NAUGHTY BOY

Eight years ago, Christopher Peach achieved notoriety as the schoolboy speculator wiped out on Black Monday; and he's had other brushes with the law since then. But now he's learnt his lesson - hasn't he? Peach has finally grown up and gone straight. Or so he claims. But has he really learnt his lesson?
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A FEW days into his new job as a trainee project manager with a German property investment company, Christopher Peach is reflecting on his career prospects. "So far so good," he says. "I view it as a fresh start, with the chance to achieve my entrepreneurial ambitions."

He sounds as blithely self-assured as any 23-year-old setting out in life: arrogant, unafraid, oblivious to the possibility of pitfalls ahead. "This post is a challenge. I can use it to pick up skills for when I strike out on my own as an entrepreneur. I hope to own my own string of restaurants and pubs by the time I'm 40. I see myself as another Alan Sugar or Lord Hanson."

And his employers? How did they see him when they offered him the job?

"I think," he reflects, "that they were impressed with my financial abilities."

They weren't - how can one put it? - they weren't a little nervous? About his past?

He hesitates. "I think they just look on me as a man who, now I'm older, has learnt from his mistakes."

Perhaps he has: for, compared with most 23-year-olds, he has had plenty to learn from.

IT WAS a little over eight years ago that Peach had his most notorious learning experience. The date, 19 October 1987, is stamped indelibly on the minds of everyone in the Peach family - as it is on those of thousands of other unfortunates who have reason to remember Black Monday. It was the day when the FT-SE 100 index fell by 250 points, wiping pounds 50bn off share values at a stroke. Countless brokers and investors were ruined, as was Peach. What made his experience remarkable was that he was still at school at the time.

The story has entered into folklore. Peach was the 15-year-old schoolboy from Matlock, Derbyshire, who, when most of the adult nation was in the grip of the greed-is-good optimism of the mid-Eighties boom, had joined the bull stampede, dealing on credit with complacent brokers who never thought to ask his age. When the crash came, he was left quaking quietly in his classroom, wondering how he could repay the pounds 30,000 he had lost. He couldn't, and so, the following morning, he became a celebrity: the adolescent whizz-kid who had duped the stockbrokers before ending up in the mother of all scrapes. His portfolio of stocks and shares was found to have been worth more than pounds 200,000 at its height. But it had been built only on chutzpah: he had no more capital to his name than the clothes he stood up in and, when the plummeting markets turned his paper fortune into real debt, no possible way of paying it back.

"It was dreadful," says Peach today. "I felt quite suicidal. The penny finally dropped with the brokers, and they traced me to my school, threatening the headmaster with the Fraud Squad. My headmaster rang my mother and told her what had happened and I caught the bus home as usual, and when I got off, my mother was waiting for me, absolutely furious. My father was at the Motor Show in Birmingham and my mother had him paged to ring home immediately. He was more shocked than angry, he just didn't know which way to turn."

Christopher's family can still hardly bear to talk about it. "You are going back over what was the worst period of my life," says his mother, Vera Peach. "It's something I will never get over." At one stage, the family thought they would have to sell their home in order to pay Christopher's debts, and for weeks there were journalists camped outside their home. Then, mercifully, the pressure began to ease off. The media went off in search of the next nine-day wonder; and, after months of anxiety, an official brown envelope arrived bearing the news that the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to charge him with under-age dealing, while the Infants Relief Act 1874 protected him from the need to repay his debts. The gullible brokers were left empty-handed and the Peachs were left to rebuild their shattered lives.

That should have been the end of the story. It wasn't. In fact, compared with Christopher Kevin Peach's subsequent troubles, those early dealings in the call-box outside the school gates were... well, kid's stuff.

NO ONE could have predicted such a troubled life for Christopher. Born on 12 May 1972, the youngest of four children of a middle-class English family, he spent his early years in the Republic of Ireland, in Longford, where his father had a job designing ambulances. When he was 11, the family returned to England and settled in Darley Dale, Derbyshire, in time for Peach to start at Highfields comprehensive school in Matlock. The family was a model of respectability. Somewhere along the line, though, Christopher developed a fatal ambition: to become stinking rich.

"I was always very business-minded as a child," he explains. "I was nine when I decided that I was going to be a multi-millionaire by the time I was 18."

He smiles. Casually dressed for our meeting, in a cafeteria in Derby, he is pleasant-looking but unexceptional: fairish hair, steely-blue eyes, average build. If anything, he looks younger than his years. It is the voice that strikes you: an oddly fascinating combination of the camp and the well-to-do, layered with the charm of a man twice his age. Even allowing for the passage of time, it is easy to imagine how, with such a voice, he took so many people in. It was the voice that wreaked the havoc: that and the ambition.

"When I reached 14," he continues, "I started getting worried because I was nowhere near to achieving my ambition in what was after all the age of initiative and enterprise under my heroine, Maggie Thatcher. I was cleaning out my fish-tank one day - my aim was to breed fish and make lots of money out of them - and as I laid down thick layers of old newspapers to keep our carpet dry, I spotted an advert promising that I could double a 15p investment. It was to encourage people to invest in the stock market, and I thought: this is how I'm going to make my million."

He sent off for the information booklet, and that was that. First, he studied the form every day in the City pages "and built up a working knowledge of the subject." Then he took his first plunge, using his saved-up pocket money to buy, by post, 1,000 shares at 111/2p in Common Brothers. He laughs. "As soon as I'd done it I bounced around the room, yelling: 'I'm in business!' " Soon he had built up an impressive portfolio of shares, all at this stage legitimately paid for. As it grew, so did his confidence, and his ambition. Soon he was buying and selling shares regularly, from a call- box outside the school, wheeling and dealing via a broker while his school- mates discussed soccer and girls.

"I just got hooked. Things were going so well that I didn't think for one moment that anything could go wrong. I don't think anybody in the City did. It was," he says, in the ringing cliches that come so easily to his lips, "the get-ahead, buoyant Eighties, and I was on my way to making a lot of money." His friends and even one or two teachers were aware of his enthusiasm, but nobody realised what he was up to.

"I remember going down to the call-box a few times with him and listening to him making deals," recalls Thomas Curtis, a former schoolmate now studying landscape design at Sheffield University. "But with Chris it was difficult to know exactly what to believe. He was a friendly bloke, but secretive, too, always playing his cards close to his chest." One of the things Peach omitted to mention was that he was now buying shares that he did not have the capital to pay for. He was not the first speculator to cotton on to the fact that, once he was established as a broker's client, he could buy shares on account and sell them at a profit before payment was due; but he was probably the first schoolboy.

"After a broker told me that, I put the phone down and thought to myself, you can make mega amounts here, Christopher, my lad." The fantasy, alas, turned to debt-laden reality.

Even when the dust had settled, the pain continued. The year following the debacle was a miserable one. He flunked his exams, leaving school at 16 with just a handful of GCSEs and an O-level in art. A wiser boy, chastened by disaster, might have modified his ambitions accordingly, but Christopher still had further to travel along the path of excess. He found work as a clerk in an accountant's office, but was unable to settle down. It seemed like a dead-end job, and, given his lack of qualifications and the shadow of his disgrace, was likely to remain so. By 1989, he was less than a year from his 18th birthday, and further than ever from making a million. Bored and depressed, he left to start up his own company, CKP.

This time there was no question of naivety. CKP's activities - buying and selling property - were based on deception. Peach was fully aware of the laws against under-age business dealings, and he encouraged people to believe that he was the head of a large international company. "I knew that it was wrong," he says, " but I didn't think it was that serious because it wasn't set up to burn people. Once I had got over the initial cash-flow problems, I could start paying clients and everybody would be happy."

To get going, he successfully, though illegally, applied for a pounds 250,000 loan from a mortgage company. He worked mostly from home, in secret, but also hired an office, a manager and a secretary to create the right impression at the meetings at which, for a couple of months, CKP began to set up its deals. Before he could bring any of them to fruition, however, someone discovered his age. What might have led to riches led to the juvenile court in Nottingham, where Peach was put on probation for two years for 22 dishonesty offences. His parents (although Peach does not mention this) spent "quite a few thousand pounds" repaying his debts. Once again, he tried going straight, finding work as a warehouse manager for a packaging company. Once again, the frustrations of what appeared to be a dead-end job rapidly began to rankle. "I was fed up with working long hours for a low wage, and I thought that I could do much better for myself. So I left the packaging company and set up as a competitor, supplying their customers at a lower price."

The new company was less ambitious than CKP: Peach did most of the business on his parents' telephone, and for nearly a year turned a modest profit. But there was a problem. To be competitive, Peach had to pay his suppliers in cash, while his customers paid by cheque. Predictably, a cash-flow crisis developed.

"I went to my bank one day and enquired what my balance was, and the clerk told me that money was available when I knew the cheques I'd paid in couldn't have cleared yet. So I started drawing against uncleared cheques." Once he realised how simple it was, he started paying in cheques made out to himself on his personal account into his business account, withdrawing the non-existent funds at another bank the following day. He got away with five withdrawals in about two weeks before he was arrested, just as he was preparing to make yet another withdrawal. He still believes that he was unlucky. "Obviously, my account was overdrawn, but it was borderline as to whether the bank would call the police, because as far as I was concerned it was just an unauthorised overdraft. Loads of people have them. Though I suppose the amount involved, pounds 10,000, was a bit high."

On 3 March 1992, at Derby Crown Court, Peach was sentenced to 12 months' detention. He was sent to Glen Parva young offenders' institution in Leicester for three months, then transferred to Hatfield detention centre for a further three months. "The door clanged behind me and it was like the beginning of a nightmare. I knew that I had to do something to get through it." Trading on his reputation, he began to dispense financial advice to inmates and warders, as well as dealing in tobacco. "I became quite wealthy, because tobacco can buy you anything you want inside." He laughs, but nervously: detention was a traumatic experience. "He had a few skirmishes while inside," says Tim Townsend, a 39-year-old businessman who has become a close friend of Peach, "and he never talks about prison except to say that he doesn't want to go through that again."

Peach was let out after six months, and in February 1993 began a two- year Higher National Diploma course in business and finance at New College, Durham. Remarkably, he still had a future. Compagnie de Participations Financieres (the German company who are his current employers) had contacted him after his 1987 adventures and, despite his subsequent exploits, were still prepared to sponsor him through college. But his troubles were not over.

Peach arrived at Durham and was soon revelling in his notoriety as the Christopher Peach. "We thought him very clever," recalls David Hall, 22, a fellow student and friend, "to have been dealing in stocks and shares at that age, and to have got away with it."

It didn't take Peach long to come up with a money-making venture. "I started organising little parties down the local pub. A group of us would pay pounds 10 each, and I bought champagne in bulk. Then I thought, well, why not open them up to the rest of the college? So I did, charging 50p on the door. The first night drew more than 100 students, and I started holding them monthly. Students kept coming up to me begging for more parties." Soon he was organising coach trips to Newcastle night-spots, too.

Then - yet again - disaster stuck. Peach is clearly agitated as he recalls the sequence of events. "In October of the second year, I teamed up with a mate of mine, John Oliver, who was a part-time doorman at one of the pubs we used, and organised a coach trip to Newcastle for a pub crawl ending up at the Tuxedo Royale night-club. Halfway through the evening, John vanished. I didn't think much of it until it was time to go home and we couldn't find him. In the end, we had to leave without him. I thought it a bit strange but assumed he'd made his own way home. Two days later, someone asked me if I'd seen him and I joked about him probably still being in Newcastle looking for the coach home. The next day, the president of the student union told me John had collapsed and died that night. I just couldn't believe it. The shock was terrible."

The misery of the weeks which followed was intensified by rumours that the police had launched a murder investigation. "I went to pieces. My work went out of the window; I couldn't sleep or concentrate. Then the police said they wanted to interview me. I couldn't stop shaking, worrying that my past record would somehow prejudice them against me."

Hall confirms this: "Chris was devastated by John's death. He didn't show his feelings much: he just went very quiet and wasn't his normal extrovert, lively self for weeks afterwards."

The inquest, held in December, found that Oliver, 25, had died from what the coroner described as an adult cot death, but the affair cast a shadow on the remainder of Peach's course - as if there weren't enough shadows over him already - and he failed his accountancy exams at the end of it. He resat them in September, however, and passed. Now, once again, he is contemplating a new beginning.

IS THERE any hope for him? His employers, at least, seem confident. "We have known Christopher since the stocks and shares incident," says a spokesman for Compagnie de Participations Financieres. "We read about it in the papers and we thought he had great potential. We know him well enough to stick with him, and we think we have chosen well."

Not everyone would agree. "He's someone who can't be trusted," says a spokeswoman for the British Bankers' Association. "It doesn't matter if he comes to a bank now or in 10 years' time: his crimes were deliberate and sustained and it's obviously in his blood." A spokesman for the London Stock Exchange is equally brutal: "If he has fraud convictions, a City job is straight out of the window."

Yet Peach remains curiously unshaken in his belief that, somehow or other, he is destined to end up with a mansion in Essex, a Jaguar and a Rover in the drive and a million in the bank. "I'd hoped he would have got over that by now," says his mother; but it is clear that Christopher is still consumed by the desire to get rich - the quicker the better. "Being rich would show I was achieving my goals," he explains, "that I was getting somewhere. Germany is my chance to put the past behind me."

What is not clear is whether he has ever really confronted his mistakes. One suspects that his "goals" are partly motivated by a desire to justify his past - which is not quite the same as admitting that he was wrong. "I think, with hindsight, I could have waited and harnessed my talents to better effect when I was older and more mature," is the most he will concede.

No wonder Tim Townsend, his businessman friend, predicts that "If the opportunity to make big money quick comes up, I think there's that element in him that'll go for it whether it's the right side of the law or not"; while Thomas Curtis, his schoolfriend, thinks: "He'll either make it as a millionaire or totally screw up."

And his mother? "I can't answer for him," says Vera Peach. "I just hope he has learnt his lesson. We have tried our hardest to make him realise that what he did was wrong and that Germany is his last chance. From our point of view there was nothing clever in what our son did. It was an awful thing to put us through."

Peach had made it clear that he would rather I didn't speak to his parents: "I don't want to cause them any more worry." Yet their minds will hardly be put at rest by his parting words: "I regret the trouble it caused. But I still think what I did was quite clever." !

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