A dangerous man responsible for one of the most infamous crimes in Canterbury this century has gone on the run from prison – but his disappearance has been kept under wraps for nine months.
Armed robber Stephen Baker held up Stilwell Jewellers in Burgate with a 12-inch knife in 2008 and threatened to burn and blind terrified staff, who he left locked in a room as he fled with cash and jewellery worth £124,000.
A judge said Baker – who had 30 previous convictions for 106 offences – presented a substantial risk of future harm to the public and jailed him until he could no longer be deemed a danger.
But this week our sister paper the Kentish Gazette exclusively learned that Baker had disappeared from HMP Standford Hill on the Isle of Sheppey back in January – with no public appeals to find him launched since.
One of his traumatised victims only discovered he was on the run after calling victim support officials to ask for an update.
It is understood Baker was nearing the end of his sentence when he was moved to the category D ‘open’ prison, where inmates are allowed to leave for short periods under strict conditions.
But after he failed to return, a warrant was issued for his arrest on January 17.
Jewellery shop owner Charlotte Stilwell says she is horrified to learn the 53-year-old is at large again and outraged to have only recently been told.
She said: “It’s disgusting. My fear is he will do it to someone else and it will be worse next time. Someone could get seriously hurt.
"How did he escape from prison in the first place? I’m cross because the system should be protecting victims and the public, and not letting these criminals out into the world to commit another crime.
“In a way I wish I didn’t know. Now I’m constantly looking over my shoulder. When you’ve been through something like that, it makes you worry.”
Miss Stilwell and colleague Karen Haines were held up at knifepoint by Baker, who had first appeared as a well-dressed and well-spoken customer.
Miss Stilwell said: “He had us pinned behind the counter in the corner of the shop so there was no escape. He had a crazed sort of look in his eyes and didn’t look stable. There was no way we were going to try and fight back.
“We just tried to be sympathetic and said he could just take what he wanted and leave. All I was thinking was that we had to get through it without being hurt or worse.”
Mrs Haines said: “He was saying things like ‘I don’t have anything to lose’ and threatened to kill us and any customer who happened to walk in. It lasted about 20 minutes but felt more like an hour and all the time he was pointing the knife at our faces or stomachs.”
Miss Stilwell said: “After he had snatched lots of watches, jewellery and money, he cut the phone wires and locked us in the back room and we heard the door shut as he left.
“We managed to get out of the back of the building and then through the window of a neighbouring dentist, which was a bit of a shock for them.”
Miss Stillwell, 43, has criticised the authorities for failing to inform her or the public that a dangerous criminal was back in society.
She said: “The police put out appeals for people wanted for petty crimes. He committed a huge crime, so why isn’t his face out there? He needs to go back to prison to serve his full time.”
Miss Stillwell said: “I was told he’d gone missing by email. I didn’t even get a phone call or visit.
"And that’s only after I asked for an update because I hadn’t heard anything for so long. They said they were very sorry and they thought they had told me, but they obviously hadn’t.”
Baker was tried at Canterbury Crown Court and convicted of robbery in November 2009.
When passing an indeterminate sentence in October the following year, Judge Michael O’Sullivan said Baker had an appalling criminal record including previous robberies, wounding, and the use of imitation firearms and offensive weapons.
He ordered Baker to serve a minimum of six years behind bars before he could apply for parole.
The sentence meant Baker, when released, would be on licence for life, and liable to be recalled to prison if he committed any further offences.
The court heard Baker been admitted to hospital for mental health problems eight times, but doctors at the time of sentencing did not describe him as mentally ill.
They said he had a long-standing personality disorder, with one doctor expressing concern he had re-offended so soon after being discharged from a hospital order.
The Ministry of Justice says there are stringent controls surrounding the transfer of inmates to open prisons.
A spokesman said: “The independent Parole Board undertakes a thorough consideration of the evidence, including reports from the offender manager, supervisor, key prison workers, psychology reports and post-programme reports.
"The Parole Board will not recommend a prisoner’s move to open conditions unless it considers it safe to do so.
“If a prisoner gives cause for concern in open conditions, they can be returned to closed conditions immediately.
“When an abscond takes place, police are immediately notified and are responsible for locating the offender.”
“The police put out appeals for people wanted for petty crimes. He committed a huge crime, so why isn’t his face out there? He needs to go back to prison to serve his full time” -Charlotte Stilwell
Police in Kent say they continue to search for Baker but do not believe he is “an immediate danger to the public”.
They say a number of inquiries have been made to find him, with locations searched and CCTV checked across the county.
The Metropolitan Police has also joined the hunt, with Baker known to have connections in the Waltham Abbey, Bexley and Slade Green areas.
Kent Police spokesman James Walker says pictures of prisoners on the run are not always circulated.
“Absconder reports are dealt with on a case-by-case basis and in some circumstances an investigating officer may issue a public appeal for information,” he said.
“However, it is important to understand that a witness appeal is just one of the many lines of inquiry available to officers and consideration must be given to the impact a public appeal may have on locating a suspect should they become aware that they are being looked for.”
Anyone with information about Baker’s whereabouts should call police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.