In his own har­row­ing words, the Cam­bridge lec­turer cleared of at­tack­ing un­faith­ful girl­friend tells of the shat­ter­ing or­deal that left him ‘shunned like a leper’

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Fe­mail - by An­gella John­son

THE me­dieval court­yards and mul­lioned win­dows of 15th Cen­tury Christ’s Col­lege, in the heart of Cam­bridge, cre­ate an at­mos­phere of learned calm and quiet beauty. It was within these walls that the poet John Mil­ton ru­mi­nated un­der a mul­berry tree while a scholar, and it was here that the un­der­grad­u­ate Charles Dar­win be­gan his prodi­gious ca­reer as a nat­u­ral­ist.

More re­cently, it was where PhD stu­dent and lec­turer Matthew Baron spent three ded­i­cated years re­search­ing marine palaeon­tol­ogy – di­nosaurs of the sea, to you or me – mak­ing break­throughs in the study of their evo­lu­tion and mark­ing, he hoped, the be­gin­ning of a bril­liant aca­demic ca­reer.

It was here, too, that ro­mance blos­somed be­tween Matthew, 26, and a pretty fel­low post­grad­u­ate zo­ol­ogy stu­dent called Sophia Cooke, also 26, to whom he be­came en­gaged.

To­day, how­ever that re­la­tion­ship lies in tat­ters, and so, for a while at least, did Matthew’s care­fully won rep­u­ta­tion as one of the bright­est ris­ing stars in his field at the pres­ti­gious uni­ver­sity.

Even to­day, Matthew is no longer even per­mit­ted to en­ter the gates of Christ’s Col­lege – and his en­tire fu­ture hangs in the bal­ance.

For Matthew found him­self ac­cused of the most shame­ful of crimes: vi­o­lently at­tack­ing his for­mer fi­ancee Sophia af­ter she con­fessed to an af­fair while she had been on a field trip to the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands.

Sophia claimed she had been punched in the face and arms, and that Matthew had also smashed her iPhone and car ra­dio in a fit of rage.

They were ex­plo­sive al­le­ga­tions and for Matthew they were per­son­ally dis­as­trous. Banned from his col­lege, he was sent home, his rep­u­ta­tion in tat­ters.

To say it turned his world into some­thing re­sem­bling a night­mare is no un­der­state­ment.

But last week, he was cleared of as­sault­ing Sophia af­ter mag­is­trates found her ver­sion of events to be ‘in­con­sis­tent and not cred­i­ble’, al­though the ter­ri­ble – and, he says, ‘fab­ri­cated’ – claims against him could yet still wreak havoc on his fu­ture.

SPEAK­ING to­day in a bid to clear his name, softly-spo­ken Matt de­scribes the or­deal he says he has suf­fered at the hands of the woman he once loved. ‘I spent eight months in my own per­sonal hell, feel­ing sick to the stom­ach that I could have been con­victed, but thank­fully the court saw my side of the story,’ he says.

At a trial be­fore Hunt­ing­don mag­is­trates last week, Matt told the court that his ex-fi­ancee was a fan­ta­sist who had set out to de­stroy him be­cause he could not for­give her in­fi­delity.

He told mag­is­trates that when he told her she must move out of their flat, she had threat­ened to ruin him. ‘She had me banned from my col­lege, she had me banned from the col­lege bar, she bragged that she [would] ac­cuse me of be­ing vi­o­lent. It has been the hard­est time of my life.’

Speak­ing last night, he said: ‘I was shunned like a leper. Women stu­dents shouted ob­scen­i­ties at me in the streets and one male friend, whose wed­ding I at­tended, emailed to say that I was a vile scum­bag who should rot in jail.

‘I found my­self banned from my col­lege and sent home to Der­byshire in dis­grace.

‘Then, af­ter I man­aged to con­vince the col­lege to let me fin­ish my PhD work, I was treated like a pariah.

‘I know there will still be those who think there is no smoke with­out fire. So I’m speak­ing out be­cause I have noth­ing to hide, and I want my side of the story to be known.’

There was no sign of what was to hap­pen when they first met in Oc­to­ber 2015.

In­deed, he says he was in­stantly at­tracted to Sophia’s en­ergy and vi­vac­ity. Never one to stand in the back­ground, she showed him how to have fun.

‘I adored her con­fi­dence, though some peo­ple thought her brash. She was the kind of girl who en­joyed par­ties and could end up danc­ing on the ta­ble. She had a lit­tle bit of a wild side.’

The pe­tite blonde, who at­tended the £15,000-a-year Bad­minton School in Bris­tol, was part of a co­hort of new post­grad­u­ate stu­dents who Matthew helped to wel­come dur­ing a meet and greet by the col­lege’s Grad­u­ate So­ci­ety. Her in­ter­est in Matt was clear from the start – and why not? At­trac­tive, pop­u­lar and tal­ented, Matt was a mem­ber of the col­lege’s foot­ball and rugby teams.

That the pair came from con­trast­ing back­grounds – Matt’s roots are solidly work­ing class – was less im­por­tant than their shared in­ter­ests in na­ture, an­i­mals and travel.

They only be­gan dat­ing in late Jan­uary 2016 af­ter Matt trav­elled on re­search trips to South Africa and Ar­gentina. But they went to­gether to the Gala­pa­gos to help with her re­search work on birds, and this was fol­lowed soon af­ter by a trip to Dubai to meet Matt’s fa­ther and his part­ner. Af­ter just three months, Sophia be­gan talk­ing about mar­riage.

‘I asked my dad if it was too soon and he said yes, but at a weak mo­ment when we were on the beach she pro­posed and I heard my­self agree­ing, though I said we should wait awhile.’ But Sophia an­nounced their in­ten­tion to marry at a fam­ily din­ner that evening.

Over com­ing weeks, small hints of his fi­ancee’s more tem­pes­tu­ous na­ture be­gan to emerge – he says she turned their planned wed­ding from what was orig­i­nally go­ing to be a small af­fair into a ma­jor event with a £20,000 price tag. They were due to marry last month.

But she re­turned to the Gala­pa­gos for seven weeks just be­fore last Christ­mas with­out Matt, who had his own work to com­plete. Shortly af­ter her re­turn in Fe­bru­ary, she tear­fully con­fessed to bed­ding a Peru­vian named Ernesto.

Matt re­calls: ‘I was heart­bro­ken. It still stings even now. We were sit­ting in the car park at Fen Dray­ton Lakes – an RSPB na­ture re­serve – on Fe­bru­ary 12. I hit the dash­board of her car, caus­ing what was prob­a­bly a small crack, but I never touched her. I was also sob­bing so hard.

‘She told me that I should find a fe­male stu­dent and cheat on her then we would be even. I was deeply of­fended. I thought, “I don’t know this per­son… how could I have been so wrong?”’

Here, of course, Matt and Sophia’s ac­counts of what took place vary dra­mat­i­cally. Matt told the court that she be­came hys­ter­i­cal, scream­ing that she couldn’t live with­out him.

He told the mag­is­trates, ‘She said: “If you tell any­one I have cheated, I

I found it so hu­mil­i­at­ing to be pushed into a po­lice riot van

I will now be less naive – I was young and in love

will ruin you. I will tell ev­ery­one you have been a vi­o­lent mon­ster.”’

How­ever, Sophia had told the court that he, in fact, sub­jected her to re­peated as­saults, punch­ing her in the face and body and goug­ing her eyes. ‘He was pac­ing around call­ing me a whore,’ she told the court. ‘I re­mem­ber think­ing I have driven this man to vi­o­lence. All I wanted was for him to for­give me. I thought I was go­ing to die.’

Three days later, at 5am, there was a knock on Matt’s door. ‘At first I thought it was a drunk – we get them some­times. But the two uni­formed po­lice of­fi­cers quickly dis­abused me of that no­tion. I was shocked, but not overly con­cerned as I knew I was in­no­cent. But it was hu­mil­i­at­ing to be hand­cuffed and pushed into the po­lice riot van.’

He was made to wait 16 hours be­fore the in­ter­view took place – and it was then that Matt re­alised he was in a po­ten­tially very se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion. The po­lice showed him pho­to­graphs of dam­age to Sophia’s car ra­dio and also a mo­bile phone which she claimed he had caused – al­though he told the court he was not re­spon­si­ble for the ex­tent of the dam­age later seen.

‘When the of­fi­cer read her 13-page state­ment I could not be­lieve it had come to this with some­one I had loved and who I thought loved me back. It was sick­en­ing.’

Matt shakes his head, as­ton­ished even now that any­one could be­lieve he was ca­pa­ble of such be­hav­iour. ‘I am a peace­maker and a crier, not some an­gry mon­ster,’ he in­sists.

‘Af­ter three months I even­tu­ally man­aged to get the agree­ment that I was al­lowed to go back into my depart­ment but not into the col­lege. I also had to stay away from cer­tain places I knew she would be at cer­tain times. Even if I wanted to go for a cof­fee in col­lege, I had to ring to make sure she wasn’t there. But it was dif­fi­cult. Ev­ery part of my life that I tried to get back, I found she was there as well.

‘As soon as I got back into the gym, I found she had a mem­ber­ship her­self so I was un­able to go there. It grew in­creas­ingly de­press­ing as I felt I was los­ing ev­ery­thing.

‘I felt that I couldn’t even go to par­ties or so­cialise with friends in case she turned up.’

De­spite Sophia’s al­le­ga­tions, Matt had some pow­er­ful sup­port­ers.

Dur­ing the trial at Hunt­ing­don Law Courts in Cam­bridgeshire, mag­is­trates were given glow­ing char­ac­ter ref­er­ences, and his col­lege tu­tor Dr He­lena Brown took to the wit­ness stand.

She de­scribed him as an ‘ex­em­plary mem­ber of the col­lege’, who was ‘re­li­able, trust­wor­thy, and had made sig­nif­i­cant ef­forts to raise aware­ness of gen­der is­sues and equal op­por­tu­ni­ties for fe­male stu­dents’.

It was enough to con­vince the mag­is­trates to throw out Sophia’s as­sault claims – al­though Matt was con­victed of crim­i­nal dam­age af­ter smash­ing her car ra­dio, a claim he never de­nied.

‘Clear­ing my name has meant the world to me. I feel that I can breathe eas­ily again. My fam­ily can re­lax – espe­cially my mum who was dis­traught over the idea of me go­ing to jail. A con­vic­tion would have made it im­pos­si­ble for me to work with chil­dren or even fly to coun­tries like the USA.

‘I can now walk around the city with my head held high not fear­ing that peo­ple are whis­per­ing about me or that some­one will shout abuse. No one should be in any doubt that I was com­pletely vin­di­cated of any phys­i­cal as­sault.’

NOW, Matt is slowly pick­ing up the pieces. Sophia is still at the uni­ver­sity, he un­der­stands. The fel­lows at Christ’s are due to meet this week to de­cide whether he can fi­nally be al­lowed to re-en­ter – a move which would be­gin to ad­dress some of the dev­as­ta­tion.

Matt is try­ing not to feel bit­ter­ness, and he has ten­ta­tively started dat­ing. But, he ad­mits, his ex­pe­ri­ences are likely to cast a cloud over his fu­ture for some time to come.

‘I do think that I will be a bit less naive – I was young and in love.

‘I’m get­ting back into dat­ing to feel nor­mal again and I’m see­ing some­one, but I feel that I have to be very care­ful who I trust from now on.’

De­spite what has hap­pened, Matt has no crit­i­cism for the po­lice or the le­gal sys­tem.

‘I think it’s right to pro­tect those who have been vic­timised,’ he said. ‘If my suf­fer­ing is the price to be paid for even one per­son be­ing saved by in­ter­ven­tion, then I ac­cept it.

‘The only thing I feel I got away with is be­ing tied to her as a hus­band for the rest of my life. I know that I’ve dodged a bul­let there.’

Last night, Sophia could not be reached for com­ment.

IN LOVE: Just three months af­ter Matthew and Sophia be­gan dat­ing, she pro­posed to him on a beach

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