Gangsters become hit men for God

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IN THE ILLEGAL drinking dens south of the river, the news will cause scar-faced men in overcoats to choke on their cigars: Tel and Bob have become men of the cloth.

For years the pair were known faces among the south London criminal fraternity; breaking into houses, running drugs and fighting pitched battles with rival gangs.

Now Terry Mortimer is a Pentecostal minister and Bob Turney is an ordained minister with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Their rehabilitation into society is evidence that even the most hardened criminals can change their ways.

As he presided at a baptism yesterday, Turney - who is also a probation officer - admitted he had a "criminal record which makes the Artful Dodger look like a choirboy."

Both men express deep remorse for their pasts and an anxiety to make amends through their ministerial work.

Turney is the secretary of Unlock, the new national association for ex- offenders, which is being launched tomorrow at Pentonville prison, north London.

The pair's criminal careers were fostered by difficult upbringings on the notorious St Helier estate, on the Surrey fringes of south London. They would hang around the St Helier Tavern, where Charlie Kray was once entertainments manager. The tavern was demolished two years ago after being described by police as "the most dangerous pub in Britain."

Mortimer first came before the courts as a 10-year-old after trying to burn down his school. Turney, whose first criminal offence was stealing a motor scooter, went on to spend 18 years in and out of prison.

They were a natural criminal pairing. Mortimer had an eye for a burglary target and a network of contacts for "fencing" the proceeds. Turney, the consummate car thief, would provide the transportation.

Anecdotes of their "diabolical" past come thick and fast.

Mortimer recalled: "One day I said to Bob 'I've got a drum, I need a set of wheels mate.' He came back and said: 'I've got one.' It was an ambulance."

The emergency vehicle provided excellent cover. "No-one is going to stop an ambulance at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. It was someone's large private house and Bob just backed it up. We even used the chair lift when we were emptying the house. How we got away with it, I just don't know."

An engaging man, Mortimer readily admits that his tales of a murky past are hardly the stuff of a typical vicarage tea party.

On one occasion the pair were paid pounds 200 to wreck a home in the London suburbs. "As the bloke opened the door, we had him with a club hammer. We smashed the place up and was out again in two minutes ... There's a bloke in Surrey who's got a metal plate in his head because I did him with an iron bar. If I could find him I would beg him to forgive me.

"There was a tyre lever handy. It was private property. He was in a coma. When he come round he wouldn't press charges because he was scared. I denied doing it and the Old Bill had to let me go."

One gang fight led to an appearance at the Old Bailey. "It was Greek Cypriots. I turned my back on one of them and he pulled out a Stiletto. It was five inches long and went in 43/4in even though I had a sports jacket and overcoat on.

"One of them got badly hurt and they tried to put it down to me, but it got dropped at trial."

The two clergymen both had appalling childhoods. Turney's father committed suicide when he was 10; while Mortimer was the youngest of eight. By the time they were young men, both were heavily dependent on drink and drugs.

"I was mugging people, drinking heavily and pushing drugs. Speed, dex, bluies, smoke. Anything I could get hold of, although there was no ecstasy in those days,"said Mortimer.

But it was Turney's drink dependency, which led to the break-up of their criminal partnership. "He was in and out of nick so many times he became a bit of a liability," said Mortimer, who claims he "got good at not getting caught" until he found himself in a Young Offenders Institution, accused of burglary and attacking a man with a knife.

The pair drifted apart, but 15 years ago, in different locations and circumstances, both became born-again Christians and have been crime-free since.

After release from prison, Turney worked in a bail hostel before going to Reading University - where he gained a degree in social work - and attaining professional qualifications as a probation officer.

Turney, 54, who is married with five children, has written a critically- acclaimed autobiography, I'm Still Standing, and his new book, Going Straight, will feature the success stories of other reformed criminals.

"What I'm doing now is paying back," he said. "Trying to have a positive input into the community instead of a negative one. I have tried to make amends to some of the people I have ripped off, but so many of them are anonymous to me."

Mortimer, 45, has a congregation of 180 in north London, who know about his criminal past. "When I was interviewed by the denomination all this had to come up. They were fine about it because I had been out of trouble for so long. Pentecostal people believe in being born again and being saved."

Mortimer, who is married with three children, "found God" after a court decided to refer him to a psychiatrist, who was also a Salvation Army colonel. He ended up free of drink and drugs, and with a Cambridge University diploma in Theology.

South London's underworld is bemused. "I saw some of my old mates recently but they didn't know how to talk to me. They thought I'd gone mental," said Mortimer.

"But if I had carried on with crime I would now be banged up or someone would have topped me. Instead I'm a minister with a congregation."