RAY JONES says that he will be dead by Christmas, but nothing infuriates him more than people implying that he is decrepit. He and Michael, his "press-representative", take it in turns to fulminate against the reporter from the Daily Mirror who described him as looking like "an emaciated old man" on the day in 1994 when he went into a north London police station and demanded to be arrested for stealing Sophia Loren's jewellery from a Hertfordshire hotel in 1960. "They said I went into the police station as a 'hobbling old man'," snarls Jones. "A 'hobbling old man'. Show him the picture, Michael. Does that look like a hobbling old man? More like a commander of police. Not a hobbling old man." Now he has launched a campaign to take back responsibility for the crime; he has even composed a leaflet proclaiming his guilt, which he hands out to passers-by on the streets near his home.
Ray Jones claims that in the course of a long career as a cat burglar he stole as much as pounds 60 million, but now he lives in a council flat in Dalston, east London. His sitting room has tobacco-coloured soft furnishings and in the kitchen nothing can be seen apart from a packet of Cornflakes and a bottle of barley water. Periodically, the old man takes a few drags of a roll-up cigarette. Not from necessity, he explains: "Just for my sinuses."
It's hard to understand why a man who has already spent more than three decades in prison should be so hell-bent on going down one last time, unless it's a straightforward case of cupidity. A few years ago, Peter Scott, a burglar who likes to dub himself "The Human Fly", published his memoirs, Gentleman Thief, in which he took sole credit for the Loren theft. Ray was furious. Shortly afterwards, he teamed up with Michael, a former petrol-pump attendant, who urged him to publish a book, which would hinge on Ray's claim to have been behind the hitherto-unsolved burglary.
Michael, a plump, softly spoken Northern Irishman, claims there is more to his role than just PR and management. "Sometimes in my life I've been guided to help certain people. I've more belief in spirituality and the world beyond than I have in this world. I'm a big believer in the afterworld. And that's why I felt I should try to help Ray." He contacted various newspapers and Ray turned himself in, claiming that although he and Scott had been in league together, he had been the mastermind behind the theft and Scott had played only a walk-on part. But still no charges were brought. Furthermore, nothing else was heard from the newspapers which they had spoken to.
"Everything went completely silent," says Michael dramatically. "Silent as the grave. Very, very clever. The way of it. The strategy. Everything. As cold as the grave and as sinister. What we're saying is that the burglary came about because of the authorities. But because we lack any form of substantiation and because of the fear of publishers that the police would come on to them, or whatever, they couldn't print the truth."
The fog thickens: Sophia Loren and her trinkets are left far behind. Suddenly, without prompting, Ray segues into a long list of other burglaries which he claims to have committed and escaped conviction for: from the Duke of Rutland, for example, and RA Butler, the former Home Secretary. He talks of diamonds set in platinum; of silver galleons with secret compartments stuffed with gold; of gambling a quarter of a million on the single throw of a dice.
Some of the victims of his burglaries were at home when he was robbing them, he says, and some he came to know socially. One fellow even offered him a job. He was, of course, the most courteous of burglars, never carrying guns. But he could punch - he should have been middleweight champion of the world, he tells me - and that was his undoing. One afternoon, he says, he belted a policeman and the rozzers never forgave him. Nevertheless, he believes that, years ago, when he was on the verge of being charged with the Sophia Loren job, he was saved by the timely intervention of one police officer who - for reasons not given - was on his side. A painful irony.
When, finally, Ray allows himself to be pinned down to the day of the theft, he is compelling in his detail. Loren was in England to film The Millionairess, staying in a luxury annex of the Norwegian Barn Hotel in Elstree. Ray says that the plot was hatched by Scott, but maintains that without his own expert guidance the theft would have been bungled. They hired a Rolls Royce to pass themselves off as hotel guests but, curiously, chose to nip in through a side window. Simple. Ray claims to have given one of Loren's platinum rings to his wife, who wore it for 15 years, until, in its turn, it was nicked.
"Now Sophia Loren," he says, preparing to change tack. "To me, I done much, much, much bigger. I had millions from that Lord McIntosh. And I mean millions, and that's a very funny story as well. I didn't think I had so much. I took a miner's lamp from there. Down at a place called Bungay in Norfolk. And, do you know, I took a miner's lamp from there ... " Ray, usually gaunt and frail, is suddenly alive and strong, his voice booming as he recalls his glory days. When I say I have to go, he takes my hand and begs me to stay for one more story. "You're a lovely boy," he says. "What are you? Twelve and a half stone? Middleweight?"
I realise why I've been here. I think that Ray doesn't really care about the Sophia Loren business, nor about whether he was stitched up. Most of the people he has mentioned are already dead, and, of the remainder, some have vanished and others were phantoms. He just wants to talk.
He hands me the first chapter of his autobiography, "My Life". Among the recollections of his lovely Welsh family and his lovely mother and his mining father, there is an extraordinary passage. At some point in his childhood, Ray writes, he ran away to London but on the way, near Monmouth, he wandered into a grand house which had been left empty and unguarded. It was the most beautiful place he had ever seen, a paradise with cash lying all around, thousands of pounds in notes. He stuffed the money into his shirt and went home, feeding it into his mother's purse over the next few months. When she found out that he had been giving her stolen money, she took him upstairs and tied him to the brass bed with a clothes line. "Then mum started to beat me with the strap. At first it was the leather end but afterwards, because I kept insisting I found the money, mother got so with me that she used the buckle end of the strap on me and it ripped the whole of the flesh off my body ... "
I have the feeling that there is a strange story to tell about Ray Jones - a stranger
and more confused story, even, than the one that he wants to tell the world. !
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