Alan "Jimmy" Johnson walks into a Cheltenham café wearing a smart, black, well-cut suit, and sporting neatly clipped hair. He apologises profusely for his lateness and insists he buy me a coffee. Moving confidently towards the counter, he exchanges pleasantries with the young man behind the counter. The young man quietly tells Jimmy that the coffee shop is now closed for the day – but Jimmy can be charming, and he quickly changes his mind.
After sitting down, Jimmy's face darkens. He becomes noticeably more nervous. His eyes dart around the room and when he speaks he covers his mouth, as though afraid of being watched. He drinks his coffee swiftly and ignores a family group walking past, the members of which seem to recognise him. It's quite a switch in mood, but Jimmy is a complex character. He is the head of a notorious traveller community, and his reputation among the local population precedes him.
The 56-year-old has been in and out of prison throughout his life, and the police place him under frequent surveillance. He was released most recently last August, after serving nearly two years for his involvement in ram-raids on post offices using a JCB. He claims his probation officer reports on his whereabouts directly to the Home Secretary, but it is the actions of the rest of his family that have sealed his reputation.
Last February, his younger brother Ricky, 55, and nephews Richard "Chad" Johnson, 34, Danny O'Loughlin, 33, Albi Johnson, 26, and Michael Nicholls, 30, were jailed for between eight and 11 years each. They were convicted of a series of spectacular burglaries that targeted some of Britain's grandest stately homes between 2003 and 2006.
At its most audacious, the gang made off with antiques, jewellery, porcelain, crystal and china worth £30m in a single raid on Ramsbury Manor, Wiltshire, the home of the property tycoon Harry Hyams – the man who developed Centre Point in London – and the house where Oliver Cromwell planned the subjugation of Ireland. It was the highest-value burglary ever recorded in Britain. Over three years, their total haul is estimated to have been £80m. It is little wonder that the group struck fear into the hearts of homeowners for miles around their base, a caravan site at Cleeve Prior, near Evesham, Worcestershire.
The BBC documentary, Catching Britain's Biggest Thieves, tells the story of how the Johnsons were imprisoned. Jimmy Johnson has agreed to meet me today because he fears his family will not be represented fairly. While criminal (by their own admission), the Johnson clan claim their situation is more complex than the label as "Britain's No 1 crime family" suggests.
And, while Jimmy is a self-confessed "gangster" who accepts his family's troubled past, he disputes the honesty of the criminal justice system that has imprisoned his relatives.
"There are gangster families who have never gone through what we've been through," Jimmy says. "They have these big cases against them and they never get the severity of the sentences we have had. If the perpetrators of these crimes had been robbing council houses, what would have happened? A slap on the wrist. But because they went for who they did, these people [the victims] managed to dictate the whole situation. During the trial, we have had no equality of arms. 'Oh, it's the Johnsons,' people said. Members of our family have grafted to keep out of trouble but they're not getting the chance to. We're being targeted by a group of people who run the country. It's irrelevant as to innocence or guilt. What's relevant is whether my family had fair trial. And the answer to that is no."
Jimmy is well built, despite his age – the result of a power-lifting hobby. You can see tattoos creeping out from the sleeves of his suit. He speaks in a fast and furious jabber, with a thick West Country accent, and peppers his speech with a curious slang. "Blame" becomes "dairy"; the process of earning a fast buck is referred to as "dukkering". His moods seem to veer quickly from happy and roguish one minute – flirting with passing women, offering to buy them flowers, cracking jokes – to agitation and anger the next.
We touch on his desire to paint a reliable picture of his world. He claims the travelling community does not see itself as "English", but divided from the rest of the nation on racial grounds. He discusses his childhood. "It was hard growing up in my community," he says. "We were like slaves. We worked in a field. And once we had finished working in one place, we had to move on. The rich, the people who owned the land, would tell us to leave. We had to work morning to dark just to survive. When I went to a children's home in South Wales, it was full of paedophiles and child molesters. They were the people who started telling lies about me. They made up things about me to cover their own misdoings. I ran away a few times. That formed the basis of every report done on me afterwards."
The Johnson family's presence in Cheltenham stretches back to 1952, when 16-year-old Muriel Slender, Jimmy's mother, married his father, the travelling Irishman Albert Johnson. The pair had eight children – Jimmy, the oldest, and his younger siblings Ricky, Lee, Danny, Martin, Tracy, Jane and Julie.
"My mum had to struggle through it," Jimmy says. "Same as any woman with eight kids. Times were hard. Maybe that's part and parcel of why some of us became thieves. That's certainly why I did. Because we were poor. I can remember the first time I committed a crime. It was when I was a kid. My mother and I were working the fields and these people used to bring the money to a shed for the families and that's where they would collect their money. And I watched it a couple of times and then I decided to take the money."
Albert died from cancer in 1972. Jimmy took up the reins as head of the family and made a name for himself with the police for offences that included serial squatting and a charge of attempted murder in 1989. In March 1990, he staged a rooftop protest at Horfield Prison, Bristol, and he reportedly staged a tree-top protest after he was charged with stealing caravans in 2000.
The criminal records of Jimmy's family do not do them any favours. At the time of his sentencing last February, Ricky had 22 convictions for 57 offences, going back to 1965. His most audacious crime was the founding of Christian Construction in 1995, a charity he said "would take young criminals off the streets and teach them a trade". In 1997, he was sentenced to three years in prison when it transpired that he was using the charity as a front to con pensioners, pretending he was conducting essential building work and giving the money to charity. Instead, he pocketed it. "Ricky may have conned a few old women because that's about his level, which I find disgusting personally," Jimmy says. "Me and my brother used to fall out the whole time over things like this. He was off his head. He had a complete breakdown and he became a religious crank."
When the trial for the stately-home robberies took place last January, both Chad Johnson and Danny O'Loughlin, whose father is married to Jimmy's sister Jane, were already serving time. Chad was in the middle of a three-and-a-half-year sentence, after marrying an heiress in 2002, convincing her to sign over her flat to him, and leaving her bankrupt in the process. Danny was serving seven and a half years for stealing precious metals. Ricky's son Albi (Chad's brother) had 10 previous convictions, for offences including theft and burglary. Michael Nicholls, the partner of Ricky's daughter Faye, had 17 convictions for deception, theft, burglary and dangerous driving. "I'm not saying they weren't in trouble," Jimmy says. "But they have been used as scapegoats on this."
Perhaps most famously, the stately-home robberies included the theft of snuffboxes worth £5m in June 2003 from Waddesdon Manor, a National Trust property and home of the Rothschild family, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. In October 2005, the Formula One tycoon Paddy McNally's home at Warneford Place in Sevenhampton, near Swindon, was also targeted – silverware, porcelain and clocks worth £750,000 were stolen. Then there was the burglary at the Hyams' mansion, in November 2005.
The gang's methods of gaining access were not tremendously intricate. Anne Gascoigne, a 75-year-old widow, was sleeping when the double doors of her manor house exploded inwards. A 4x4 with a fence-post fixed to the roofrack to form a crude but effective battering ram had been used to, in effect, ram-raid her home. On that occasion, the thieves made off with antiques, jewellery and porcelain worth £50,000.
Upper-class or not, does Johnson ever feel sympathy for his victims? "When I was a little boy, we were struggling picking potatoes. When they finished with us... I saw my mother dragged by her hair and having a miscarriage, and my father being beaten," he says. "We have got hatred towards them, don't get me wrong. But we have been treated like that all our lives."
But Jimmy does seem to feel something for the objects targeted by the gang – the antiques, artefacts and artworks. "I like 'em," he says. "I started to read books and go to museums and auctions. But I didn't scope out stately homes." Jimmy was in prison for the post office robberies during much of the crime spree for which his relatives were arrested.
In 2004, Jimmy invited a BBC film crew to Cleeve Prior in a bid to document how his family lived. The result was the documentary Country Strife: Summer With the Johnsons, broadcast the following year. Needless to say, Jimmy was not happy with the results. In it, Ricky Johnson is seen to say: "I would like to make it clear to the people out there, to police and the rich people like Lord Rothschild – if I feel the need... when I have got to rob a stately home, I will do so... I feel I have got the fucking right to rob the lords out there. I feel I have got the right to rob the lords, sirs, and the ladies."
When the BBC approached Jimmy again about tonight's documentary, he says the family refused to speak – instead, the film has to rely on archive footage of existing interviews. "We didn't co-operate with the BBC because they twist everything," he says. "My brother Ricky is illiterate. He has no academic skills. If you look at what he said on the television, he said they think we're 'pesticides', he was trying to say they think we're 'parasites'. They took what he said out of context. He came across as saying, 'If I have to rob the rich, I will.' What he was trying to say was, 'If I would have to feed my family, then I would steal.' That was what he was trying to say. He hasn't robbed anyone rich in his life. For one, he hasn't got the bottle."
At this point, Jimmy's mother, Muriel, 74, arrives in the café to join us. After some arguments with Jimmy, she eventually speaks. "The young ones are not my generation," she says. "I don't know what they are doing. I can't in my heart say they didn't do these crimes because their whereabouts I don't always know. But Ricky is older. He could never do it. I don't think I can put my hand on my heart and say they're [all] innocent. But Ricky is innocent. His crime has been overcharging for construction work in the past."
In October 2005, the police forces of Gloucestershire, Thames Valley, Warwickshire and West Mercia pooled resources to investigate the thefts. Wiltshire joined five months later. There was a series of arrests, and in June 2006, Jimmy says, the family home was raided at Cleeve Prior. "We had two to three hundred armed police bearing down on our family, our children. I had a gun rammed in my mouth." He criticises the press, too. "Before any of us were questioned, we were named in all the newspapers. How could this possibly take place without anybody talking to us? If the prosecution and the police and the judges are allowed to get away with this type of treatment, then people should worry about who is going to be the next target."
Jimmy believes the police obtained some information from a young man who had spent some time living with his family. "He came to me to apologise about that," Jimmy says. "He is addicted to heroin. It was not me who corrupted him – it was the system. I was looking after him for a short time. He never committed one crime when he was with me."
The family, in fact, had two trials for the stately-home robberies. The first began in January 2007 but lasted only a few days. According to local newspaper reports, the trial was stopped after the judge ruled that some of the prosecution's evidence could not be used. The second trial started in January, and sentencing took place the following month.
"Travellers have always been persecuted since God knows how long," Jimmy says. "I think this whole trial with my family proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the upper classes can manipulate the judicial system. They can control it and they can do what they want. For instance, the amount of police power that was put into Lord Rothschild's burglary – it was like the Crown Jewels had been stolen. All in all, it sort of created a personal vendetta against us."
Jimmy is working towards recovering the Waddesdon snuffboxes, which have never been found. Jimmy says he knows where they are. "All the dirty gutless people that put the 'dairy' [blame] on other people – don't think I've forgotten about those boxes, because I'm coming for them."
As we leave, Jimmy points to people he claims are shop security guards and undercover policemen. He says they are required to report his presence to the authorities whenever they see him around town.
I wonder if there will be any more to our encounter today. On a previous occasion (I have met him twice before this particular rendezvous in the café), he offered me a lift back to the local train station in Cheltenham. When I accepted, he took me to a new, and impressive, BMW. As we pulled away, he told me he wanted to show me something several miles down the road. Despite my protestations that I would be late for my train, there was no arguing. This was Jimmy at his most persuasive; I could sense a certain enjoyment that he had the power in this situation. He took me to a caravan site, where he rattled off incomprehensible stories about wrongdoings against travellers. It was hard to say whether the stories were reliable, or indeed whether he was accusing the police or local residents.
I enjoyed our meeting for the most part, although not when things were out of my control. He laid down what sounded like a challenge, a way to allow me to see for myself the attitude society has towards travellers: he would, he said, allow me to live as one of his family, to pose as a traveller myself. I was happy when I eventually saw the railway station and the way home. The experience had been uncomfortable.
But today, outside the café, he goes his way and I go mine. There is time for one last thought. "Let's say, hypothetically, you're in a bank, and you see a man wearing a stripy jumper and he is waiting behind a man with a suitcase and when they both leave the guy in the jumper rushes out and pounces on the other guy. What do you think is happening?" he asks. "You think he's robbing him. Well let me tell you that again, and put in some details that I left out before. In fact, the guy with the suitcase is standing outside and there is some breeze block falling from the roof that is going to crush him. The guy with the stripy jumper saves his life. It's all about context. Until you get the whole truth, no one is going to get a fair decision. And if I'm wrong, give 'em life."
Spetchley Park, Worcester: A library window in this Palladian mansion was smashed in November 2005, but the thieves left empty-handed.
Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury: Snuff boxes worth £5m were stolen in June 2003 from the Rothschild family home near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.
Ramsbury Manor, Wiltshire: Property tycoon Harry Hyams's mansion was raided in February 2006. Antiques worth tens of millions of pounds were taken in Britain's most costly domestic burglary. PA
'Catching Britain's Biggest Thieves' is on BBC1 tonight at 10.45pm