I was looking round the house for the best hiding place in case Al came back armed with a crossbow: Trainee GP stalked by ex-boyfriend reveals terrible truth uncovered by her parents
Last updated at 2:00 AM on 19th February 2012
'Charmer': Dhalla poses for a snap with Alison at her mother's wedding
Cowering under her living room table
with a duvet for comfort, Dr Alison Hewitt prepared to spend a sleepless
night in her small Brighton flat.
one hand, the trainee GP clutched her mobile phone ready to dial 999 at
the slightest noise. In the other, she gripped her alarm clock which,
she reasoned, would provide a useful source of light in an emergency.
Then, uncertain if she would survive the night, she waited.
Alison was convinced that she was about to be visited by her ex-boyfriend Al Amin Dhalla, who had subjected her and her family to a vicious campaign of harassment over several months.
Her terror was heightened knowing that police, who knew all about Dhalla, had freed him on bail after finding him firing a cache of weapons – including a crossbow, air pistol and air rifle – in the Wiltshire countryside. In his car, police had found masking tape, tools and a satnav that was programmed with addresses for Alison and her mother.
His claim that he had been carrying out target practice suddenly held chilling significance.
The discovery was terrifying enough to force Alison, 37, to calculate where best to position her makeshift bed if, as she feared, Dhalla turned up with a crossbow.
Last week, Dhalla, 42, a Canadian who worked in the City, was found guilty of nine charges following a four-week trial at Lewes Crown Court, including two counts of harassment, theft, arson with intent to endanger life, criminal damage and possession of an offensive weapon.
Dhalla was described as a narcissistic psychopath whose outwardly mild-mannered personality and stable career was completely at odds with a violent and obsessive streak, which was only revealed after he was spurned by Alison after a year-long romance.
She has endured what she describes as a nightmare so far-fetched and surreal that she still struggles to understand it.
Speaking at her mother's thatched cottage in the pretty hamlet of Aston Abbotts near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, she says: 'I've been in major shock and total disbelief all the way through. I'm still in shock. I've also felt humiliated and mortified that I let these things happen, that my judgment was so bad.
'I see him as two different people – this Al I knew who looked after me, and Dhalla, who I don't comprehend in any way. I can't put the two together.
'People say, why did you stay with him for so long But I just didn't have the energy to leave.'
To anyone who met Dhalla, he appeared a gentle and unassuming man with impeccable manners.
Alison, who worked long hours doing her GP training, was introduced to him by an exclusive London dating agency, Executive Club of St James's, in January 2010.
Their first date – to see a Sherlock Holmes movie at a Leicester Square cinema – went well. Alison did not immediately feel a spark, but was flattered when he got in touch with her to request a second meeting at a Chinese restaurant.
'I wasn't blown away, but he was friendly and polite and I was willing to have some fun,' she says. 'He was old-fashioned and would walk on the outside edge of the pavement and open doors for me.'
They met regularly at weekends and took day trips, sailing in Brighton and walking in the South Downs.
Ordeal: Alison with mother Pamela and stepfather David, who were also targeted
Dhalla, from Toronto, told Alison he was 35, had been in the UK for five years and was orphaned when his parents died in a car crash. All would later turn out to be lies. But he maintained the pretence – and confessed his love for Alison within two months.
He demonstrated an odd determination to move in to her flat by bringing a bag of possessions each time he visited, and Alison was flattered. After all, she was busy at work and he seemed happy to look after her.
She says: 'He was very thoughtful. He'd say, “We're never going to see each other. I'll cook for you. I'll help around the house.” He learnt vegetarian recipes for me – stir-fries and chilli – and left lovey-dovey notes around, lit candles, bought flowers and put my favourite jazz music on.'
It wasn't a particularly passionate relationship, by Alison's own admission. Friends seemed unenthusiastic, but most agreed he was charming and had a good job, as a financial auditor with insurance company LV.
Alison's suspicions about Dhalla were first aroused when he was introduced to her family at the wedding of Alison's mother Pamela, 66, who married David Gray in June 2010. Alison's father Anthony, a social worker and lecturer, had died 15 years previously.
Alison recalls: 'My gran confided she thought there was something suspicious about Al. She'd asked him about the car crash and decided that he was evasive. She wondered whether he was married or had kids.'
Soon afterwards, Dhalla asked Alison about the kind of rings she liked. 'He meant an engagement ring,' she says. 'I said to him, very clearly, “Don't buy me a ring. I'm not ready for that.” I wasn't sure about him, but wasn't ready to throw it all away.'
Al Amin Dhalla caught on CCTV at the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath, West Sussex
Alison remained untroubled about the relationship and in July they took a week-long holiday to the Greek island of Skiathos. They took a boat trip to an idyllic beach and swam in clear seas – and during the trip Dhalla buried a ring in the sand, inside a sandcastle.
Alison says: 'My heart sank. It was such a beautiful beach and such a romantic setting. It was a stunning 5,000 ring – gold, with three diamonds. I said, “I told you I wasn't ready for this. I don't want to say no, but I can't say yes.”
'He said, “That's fine. Keep it. When you're ready for it, wear it then.” Then I told him, “When I'm ready, I'll propose to you”.'
Dhalla increased the pressure on Alison to commit as the year progressed but by now her parents were concerned and decided to investigate his past.
David's job, as a weapons scientist with BME, a subsidiary of global defence giant BAE Systems, required him to notify his employers of any changes to personal circumstances. Since he had recently remarried, he had mentioned his new stepdaughter's boyfriend.
Alison says: 'David's company had carried out some basic screening and some suspicions had been raised. It was vague, but suggested a criminal record. They had also hired this private detective who said Al had lied on his visa to get into the UK. He'd put ''doctor in training'' for his job.'
But she adds: 'I was shocked they had gone to such lengths.'
Terrifying: Dhalla's crossbow, used in his four-month campaign of terror
The items found in the back of a specially-adapted van belonging to jilted former City worker Al Amin Dhalla
The specially-adapted van Al Amin Dhalla used in his campaign of harassment
When the four of them took a holiday to Alicante in Spain in October 2010, the trip turned sour.
'Al accused my parents of moving his things and looking at his passport. He was deadly serious, furious. I'd never seen him like that.
'He stormed off. My parents admitted snooping around, but said his next of kin in his passport was listed as his mother. I was really confused, but not devastated. I thought, who is this guy and why has he lied'
Back at home, Dhalla explained to Alison that his parents were alive, but had separated and his mother treated him as dead. He claimed it was easier to lie to avoid questions.
He also confessed to a criminal record, admitting he had been involved in a violent argument with his uncle, which had led to a prison sentence.
Alison says she was scared by Dhalla's admission, but all her energies were by now focused on an inquest she had to attend as a witness, and the prospect was causing her real stress. 'I knew breaking up was going to take a lot of energy and I just couldn't cope with that,' she says.
'Work was sucking everything out of me. I decided not to deal with it until the inquest was over.'
Alison Hewitt leaves Lewes Crown Court in East Sussex, with stepfather David Gray after Dhalla was found guilty
As Dhalla began emailing Alison's parents about potential wedding plans, they continued to examine his past. The private investigator discovered he appeared to have legally changed his surname from Esmail.
The family told Alison to leave Dhalla, saying he was dangerous, and she moved out of her flat and into a Premier Inn for some breathing space.
She soon returned – after being pestered by Dhalla's telephone calls to the hotel – but after the inquest in mid-December, Alison finally confronted the relationship.
Her family had advised her to look at a website, titled The Memoirs of Al Dhalla (His Legacy and Contributions to Society). Alison recalls: 'There were pictures of me, under a section called Family Achievements. It was all a bit weird. I knew then it was over, but didn't know how to finish it.'
Then Dhalla's employers received an anonymous letter repeating the claim that he had lied on his work visa, and he resigned rather than face an investigation.
Alison believes it was the private investigator who tipped them off, but it gave her the strength to summon her courage.
On Christmas Eve, just before starting a night shift at the hospital, she suggested they should break up. He seemed calm, and said he'd think about it. When Alison came home the following morning, their Christmas decorations, including the Christmas tree, had all gone. 'Al was angry,' she says. 'He said the decorations were in the bin outside, along with a butterfly picture from the wall and my medical degree certificate, which he'd ripped apart. That really upset me.'
On January 8, 2011, David and Alison's brother, Paul, persuaded Dhalla to move out. But Dhalla did not take rejection well.
On January 11, Alison's mother called her to report that neighbours in their quiet village had received anonymous poison-pen letters, making ludicrous claims about the family. One slur, directed at David, claimed he was in 'illegal possession of a human corpse' and had conducted 'indignity to human remains', while Alison's mother was described as 'obese' and a 'black widow' who dated men very soon after her husband's death.
Alison says: 'I couldn't understand this side of him. I assumed he was just heartbroken. He was calling my family around the world, telling them he loved me.'
It was late February before she heard from him again, but the occasional text, email and phone call quickly escalated until he was bombarding her with near-constant contact. His emails were eerily chirpy and simply described his days in domestic detail and his wish for them to rekindle their relationship. But, several times, he arrived unannounced at Alison's flat – once at 7am as she left for work, begging for a second chance.
Dhalla, a Canadian national, with trainee doctor Alison Hewitt, from Brighton, East Sussex
Reluctantly Alison agreed to meet him one Saturday night but arrived home from work to find him waiting and angry that she was late. He jumped into her car and refused to leave until Alison threatened to call the police.
She says: 'For the first time, I saw his eyes blazing. His pupils were animated and angry, like he was enjoying the argument. It was suddenly really intimidating. I had to promise to see him on Monday to get him to leave. But I spoke to the police and they agreed to come along and arrest him on Monday night.'
Dhalla was arrested on March 28 as he arrived at Alison's flat, on suspicion of harassment and theft of documents. He was given a restraining order, banning him from Sussex and forbidding him from contacting Alison or her family.
Jilted former City worker Al Amin Dhalla's police custody picture
But on April 4 a policeman arrived at Alison's work to tell her about the arrest in Wiltshire, and how Dhalla had been shooting at targets in a field. Though his anger had clearly escalated, he was released on bail the next day. Alison says: 'I was really shocked. I had felt relieved that he would be locked up. I just knew he would come and find me. The police put a red alert against my phone number and address.
'That evening I was looking around the house thinking where was the best place to be, and that if he'd bought a crossbow once he could get one again. I worked out that sleeping under the table was the best place if he was going to shoot a crossbow through the window. That sounds so horrible now.'
At 3am, police arrived at Alison's flat to tell her that her mother's home had been set on fire. Fortunately, the damage was limited to the front door and wall and the thatched roof did not catch alight.
At the time, Pamela and David were away on holiday in a cottage on Lundy Island – but the police were concerned enough about their safety to send a helicopter to airlift them to a safe house in Eastbourne, where Alison had also been taken.
By now, red alerts were also in place on Alison's workplaces and Dhalla was seen on CCTV at the Princess Royal hospital at Haywards Heath, West Sussex, where Alison was working at the time in obstetrics. He had posed as a doctor by stealing a stethoscope and had been asking staff about work rotas.
That night, Dhalla tried to set fire to a police station in Wing, a couple of miles from Alison's mother's home. He returned to the hospital at 5am – when Alison should have been working – and was spotted by staff and locked in a toilet until armed police arrived.
In his hired car, police found a loaded crossbow, a large knife, a claw hammer, pliers, bolt cutters, and a doctor's outfit.
Alison's relief that he was now in custody turned to horror when she continued to receive letters while he was on remand. They were love letters, some 12 pages long, and there was also a suicide note.
Dhalla's trial lasted four weeks. Alison learnt he had rented a flat on a neighbouring street in Brighton in a bid to follow her movements, and police later said that arresting him had prevented three murders. He is due to be sentenced in April.
Alison is still unable to reconcile the apparently gentle man she knew with the armed stalker in the dock. 'I never want to see him again,' she says. 'I feel very sad that this happened, and that people can have such anger and revenge in them that it gets so out of control. I feel sad about the whole thing, rather than angry, but I know I'll recover.'