Keep on running

Escaping is the easy bit. Remaining free can be harder than prison. Andrew Weir describes the price paid by desperate men for their illicit freedom

Andrew Weir
Saturday 11 November 1995 01:02

A prison escape by a professional criminal is the fruit of meticulous planning. But, unless he is awash with cash, his problems begin once he is over the wall. To keep his liberty, he will have to do what social workers, probation officers, members of the prison and police service, and all the women in his life have spent fruitless years trying to persuade him to do - give up crime.

"It was awful," says a villain we shall call Harry, who spent 13 months on the run. "Worse than being in the nick. You can't have a row with no one. Someone pushes you and you have to wipe your mouth. You can't go to pubs or clubs, and you're shifting about all the time."

Harry was lucky. He "bought" the national insurance number of a friend in prison and found work as a waiter. That gave him good cover and an income, albeit not the living he got from crime. But his quick temper soon lost him the job, and, when he wasn't working, he had to get up early and leave his lodgings so as to avoid arousing suspicion. He would then hang around until it was time for him to come home "from work".

"Anyone can stay out in a metropolitan city, provided they're prepared not to contact too many friends and, secondly, not involve themselves in crime," says author and broadcaster John McVicar, who, as the first Category A prisoner to break out, found notoriety in 1968. "If they are prepared to do what they were never prepared to do when they were outside legitimately - not be involved in crime - then they are in with a very good chance."

Which helps to explain why the London villain Jimmy Moody managed to stay free for so long. In December 1980, he escaped from Brixton prison with IRA man Gerard Tuite and another man awaiting trial. Tuite was later recaptured in Ireland, and the other man surrendered almost immediately, but Moody was free for nearly 13 years, until he was shot dead in revenge for a gangland killing he was thought to have carried out.

Little is known about Moody's life on the run, but he clearly reformed himself considerably. He lived alone in tacky bedsits and worked in pubs, or took other small-time, cash-in-hand jobs, forgoing the company of robbers, gangsters and other usual suspects. Moody had more patience than Harry and enough willpower to change the habits of a lifetime. In the end, it was his criminal enemies who found him, not the police.

For the professional villain, life on the run can be the toughest he has ever experienced. No friends, no family, no socialising. Strange surroundings become oppressive. Being "on your toes", as they put it, is a form of sensory deprivation for men who define themselves by how much they are feared or respected, men who have extended families, who rarely stray far from home and who are often determined womanisers.

The experience of the train robber Bruce Reynolds was an exception that proves the rule. Once in Mexico and Canada, he had nothing to worry about. "Of course, my bank balance was quite strong," he says. "But there were always a few moments when you get the frissons of paranoia - like at passport control, when Nick would ask me, 'Why have you shaved your moustache off, Daddy?', and 'Who am I today, Daddy?'" Reynolds never thought too hard about what would happen when his pounds 150,000 ran out. "I always had faith in my ability to get more money. This is the sort of self-delusion you have to carry on with to help you get by."

Harry spent the quiet part of his time on the run in Southsea, Essex. Seaside towns have long been a hiding place for absconding criminals. The tourist trade means there are often strangers about, and in the off- season there are plenty of bedsits and other accommodation to switch between in order to avoid becoming a familiar face.

Brighton probably has the strongest seaside connection to crime, having long had the status of an honorary suburb of underworld London, with historic links going back to the gangs which controlled racetrack betting in the Twenties. "Mad Frankie" Fraser used to live there during his brief periods of freedom.

But Spain is now the most popular option for men on the run, especially since the advent of mass tourism in the Sixties meant that English would be spoken. It already had a circle round it on the criminal's map of the world because Billy Hill, the self-styled "boss of Britain's underworld" in the Fifties, had retired there, but most of all because there was no extradition treaty.

The first on the Spanish scene, around 1969, were Bryan Turner and Bruce Brown, members of a mob of shotgun-wielding Londoners who were robbing banks in the southeast 25 years ago. After successful raids, gang members would fly on false passports to Torremolinos, where a trusted ally ran a bar called the Duke of Wellington. Phone calls from a pub in west London kept them up to date with the progress of police inquiries, thanks to greased wheels in Scotland Yard's Robbery Squad.

After Franco died in 1975, the extradition treaty Britain hoped for became a casualty of diplomatic posturing over the sovereignty of Gibraltar, and nothing was signed until 1985. Spanish law, however, is not retrospective, so anybody who had got in under the wire was safe. Moreover, the British underworld's operations there are now so well-established via alliances with local drugs importers, corrupt politicians and policemen - especially in the Malaga and Marbella areas - that a safe haven can still be assured.

One absconder still enjoying a quiet life in Spain is Joey Wilkins, a one-time "vice king" of Soho. In summer 1987, customs officers arrested him aboard a yacht stuffed with pounds 1.5 million worth of cannabis. His prison form was awesome, but he nevertheless fetched up in Ford Open Prison. Five years ago, on a visit to the dentist, he went missing and never came back.

According to an acquaintance, who insists on anonymity, "the Met thought customs should have let the boat run and see who else they could have picked up. They were very pissed off. In fact, the police nicked him in London six months after he escaped. They let him go because they wanted to put one over on Customs." Whatever the truth of that assertion, nobody seems in much of a hurry to get him back.

The whereabouts of Nikolaus Chrastny are even more obscure. Chrastny, a major player in international cocaine smuggling, was arrested in London in 1987. He allowed police and customs to believe he would be giving evidence against his accomplices, and so was held, in great secrecy, at a police station - a customary procedure with supergrasses. There, he sawed through the bars, masking his labours with Plasticine and paint from a modelling kit he had requested, and escaped to a waiting car. He has never been heard of since, apart from his phone call to Dewsbury police station to apologise for any inconvenience he had caused.

But for sheer grit and determination the Welsh cat burglar Raymond Jones takes the escapers' prize. Jones, an ex-boxer at the peak of fitness, was in Pentonville in 1958 fuming at a "fit-up" and the abrupt dismissal of his appeal by "that bastard", the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard.

Jones and his accomplice made an almost impossible ascent to the roof over the main prison landing. In the course of climbing down the sheer face of the outside wall, Jones smashed his kneecap, and then fell and broke his ankle. After scaling another wall, he broke his uninjured leg when he jumped. With both legs now useless, Jones crawled into a block of flats, somehow dragged himself up on to a flat roof and fell head first through a skylight while trying to prise open a window, knocking himself unconscious.

He woke when a prison officer shone his torch on him. "I heard him say, 'There's one down here. It's Jones. I think he's dead'," he recalls. Jones dragged himself out of the building, and towed himself along the railings of Caledonia Road with his hands, and across the road on his belly, right to King's Cross station. There, he crawled over a mass of railway lines, heaved himself in screaming agony over a small wall and into a garden. "Just thinking about it now, I can feel the pain," he remembers. "I was in agony, but I had to keep going." Completely spent, he rested in the garden.

Then he spotted some men gathered round a broken-down car. "I was finished now. I decided to throw myself on their mercy and asked to be given a lift because I had had a bad fall." They drove him to a relative's flat, by now realising what he was, but, miraculously, not caring. "They were lovely boys," he says. "I could never thank them enough." Eventually, his wife rescued him. She rented a second flat for him, where he was laid up for five months recovering from appalling injuries. Ironically, Jones's accomplice was captured after 24 hours, while Jones remained at large for two years.

Far more typical of Britain's escapers have been the desperadoes doing long sentences and with nothing to lose. Wally Probyn, for example, had been incarcerated for about three-quarters of his life by the time he reached his mid-thirties.

John McVicar met Probyn in the E wing of Durham prison, which housed the Richardson brothers, as well as most of the Train Robbers, and was said to be impregnable. Probyn's unerring eye for security loopholes revealed a ventilation shaft which he gained access to by digging through a wall. Probyn and McVicar, together with another man just transferred to Durham, escaped on a cold November night in 1968. The others were captured almost immediately, but McVicar became the most wanted man in Britain for two years.

That escape shocked the authorities because prison security had been improved in response to the escapes, in 1966, of the spy George Blake and the so-called "Mad Axeman", Frank Mitchell. Lord Mountbatten's subsequent report established the current system of categorising prisoners according to the risk of them escaping and endangering the public. This operates on a scale from D up to A, the worst risk.

Since then, escaping has become much more difficult as new devices, such as geophones and anti-helicopter netting, have been introduced. Many wait until they are outside the prison - like the lifer Alan Byrne, who escaped last month while being taken for hospital treatment. Others have fled while being escorted to prison, and several have used their appeals and other court proceedings as an opportunity. One thief slipped his guards and walked out of the court carrying large bundles of pink-ribboned paper; everyone mistook him for a lawyer.

But security measures have loopholes, and the desire for freedom can be overpowering. Bruce Reynolds says, "The technology gets better on both sides, and it's a continual war. But, with the swingeing sentences people are getting, desperation develops, and escapes are now much more violent." Possession of a gun can make the critical difference between success and failure, and the use of firearms in prisons has been climbing steadily in consequence.

The Mountbatten report was the first to propose an escape-proof Alcatraz for Britain, and Albany jail on the Isle of Wight was nominated. Cost considerations prevented that plan, but, 30 years on, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, believes that the private sector can bear some of the huge investment necessary. The current model is the Oak Park Heights state prison in Minnesota.

The plans for a "supermax" jail for between 200 and 300 of the prison system's most dangerous men should come as no surprise. "I've been predicting this," says John McVicar. "As soon as you had escapes with guns, they would have to have a prison with perimeter security." Not that he is much opposed to it. If the authorities have total confidence in an unbreachable perimeter wall, something they have never yet invested in, then the regime within it can be less oppressive. "It would allow people to have a life."

Seaside towns have long been a hiding place for absconding criminals. Brighton probably has the strongest connection to crime, with historic links going back to the gans which controlled betting in the Twenties

Nobody gets out alive: the new ultra-maximum security prison at Florence, Colorado, is the toughest in States, built to house the 400 most dangerous men in captivity. It has cement walls of 5,000 pound quality criss-crossed every eight inches with steel bars. To leave the building, prisoners must pass through seven electronically-controlled steel doors. There is flood-proof plumbing and all cell furniture is immovable, built into the concrete. Metal flaps cover the contours of the guards' keys so inmates cannot see and copy the ridges. Six guard towers at different heights look over the roof and prevent air attack. Surveillance includes 168 video cameras. The prison has magnificent views of the Rockies but prisoners cannot see them, or one another. The Civil LIberties people are not among its fans

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