11 JANUARY 1992, Page 17


Sandra Barwick meets an

untypical burglar with an all too typical story to tell

HOWEVER mild the weather when young Gary went out with his mates to do a bur- glary he always wore two pairs of socks.

'You took one pair off, you see, when you got there, to wear instead of gloves,' says Gary. The police never bothered about socks if you were stopped.'

Gary, now 20 years of age, is one of those young men who have contributed to the startling rise in crime over the last five years. The two pairs of socks are one signif- icant clue as to why he was drawn into this activity. But since real life is more complex than most political theories can allow, the question of why Gary became a criminal has many answers. So does the equally interesting question as to why Gary has now, at least for the present, ceased to wander the streets of Leamington and Coventry as a quadri-socked biped.

It is young men like Gary, with their favourite sports of burglary and car theft, who are mainly responsible for the 18.7 per cent rise in last year's crime. But he is not the identikit young criminal, the boy who lives on a slum estate in a large city with poor schools and a parent on benefit. Gary is an example of the decade's new breed of young criminals from the shires. He was brought up in a solidly middle-class home in an attractive village in the country.

At six, his background took on the first characteristic common among boys who embark on a criminal career. His father, a technician working for an oil company, left home for good. From then on Gary and his younger sister were brought up by their mother alone.

'When I got into my teens,' says Gary, 'I started to get violent and nasty.' There were constant rows with his mother. His work at the local high school did not go well either. He says he was always easily influenced; he sat at the back of the class and did little. At 13 he was sent to board- ing school, but at 16 he was suspended for smoking, and then expelled for drinking. He left school with one 0 level-standard GCSE, in music.

Soon it was back to home and arguments with his mother about his friends, whom he thought she looked down on. Gary lowers his eyes and looks away as he describes these days. 'I didn't hit her straight away,' he says. 'She hit me with wooden spoons and things, and then I'd hit her. I don't think I ever hurt her as such.'

Gary felt she took out a lot of what she felt about his father on him. No doubt she would have a different view. At any rate, she threw him out. Gary was 17, too young to claim the dole, and jobless; he slept in a barn and nicked two bottles of milk off local doorsteps at 5 a.m. each day. Eventu- ally, he went back to his mother's house and stole some food and two of her rings, which he sold for £14. She called the police; he got two years' probation.

It is a sad but unsurprising fact that it was at this point that Gary's career as a vil- lain really took off. He was sent to a youth hostel in Leamington and there he met some young men. Together they left the hostel each night via the windows, and they taught him, by example, all they knew about breaking and entering, including socks.

'When I started getting into it we went out nearly every day and came back with something,' he says. 'There was a real buzz.' But the main attraction was not the company or the excitement, but the easy money. 'After an hour's work, me and my mates could have £500. By this time I was getting the dole. There didn't seem any point in getting a job. No one would pay me like that.'

Crime is a highly paid job whose practi- tioners need hardly any skills. Even 17- and 18-year-old youths who, like Gary at this time, lack concentration, application and qualifications can do it. A society with high and rising standards of living pro- duces rising levels of crime, partly because, inevitably, it provides high rewards for those prepared to earn: council houses have videos and stereos, suburban homes £1,000 worth of computers. Householders do not usually trouble to spend money or thought on keeping the young criminal out. Nine out of ten housebreakers enter

through insecure doors or windows. The carelessness of property owners is just as extraordinary as the level of crime.

Gary's new mates specialised in shop and office jobs. 'One place, we got on to a roof and pushed the window open. We thought it'd be locked but no one had bothered. The £500 job was a launderette.

We smashed a window with a brick and lifted the catch with a knitting needle. We opened a Yale lock with a knife, forced a filing cabinet open, and there was the cash. Once we found a window open in a block with four offices inside; there were no locks on any of the inner doors.'

It would not have taken much to keep Gary and his mates out, for the kindest could not claim their level of expertise was high. 'Once we found a safe and broke the handle off,' he says. 'Then we found the key in a box in one of the desks. We couldn't open the safe then because of the handle. We were a bit gutted.'

Then he moved to Coventry, where he had no mates and city centre premises were better lit and locked. So Gary moved down to a crime which he says has the low- est kudos in prison, car-stereo theft. It was even easier than burglary. 'You'd get an automatic centre-punch from Halfords, spring-loaded, smash the window, get the stereo out. It took three minutes. You'd get £40 to £60 for each, sell them to sec- ond-hand shops, or straight to drug deal- ers if you wanted drugs.'

A five-day working week of three min- utes per day thus brought in £200. If he needed more, there was overtime available in every car park.

It was incompetence that ended the easy life for Gary. He was caught climbing over the wall of a clubhouse empty-handed, having failed to spot the alarm, and having tripped over the doormat into the bargain.

'It was the same as school,' he says. 'I put my mind to it for a certain amount of time, but at the end I got lazy and silly and greedy.' When caught, he admitted to 20 burglaries and the car thefts and, as a result, spent four and a half months at Hewell Grange at Redditch, then a young offenders' institution. 'It was a holiday camp,' he says. 'You could do what you wanted, you could learn crime or educa- tion. I learnt scaffolding. It's funny, I'd always wanted to know what prison was like, somehow, and it was boring. I knew if I did theft again I'd get caught again. It wasn't worth it.'

This process of Gary's education has been a drawn-out and expensive one, for the State, for his mother and for him. The Home Secretary is now attempting to set up guidelines on how to identify and help children like Gary while they are still at school. It is obviously necessary, but no one thinks it will be easy. If there had been a hostel or home for Gary to live in when his mother threw him out, he might never have discovered the instant and high earnings of crime.

Once found, the easy cash, the excite- ment and challenge, the camaraderie, the learning of basic skills, of double sock- wearing, have an understandable lure to a teenager. Only detection and the enforced boredom of prison caused Gary to stop. He has now been out for nearly a year, living at the home of his girlfriend's parents. He is lucky: he has a home to stay in and some family support. He goes to the job club of the local Apex Trust, a charity which pro- vides training and tries to find employment for ex-prisoners, but there are no jobs for inexperienced scaffolders, and the only money he has earned in recent months is the small fee The Spectator paid him, at Apex's suggestion, for this interview. He says he is determined to avoid recidivism, but he easily sees how an ex-criminal, once unemployed, can fall back into the habit of wearing double socks. In a prosperous soci- ety, crime pays, and pays spectacular rewards.