A button in a drawer — sometimes that’s all it takes. In those moments grief washes over Don Maguire in a fresh, devastating wave.
‘It never stops,’ he says. ‘Although it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that.’
Today is exactly four years since Don’s wife Ann was stabbed to death in a frenzied attack by one of her pupils in a packed classroom.
A family betrayed: Ann’s grieving widower Don Maguire and daughter Kerry and nephew Andrew
At 61, she had spent more than four decades — her entire working life — at Corpus Christi school in Leeds. On the morning of her death, in April 2014, she had discussed retiring.
Her killer put a stop to her dream.
Just 15 years old at the time, today Will Cornick is three years into a life sentence after pleading guilty to Ann’s murder. He’d described having a ‘red mist’ after developing a serious grudge against his Spanish teacher. He has never shown remorse.
Yes, he told police, he knew her family ‘would be p****d off’, but added chillingly, otherwise ‘everything was fine and dandy’. Psychiatrists said Cornick possessed ‘a degree of callousness rarely seen in clinical practice’ and recommended he serve at least 20 years in custody.
Justice of a sort, you might think. Although it certainly doesn’t feel like it for Ann’s devastated widower and their family.
In their first full interview, they tell how their grief has been exacerbated by ‘catastrophic failures’ from the authorities — the school, the council, the police and even the government — to properly investigate how a teacher could be killed simply for doing her job.
Ironically, just days after Ann’s murder, it was announced that Learco Chindamo — the teenager who murdered 48-year-old headteacher Philip Lawrence in London in 1995, when he, too, was just 15 — had been released from prison.
It was a case that outraged the world and became a constant reference point when the subjects of youth violence and knife crime were discussed. Yet, while 20 years separate the two cases, not a single lesson has been learned, according to Ann’s family.
They are still without any explanation as to how a deeply disturbed child, who had shown clear psychopathic tendencies, could have been free to butcher a teacher in her class.
Their requests for information and transparency have, they say, been met with denials, refusals and rejection that, over time, have left them as shocked as they were by Ann’s murder.
Tragic: Ann was butchered in class by a deeply disturbed child, who had shown clear psychopathic tendencies
‘It’s hard to express the total wall of silence that went up immediately after Ann was killed and which remains in place,’ says Don, 66.
He adds: ‘We have never had a full explanation of what happened that day and why. And in a school I thought had a reputation for being a well-run, efficient and caring institution — although I now know this not to be the case.
‘How exactly did this happen? What were the full circumstances in the school and of this boy in the period before Ann’s death? Four years on, we are still asking the same questions.
‘Part of the tragedy is that knife crime and violent death are now top of the social agenda — yet when the authorities had a unique case study of something that went terribly wrong and from which lessons could be learned, they chose to go down a path of avoidance.’
The Maguires’ sense of bewilderment remains palpable, alongside the love shared by the family — Don and Ann’s daughters Kerry, 36, and Emma, 35, and nephews Daniel and Andrew, who the Maguires raised as their own after Ann’s sister died 30 years ago.
Don and Ann met while doing teaching practice, although Don soon gave it up to set up a gardening business. His wife, however, proved to be a dedicated and passionate career teacher. ‘She was a special person who gave her life to helping others,’ says Don.
In 2014, however, after 41 years in the job, Ann had retirement on her mind — something she and Don had discussed on the Monday morning that was to be her last.
He remembers going back to their Leeds home at lunchtime to find a phone message asking him to call the school. On speaking to then headmaster Steve Mort, he was told there had been an incident, that Ann had an injury and had been taken to hospital.
‘At the end of the conversation, he said a knife was involved,’ Don recalls. ‘I had images of Ann dealing with an incident and a knife cutting her arm.’
His first indication something more serious had happened was on arrival at the hospital, when he saw a policeman.
He pauses, eyes filling with tears. ‘They took me into the emergency treatment room and Ann was there surrounded by people. There was blood everywhere.’
Although he didn’t know it, the catastrophic nature of her injuries — Cornick had stabbed her seven times with a kitchen knife — meant she had died at the school and he had arrived at the end of medics’ frantic efforts to save her. Then, communication stopped. The family only learned Ann had been stabbed by a pupil through a ‘drip feed’ of information.
Just 15 years old at the time, today Will Cornick (pictured) is three years into a life sentence after pleading guilty to Ann’s murder
The tone was set, Don says, by the fact that no one from the school management made any attempt to contact the family to provide any information about what had happened, although some of them were, he believed, quite close to her. There were no consolatory phone calls that night or the following morning.
‘There was a total shutdown in communication,’ Don says. ‘There was no contact either from the head of education at Leeds City Council, or the council’s head of children’s services. No one came to discuss what had happened or help us understand it,’ he adds. Don’s nephew Andrew, who lives in New Zealand and is currently visiting his family, adds: ‘Naively, we thought: “She’s a teacher of 40 years, she has a union rep, a school, a church, an education authority, a government behind her.” So we thought we’d be looked after.
‘But in the end, we almost felt like the wrong family. The impression was that there was more attention and care going to the killer’s family.’
Cornick, it seemed to Don and the family, was being treated not as a cold-hearted killer but someone to be protected and helped. There was talk of ‘rehabilitation’ and his best interests. The trial judge only allowed his name to be reported at the last minute, after reflecting on the public interest aspect and severity of the case. The family’s only consolation was that their many questions would, at least, be answered at Cornick’s trial. Then, at the end of October 2014, they learned he was pleading guilty. This meant instead of being quizzed as to his motives and exactly what happened that day, it was just to be a one-day hearing for sentencing.
In court, the family had to endure hearing for the first time some of the truly gruesome details of what unfolded that day.
Prosecuting counsel Paul Greaney detailed how Cornick had winked at a classmate before getting up and calmly stabbing Ann in the back and neck as she leant over to check another pupil’s homework.
After she tried to escape, he chased her, only to be blocked by a fellow teacher who recalls seeing his emotionless face through the glass door. Cornick then walked back into the classroom as if nothing had happened, saying ‘good times’ to the rest of the class. ‘It was deeply chilling and highly upsetting to hear that kind of detail,’ says Don.
He noted wryly how, despite being flanked by his mother and father in court, 6ft 2in Cornick was also accompanied by a group of child protection officers.
‘You think about his size and shape compared to Ann,’ says Don quietly (she was a slight 5ft 2in). ‘The physical reality and the cowardice of it in that he attacked the oldest person on the staff, and from behind. And not just once.’
Kerry adds: ‘She had no chance.’ The proceedings, Don says, felt ‘scripted’. ‘If you were listening with your eyes closed, you couldn’t distinguish between the prosecution and the defence. The big statement from the prosecution was that normally in such dreadful cases there is some explanation for what has happened in the family background, but that didn’t apply in this case. It’s something that has been said repeatedly — that he was a good, bright boy from a good home.’
Although divorced, Cornick’s parents were middle-class, unremarkable people: his mother Michelle a human resources director, father Ian a council executive. Neither said they had any hint that something was wrong with their son.
But other people did notice worrying signs, says Don. ‘Cornick lived with no restrictions. He was described in witness statements we saw subsequently as a nasty and mean person who could be depressed, cruel and aggressive.’
The Maguire family then learned Leeds City Council would not conduct a Serious Case Review into Ann’s death. ‘We were told that it didn’t fulfil the criteria,’ says Don. ‘But you can’t have a criteria for something that has never happened before [Philip Lawence’s killer was not a pupil at his school, and had stabbed him outside as he went to break up a fight].
‘To me, it was a penny-dropping moment — my sense was that the authorities had an agenda and it was to avoid all public scrutiny.’ Andrew says it would be hard to imagine the same decision being made if another public servant died in the course of duty.
Instead, the council undertook a Learning Lessons Review — a process stretched out over two years, all behind closed doors —which concluded that the tragedy could not have been avoided.
Incredibly, no pupils were interviewed, a decision the report justified ‘in recognition of the significant trauma and emotional impact on those involved’.
The same understanding was not extended to the family, however. When approached for interview by the inquiry’s independent adjudicator — who was accompanied by two legal representatives, although the family had not been advised to bring any of their own — they were asked to meet in the hubbub of a bar in central Leeds.
‘It was like meeting Arthur Daley at the Winchester Club in the TV series Minder,’ says Don. ‘It was atrocious. It’s difficult to believe people in charge of large organisations with serious responsibilities for people’s welfare can carry out their jobs in such a fashion.’
Kerry adds: ‘There was no respect, no sanctity for Mum.’
Throughout the 90-minute meeting, the inquiry head took no notes and did not record it. ‘His lack of knowledge was astounding,’ says Don. ‘He didn’t even know which year Ann was head of. As a result, we were left with the feeling the man had decided the outcome of his review before he even met us.’
It is little wonder the family campaigned for every possible bit of evidence to be heard at the inquest, which finally took place last November, three-and-a-half years after Ann’s death.
Don says: ‘The duty of an inquest is to look at who has died, how they died and the circumstances. So you would think they would make available anything that is going to help fill in that picture. But as far as we could see, the coroner removed nearly 90 per cent of the possible evidence.’
That included not calling pupils who were present or had information about Cornick’s behaviour in the months before the murder, because they were ‘potentially vulnerable’.
‘These people were by then in their 20s,’ says Don. ‘All we wanted was any evidence that could help us understand Cornick’s behaviour.
‘Pupils have described many worrying aspects of his behaviour which failed to make it into official versions of events. I have also been made aware that concerned pupils reported their worries about Cornick’s state of mind two years prior to the murder. This was touched on in the inquest but never pursued.’
The inquest jury at least acknowledged, unlike the council review, that there had been missed opportunities to save Ann.
Don says: ‘I was beginning to give up all hope of any integrity or honesty in any public bodies. That jury renewed my faith in humanity, because with the minimum of evidence they saw that things could and should have been done better.’
This dignified family, however, refuse to indulge in anger. ‘I’m disappointed,’ says Don. ‘You live your life thinking that when something terrible happens, that at these times officialdom — even though we know it’s flawed — will do its duty. Yet it seems there is now an aversion to any kind of responsibility or accountability.’
Last night Mark Peel, independent chair of the Leeds Safeguarding Children Partnership, said: ‘Ann’s death was an absolute tragedy and we are aware that the anniversary will be an especially hard time for her family and friends. Our thoughts are for her family, her colleagues at Corpus Christi and all the young people she taught and inspired.
‘I would like to reassure Ann’s family that we took our responsibilities very seriously to ensure that the Learning Lessons Review we instructed was independent, thorough and robust. It resulted in a number of important learning points, many of which have already been incorporated into agencies’ policies and procedures.”
A Leeds City Council spokesman said: ‘The past four years must have been, and continue to be, the most unimaginably traumatic time for the Maguire family.
‘Throughout we’ve tried to do our best to support them and take account of their views and wishes, through regular contact and practical help where possible.’
Could lessons have been learned from Ann’s death? The Maguire family are sure of it. ‘None of the institutions set up to protect the vulnerable have really tried,’ says Don. ‘How could a teacher teaching her class be murdered?’
It’s a question the Maguire family still find themselves asking.