In an undisclosed market town in Southern England, the security guard (off-guard) stumbled out of his workstation almost face-planting, as his eyes and commitment to his job moved considerably faster than his legs were ready for. The only crime of the month was happening right in front of him and on his watch. He lunged for the door.
The arch-villain had grabbed a Dyson from the window display and legged it out of the shop and up the hill and - I shit you not - towards the magistrates court which was situated - and I shit you not again - in the same building as the police station.
Why would he run towards the law in broad daylight, carting a stolen yellow vacuum cleaner? Well, his house was on the small housing estate next door to the courts and there was a convenient alleyway that lead from the top of the high street, between ‘Your Worship’ and the back gardens on the estate. Just 150 metres or so and he’d be able to duck into the alley and ten more metres he’d be home and dry.
But the main reason was this: he was a bad criminal. One of the worst criminals I ever met. Not ‘worst’ because of the despicable nature of his crimes but because he was really really bad at it.
As the call came in, we’d literally just poured the tea, before sharing the customary eye roll and strolling out of the back yard past the police cars and round the corner to where the Pablo Escobar of suction was padding through his garden and in the through the back door in plain sight.
There wasn’t a police officer either on or off duty who wouldn’t have immediately a) known the identity of the vacuum villain (sorry) b) known exactly which address he was headed towards. We knocked with authority on the door. His nervous girlfriend opened the door to a crack:
“What you want?”
“Can you go and get him please?”
“Who?” Insert Martin Freeman's favourite acting face (see below). “No. He’s not here.” Repeat face. “He’s not here.”
"Either you get him or we’re coming in to get him." We’ve just watched him run in with a hoover.” My foot was wedged in the door (one of the first lessons I learned in the job) in case she felt like making life difficult.
“He didn’t have no hoover.”
“I thought you said he wasn't here.” Not quite 'Line of Duty' but I was amused nonetheless. She stepped out of the way leaving her spirit in the doorway but resigned to the section 32 (ask H) that was about to take place.
What started as a house search quickly descended into a farcical game of hide and seek. The stolen Dyson was outside the bedroom door, sheepishly eyed by the girlfriend. We drew our batons and slowly opened the door to the main bedroom:
"We're coming ready or not, Matthew." I opened the door cautiously, ready to react. Nothing happened. My eyes darted around the room and in the same moment we both looked at the wardrobe. "Come out Matthew." Silence. "Maaa-theewwww. We've found you!" Still nothing. Even my sing-song voice didn't flush him out. "Come on! It's my turn to hide." Not professional I know but by this point we were struggling to hold it together. We moved to the closed doors.
Nodding to each other and on three, we yanked open a door each to reveal its contents. Empty but for the human-shaped lump sat cross-legged with a blanket draped over his head.
"Hello Matthew." Again, nothing. The blanket was breathing heavily so I put my baton back in the holster, deciding it would only impede my next manoeuvre. I bent down to grab the corners and with a Houdini flourish I whipped the material up in the hair and over his head.
"Ta-da!" Matthew held his hands up in submission. "Put your hands down Matthew it's not the Sweeney. Come on we've got to bring you in."
When I began writing this post (around 7pm Saturday 1st May 2021) I hadn't figured out how to frame the ending. Probably something about the comedic and no-doubt unprofessional manner in which the detail of the arrest was relayed to the custody sergeant or whatever.
Then this happened and the ending wrote itself.
At 7:26pm and 7:28pm I was still writing this post when I received two calls on Facebook Messenger, neither of which I answered. I rang back and we had a 2 minute conversation which consisted of a welfare check, a location check and then an apology for bothering me.
I stared at my phone for some time, followed by a longer stare at the wall. He'd called me by accident, which in itself is not unusual. Also the fact that I'd not spoken to him for over 20 years - not even via text - might not surprise you that much. If I told you he was a former colleague and we were both Sergeants together in the job it could cause a smile.
But what if I told you he was the custody sergeant on duty on the very day of the Great Vacuum Robber?
He booked him in.
Martin Freeman Acting Face
PS If you're not sure what I meant by the Martin Freeman acting face reference from the British panel show Never Mind The Buzzcocks, here it is:
This was the night that Mick Jagger might've saved my life.
It began as an emergency call to the police control room with a message from a distressed woman that I'll never forget:
"He's got a baseball bat and he's breaking my front door down. Please help me. Quickly."
It was around 5pm on a Saturday, a warm summers evening on a housing estate on the outskirts of Portsmouth, UK. We were only about two minutes away when the call came in, meaning it would still be happening when we arrived, rather than the usual and unsatisfactory 'no trace of offender.'
Maybe it was domestic, maybe drugs-related; I don't really remember, but I can clearly remember where, how and who. You always remember your first baseball bat job (probably all of the subsequent ones too).
My crewmate Dinger was already half out the car before it stopped and I quickly joined him, running towards the front door of the house, with screaming coming from inside. The perpetrator was still there, stood outside and having retreated a few metres away from the door. Actually 'door' would be a strong word to use for the mass of splinters, glass fragments and flapping hinges occupying the space where the door once stood, just a few minutes earlier.
The person responsible was looking at us. He was breathing heavily, his rounded face sweating and his well-built frame was cloaked in a browny-red coloured leather (plastic) 3/4 length jacket. His hands were behind his back, trying (and failing) to conceal an aluminium baseball bat, that was playing a menacing game of peek-a-boo from atop his shoulder. His eyes were darting, deciding (I think) whether to make a run for it - or to attack.
In the exact moment that he shifted his weight from one foot to the other I felt a searing and debilitating pain in my back, just above my kidneys on my right side. Have you ever experienced this?
Faced with immediate and terrifying danger and just when I needed to be agile, responsive and alert I was physically paralysed by fear. My body started to shut down, deciding it was a great time to play statues. Great. In fact I distinctly remember making a mental picture of him raising the bat above his head in a kind of Jedi slashing move (which he didn't actually do). My mental picture made me think in that moment 'what would happen if he brought that bat down on my head.' No wonder I was scared; I'm feeling scared writing this.
In fact I'd never been so scared of immediate violence than in that split-second (although I have many times after) and I had no idea what to do. But what happened next was inexplicable.
I channelled my inner Mick Jagger to disarm him.
Yes, you did read that correctly and it was all thanks to Chlorobenzalmalononitrile and yes that is an actual word. Also known as CS gas (this was pre-tazer), it had received mixed reviews from police about its ability to deter or calm violent offenders. It operated like a disappointing water pistol and if you did manage to draw the cannister with the nozzle pointing in the desired direction, it was an absolute bonus.
The chances of hitting an assailant were already slim but in the early days of issue, more police officers than criminals ended up with a shot of CS in their chops, as the thing had a tendency (especially under duress) to squirt out at a 60 degree angle. As I drew the gas, Dinger fleetingly wondered whether today was his lucky or unlucky day, especially given my limited firearms experienced had proven that I couldn't hit a cows arse with a banjo.
I was just as worried about gassing my crewmate as I was about convincing Batguy to surrender. If he was to attack, I didn't fancy our chances much.
Back to Mick; I needn't have worried, because just then, the Universe took over. For reasons that can only be explained by the belief that I wasn't in control of my body, I shouted my way through the adrenaline, bellowing with every fibre of my being in the direction of Batguy.
"GAS! GAS! GAS! I HAVE GAS!" The words tumbled out with an urgency I can't describe.
Later there were tears. Of laughter. Dinger sobbed with laughter as he relived the moment when I screamed a Rolling Stones chorus (Jumpin' Jack Flash) at a violent nut-job who held our lives in his hands.
Amazingly it worked. Instead of being attacked (or crowned with a spike right through my head for you musos) Batguy dropped the weapon to the floor, fell to his knees and began begging for me not to spray him. Insert Keith Richards guitar riff here. Thanks to Mick and the boys. (Also, while I'm here, what an incredible band).
I was a professional and committed police officer in those days. Why, oh why did I have to be so ridiculous in a moment that required bravery and poise? I'm even pouting while I type this out. If only I'd strutted across the pavement.
Dinger incidentally, was heaven-sent. Although fresh out the box and as rattled as me, he was also much stronger and together we jumped on Batguy, wrapped him up neatly in handcuffs and folded him into the back seat of the car for transportation.
I have no idea where the gas thing came from. In moments of terror our in-built survival mechanism reveals itself and knows what to do better than we do consciously. We should trust this more (even if we do sound stupid).
Ironically, ten years later I was singing this very song as frontman of band in a large wedding marquee in a field that I don't remember, around the same time as I had begun suffering from post-traumatic stress (not from Batguy incident - something else - tell you about this another time).
Later in life, as soon as I realised that fear can't hurt me - it's just my thinking - then the fears and anxieties fell away faster than Jumpin' Jack Flash himself. Fear is MUCH scarier than reality. Fear doesn't exist, our thoughts created it and our imagination is infinite. Just ask my ex about spiders. The fear of the spider is significantly greater than anything a tiny eight-legged web shooter minding its own business could do.
Reality - this moment - (especially when we show up) is a much better place to hang out. You can deal with anything there.
So I now know this to be true:
It's alright now, in fact it's a gas.
Heathrow Airport, London circa 1991
The British Airways 747 direct from Bombay (now Mumbai) landed a few minutes ahead of time, which was the worst of circumstances for Charlie. An extra twenty minutes to gather himself and recover from the effects would have been helpful.
Smoking had not yet been banned on all flights, but as it wasn't tobacco he was smoking, he felt it was both polite and sensible to leave the cabin and head to the toilet for a smoke in private. Chasing dragons in public is still taboo in 2020, never mind 1991.
But this was not your average, garden variety heroin of the kind sold in £20 bags under railway arches, council flats and nightclubs - I am reliably told that the price has halved. This particular heroin was 100% pure and uncut. Charlie had been sleeping with about £100K worth of this powder underneath his pillow, at his digs somewhere east of Bombay for some two weeks. Up until this trip, which was his first abroad, he had never tried the stuff and had never particularly wanted to either. He'd been smoking and selling weed since he was 12, but now five years later, his curiosity to try harder drugs had been triggered by his new employer, Mr K.
Like many curious teenagers, Charlie wanted to find out what all the fuss was about for himself.
Five grand in cash is a lot of money to anybody. But if you are sixteen year old Sikh boy living in a council estate in White City, London in 1991 having been kicked out shortly before your 15th birthday with no qualifications, you have no job, no plans and a violent alcoholic father, the idea of smuggling a small package of innocent looking powder into the UK was not only an adventure, it was a no-brainer.
In fact it was for these reasons that Mr K recruited him. He would have done it for half the price of course, but didn't mention that to Mr K. Anyway back to Heathrow, specifically the green channel at terminal 2.
What you are about to read will sound like stupidity but trust me Charlie is no fool. He is very smart. Street smart. He was just a kid, on his trafficking apprenticeship and on a very steep learning curve at the school of survival. But he made two key mistakes. The first was not anticipating the significant weight loss caused by two weeks of daily heroin use. It meant that his clothing didn't fit him particularly well and even with his belt on the tightest notch, they kept falling down to his knees as he walked. Anyone behind him would have enjoyed a clear view of his pants (they were brown, he told me) as he shuffled his way to the entrance to the green channel. He drew attention to himself, albeit comically, but of course not ideal while smuggling class A drugs into a country.
His second mistake was a little worse. Charlie had smoked so much pure heroin on the flight he was still high by the time he reached Customs. Yes, smoking pure heroin had relieved the boredom of a long flight and the anxiety of approaching the finish line but unfortunately he now, not just a little stoned, but REALLY high; the falling asleep kind of really high.
Halfway along the green channel corridor, some 8 or 9 metres from the door to the arrivals hall, Charlie stopped innocently for a rest. He leaned against the wall and with a wave of tiredness, melted into the plasterboard and slid slowly to the floor. At the same time, so did his jeans. You would not need to be customs officer of the year to spot that a young man with the physique of an addict, his waistband at his knees and fading in and out of consciousness may be worth of further investigation. Charlie told me the only thing he really remembers was the Customs Officer summoning him in slow motion with blurred movements of his index finger.
I first met Charlie in 2008. After spending most of his adult life involved in crime, and having lost at least ten years of it to heroin addiction it was fascinating to learn from him how he got himself clean of all drugs and alcohol, attended the gym regularly and managed to get a BA in fine art (2:1 with honours). Pretty impressive for a dyslexic addict ex-con with no qualifications. His life was fully back on track.
Also, his art was outstanding. Challenging, but outstanding. He had a unique view of the world and a real talent for expression. He offered an insight into the darkest parts of humanity. This man really has been to hell and back several times, but had begun to see that his extraordinary life and adversity could be his superpower.
Through his art he was able to he was able to tell people the truth about what he'd seen. His passion was for taboo subjects of abuse, addiction and the reality of growing up surrounded by drugs and violence out in the open to start conversations, rather than be hidden behind closed doors and whispers.
He's not answering my messages but we will make a cracking movie when he does.
CEO & Co-founder of the PopUp Business School.