ALISON HEWITT was living a normal life as a Brighton GP until she met a psychopathic stalker who set fire to her parents’ home and armed himself with a crossbow.
She tells her story to Rachel Millard
THEY say people subconsciously know how a relationship will end within the first few minutes of meeting someone.
But when Alison Hewitt met her date for the first time, she recalls noticing his odd choice of shoes.
Long before he refused to move out, sent poison pen letters, set fire to her mother’s house and set out to kidnap her, Al Amin Dhalla first stuck in the doctor’s mind for his white plimsolls.
Recalling their first date in London, she said: “He did not look how I thought he would look. Partly as I was not expecting him to be Asian – I don’t know why.
“Otherwise he was quite smartly dressed apart from he was wearing sort of white, plimsolly things which I thought were a bit odd.
“But I thought maybe they were a Canadian thing. A lot of mistakes were down to putting him down as Canadian.”
Dr Hewitt has had to reflect on what she calls her “mistakes” in the following years, although to say she made any is a gross distortion.
The city financier she was introduced to by a top dating agency is now serving an indefinite prison term for stalking and terrorising her and her family, finally getting caught by the police with a van decked out for kidnap.
Dr Hewitt, who has now written a book about the experiences, says she has “no emotion left” for the man who lied about himself, strained relations with her family and made her “hate her life”.
But at the start there was a “booming” voice on the telephone and the promise of a new relationship.
Dr Hewitt was a 33-year-old GP in Brighton when she signed on to the Executive Club of St James’ high-end dating agency.
She went on dates with two other men before being set up with Dhalla, a Canadian city worker who would claim to be a 35-year-old orphaned in a car crash.
She said: “They did not do pictures so it was just a phone call to start. He called me and I heard this loud, booming, voice. It is Canadian so sounded like how you would typically imagine – confident.
“We had a couple of phone calls by the time we arranged to meet up, just small talk.
“He sounded quite interesting, quite new to the country and interested to get out and do things.”
The first meeting, in January 2010 over drinks in Leicester Square, went well, shoes notwithstanding, and they arranged to meet again.
“I remember thinking I had good fun,” she said. “I was not immediately attracted to him but it had been easy to be with him and to get along with him.”
They spent several weekends sightseeing around England, touring National Trust parks, the Isle of Wight, Cornwall, having fun, mainly just the two of them. “It was nice from that point of view,” she said. “We were not just sitting in front of the TV.
“Initially I did not pick up on anything particularly odd. I knew he was Canadian, he had been to uni and worked in finance.”
Dhalla, however, was stealthily staking his claim on her life, slowly moving more of his things into her flat in Church Place, off Eastern Road. Shoes, bags and rucksack came first – and then, himself.
“He went back to Canada for I think about five days and when he came back he stayed,” Dr Hewitt said.
“I remember saying to him, ‘Have you moved in?’ – and he was like, ‘Well I want to spend more time with you’. I asked him about his flat and somehow it came out that he had let that go.
“My thoughts were a bit mixed. In some ways I was quite flattered. I thought, this is quite nice that he was ready for that.
“But in another way I thought, we have not discussed this. It is a bit weird. I did like him but equally I wanted to give him a bit more time.”
In June he proposed while they were on holiday in the Greek island of Sciathos.
“My heart sank,” Dr Hewitt said. “There was a little box sticking out of the sand. I thought, ‘Oh no, I am not ready for this. It is going to be a problem’.”
Her grandmother was first in the family to raise concerns. Dr Hewitt took Dhalla to her mother’s wedding in Buckinghamshire, giving him the job of looking after the matriarch.
She said: “I thought it went down quite well. Lots of people said: ‘He is very nice. He has done well being here’. But my gran said to my mum afterwards: ‘he has got a secret. There is something he is not saying’. She thought he must have been married.”
Dhalla’s secret was far more sinister, as Dr Hewitt would begin to discover when they went on holiday to Spain. Her family already had suspicions after her brother discovered a bizarre website entitled The Memoirs of Al Dhalla, in which he listed his ‘legacy and contributions to society’.
Dr Hewitt had brushed aside their concerns as she battled with stresses of work. She hoped joining her mother and stepdad, Pamela Hewitt and David Gray, on holiday might help.
She said: “I thought: ‘maybe they will get on if they just talk to each other’. But it was a disaster. They ended up having an argument because they outed him and he got very angry and he had a big reaction.”
Dhalla, her family had learned after looking at his documents, was really 40 and his mother was alive. They later learned he had convictions for violence.
Dr Hewitt said: “He ended up shouting at them and they said, ‘You are not who you say you are’. I felt a bit like piggy in the middle. Later he said he came from an abusive family and it was complicated. I was a bit intrigued about why he had lied. Who is this person he had not told me about?
“I was not as angry as I should have been or maybe as upset as I should have been. So maybe I did overlook it to an extent. But at that point I knew there was no future because he had lied.”
She may have seen it as the end of their relationship but in fact it was only the start of the trauma. Dr Hewitt spent the next months trying to convince him that they were breaking up and he had to leave her flat.
She said: “He did not accept it. It was obviously very difficult because he was living with me so we had a lot of arguments. I was worn down with all the arguments. I think you do lose self-esteem, it takes so much effort.
“At one point I was thinking: ‘How do I get out of this. Do I have to move and leave my flat?’ I became quite embarrassed and shut down so I was not going out seeing my friends. I am one of those people who thought: ‘I will sort it out’.”
Dhalla moved out at the start of 2011 after being confronted by her brother and told to leave by police.
“It all went dead for about ten days. It was nice. I was getting used to being single again,” she said.
Then the poison pen letters started, the first around her mother’s village in Buckinghamshire.
She said: “They just said really mean things about my family and they were ridiculous. They were things like my mum had black widow syndrome and really stupid stuff.
“And then poison pen letters went all round my workplace, accusing me of taking drugs from the NHS and selling them to my brother.
“I was just shaking. I knew I would have to go through an investigation to prove my innocence.”
She reported the letters to police, who at first told her it would “blow over”.
She said: “I kind of knew it was more serious and was not going to go away. That’s a really interesting thing about stalking, as all the signs were there then.”
Sure enough Dr Hewitt was soon being bombarded with emails, phone-calls and letters.
“A lot of it was lovey-dovey and some of it was as if he was writing a diary,” she recalled. “Like ‘I got up, went for a job, had Rice Krispies’.
“The work emails were annoying because I had thought work was my escape. I thought, ‘what can I actually do, how can I stop this kind of thing?’ You keep thinking people are going to get bored or give up.
“I used to drop the love letters and cards into the police station. But they sort of said there was nothing they could do because it was not a crime. Then I felt a bit silly – like how many love letters do they want?”
She was eventually forced to respond to the barrage of calls after Dhalla kept contacting her family.
She said: “I felt quite trapped at that point so one day when he was phoning I just picked up the phone and said: ‘What do you want?’ “So I said ‘I will speak to you on the one condition that you stop all contact with my family’.
“He turned up outside my door and just walked with me for 15 minutes to work.
“He said he had got a new job in London so I felt like he had moved on. So I said we could have one phone call a week on condition he didn’t contact my family.
“He agreed to it but it did not happen. As soon as I said that it was out of control.”
One evening she returned home find him standing outside her house with her favourite meal – Japanese.
She said: “That was when I thought: ‘I hate my life now. I cannot get back inside my house. He is there. He is waiting there’.
“I did not realise my passenger door was open so he got in and we had a big argument then.”
Dhalla was arrested and released, and a week went by until police next turned up at her work.
She said: “They came in and they said he had been arrested in Wiltshire with weapons and they put me on red alert.
“I thought: ‘I am sure they are going to keep him in’. They released him the next day. I sort of knew he would come and find me. The second night police came and banged on the door at 2am to say my mother’s house had been set on fire.
“I just thought, ‘Oh it has gone up completely. That has gone – at least they are not there’.”
So concerned were police about her mother and stepdad that the couple were airlifted off of Lundy Island while they were on holiday. All three were taken to a safe house.
Dr Hewitt recalled: “When I got to the hotel I was really shaken and they were lively and full of enthusiasm because they had this helicopter ride. I think they were in shock because of the house.”
Dhalla, meanwhile, had made his way to Dr Hewitt’s workplace, Haywards Heath Hospital, and slipped inside dressed in a white coat, pictured below left.
“When they looked through the camera footage they had seen him walking through the grounds the night before,” Dr Hewitt said.
“They think he had checked it out, gone and set the house on fire and then came back down.
“The nurses on the ward had recognised him and locked him in the bathroom.”
It was only later she found out her stalker had rented a house opposite hers after being forced to move out of her home. He had installed a metal grille in his van as if to prepare it for a kidnap and police found a crossbow inside.
Following his arrest at the hospital, Dhalla was jailed in June 2012 after being convicted at a trial. His victim spent a gruelling three days giving evidence.
Judge Charles Kemp said he showed a “chilling” degree of planning, jailing him indefinitely but for a minimum of six years. About five months later a new law was introduced to make stalking a criminal offence – something Dr Hewitt now works to highlight. Three years later, she is getting on with her life.
She said: “Some of it happened because when things go wrong in your life several things go wrong – your relationships, your work, everything. I was determined to sort it out myself and not rely on others.”
But lurking in the back of her mind is the day when her stalker leaves jail. He will probably be deported.
Dr Hewitt said: “When he is due to come out then that is when I am going to feel vulnerable.
“I got back on with my life and threw myself back into work. Work was always my saving grace.
“I don’t have emotion left for him. I went through a lot of anger and I think writing the book helped.”
Her book on the experience, Stalked, was published yesterday. She has been working with Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, giving advice and helping flag up warning signs.
She said: “I feel stronger in myself. There is a balance between how much you do and how much you get on with your life.”
Stalked, by Alison Hewitt, is out now published by Pan MacMillan, priced £7.99 for paperback