A woman who almost died when her ex-partner attacked her with a meat cleaver has said she is scared for her life – and the safety of her children – after learning he is set to be allowed to return to the streets of her city despite having served less than half his sentence.
Mother-of-two Zoe Dronfield spent weeks in hospital recovering from bleeding to the brain, a stab wound to her neck and a broken right arm inflicted during an eight-hour ordeal at the hands of Jason Smith, who was subsequently jailed for 10 years, with a further four on licence, in March 2015.
However, little more than four years into his current sentence for grievous bodily harm with intent, he has been transferred to an open prison with an expectation he will be allowed to stay overnight with family in Coventry, three miles from her home.
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Campaigners and Ms Dronfield herself have expressed major concerns over Smith’s relocation to a jail designed for prisoners deemed to be a low risk to the public, given that he has never expressed remorse for the vicious attack.
Police have offered her a panic alarm in recognition of her vulnerability, but she is demanding the decision to relax the terms of his incarceration be reassessed, saying that by the time he attacks, it could well be too late.
Ms Dronfield said: “We were together for just over a year. He started off as Prince Charming, but the relationship took a turn. We had an argument and he pushed me into drawers and I broke my ribs. I did not see it as domestic violence at the time. I ended it shortly afterwards.
“He started stalking me after I broke up with him – the phone would be constantly ringing. He contacted me via WhatsApp, Facebook, calling, texting, and just turning up. I had to park my car a few streets away so he didn’t know I was in, but he would still bang on the door.”
She said she was let down by the police response, saying two male officers turned up at her house and said “you need to find yourself a nice boyfriend” after she called them to make a complaint.
Ms Dronfield added: “I was a sitting duck. The police were not helping me when I complained about the stalking so I decided to meet him, but did not realise how dangerous it was. It was then the meat cleaver incident happened. Now, I am sitting here in the same property, waiting for a knock at the door from him.”
Ms Dronfield said the police visited her without warning last month to tell her he could be moved to an open prison within six or eight weeks, but she now thinks he had already been moved when they visited.
She said: “They said to me ‘We can ask to get you a panic alarm’, but if they are suggesting I have a panic alarm, then why on earth are they letting him out?
“My children are 13 and nine years old. The last thing they need is to bump into their mother’s attacker. My son walks to and from school. He will be looking over his shoulder. I was not expecting to be here after he was released.
“Given all of the campaigning and speaking out I have done, he could be out for revenge. I am gobsmacked they are even considering him as someone who could be released. The police said they could not tell me the days he gets released. He could terrorise me and all his other victims. Would they even be making this decision if I was dead? The fact that I’ve lived means they are going to terrorise my life.”
She said she received a letter from Robert Buckland, prisons minister, at the end of June saying Smith had already been moved to an open prison. The decision has left her feeling “completely and utterly vulnerable” and she is looking for a solicitor to take on her case, she added.
Ms Dronfield, who is now a domestic violence campaigner, said Smith had been on bail when he tried to murder her – demonstrating he does not “stick to the rules” and could ignore any conditions preventing him from approaching her while on day release.
Smith was also sentenced to one month in prison for criminal damage – running alongside his longer sentence – for damaging a door at Ms Dronfield’s property a few days before the attack. He lost appeals against his sentence in 2016 and 2017.
Laura Richards, violence advisor to the National Police Chiefs Council, noted Smith continued to contact Ms Dronfield after he was remanded in prison – using a smuggled mobile phone.
Ms Richards, a criminal behaviour analyst who is founder of anti-stalking charity Paladin, added: “He was convicted of witness intimidation. He threatened to have her house burned down. He is manipulative and charming. I would imagine he has hoodwinked them. One of his victims was a West Midlands police officer who went out with him, who told the police he is capable of killing and this was not taken seriously.”
Ms Richards, who was head of the Violent Crime and Intelligence Analysis Unit in the Metropolitan Police Service, has been at the forefront of a campaign for a national register of “serial stalkers and domestic violence perpetrators”.
She added: “Women’s lives don’t really seem to count for anything. He has shown no remorse or taken no responsibility for his behaviour. What is the evidence of the decision making that he is safe? We never imagined this would happen. There is no way she would have remained in [her current location] knowing he could be in the same place.
“Zoe should have been notified before he was moved. It is the wrong way round. Victims are an afterthought in the process. My real concern is that they make these decisions in isolation. Decisions like these get made all the time. The criminal justice system puts the perpetrator’s rights over the victim’s right. It is not an anomaly. It is not extreme. It is part of the tapestry of the victim’s experience. There are hundreds of victims who have been murdered by serial perpetrators in the UK recently. We do not want Zoe to become another statistic.”
A study by the University of Gloucestershire on the relationship between stalking and homicide involving a female victim and male perpetrator, found that in 71 per cent of cases the victim and perpetrator were in, or had previously had, an intimate relationship.
It found stalking was identified in the run-up to 94 per cent of the 358 criminal homicides examined.
A Prison Service spokesperson said: “We understand the distress that a move to open prison and day release can cause victims, but both are important parts of a prisoner’s rehabilitation to stop them offending again.
“All such offenders are carefully risk assessed and face return to closed prison if they do not obey strict conditions.”