Sunderland men jailed for over 34 years for 'vicious' ammonia attack and £5k robbery of shopkeeper

From left, Rikki Ward, Paul Rowntree and Ross Morton spend money they stole in a robbery at a JD Sports store.
From left, Rikki Ward, Paul Rowntree and Ross Morton spend money they stole in a robbery at a JD Sports store.

A gang who blinded a shop manager with ammonia during a street robbery have been jailed for a total of almost 30 years.

Rikki Ward and Paul Rowntree lay in wait for victim Neil Warner and attacked him as he carried the £5,129.90 weekend takings from the Costcutter store in Dawlish, Devon, to a nearby post office.

Rikki Ward.

Rikki Ward.

Ward squirted industrial strength ammonia in his eyes while Rowntree grabbed the money off him as he fell to his knees in agony.

Mr Warner, aged 58, lost the sight of his right eye and only escaped total blindness because the attack took place two doors down from an optician, who washed some of the liquid away.

He was forced to give up work and has suffered severe psychological damage as well as the partial loss of his eyesight, Exeter Crown Court was told.

The masked robbers fled on foot up a side street and then got friend Ross Morton to drive them to Torquay where they started spending the stolen cash in a £300 shopping spree at JD Sports.

Paul Rowntree.

Paul Rowntree.

They went on to celebrate by booking into the Bay Hotel in Teignmouth, where Rowntree was seen on CCTV counting his share as the pair drank lager and played darts.

The attackers had come to Devon from Sunderland, where they both have a string of previous convictions. Ward was a crack cocaine addict who had been in court for possession of the drug just two weeks before he carried out the ammonia attack on January 30.

He had been in trouble since his teens and spent two years in a detention centre when he was 15 for being part of a gang which killed a man by putting a firework through his letterbox in the North East.

Rowntree had previously served a six years sentence for robbing shops while armed with a baseball bat.

Rikki Ward and Paul Rowntree pictured on CCTV at the time of the robbery.

Rikki Ward and Paul Rowntree pictured on CCTV at the time of the robbery.

Ward, aged 28, of Chatham Road, Sunderland, admitted robbery and causing grievous bodily harm with intent and was jailed for 11 years and three months with a four year extended licence.

Rowntree, aged 37, of Oswald Street, Sunderland, but who was staying at Exeter Road, Dawlish, denied but was convicted of robbery and gbh with intent and jailed for 15 years with a four year extended licence.

Morton, aged 29, of Gatehouse Close, Dawlish, but originally from Sunderland, denied but was found guilty of assisting an offender and jailed for three years at Exeter Crown Court.

Judge Geoffrey Mercer, QC, told Ward and Rowntree:"This robbery was clearly planned and was of a shopkeeper taking cash to a post office. You laid in wait for Mr Warner and robbed him of his takings.

The Costcutter shop in Queen Street, Dawlish, Devon. Copyright Google Maps.

The Costcutter shop in Queen Street, Dawlish, Devon. Copyright Google Maps.

"Those bare facts are serious enough but the case is much more serious because during your planning you armed yourself with a bottle of ammonia which you used against Mr Warner.

"You squirted him in the face and you both intended to cause him really serious injury. That is what you did. It was a joint offence and you are both equally responsible.

"Apart from the excruciating pain, he has effectively lost the sight of his right eye and the effect on his life has been vast, it has changed his life forever.

"You are both dangerous offenders because you embarked on a robbery armed with ammonia and intending to use it."

Miss Mary McCarthy, prosecuting, said Mr Warner had made an impact statement in which he said he is very angry about the attack, which has left him wary about going out or socialising.

She said:"He points out it was a completely unnecessary level of violence and if they had just had a baseball bat he would have handed over the money."

She said Ward wore a balaclava during the attack and is thought to have bought the ammonia in Dawlish the day before. His DNA was found on the top of the bottle, which was discarded at the scene.

Rowntree wore a scarf over his face but both he and Ward were caught on CCTV as they scouted the shop and waited around the Strand in Dawlish for an hour before carrying out the robbery.

Morton had not been involved in the planning of the attack but been called up by his friends and must have known that a serious crime had been committed.

Mr Nigel Wraith, for Ward, said he had admitted his involvement at an early stage. He said he had become a crack addict as a result of a troubled childhood and it had led him to commit crimes.

Miss Emily Bright, for Rowntree, said he had a bad record but should not be considered dangerous.

Mr William Parkhill, for Morton, said he had not intended to get involved with any criminality, but had not been strong enough to say no when he was approached by his friends.

Mr Warner told of his terror in a video recorded police interview which was shown to the jury.

The 58-year-old said he was just yards from the Post Office when he was attacked by a man wearing a balaclava who rushed at him.

He said:"I saw he was wearing a black balaclava with eye holes in it. I stopped. I thought he was going to run into me. Then I noticed he had a bottle. It was a white bottle which he squirted straight into my face.

"Everything went black and there was an awful pain in my eyes and mouth. I did not realise what had happened. I was stood there screaming. I must have just dropped the bag.

"I was totally blind and the pain was just unbearable. I remember being led in to the optician and asking if I still had a face left.

"It was so traumatic. I have a heart condition and thought I was going to have a heart attack. I thought I would never see my wife and boy again.

"I thought I would never see again. They were still flushing my eyes when the police arrived and the pain was still unbearable.

"All I can remember of the man was a sort Ninja figure like something from a film with a balaclava. He had a white bottle and within a second everything was black and the pain was excruciating.

"As soon as the liquid hit me, everything blacked out. This happened in broad daylight and it was only a five minute walk to the Post Office."

After the case Senior Investigating Officer Detective Inspector Mike Jones, said: “We welcome the jailing of Rikki Ward and Paul Rowntree and Ross Morton who were responsible for the unprovoked and cowardly attack of Neil Warner in Dawlish in January.

“Mr Warner is a normal hard working member of the community, who ran the Dawlish branch of Costcutter.

"He was viciously attacked by Ward and Rowntree who sprayed him in the face with the ammonia and stole in the region of £5,100 takings; Ross Morton acted as their getaway driver and helped to cover up Rowntree’s and Ward’s actions.

“Having arrived in Torquay the three men were seen laughing and joking in JD Sports spending their ill-gotten gains, without so much as a care regarding the devastation they had left behind in Dawlish. These men thought they had planned this robbery to perfection.

"The one thing these men did not factor into their plans was the skills of the staff in Devon and Cornwall police.

“This was a huge joint team effort by the local officers and staff in South Devon and all of my Detectives who worked tirelessly to bring these men to justice. I would particularly like to thank DS Darren Harvey who was the officer in the case, who with colleagues in Teignbridge and South Hams CID put together this case.

“I would like to thank the Dawlish community who immediately came to Mr Warner’ assistance following this attack, he was taken to a local opticians who spent a significant time washing out his eyes and face. I believe this action has saved his sight in his left eye.

“I would also like to thank the jury who listened carefully and diligently to the evidence and returned the guilty verdicts against these dangerous men.

“Finally I would like to commend Mr Warner and his family.

"I have met Mr Warner on a number of occasions and quite simply he one of the bravest and most genuine men I have met. His life and his family’s life has been turned upside-down by these cowards.

“His long fight to recover some of his life continues and I can only hope that the sentences that these men receive goes some way to helping him recover from this attack.”