An army corporal and “model soldier” has been jailed for over nine years after battering a taxi driver so viciously the victim spent more than four weeks in a coma and suffered long-term brain damage.
Steffan Rhys Wilson, 26, an Iraq veteran based at Catterick Garrison, punched Noby James, 43, from Northallerton, repeatedly to the head, pushed him to the ground and carried on hitting him even after the stricken cabbie was laid out cold and “soaked” in blood.
Mr James, 43, had got out of his taxi in a remote spot near Northallerton after the drunken soldier, who was a front passenger seat, had put the handbrake on three times, Leeds Crown Court heard.
Fearing for his life, Mr James got out of his cab and called police.
He told the female police operator that Wilson had “slapped him”, threatened him and wouldn’t let him back in his car.
What happened next was captured in harrowing detail by an audio recording of the terrified taxi driver’s phone call with the female operator.
During the fraught conversation in the early hours of December 1 last year, Wilson can be heard shouting and honking the car horn in the background as Mr James pleaded with the operator to send out “back-up”.
The conversation is then interrupted by blood-curdling screams as Wilson marched up to Mr James and attacked him with such ferocity that the cab driver was knocked unconscious, said prosecutor Michael Smith.
Chillingly, the fire extinguisher in Mr James’s taxi had been taken out of the cab and may have been used in the “sustained, prolonged” attack, although there was no forensic evidence to prove this.
The last thing Mr James recalled was being struck to the head and being laid on the ground, “beseeching (Wilson), saying he had a wife and children”, added Mr Smith.
“The next thing he remembers is waking up in hospital 35 days later.”
The attack – in a dark, “deserted” road in Little Holtby, between Bedale and Catterick Garrison – is thought to have lasted several minutes and left Mr James with life-threatening injuries including a brain haemorrhage, broken facial bones including his eye sockets, damage to his windpipe, a badly swollen nose and lip, and he had some teeth knocked out.
By the time police arrived at the scene on the A6055, Wilson was laid on top of Mr James at the side of the road.
Mr James was struggling to breathe, bleeding heavily and barely conscious.
Wilson, of the Royal Engineers based at Catterick Garrison, was described as “out of control” and charged at officers who called for back-up as they struggled to take him to ground.
Wilson was finally brought under control and Mr James was airlifted to James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough and was taken into intensive care. He was kept in hospital for another two months.
Such was the physical and mental toll on Mr James from the “completely unprovoked” attack, he had to give up his career as a taxi driver and is now only able to work once a week at his main job as a chef and catering manager.
His injuries were so bad that Wilson, originally from West Wales, was charged with attempted murder, as well as two counts of assaulting police officers.
He denied attempted murder and his trial was due to get underway on Monday, but he pleaded guilty to an alternative charge of causing grievous bodily harm with intent at the 11th hour. These pleas were accepted by the prosecution and the Crown ultimately offered no evidence on the alleged assaults on the two arresting officers.
The court heard that that Wilson – a talented rugby player who had starred in and coached the Army team – had been beating Mr James for “well after he lost consciousness”, causing serious head and facial injuries which left him “virtually unrecognisable”.
In the hours leading up to the attack, Wilson had been out drinking with friends in Northallerton, but got so drunk he began staggering around the road outside Club Amadeus.
He ended up shoulder-barging a woman in the road, whereupon two men attacked him. Wilson held his hands up and walked away, then proceeded to fall off a wall before sitting down on a footpath.
He eventually got into a taxi at about 3am with a couple from Northallerton who said he was drunk but “okay” before they were dropped off at their home.
It was then, as Mr James drove Wilson back to his barracks, that Wilson’s behaviour turned “strange and sinister”.
Without warning, he put the handbrake on and when Mr James remonstrated and threatened to call police, Wilson apologised – but then pulled the handbrake twice more.
On the third occasion, Mr James stopped the car and got out to call police.
“(Wilson) said to him, ‘Do what you want; I will show you what I can do,” added Mr Smith.
He told Mr James that ‘if I had a gun, I would shoot you’.
Wilson remained in the cab but could be seen searching the vehicle and its boot as if for a weapon, before walking over to Mr James and launching the vicious attack.
The male and female officer said they had been deeply traumatised by what they had witnessed. The male officer said he “felt as though he was in a fight for life to restrain (Wilson)”.
The arrest was captured on body camera.
When they got him back to the police station, Wilson told them: “I would have killed him and then killed you.”
He said he was just “protecting his country”, although there were said to be no racial motive for the attack.
He said he was “really drunk” and thought he had been on a military exercise.
Medical experts said Mr James’s injuries had been caused by at least four forceful blows to the face.
He was now chronically forgetful, suffered from mood swings, anxiety and was scared to go out. He was still receiving treatment and was too fearful to drive taxis again.
Mr James said the attack had “changed him and his family physically, emotionally and mentally”. He and his family had suffered financially as a result of his loss of work.
He was still seeing an opthalmologist for double vision and a nasal specialist due to a blocked air passage.
Simon Kealey QC, for Wilson, said his client had been a highly regarded military man and “leader of men” with a “bright future ahead of him” before the terrible incident.
Detective Inspector Matt Wilkinson, of Northallerton CID, said: “In this case there are three victims – the taxi driver and the two police officers. None of whom were known to Wilson.
“The taxi driver merely collected Wilson from outside a local nightclub, and the police officers were responding to the driver’s call for help.
“During the time Wilson was being questioned at the police station, he has not given any credible explanation for his terrible actions, other than to say he was really drunk and that he didn’t mean any harm.
“He did state that he thought he was on a military exercise, but extensive police enquiries were conducted around Wilson’s military career and there was nothing to suggest that he had or was suffering from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) at the time of the incident.
“All the evidence gathered during the course of the investigation indicates that it was a completely unprovoked attack. To this day, Wilson’s motive remains unknown.”
Police say the victim was discharged from hospital at the beginning of March. He remains under medical care but as an outpatient. He has ongoing issues with his vision, co–ordination and mood changes, and now carries a Brain Injury identity card.
DI Wilkinson said: “His wife has been heavily reliant on the Malayali community and their family – many of whom do not live locally – to assist with caring for him and to help with their children.
“However, due to the Covid-19 restrictions, this has left his wife having to provide the care alone. The family are struggling financially and their children have also needed additional support at school as a result of this attack.
“In view of this despairing situation, North Yorkshire Police is trying to facilitate some extra support through our partner agencies.”
Addressing the assaults on the Sergeant and PC, DI Wilkinson said: “Taking into account the violent actions against the taxi driver, the ferocious attack on them and the comment made by Wilson immediately after he was arrested that he was going to kill them along with the taxi driver, both officers said they feared for their lives.
“Although the officers sustained slight injuries, this incident has had a lasting effect on them. It left them very shaken and upset for a number of weeks.
“Overall, this has been a very tragic and sad case for all concerned. Aggravated further as it was the taxi driver’s birthday on the day of the attack, and for the defendant who, prior to this case, was regarded as a good soldier who played rugby for the Army.”