I”m not a hostage to the past any more: Stephanie Slater reveals how – 20 years after being kidnapped and raped – she”s finally able to move on
Stephanie Slater often wonders who and where she would be today if the events of 20 years ago had never happened.
Would she still be living in the bustling city of Birmingham instead of a sleepy seaside resort on the Isle of Wight
Might she be married with a couple of children, or a successful businesswoman, instead of a middle-aged singleton with a menagerie of pets for company
“It”s as if I was like a train happily going one way when all of a sudden I was jolted onto another track taking me somewhere else,” said Stephanie Slater
‘Sometimes, when I sit outside looking at the sea, I feel as if I haven’t a care in the world,’ says Stephanie, 45, surveying her life.
Not that this is the life she would have chosen, working when she can as an unpaid volunteer, had chance not placed her at the centre of one of the most high-profile crimes of the 1990s.
‘It’s as if I was like a train happily going one way when all of a sudden I was jolted onto another track taking me somewhere else,’ she says.’
Twenty years ago this January, Stephanie, then an estate agent, was kidnapped at knifepoint by sadistic killer Michael Sams, who lured her to an empty house in the Great Barr area of Birmingham by posing as a potential house buyer.
Sams, a one-legged toolmaker, bound, raped and kept Stephanie blindfolded in a makeshift coffin in his workshop in Nottinghamshire, threatening to kill her unless her employers paid a 175,000 ransom.
Stephanie, convinced she was going to die, kept her composure during her eight day captivity, and even befriended Sams by chatting about hobbies and Coronation Street in the belief he might let her live if he liked her.
Little did she know that six months before her kidnap, Sams had abducted Julie Dart, 18, from Leeds, and murdered her after she became hysterical when he tried to put her in the coffin.
Michael Sams admitted to police that he”d always intended to kill Stephanie
Amazingly, Stephanie’s plan worked and Sams freed her after the ransom was paid, even though he later admitted to police that he’d always intended to kill her.
Dumped at the end of the road where she lived with her adoptive parents, Betty and Warren, she stumbled, half blind and terrified, back into her old life. Only nothing could ever be the same again.
‘I was famous for something I didn’t want to be famous for,’ says Stephanie, speaking publicly for the first time in five years because she feels she’s finally been able to put the past behind her.
‘It was very daunting and frightening. People recognised me in the street. Everyone knew my name. I hated it.’
She tried to return to her old job but, plagued with panic attacks, lasted only three days. Her relationship with boyfriend David, an ice-skating instructor, went the same way.
Every part of her life, Stephanie says, had been so tainted by Sams she felt no euphoria at surviving.
She felt, instead, a misfit. She fled to the Isle of Wight in 1993 — a place where she had spent happy childhood holidays — after suffering a complete breakdown.
Today, she lives in a converted 18th-century stable block with one dog, four turtles, a cat, a parrot and five gerbils, but still dreams, like a teenager, of meeting Mr Right.
‘I’d love to get married one day but I’ve had such a strange life,’ says Stephanie.
‘Despite what’s happened, I’m not scared of men and I’ve lots of male friends.
‘I’ve had a couple a boyfriends over the years, but how do you tell someone “I was kidnapped, raped and kept in a box” without putting them off’ she asks. ‘I’ve a lot of emotional baggage for them to cope with.’
Indeed, immediately after she was freed, Stephanie hid the fact that Sams had raped her partly because she feared no man would want her if they knew.
‘I thought: “No one will want me, knowing he touched me. I’ll never get a boyfriend again,” ’ she admits.
She resumed her relationship with David soon after her kidnap ordeal because she was determined Sams would not be the last man to touch her.
But it soon petered out as it seemed to Stephanie that David ‘enjoyed the attention more than I did’.
In the past 20 years she has had just three boyfriends, but each romance ‘fizzled out’ after a matter of months.
Stephanie with her Father in 1992 after Sams freed her. Every part of her life, she says, had been so tainted by the killer she felt no euphoria at surviving
‘They all ended amicably,’ she explains. ‘But when you have been through what I’ve been through, it’s going to drain your confidence.
‘I like men, and I like being in their company. I have always been determined not to let what Sams did freak me out, so I have never felt any sexual stigma.
“The men I have dated were friends first and got to know me that way, but the relationships just never worked out.’
While Stephanie accepts she might never be a bride, she remains optimistic.
‘I’m still hopeful of meeting someone special, someone loving and caring with a good sense of humour, who can make me laugh,’ she says.
‘I’d like people to see the other side of me now; the person who has come through the other side and is happy. I don’t want to be a victim any more.’
She credits her new-found peace of mind on her decision to live the quiet life, surrounding herself with close friends, frequently seeing her father Warren, 77, who lives nearby, and spending hours walking her dog every day.
She moved to the Isle of Wight because it held no bad memories — just happy ones from before the kidnap.
Stephanie hasn’t had a paid job since the attack. Instead she travels the country, lecturing police on how to treat kidnap victims.
She also does voluntary work — until recently she was a tour guide at St Catherine’s Lighthouse, Niton, on the island. She likes jobs where she can chat to people who have no idea of her background.
Time has done little to diminish the memories of 20 years ago, but Stephanie now has enough emotional distance to recount the events as if they happened to someone else.
In past years, the anniversary of her ordeal would invariably spark panic attacks and re-awaken the trauma.
“Terror is the only word to describe it,” said Stephanie (pictured in 1995)
This year, however, she will spend the day with friends enjoying a musical, The Phantom Of The Opera, in the West End in London, trying to blot out indelible memories of Sams.
‘He was just a normal-looking man, a little bit grubby,’ she recalls of her first sight of him outside 153 Turnbury Road, a 48,000 property in Great Barr. It was in an upstairs bathroom that he pounced.
‘All of a sudden his face contorted and he had these huge weapons in his hands — a knife about 12in long and a tool with a big metal hook on the end,’ says Stephanie.
‘As the adrenaline rushed through me, I thought: “Get out, get past him, get round him, just get out!” But he was so big he seemed to fill the whole room. This grubby little man was suddenly this huge monster.’
Stephanie fought back, but Sams overpowered her. Pushing her into the bath, he held a knife to her throat, tied her hands, blindfolded her and led her to his car, hidden in a garage at the back of the house.
Strapping her into the reclined passenger seat, Sams threw a blanket over his victim and a tool box on her chest to make her lie flat.
‘He had the knife in his hand, sticking into my thigh, and he said: “If you move, scream or try to escape I will stab you,” ’ she recalls. ‘I was terrified for my life.’
Sams drove her to his workshop in Nottingham, stopping only to force her to record a ransom demand tape, which he posted to her boss Kevin Watts.
‘I was thinking: “My God, my family can’t afford that.” But the thing that really frightened me was the thought he might not release me even if he got the 175,000,’ she says.
That first night, Sams raped Stephanie after ordering her to remove all her clothes. When she protested, he threatened to kill her.
‘I just lay there like a dead thing. He said: “I can’t believe you are so calm.”
“But what I was doing was mentally detaching myself from what was happening to me,’ she says. ‘I thought: “If I don’t think about it, I can pretend it hasn’t happened.” ’
Sams then instructed Stephanie, who was handcuffed, to lay down in a makeshift coffin.
‘I had rope tied around my legs and a metal manacle attached to my right leg,’ she says.
‘On the first night he put electrodes down my trouser leg and said: “If you move you will be electrocuted.”
‘He pulled my hands above my head, attached them to a metal bar under boulders and said: “If you pull your arms down to try to escape the boulders will crush your skull in.”
‘The worst thing was the cold — there was no heating. There were rats running around which kept me awake, and creaks and noises. I was dropping in and out of sleep, but the slightest noise and I’d think: “Oh God, he’s back.” Terror is the only word to describe it.
‘Sometimes I didn’t know if I was already dead. When I lay there in the dark, most of my body was going numb because I wasn’t moving. You can’t see anything. There is nothing to connect you to the world.
“Sometimes you think you no longer exist, but at no time did I give up on my desire to live.’
If the nights were terrifying, the days were surreal. From her coffin, Stephanie could hear Sams’ life carrying on as normal, as he talked to customers bringing tools in for repair.
‘I was just a few feet away in a box and I’d think: “Do I shout for help” I knew if I stepped out of line he’d kill me.’
Every morning, when Stephanie was briefly released from the coffin to eat breakfast and go to the bathroom, she tried to strike up a conversation.
She was determined to make Sams see her as a fellow human being rather than a ‘piece of meat’ to be disposed of.
‘I talked to him about Coronation Street and he responded. And that’s when I started to build up a rapport with him,’ she recalls.
‘He enjoyed chatting about hobbies and holidays and started getting me out of the box just to talk to me.
‘I got the impression he was a sad, lonely man who didn’t have many friends. I thought if I could just get him to see me as human, he might let me go. I saved my own life by somehow making him like me.’
Indeed, after that first night, Sams never raped Stephanie again. On her last night in captivity, he asked if he could do ‘what I did the first night’, but accepted her refusal.
After the ransom was paid, Sams dropped her at the end of her road at 1am. But far from enjoying her freedom, the nightmare intensified.
‘I was traumatised and blind for two days because the blindfold had damaged my eyes,’ she says. ‘The police thought I was dead, so I had to stagger down to my house alone.
‘I remember my dad saying: “Stephanie’s back! My God, she’s alive!”
They dragged me into the house and it was chaos. The lights were blazing. I couldn’t see. I didn’t know if I’d come to the right house or who all these people were.
“I couldn’t touch anybody in case evidence was contaminated, and it was very difficult not being able to reach out to hold my dad’s hand.’
Less than 12 hours after her release, West Midlands Police put Stephanie in front of the world’s media at a press conference, something which would never happen today.
Indeed, she now travels around Britain speaking to police forces about how to treat kidnap victims after their release and the impact of public attention on their mental health.
Sams was arrested one month after her release — the result of his first wife watching BBC’s Crimewatch and recognising his voice on the ransom tape.
He was jailed for life in July 1993 for the murder of Julie Dart and Stephanie’s abduction, but he has continued to haunt her ever since.
Stephanie was horrified when she heard at the end of 1994 that Sams was planning to write a book claiming he’d enjoyed a ‘love affair’ with her.
Until then, she had denied to police that she’d been raped for fear of what this knowledge might do to her frail mother Betty, who died in 1998 aged 64.
‘I wanted to protect my dignity, and also my mum who’d been very ill,’ says Stephanie.
‘She’d had two heart attacks and she kept saying: “He hasn’t touched you, has he” So it was hard for me to say anything.
‘I’d kept quiet because of me and my family, not because I was hiding a love affair. The fact he raped me makes me feel sick to the pit of my stomach. I will always hate him.’
In an effort to move on, Stephanie changed her name by deed poll to Phoenix Rhiannon shortly after settling on the Isle of Wight.
Today, however, she is planning to legally change it back to Stephanie Slater and reclaim her identity.
‘I changed my name because I’d had enough of being Stephanie Slater,’ she says.
‘But I’ve become more brave. Demons follow you around, but you do heal. You have a scar, but it’s not bleeding any more.
‘With friends around you, those demons do tend to fall by the wayside. I’m fine now, I’m happy. I don’t want be a hostage to the past any more.’