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Ordinary day turns violent in instant

A popular science teacher is stabbed simply stopping for a box of doughnuts. The suspect was recently freed from prison.

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 22, 2003

TAMPA - She was one woman in a sea of ordinary folks, in an ordinary place, on an ordinary afternoon.

She was a science teacher, 54 years old, going about her business like anyone else.

Her hair stylist had made special arrangements to squeeze her into the schedule. So she wheeled her black Volvo into the Krispy Kreme at 8425 Florida Ave. Wednesday, planning to deliver a box of sugary thank-yous.

She never made it.

Of all the people scurrying up and down the busy four-lane road, she was the one that a man fresh out of prison after 15 years chose to approach.

And there, in the parking lot, two lives collided.

Brenda Hill, a married mother of two and a beloved third-grade teacher at Berkeley Preparatory School. And Matthew Fowler, a felon with a violent past who turns 39 today and has spent 22 of those years behind bars.

Tampa police say Fowler confronted Hill outside the doughnut shop about 3:40 p.m. Wednesday wielding an 8-inch-long butcher knife and insisting that she take him where he wanted to go.

She did everything right, police say. She offered her purse. She offered the Volvo SUV. But she wasn't going along for the ride.

"That's what we tell people - nothing is worth your life. She did an outstanding job of survival," said police spokesman Joe Durkin.

"Unfortunately, she was confronted by this defendant, who's got very violent tendencies."

Despite Hill's efforts, Fowler persisted, police say: He thrust the knife into Hill's abdomen. She leaned on the horn, trying to draw attention. He stabbed her again in the thigh. She stayed on the horn. Fowler fled. And it was over.

Police nabbed Fowler 15 minutes later at the intersection of Nebraska and Hamilton avenues, the bloody butcher knife still tucked in his waistband.

Emergency workers rushed Hill to St. Joseph's Hospital. She should have been at the hair salon. Instead, she ended up in surgery.

"It cut an artery, but did not hit a single organ," said Ben Hill III, Hill's brother-in-law, who said the wound also bruised her stomach.

He said doctors had to cauterize the artery. Hill remained in fair condition Thursday night at St. Joseph's. Fowler remained in the Orient Road Jail without bail.

The picture of Fowler's life remains hazy. Almost all his days since October 1980 have been spent in prison, serving time for attempted murder, aggravated battery, robbery and other convictions. He has grown up behind bars since age 16. And if he's convicted in Wednesday's attack on Hill, he's likely to grow old there. Fowler declined a request for an interview Thursday.

Hill has led a much different life. She is married to Pat Hill, president of a local marketing firm. They live in the upscale Cheval community in Lutz and have raised two sons: Matthew, a lawyer in South Carolina, and Judson, a biologist in Montana. Hill has been a well-regarded science teacher at Berkeley Prep for two decades.

"She has been a mainstay at Berkeley and has positively touched the lives of hundreds and hundreds of children," headmaster Joseph Merluzzi said Thursday.

"In her room, you'll see a parent - a doctor - showing how a heart works, and a roomful of little eyes looking up."

On Thursday, Hill's classroom, Room 152, looked tidy and ready for the first day of school on Monday. She had put up pictures of Mars on the front windows under a heading, "What's big, red and getting closer and closer?"

She tacked up posters about the four food groups. An aquarium sat on one side of the room. A small skeleton sat in a corner.

Fellow teachers declined to talk on the record, citing school policy, but they called Hill a wonderful person.

Reached by his wife's side in the hospital, Pat Hill was brief but friendly. "We've been bombarded with flowers and gifts. We appreciate it," he said. "We're seeing some improvement."

Perhaps the strangest part of all this, the reason it resonates with so many people, is the thought that any of us might be plucked from our everyday lives and tossed into an unimaginable horror in broad daylight.

"I think everyone can identify with that," said Durkin, the police spokesman. "Everybody goes about their daily lives, and the last thing on their minds is becoming a crime victim. You never know."

And who is to say, until the moment arises, how anyone will act when put in that position? A stranger walks up, knife in hand, and offers an ultimatum.

Experts agree Hill did the right thing. It just wasn't enough, not on that day in that parking lot.

But even after the attack, as she lay bleeding on a stretcher, Hill kept ahold of her wits.

She turned to someone in the ambulance and asked them to call the hair salon to let them know she wouldn't make the appointment.

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