AN ESCAPED prisoner who threatened a female shop assistant in Bude with a meat cleaver has been jailed.
John Stephens left Linda Clarke, 56, in terror when he stole more than £800 from the Candy Shop, a sweet shop and newsagents, in Belle Vue, Bude, a week before Christmas.
Stephens had fled from jail while on day-release and moved to the West Country where he left shop staff and four different small businesses terrified by his knifepoint attacks.
He was caught on CCTV but could not be identified by police because he wore disguises, including the red and white Where's Wally outfit.
He targeted shops and filling stations in Axminster and Bude and was caught after a brave businesswoman in Holsworthy refused to hand over money and chased him out of her shop.
Stephens, aged 27, pleaded with a judge at Exeter Crown Court on Monday to be sent back to jail because he said the four months in which he was on the run were much worse than the nine years he had spent in prison.
He had been jailed indefinitely in 2005 for public protection for two street robberies of elderly men in Wales.
Stephens, of no fixed address, admitted four robberies and absconding from custody and was jailed for eight years and four months by Judge Francis Gilbert, QC.
The previous indefinite sentence remains in force so Stephens will only be freed when the parole service considers him safe for release.
Judge Gilbert told him: "On each occasion you threatened the victims with a knife or knives. You ask for a life sentence but that would be well outside the sentencing guidelines."
Stephens shouted at the judge as he left the dock: "I'll be back next week when I stab someone."
Janice Eagles, for the prosecution, said Stephens absconded from Prescoed Prison in Pontypool on September 22 during a day-release visit to his mother.
He moved to Devon to be with a woman from Axminster but went to Bude to carry out his first robbery at the Candy Shop at 2pm on December 18.
The judge was shown CCTV of Linda Clarke cowering in terror as Stephens menaces her with a meat cleaver and knife before taking £835 from the till.
The victim was wearing a Santa hat and Stephens wore a scarf over his face and a hoodie.
His next attacks were on two filling stations in Axminster, and then he moved to Holsworthy for his final raid at the Bazaar shop.
Miss Eagles said owner Rita Lillicrap, aged 59, defied Stephens as he threatened her with a nine-inch kitchen knife and shouted to neighbouring shops for help.
"He pointed the knife at her but then left, carrying a can of deodorant. She tried to chase him but was blocked by members of the public who had come to help."
A major police search ended with his arrest in Axminster two days later.
Mark Jackson, for the defence, said Stephens was unprepared for life on the outside when he absconded.
He wanted a life sentence because it would give him a structured sentence plan and a better chance of staying out of trouble when released.
Mr Jackson said: "He has been in jail since he was 19 and is completely institutionalised. He says if he is released he will return to offending."