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My daughter was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend – but I won’t let anger destroy me | Life and style

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Nick Gazzard remembers only flashes of the day that he lost his daughter Hollie. He remembers two police officers arriving at his home in Gloucester and telling him that Hollie had been stabbed at the hairdressing salon where she worked. He remembers that the consultant at the Gloucestershire Royal hospital was shaking when he told Gazzard, his wife and their older daughter that they had been unable to save her, and that Hollie was dead.

The family weren’t allowed to see Hollie that day – her body was a crime scene now. Later, he remembers being driven by police, along with his wife and dog, in an armed convoy of three vehicles to his mother-in-law’s house in the Cotswolds because Hollie’s killer was still on the run, and police judged their home unsafe, believing Gazzard might also be a target. The car was virtually silent as it weaved through country lanes, and there was one clear thought in Gazzard’s head: “Am I in a movie? Is any of this real?”

For two days, he didn’t eat. He doesn’t think he cried because, he says, “I’m not a crier.” He barely slept. His wife, Mandy, had been prescribed sedatives. “You’re just existing,” he says. “Your mind is thinking, thinking, thinking. What happened? How can this be true? Could I have noticed more?”

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Hollie’s death, and for Gazzard, making sense of it, understanding how his 20-year-old daughter came to be murdered by her ex-partner Asher Maslin has been key to his own survival and his ability to move forward. Hollie had known Maslin for only a year and though, by the end, Gazzard certainly knew that Maslin was “trouble”, he had never believed that Hollie’s life could be in danger.

‘She had a big circle of friends, a beaming smile. She was that fun-loving person that you wanted to be with’ … Hollie Gazzard. Photograph: Gloucestershire Police/PA

Learning about domestic abuse, recognising the red flags and picking out the patterns has given him purpose. “I’ve always loved learning anyway and after losing Hollie, I was like Jack climbing the beanstalk,” he says. “Suddenly you get to the top, you’re above the clouds and there is this huge field that you had no idea existed. When I look back with all the knowledge I’ve gained, I can see all sorts of things that were happening in that relationship. If I knew then what I know now, I would have saved Hollie’s life because I would have taken action. It has made me determined to use her story to prevent others from going through the same thing. Maybe that’s my coping mechanism. I had to take action and do something practical to get through.”

Gazzard was close to Hollie. “Growing up, she was active, sporty, very much like me,” he says. Gazzard had been a professional footballer before injury forced him to stop playing, instead building a career in financial services. He had two daughters, Chloe, then Hollie three years later. “She tried every sport under the sun, which kept me busy as I was taking her everywhere.” In her teens, fashion and beauty stepped in to replace sport. “She did a hairdressing apprenticeship at a local salon and really started to develop as a young woman,” says Gazzard. “She had lots of different styles, cuts and colours. She was very creative and a real socialite. She had a big circle of friends, a beaming smile. She was that fun-loving person that you wanted to be with. I loved that about Hollie.”

When she met Maslin in February 2013, Hollie was 19 and had applied for a hairdressing job on a cruise ship. Though she did go, she returned after just one week and instead found a job in London. Maslin moved in with her.

There were incidents that worried Gazzard, his wife and Chloe. At times, Hollie seemed less bubbly. If they saw her without Maslin, he would call and message her constantly. After four months in London, Hollie rang out of the blue asking Gazzard to come and collect her. He drove straight over and Hollie moved back home. Maslin followed her back to Gloucester.

‘She was very creative and a real socialite’ … Hollie Gazzard. Photograph: Gloucestershire Police/PA

For the next five months, Hollie and Maslin had a kind of “on-off relationship”. “He wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer,” says Gazzard. Days before her murder, Hollie told Maslin that the relationship was over for good. He threw a drink in her face, stole her debit card and used it to withdraw money from a cashpoint. When Hollie told her parents, they urged her to call the police.

Two officers came to their home to take a statement and it was then that Gazzard began to learn more about his daughter’s relationship. “We couldn’t believe what Hollie was telling them,” he says. “I was amazed at the threats he had been making: ‘If you split up with me, my family will get you.’ ‘If you leave, I’ll throw acid in your face.’” Hollie’s phone buzzed incessantly during the police interview and she showed them the messages coming through. “If you don’t pick up, I’ll come and put a baseball bat round your dad’s head,” said one. “By then, Mandy and I were more or less in tears.”

Still, Gazzard believed that this was probably the end of it, that Maslin was an angry man making empty threats. “We didn’t know anyone who had been abused or stalked, killed or injured and coercive control wasn’t a well-known term back then,” he says. “I thought he would move on to someone else now that the police were involved.” In fact, a subsequent report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (now the Independent Office for Police Conduct) criticised the ineffective police response that day. The officers focused on the theft of the bank card, not the threats, nor Maslin’s criminal record – he had been arrested 23 times including for the abuse of his mother and two previous partners, pouring petrol through one of their doors. Previously, police had also seen Maslin on CCTV footage with his hands around Hollie’s throat in the city centre – it had been picked up through routine monitoring. (Gazzard knew none of this.) Hollie was not given a safety plan and Maslin’s behaviour was not recognised as stalking or harassment. The officers attempted to arrest him at his mother’s house after Hollie had reported him, but he wasn’t in. They were given two alternative addresses, neither of which they visited. Two days later, on 18 February 2014, he walked into the salon where Hollie worked and stabbed her 14 times.

Maslin was arrested in the early hours of the next morning, so Gazzard and Mandy were safe to return home where they pulled down the blinds. “I suppose because I’m a pragmatic person, my way of dealing with it was through the practicalities. What happens next? When can we see her? When can we bury her?” There was plenty to do. “I was sorting out Hollie’s wages, discovering the debts he’d run up.” Maslin had taken out credit cards and mobile phone contracts in Hollie’s name. “It was my 50th birthday that year and we were planning on going to Las Vegas and LA so there were all those cancellations to be done. Then there was the police and the case and the media.”

‘I’m a pragmatic person so my way of dealing with it was through the practicalities. There was plenty to do. There was the police, the case and the media’ … Chloe and Nick Gazzard on This Morning in July 2014. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

Language kept tripping him up. “I kept asking myself: ‘Do I refer to Hollie in the past tense or the present tense? Do I have two daughters or one daughter now?’ It sounds small but these are the things that go through your mind.”

It took a while for Hollie’s body to be released as Maslin had insisted on a second autopsy for the defence. “Even in death, he still had that power over her,” says Gazzard. Identifying his daughter’s body at the local coroner’s court was, says Gazzard, the hardest thing he has ever done. “You don’t know what you’re going to see or how you’re going to react … She looked at peace. I was only allowed to touch her hand. It was cold – Hollie hated being cold.”

The funeral took place on a bright spring day in March. “It’s a very strange thing to say but I enjoyed her funeral,” says Gazzard. “The public reaction had been huge so we had it at Gloucester Cathedral and 1,000 people came. We asked that they wear bright colours as that’s what Hollie was – bright and bubbly. I remember standing by the stained-glass window, the sun shining in, feeling just so proud of Hollie and what she stood for.”

Mandy, Chloe and Nick outside the Royal Courts of Justice, after Asher Maslin lost an appeal against his minimum term of 24 years. Photograph: Cathy Gordon/PA

One month later, Gazzard launched the Hollie Gazzard Trust (HGT). A fundraising walk raised £20,000 and his colleagues helped him jump through the hoops to secure charitable status. “Very early on, I had said that I didn’t want Hollie to just fade away. She’s too good for that. Helping other people was a practical thing I could do that was within my control. At the outset, I thought maybe we’d help a young hairdresser get on the ladder.” That quickly changed as Gazzard learned more about domestic abuse by reading up and meeting others who worked in the field. The HGT now has seven part-time staff – one of whom is his daughter Chloe – and focuses on raising public awareness about domestic abuse and coercive control, through education in schools, colleges, businesses, police forces and other public bodies. It also promotes the use of prevention tools. The Hollie Guard personal safety app has had 500,000 downloads. Among its many features is a discreet alert system that, in an emergency, can send your location, as well as live audio and video, to a chosen contact. Data from Hollie Guard has already been submitted as evidence in 60 police investigations.

Gazzard has been told that he has kept so busy, he has never stopped to grieve. As well as his work on the HGT, he returned to his financial services job just one month after Hollie’s death – although his boss sent him away and urged him to take more time out. “What is grief anyway? It’s an emotional period and perhaps I do it in a different way,” he says. “How would someone know how I feel?” For two years, Gazzard felt guilty if he laughed or smiled. “And I’m a smiley person,” he says. “I felt guilty about eating certain things which were Hollie’s favourite foods. She loved KFC so I felt guilty if I stopped there – because she couldn’t.”

Far harder was his guilt around Hollie’s death. “I still berate myself privately,” he says. “A father’s job is to protect his children. Could I have done more? Why didn’t I? Those feelings ebb and flow, and what I normally do is put them in a box. If I can’t change something, then let me leave it over there and not think about it. It’s the same with him.” (Gazzard avoids referring to Maslin by name.) “I don’t think about him because for me, that’s negative energy.”

Maslin pleaded guilty to murder and is now serving a life sentence with a minimum of 24 years in prison. Somehow, Gazzard has not been eaten up by anger towards either him or the police. “Anger is an emotion that damages you. I don’t want to waste time being angry,” he says. “I put that feeling away and instead talk to police forces about what went wrong, and ask: ‘Can you learn from it?’” He believes Maslin was let down, too. “He was known to police and social services. Surely as a society, we’ve got to deal with these people and try to change them and get them off that path.” Perpetrator programmes a range of interventions designed to help abusers change behaviour – “are a difficult area, a minefield, but if you solve the perpetrator then you don’t have the victim.”

Nick Gazzard alongside a painting of his daughter at the HQ of the Hollie Gazzard Trust. Photograph: Gareth Iwan Jones/The Guardian

Pouring everything into his mission hasn’t come without cost. In May 2020, Gazzard had a stroke. “I think it was probably my body saying, ‘Enough’s enough. You’ve got to slow down and take time for yourself.’” At that point, he was juggling his job with his charity work. After his stroke, he took early retirement and committed to just three days a week with the HGT. He has joined a spa and follows local rugby to relax. There have been other impacts, too. He and Mandy have recently divorced. “I think we grieved in different ways and wanted different things,” he says. “I’m not fixated but the HGT is my drive now. Perhaps I did sacrifice my relationship because of what I wanted to achieve … I probably did.”

What helps him though, what he really holds on to, is the messages from those who have learned from Hollie’s death. “We hear from people all the time who tell us, ‘You saved my life’, ‘You got me out of that relationship.’” Gazzard remembers one mother from Wolverhampton whose teenage daughter escaped an abusive boyfriend after seeing Hollie’s story in a documentary – Gazzard has collaborated with at least nine documentary teams. “No one had been able to get through to her daughter until Hollie. The more I see we’re helping people, the bigger we get and the better I feel.”

It has also allowed Gazzard to keep Hollie close, keep saying her name – and to talk about her. “In the very early days, I remember going with Mandy to the local supermarket and people would cross the road to avoid eye contact,” he says. “We’d walk down one aisle and people would turn around and go back the other way. People didn’t want to engage with us – I think they found it so difficult.

“Even now, I find people a bit reticent,” he continues, “but I love talking about Hollie. Please talk to me about her! Ask me the questions! She is my daughter; I was very fortunate to have her for 20 years and what she’s doing now is brilliant.”

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