`Mr Nobody' jailed for terror raids

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The Independent Online
A DIMINUTIVE, mild-mannered charity collector who wore a flat cap to conduct a terrifying series of armed robberies was jailed for 14 years yesterday.

Most people would not have given Christopher Frank Wood a second glance. He was just 5ft4ins tall, a balding 53-year-old father-of two, who wore Marks & Spencer jumpers. But his anonymity became his most vital weapon during the two-and-a-half years, from late 1995, during which he carried out 32 raids, stealing some pounds 38,000 from building societies across northern and central England and North Wales.

Wood, who became known as the "flat cap robber", pleaded guilty at Stafford Crown Court to what Judge Simon Tonking described as a "unique" series of raids. Described by his counsel as a "financial ostrich", Wood had used the money to pay off his rent and meet everyday expenses. In hindsight, there was one glaring clue: Wood's raids always coincided with the final demands for payment of debts.

The court heard that he had led a bizarre double life, hiding soaring debts from his wife, Gillian, who shared his former home in Buxton, Derbyshire, and committing his crimes to head off final demands for cash. On one day alone, he committed two raids, in Skipton, North Yorkshire, and Colne, Lancashire, to raise the pounds 1,300 he needed to pay housing arrears.

The judge said Wood, who used a wheelbrace wrapped in a carrier bag to create the impression he had a firearm, had subjected his victims to "very real fear" to extract large sums of money.

Patrick Thomas, for the prosecution, said Wood had twice targeted individual branches in Shropshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire. In all, he targeted 29 branches of 16 building societies in 14 separate counties.

During the raids Wood had worn a variety of hats and glasses as disguises.

For months, Wood's very ordinariness had protected him from capture - and led to one of the most baffling investigations in British history. Detectives had excellent pictures of him in action as well as painstaking analysis of his height, walk, hair, and clothes, but despaired of making a breakthrough. FBI crime expertswere called in but he fitted no psychological or physical profile of the "average" armed robber. "I don't think we've ever had so many images of an offender without getting a positive identification," Detective Inspector Pat Corfield said yesterday.

More than 600 names were put forward as suspects after a Crimewatch UK programme in 1998. Witnesses to the robbery of a building society agent in Cannock, Staffordshire - which had not been linked to the flat-cap robber - told detectives the man featured on Crimewatch had also raided their premises.

Officers now studied closed circuit television footage of a supermarket car park next to the building society agent's office, and identified Wood using a white saloon car. It was a poor-quality tape but imaging equipment showed that the car was a Ford Sierra Azura model manufactured in 1992-93; just 2,500 had been made.

Officers turned to the geographical profiler Kim Rosmo, a detective inspector in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who studied a map of robbery locations and advised where the offender was most likely to live. A pedologist investigated the possibility that the robber's unusual gait was the result of a hip injury and a trichologist was called in to judge if his hair was dyed. Even measurements of building society furniture were used to produce an accurate physical profile and advice was sought from the British Shoe Foundation on his probable shoe size.

Using the information collated, officers commissioned a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the suspect. It is believed to have been the first time that any force has used the technique. A viewer of a TV programme about the cut-out recognised Wood and provided the vital lead.

Detective Sergeant Dave Chidgey said: "He is the sort of man who wouldn't say boo to a goose. People who know him describe him as being quiet and reserved, but to those he robbed he was a menacing, aggressive armed raider."