Failed security van heist fugitive jailed for 18 years

One of Britain's most wanted men who was on the run for six years after fleeing during an armed ambush on a prison van was jailed for 18 years today.

Fugitive Noel Cunningham, 48, was the suspect in a failed £1 million security van heist when he escaped in June 2003 after two armed men hijacked the prison van taking him to court.

Jailing him today, judge Charles Byers told Woolwich Crown Court in east London that Cunningham was a dangerous man whose crimes shocked society.

Cunningham became one of Britain's most wanted men as he was smuggled out of the country and lived under a string of assumed identities in Holland until he was arrested in September last year.

Cunningham and another man, Clifford Hobbs, were facing charges of conspiracy to rob over the failed security van raid, the court was told.

But on June 10, 2003, two armed men - one dressed as a postman, the other wearing a balaclava - hijacked the prison van taking him and others to Inner London Crown Court in a "planned, well-thought out and well-executed joint enterprise".

The jurors, who were screened from the public gallery amid tight security, heard driver Neil Chetty was shot in the leg and a second guard was pistol-whipped as the men demanded the two cell doors inside the van be opened.

But Cunningham told the court he did not know the men who freed him, but simply seized his opportunity to escape.

After running to a nearby park, he went to a cafe in Bermondsey, south-east London, where he bumped into a friend of a friend having breakfast.

He asked him to contact their mutual acquaintance, named in court as Steven Jackson, who arranged for him to stay at his home in Lewisham, south London.

After six weeks, his friend helped him get four passports and arranged for him to be smuggled in a lorry to Belgium, from where he went to Holland, Cunningham claimed.

Earlier, Mark Gadsden, for the prosecution, said Cunningham and Hobbs, who was also jailed for 18 years at a previous hearing, were caught "red-handed" in the failed raid on a cash transit van in March 2003.

The plan involved the use of a stolen BMW fitted with false number plates registered to the City of London Police in order to prevent suspicion when parked near the cash van, Mr Gadsden said.

This was the "perfect vehicle", he said, because if police noticed two burly men inside and checked the plates they would see the registration details and assume it was a police operation.

Cunningham was the driver while Hobbs wore a black jacket with a Securicor logo and put on a black helmet as he approached the back of the van in Effra Road, Brixton, the court was told.

An "inside man" left the door so it could be opened, Mr Gadsden said.

But the alarm went off and the two men ran away before being caught and arrested by police.

If they had succeeded, the "prize" would have been £900,000 in cash in the van plus cheques bringing the total value to around £1 million, Mr Gadsden said.

Cunningham, formerly of Greenland Quay, Rotherhithe, south-east London, was found guilty last month of having a firearm with intent to escape, possession of a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence and wounding with intent to resist lawful apprehension.

He had previously pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to steal.