abigail Witchalls after she was stabbed in the neck on Wednesday.

He added that Abigail, 26, may never recover from her injuries. She was, last night, said to be in a stable condition. "She's communicated enough for us to work out that she knows quite a lot about her condition which is very serious and almost certainly disabling," Mr Hollins said.

"Somehow she has the strength of spirit to deal with that. I'm very, very proud of her and most of all about how she is dealing with this. She's making a tremendous fight of this and we just have to pray for her. She still has her sense of humour as well. She's the Abigail we know."

Recalling the moment he heard of the attack, Mr Hollins told how the family feared the worst, believing Abigail's chances of survival were "less than 50 per cent".

"All I can remember now is the tremendous shock," he said. "She's getting a bit better now and we know it's going to be a long and difficult time. Life has moved on and fortunately we have some hope. Initially we had absolutely no hope at all."

The police last night said they may try to interview Abigail if doctors approve. A police source said: "If she is able to communicate, then we will, at some point, do that."

Abigail was stabbed with a three-inch blade in the quiet and affluent Surrey village of Little Bookham. Joseph was found next to his severely injured mother. He is now staying with his grandparents.

Mr Hollins said: "I heard him wake this morning and his first calls were for his mum. He doesn't have many words but he saw what happened. What we have no idea of is what effect it has had on him. Only time will tell.

"When I left him this morning, he was his little sturdy self: he is a rambunctious little lad. We hope a large family will help mitigate not being able to see his mother for a while."

The attack, in what is described by one senior police officer as the safest corner of the safest county in England, has left the whole village in total shock.

It is a close-knit community where many people knew Abigail. It is the sort of village where people play bridge, go to church and wave to each other on their bicycles. Precision-cut lawns and flawless tulips are a source of pride. Attempted murder is just not meant to happen.

"Everybody is shocked. It's very shattering," said Sheila Pratt, a businesswoman who lives in a cul-de-sac off Burnhams Road and whose house backs on to the woods.

"This is such a nice place to live. It's the sort of place where you leave the doors and windows open. I have always said that I feel safe here. Abigail is such a beautiful girl. I'm devastated for the family."

Burnhams Road, from which leads a private lane with the entrance to the footpath, is so tranquil there is no need for road markings. On a lamppost there was a picture of a cat called Mabel and a plea for any knowledge of her whereabouts. A missing cat was just about as bad as it got in Little Bookham until Wednesday.

Christine Coyle, 50, a fundraiser who lives in Burnhams Road, knows Abigail from the Holy Spirit Church they attend in nearby Fetcham, where the young mother helped with the children's liturgy.

"This is an idyllic place to live," she said. "There's no one around and it's a beautiful place to bring up children. Abigail is a lovely person and she's got a smashing boy. It's just horrific. It's frightening."

Abigail's life was possibly saved by a resident who heard her screams. He found her lying in a pool of blood and wrapped a scarf around her neck to quench the flow as Joseph, who had come out of his buggy, looked on. As the mother lay on the ground, she managed to whisper a brief description of her attacker, a white male.

The former English teacher is now being cared for at St George's Hospital in Tooting, south London, where her mother, Professor Sheila Hollins, who takes over as president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists next month, is a consultant psychiatrist.

In order to communicate with her daughter, she goes through the alphabet and Abigail blinks at certain letters.

Abigail's father-in-law, James, a former GP, said: "The attacker had apparently demanded cash from her as she pushed her beautiful blond-haired toddler son along the footpath. He asked her for money, but a young woman just pushing her child around is not going to be carrying much money.

"Joseph must have seen everything, although he can't describe what he saw as he can only pronounce words like 'mummy' and 'daddy'. But he has been very subdued and seems to have suffered some kind of shock."

Abigail was raised a devout Roman Catholic in Wimbledon, south London. She met her husband, Benoit, 26, an engineer, at a Catholic youth group and they were married in 2002 at Worth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in West Sussex.

It was reported last night in the News of the World that Abigail had been expecting a second child. Her happiness was apparent from a message she left on the Friends Reunited website - "life just gets better and better".

Recently she said: "My friends all told me I would be mad to marry young, have a baby young and live with my in-laws. But I have proved them all wrong because I love being married, I love my baby and I get on really well with my in-laws. I can't believe how fortunate I am."

Now horrified neighbours are making sure their doors are double-locked.

Elaine Oliver, 50, a hairdresser who lives opposite the family's £1m farmhouse conversion, said: "We moved from Kingston to get away from things like that. It's a terrible shock, especially when it's so close to home. They're a lovely family.

"We used to socialise with them when the children were small. We all help each other as neighbours, without interfering in each other's lives. I've since been locking my patio doors when I'm at home.

Detectives were yesterday still questioning a 28-year-old man and 29-year-old woman on suspicion of attempted murder after they gave themselves up at Leatherhead police station on Friday. The man's blue Peugeot car has also been seized. The woman was later released without charge after being eliminated from the inquiry. The man was released on police bail pending further inquiries.

Mr Hollinspleaded for anyone who knew anything about the attack to come forward. "Someone must know the person or persons responsible for the attack on Abigail which has devastated her life and ours," he said.

"We join Surrey police in appealing for anyone who saw anything suspicious to come forward. It's possible someone has suspicions about a friend or relative. If that person is you, we urge you to tell the police."

He paid tribute to her husband, Benoit, 26, an engineer, saying he had spent every night at her bedside."He's the one we really, really want to support. He already has a very good communication with Abigail at the bedside: you can see the love in their relationship. He is with her and able to see what she's feeling. It's really hard, he's in such pain and I really feel for him.

Father Rod Jones, who has known Abigail since childhood, said: "She is paralysed but able to communicate with us by using her eyes, lips and facial expressions.

"Abigail is very grateful for all the prayers and messages of love and support, as are her family."