By Matthew Bates 05/04 Updated: 05/04 14:59
MEET Coventry police’s latest weapon against break-ins - a serial burglar with 18 years experience of prison life.
The man, in his late 30s, is behind a spate of burglaries in the city but has turned his life around to give officers an insight into the crime.
The Observer’s Matthew Bates met up with the reformed character to find out why he made the change and how he is fighting back against burglary.
AS THE car pulls up in a secluded Tile Hill car park that will be our venue for the meet, my knees tremble at the thought of the man I was about to chat to. This isn’t the place I’d have picked to meet a convicted burglar.
But after getting out of the car, he walks towards me with a smile on his face, shakes my hand and introduces himself.
Half-startled by the warm reception, I ask him just why he decided to move from his roots to help officers.
“I’m helping to give a little back to the victims,” he says.
“To highlight burglary and make the public more aware and make sure it don’t happen.
“I’ve been in and out of prison for 18 years but I’ve put it all behind me and that’s why I’m here today.”
Like many in his position, Martin (not his real named) has used drugs most of his life. They were the root of his problem, he says, and the habit needed funding.
In his time as a prolific burglar, Martin used tactics such as sticking coat hangers through cat flaps and prizing handbags on nearby work surfaces.
Chillingly, most of his thefts took place withe house still occupied and he recalls times where he went to every house on an estate, checking doors, and finding two or three open.
He found £2,000 in cash, bank cards and a handbag containing pin numbers, making him £10,000.
“There are times when I’ve found three, four, five grand in envelopes.
“God knows what it was doing there but when you get touches like that, it spurs you on to get more. You think, ‘well that paid well didn’t it?’ so you go and do it again.
“It gives you money in your pocket to spend on what you like - clothes, cars, whatever. But the money mainly goes on drugs.”
From the age of 20, every time Martin got caught he went to prison, with sentences mainly between two and five years. And every time he was released, he went back to criminality. What was it about the prison system which failed him so much?
“Prison was a time to get healthy and fit, to get down the gym and eat and sleep regularly.
“You get used to it and it becomes a way of life. In a strange way, you miss it when you’re out. If you’ve done a lot of jail and you’ve got nothing going on the outside, I can see why people offend just to go back in. You’ve got that stability.”
Martin has never met any of his victims, many of whom would have been elderly. Would it have changed his mindset? What would he say?
“Sorry, first of all, and then maybe try and make them aware of the reasons why I did it. But I don’t think they could understand unless they’d been down that road themselves.
“It wouldn’t be a pleasant thing but if I’d have been approached at the time, maybe it would highlight the grief I was causing.
“Looking back, it doesn’t make me feel good on myself, knowing what I did. I feel ashamed. I’ve wasted my life up to now.
“That’s why I’m doing this. But there’s other people still out there committing burglaries and younger people who will start doing it.
“I might have knocked it on the head but there’s plenty more people still at it.”
The city’s new police commander, Andy Nicholson, has put burglary at the top of his priority list. Over a quarter are committed through insecure housing.
Detective Sergent Ed Peake added: “It’s about thinking of things you can do to ensure your house is more secure.
“Stand outside your house and imagine you’ve locked yourself out - think about how you would get in and then try and make it more difficult.
“You don’t have to live in a fortress, but sometimes that extra few minutes thinking about securing your house can make all the difference.”
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