Postmistress faced prison over £45,000 black hole
Susan Knight was wrongly accused of stealing tens of thousands of pounds from the Post Office she ran in a tight knit Cornish village. In her first interview since the charges against her were dropped, she told Lyn Barton about the terrible effect it had on her life.
It started when less than £100 went missing, but before long sub-post mistress Susan Knight was staring at a £45,000 black hole in her books and three years in jail.
A diligent Post Office employee for more than three decades, a bewildered Mrs Knight was utterly unable to account for where the money had gone astray.
With her life in turmoil, she questioned her sanity and in her darkest hour whether she could carry on living. But what Mrs Knight did not realise was that she was the victim of a computer glitch which could have easily ruined her life.
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"I thought I was losing my mind," said the 58-year-old, who has run the post office at St Keverne, at the tip of the Lizard Peninsula since 2004.
"I couldn't work out where the money had gone. It started out with a loss of £70, or £80, but then it was £9,000 and £14,000. It just seemed to roll over. It spiralled. It was a nightmare.
"Then finally it was another £22,500. I didn't know what to do. How do you say I'm £22,500 down and I don't know where it is?"
Sub-post masters are responsible for all the losses they and their staff rack up, so together with her husband, Nigel, 52, Mrs Knight was at first forced to take out loans to cover the shortfall.
When in November a £22,500 chasm was confirmed by auditors, Mrs Knight feared she was about to suffer the shame of being arrested by police in front of the entire village.
The couple had already borrowed to their limit and were forced to beg for help from family members.
"We thought that would be the end of it," said Mrs Knight, who by then had been diagnosed with stress and depression.
"But then I received a summons and notice that I had been charged under the theft act of 1968.
"I was looking at two to three years in prison."
In a dramatic development, when she appeared at Truro Crown Court last month, Mrs Knight was told the Post Office would not be offering any evidence, ending the case.
The couple were supported by the Justice for Sub-Post Masters Alliance, a campaign group, set up by Alan Bates who tracked an inexplicable £6,000 shortfall in his business to a new accounting system, Horizon, installed by the Post Office in 2000.
Mr Bates said that despite "setting alarm bells ringing", the Post Office had failed to act until earlier this summer when an independent analysis of Horizon raised a number of issues.
As a result, a mediation scheme has been launched and Mr and Mrs Knight, along with potentially dozens of others, hope to get their money back.
But Mr Bates said the Post Office had acted too slowly.
"They have bankrupted people," he said.
"A lot of sub-post masters live in small communities and a lot of people are in the same boat as Sue Knight.
"But I think with Sue's case there has been a sea change."
A Post Office spokesman said no evidence had been found of systemic failures in Horizon, but "improvements could be made in the training and support processes provided to sub postmasters."
It is a small crumb of comfort to the Knights, who have put their home, which is attached to the St Keverne Post Office, on the market.
They intend to stay in the village and have paid tribute to the "brilliant" support they received from the community.
But their ordeal leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of Mr Knight: "The anger has gone, but I feel cheated.
"There's a year's wages we have lost, there's the loans we have to pay and there are all the bills."
Mrs Knight, who hopes to be reinstated, said the Post Office had been her life and to have it snatched away so unjustly was a difficult cross to bear.
"I felt betrayed by what happened. It felt like a bereavement."