"Guilty." Had I been presented with the same limited information, I too would have had no other recourse but to find myself guilty. That was the result of my heart-breaking experience with our judicial system, exacerbated by a local employee of the Council who, with great delight and avidity, egged on some of her 'friends' with the local press, to ensure maximum exposure for their cause.
Did I have displayed on my dashboard the Blue Badge of someone who had recently died? Yes, I did. Was I aware that I had displayed the Blue Badge of the poor soul who passed? Absolutely NOT!
My 'Mea Culpa' is most certainly not an excuse, but I pray it may provide a scintilla of encouragement for anyone who may find themselves in similar circumstances. I'm heartbroken to say that what I believed would be my opportunity to defend myself, providing all of the salient evidence, simply did not occur. And for reasons I still have no answer, I'm grateful that I have support from some governing bodies who are determined to find out why.
And I'm saddest to say that the very professionals in whom I had placed my unequivocal trust, in my opinion, let me down when I needed them the most. I was embarking upon a process I knew virtually nothing about. Their failure, I believe, contributed to this heart-breaking debacle.
First, a bit of background. Back in 2015 I had been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). This is certainly not an excuse, but it provides a fragment of light on perhaps where my mind was at the time. I acknowledge that I was distracted and sometimes found it challenging to focus. But I was working diligently to ensure my own personal challenges did not impact those I was serving, be it at their end-of-life journeys, or for my mission in Eastern Europe.
Again, not an excuse; However, to quote the doctor who issued my diagnosis:
"I can confirm that Fr Haymaker suffered from quite severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was proportionate to the magnitude of the trauma. Indeed, in his circumstances, the trauma was very severe, it was purposeful and premeditated and designed for him to feel responsible for the event. Obviously people with PTSD on average appear more forgetful and absent-minded, upset or depressed..."
This event occurred as a consequence of my work in Eastern Europe with victims of child-trafficking. For nearly three years I had worked diligently to have closed a 'children's brothel' in Transylvania Romania. This particular brothel was the last stop along a well-worn route followed by Russian/Albanian Mafia and other traffickers from the Russian/Ukrainian border through Transnistria, Moldova, over the Carpathian Mountains, in to Western Romania and on to Hungary, where children are routinely bartered and sold to points north, south, and west.
It was thanks to assistance from the Moldovan Prime Minister that I was finally successful in getting the necessary officials to conduct a raid on the brothel, resulting in arrests of numerous local officials. Without help from the highest levels in both Moldova and Romania I suspect the brothel would have continued unfettered. It was a time of jubilation and relief after years of gut-wrenching sadness.
However, it was ten days later that an event occurred outside my home in Moldova that had the most profound impact upon me. And it was this event, that I admit even today, I still struggle with in pushing back the mental photographs that pop up with alarming regularity.
It had been raining perpetually for several days. As the rain finally subsided, my security staff found there was a large 200 litre oil barrel left outside the gates to my home. My staff thought it would be excellent as a receptacle in which to burn rubbish. They began to roll it into the compound. However, due to the weight they had to tip the barrel over to empty the dark liquid.
It was to their horror that they discovered the body of a child, 10-11 years old. She had been tortured and there was a bullet hole in her head. Tightly twisted around the child's neck was a wire with a plastic packet containing a letter addressed to me. The letter said "Dacă vă întoarceți aici, vom veni în Anglia. Vă vom viola fiica. Atunci ne vom întoarce și ne vom ucide pe toți copiii voștri." (The following is paraphrased in the interest of avoiding the most graphic details):
"If you come back here we will come to your home address in England (which they provided) and we will rape and kill your daughter, (stating her name), and we will then come kill each child in your home here."
Perhaps magnified by the fact I had within the same period been collecting the bodies of dead children from Romanian sewers, as well as the body of a decapitated child, as a consequence of Russian separatist activities in the Ukraine, this final atrocity had such a profound impact upon me I knew there was 'something' that had changed within me.
I think, in retrospect, I tried relying upon my own devices, as well as my fervent belief in prayer and reflection, including the Sacraments to help re-set my compass to find a modicum of calm. But my close friends tell me they had seen a profound change in me. According to them I had become removed and less interactive with people. And in light of the threats regarding coming to my home, I confess I occasionally experienced moments of palpable fear. My greatest comfort was in the fact I was grateful that my daughter had graduated Uni and was now working abroad. Yet, I found myself still having surges of fear exacerbated often by grotesque nightmares that robbed me of my sleep.
We were now approaching the Christmas period - two days before Christmas Eve to be exact. My daughter and I were scheduled to spend a week together on the Continent, subsequently ending with my celebrating the Orthodox Christmas with the children in Moldova. I was extremely (and probably unhealthily) anxious about her safety, but tried never to let her know how much it was eating at me. The tangible 'threats' I had received were perpetually invading my ability to sleep and especially to remain focused at times. However, I insisted...at least to myself...that I could handle it and these feelings would eventually pass.
Now, I back up slightly to late October of the same year. I had the honour of serving a young couple. The couple had been working as expat teachers in the Middle East, when the wife was diagnosed with aggressive cancer.
Heartbreakingly, the prognosis was poor and the couple returned to the UK so she could receive whatever medicines possible to help prolong her life. Again, the prognosis remained grim. Their sad situation was compounded by the fact that with typical Middle East Expat contracts, the fact they had to come home immediately invalidated their employment contracts, thus robbing them of their salaries and any contractual pay. In other words, they were about as near to destitute as you can imagine. This is where I offered as much assistance as I could.
I helped them to circumvent the often crippling costs and fees charged by some Undertakers. The couple didn't qualify for any benefits as they had been residing outside of the UK. Relying upon friends, I assisted in sorting the funeral for, as I best recall, somewhere around £200, plus the mandatory fees from the council for registrations, doctors certificates, grave, and interment fees.
As the husband and wife had agreed that it would be imperative for him to find a teaching contract in the UK immediately, I asked friends who were educators to assist and I encouraged him to go on any interviews he may require.
I remained overnight at Hospice for four nights with the dear lady. My poor Jack Russell, who faithfully gave all he could, clearly was becoming worn down and I called a friend to come collect him so he could have his own respite. But it was early the following morning that she passed. I was honoured to be with her and am grateful at how peaceful her passing was.
The husband, I was happy to learn, had secured a teaching position, which would require him reporting to school in less than ten days time. He had lots to do in clearing the property they had rented for the brief period and preparing himself both professionally and emotionally before he began employment in a new town quite far away from our local area. To help him I agreed to register his wife's death and to sort all the paperwork required for the burial.
Typically, when you register a death, you bring with you any DWP papers, identification, Bus Passes, Blue Badges, etc., with you and the Registrar's office takes care of this for you.
However, for reasons I never knew at the time, (I think it was because the husband had borrowed several cars over the preceding weeks), he did not have the Blue Badge to present on the day I registered the death.
We arranged for a graveside service with interment on a Thursday. I could not do later days as I was scheduled to fly to Moldova around 6AM on Friday morning. And, because it would have added much more pressure upon the husband, it was practical to celebrate the simple grave-side service immediately, rather than forcing him to immediately take time off from his new position to bury his wife weeks later.
The graveside funeral was a quiet, private, dignified affair. Whilst in the cemetery, following the interment, the husband handed me several items; some kitchen cutlery and an appliance he wished me to take with me to Moldova. He also handed me the Blue Badge to deal with myself. I didn't say anything to suggest he could do it. I simply placed it in my glovebox with a mental note that I'd deal with it once I returned to the UK the following week.
Herein lay my decline - my first 'Mea Culpa.' I simply forgot about it. During the course of any month I have a minimum of three and generally a maximum of seven Blue Badges sitting in my glove box. They're for the people I transport to clinics for their Chemotherapy treatment, or to doctor's appointments, etc.
Move forward six weeks to December 22nd. I'm quick to admit I was already finding it challenging to hold my head above water. On that day I had two people whom I was to transport at different times, to clinics for Chemo, one couple to an afternoon doctor's appointment, and a request from a Funeral Director to do a 'quick' tree blessing, and I had one particularly close friend whose battle with Oesophageal Cancer was drawing to a close. (She was at the time paramount in my heart and mind), And I had a massive list of goods and food items I needed to collect and buy to pack in my baggage to take to Moldova. I was excited about seeing my beloved daughter as well when we would spend Christmas together, but I could feel my anxiety levels increasing each time the threat would resurface in my mind.
Early on December 22nd, I collected my first LOL (Little Old Lady) of the morning, I asked her to place
her badge on the dash. She rummaged in the glove box and placed a Badge
in the window on the passenger side of the car. I really didn't give it
any further thought. When we arrived there was no parking anywhere due to a number of mini-skips being in front of the surgery. I didn't wish for her to be late and I told her that I'd drop her off, then swing round two streets over and drop off my hearing aids for adjustment, at the local SpecSavers, then come straight back.
There is something exasperatingly frustrating with Blue Badges issued through Macmillan - the Cancer Support Agency. The badges do not contain on the front either the name of the Badge holder, nor a photo, unlike Blue Badges issued through other organisations. It is virtually impossible to tell which badge belongs to which individual without each time physically ripping the card out of its' holder and turning it around to verify the name, then having to fit it back into the scored sleeve which holds them. Save the expiry dates they all look exactly the same.
I parked in a bay at the bottom of the road, knowing that at the top of the road all bays were either for loading or disabled. My interaction at SpecSavers was literally handing the hearing aids, contained in a small pouch, to the clerk at reception, then going back out to the car. All-in-all, it was less than 4-5 minutes...at the most.
As I came up to the car there was a man who said he was from parking enforcement, or something like that... I wasn't exactly sure of what he said, but that seemed to be the gist of it. He asked me if I were the Blue Badge holder. I told him I wasn't and explained what I had done. I even invited him to ride with me the two blocks over to confirm that I had dropped my LOL off and was literally swinging back around to collect her. He thanked me, but said it wasn't necessary.
He went on talking for a bit. But I was surprised when he asked me whether I knew someone he named. I replied that "I certainly did and that she had recently passed away." I recall he asked how I knew this and I explained that I had been with her when she passed. He asked if I had cared for her and I said "yes."
The man told me that the Badge I had displayed actually belonged to the person he named. I told him what had happened and that I'd clearly mixed them up. He behaved as if it were no big deal and that was the end of the matter. He told me that if there were anything he needed to speak with me about it would probably not be until after the New Year and he said I might have to "get my hand slapped," but that would be the end of it.
I gave it no further thought. That is until March came around and I was shocked to receive a letter from the council saying I had to appear for a 'Caution Advisement.' I didn't give it any further thought, believing this must be the 'hand slapping' to which he had alluded.
It was much to my utter shock when I learnt that I was to be prosecuted for the use of the Badge, despite my explanation and offer to have the individual I was transporting that morning confirm this fact. (Plus the fact it was she who had placed a badge on my dash board).
I retained legal counsel. A very nice young man who, in fact, easily understood how such a mistake could have been made for he also had his own Blue Badge due to an advanced coronary condition. The solicitor assured me that what would be my defence is the fact that whilst I may have displayed the badge, I certainly did not do so with the intent of gaining any benefit. Plus, he added that according to the law the crux of the matter was centred around 'intent.' And he felt it would be quite straight forward to show any jury that I certainly had no intent of using the badge for personal gain.
We discussed whether it was better to leave it to a Magistrate to adjudicate or have a jury - "twelve good men and true." It was decided that it would be best to have the jury hear the case and see my defence evidence, including my witnesses supporting what I was doing on the day, along with my photographic evidence - the photos I had taken of where I was on the day.
The waiting for a court date was excruciating. It was compounded by the fact I had some medical issues I was dealing with at the time. I was looking forward to presenting my evidence - all of it.
The day before I phoned my barrister to confirm where and what time I was to appear. However, I was told I needed to wait until after 4PM to get a confirmation of the court I was to attend. It was around 4:30 that I received a call from the law firm's secretary, telling me I had to be in Chichester for 10AM the following day and the barrister I had met with multiple times would be there.
So wound up was I, especially as I was now having to place further demands on those who so kindly wanted to speak on my behalf, to have to drive to Chichester early the next morning to do so I admit my nerves were frayed beyond words. Thankfully, The Venerable Mr Piddles provides a calming affect and he was working overtime to keep me calm.
It was about 0950 that we were walking from the car park to the court house when my mobile rang. A lady was asking where I was and why wasn't I there! I told her I'd been instructed to come for 10AM and was doing so and was literally across the street. Apparently, the solicitor's office failed to tell me that we needed to be there much earlier. Had I known I would have been happy to. We'd driven to Chichester the night before, paid for hotel rooms, and were waiting for the time came to go to the court.
The judge was already put out. (to state it mildly). I had no idea that not only had the judge wanted to start early, she stated on multiple occasions that she only had a limited time to hear the case as she had to be somewhere else and would be leaving the court no later than 1:30pm that afternoon.
Taking in all of the above it seems of no real consequence I suppose. The kicker, however, was the fact that we discovered to my horror that my Barrister hadn't shown up! Much of what happened after that left me in a bit of a daze as my head was swimming so badly. At the same time I learnt that not only had my Barrister not appeared, he had failed to submit my evidence. And as a final insult, he also had failed to provide a witness list - items that are all required to be done in advance!
The Prosecutor had conveniently removed the badge ID from its case and photographed the front and back of the actual ID side-by-side, suggesting that you can see both the ID number and the user's name clearly at all times. The defence I had provided included a badge inside a case, just the way anyone would see them, to show that you could not tell which badge belonged to which person. But the jury never got to see this. That was my evidence; evidence that I was unable to present.
And as the Prosecutor rapid-fired questions towards me, asking the names of the people I was transporting two years prior I desperately tried to answer him, but clearly tripped over some of the names - such was my state of mind at the time. Again, certainly not an excuse, but being focused while ensconced within the miasma of PTSD made it evident that I could no more tell you what I had been doing the week prior, much less eighteen months or more earlier!
I say this with a bit of irony; had I been presented with a photo the way the Prosecutor's photo was made, I too would have found myself guilty! This is because I would have no way of realising that in everyday use it's simply impossible to see which badge belongs to which person.
So here I am. It's over. Tetelestai. However, my tail is not between my legs yet. Thankfully, we have a robust support system through the Law Society who have offered to assist me. They feel there's a number of questions which need to be addressed. And they're providing assistance with the appeal process.
I think anyone's first inclination after an experience such as this is to curl up in the dark and eat copious quantities of ice cream. I refuse to do so. Not only for myself, but it has become clear to me there are other people who have had similar experiences.
Indeed, it's heartbreaking on so many levels. But I must take the opportunity to extend a written word of gratitude to so many people who have reached out to me, offering support and encouragement. Some emails have been humorous in their support. Others have been succinct, but equally supportive. And the overall message is their awareness that I became an easy target, partially because I was already 'down,' but also because it has always been my nature to take a passive position when it comes to wrongs being committed.
Thank you - all of you, from the depths of my heart. I lack the vocabulary to tell you how grateful I am for your support, encouragement, and steadfast belief in me.
I only pray that you never encounter a similar experience in your own life.