At midnight on 14th March 2004 Denise Rhodes was walking home with a friend in North London when she saw a young man breaking and entering into the top floor window of a three-storey block of flats. A woman in her eighties could be seen at an adjacent window, screaming for help. Denise gained access to the building, confronted the burglar and prevented his escape, but in doing so sustained a wound which needed two years of medical attention. Later that year she met the burglar in a restorative justice (RJ) meeting at Chelmsford prison.
When I saw the young man climbing through the window, I thought, ‘Ah, you won’t get in.’ It was the top part of the bathroom window, very narrow, maybe only two feet wide. But I decided it was none of my business and started to walk on – until I heard the old lady shrieking! Then I thought, ‘I can’t do that, I can’t walk past.’
I rang all the door bells and got in through the communal door. I ran up the stairs and I caught the burglar coming out of the old lady’s flat clutching her bag. I was prepared to let him go but he wouldn’t drop the bag.
We then had a three-storey fight that was a bit like Tom and Jerry, rolling and tumbling down the stairs. The neighbours heard us and one man came out with a hammer. Two other guys and I had to stop this man from attacking the young lad. The brave thing I did that day wasn’t catching the thief, but stopping this big, angry man from hitting someone with a hammer on his own property!
As the burglar and I got to the communal door, he was still fighting and trying to run away, so I grabbed at his shoes. I was later given a citation for bravery and I had to laugh, telling them that at this point I actually pulled his trousers down! Then he bit me, drawing blood, and promptly lost consciousness. I put him in the recovery position and waited for the police.
Although I was attacked I’m only a secondary victim in this story. The primary victim was the little old lady. On the other hand I had to have an HIV test and I’d had a brand new crown put on my tooth which got chipped in the fight. I also had to take Hepatitis C vaccines, which meant I couldn’t give blood for two years. That was the greatest loss to me.
When the police contacted me and asked if I wanted to be involved in a restorative justice meeting, I agreed. After all, this was a young man who had just been showing off to his girlfriend. He was a daft kid who had made a mistake.
The meeting took place in Chelmsford Prison. Also present was one of the neighbours, the offender’s sister and brother-in-law, plus the RJ officer. I felt quite nervous, although they made it as relaxed for us as possible. We sat around a table with tea and biscuits and when the burglar was brought in he wasn’t handcuffed.
From the start of the meeting the young man was very repentant. When I saw him the first thing I found myself doing was apologising. You see I felt sorry for him. He was just a kid, and a bit thick, and here he was in prison, with a criminal record and I was responsible for that. He’d got two years and he didn’t deserve that. It did nobody any good.
I told him that what really annoyed me was I couldn’t give blood, and the fact that his victim was just a little scared lady. I touched his arm and asked, ‘What if it had been your grandma?’ At this he burst into tears and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ I think that had more effect on him than anything else. And the fact that I wasn’t angry.