The detectives’s story:
Simon Bates had not been a detective for very long, so when he found himself closing in on a criminal – when he realised he was watching someone breaking into a house right in front of him – his heart beat so loud that he was afraid the burglar would hear it and flee.
Bates had been attached to the new burglary unit at Newhaven and had spent his first few days swotting up on information from the local intelligence officer. He had got a fairly good picture of the area, which covers a hundred square miles of East Sussex, and, in particular, he had noticed there was a string of break-ins in Seaford, a couple of miles down the coast.
There were several possible suspects but no definite leads on anyone. Then he took a call from an elderly man who said he was worried about an incident earlier in the day when a teenage boy had rung his doorbell and asked him the way to Heathfield Road.
There was nothing unusual in that, the man explained, except that he had a feeling he knew this teenager’s face. He had been a teacher in the town all his life, and the more he thought about it, the more sure he was that he had taught this boy. In which case, the boy was local and would know perfectly well where Heathfield Road was.
Bates saw the point: the boy was possibly ringing the bell to find out if the house was empty, and since the man was calling from Seaford, he pressed him for more details.
The boy’s name eluded the man’s memory but by the end of the conversation, Simon Bates had a good description – one which matched that of a known burglar who had just been released from Lewes Prison. His name was Kevin, and Bates knew all about him: he was one of the suspects for the Seaford burglaries.
This was the kind of break that Bates had been looking for when he joined the police. He had spent seven years after school working in a bank, enjoying life less and less with a reinforced glass screen between him and the rest of the world.
When his girlfriend was hurt in a car crash, she complained to him about the young policeman who dealt with her being stiff, unsympathetic and insistent on calling her madam: she was sure that Bates could have done the job better. Now, he thought ruefully, here was his chance.
The burglary unit worked by turning the traditional role of detective on its head: instead of targetting a crime and finding out who had done it, they targeted a criminal and found out what he was doing. Simon Bates now targeted Kevin.
He had no address for him, so he teamed up with two uniformed officers from Seaford. One of them knew a family who lived in the area of the break-ins and who agreed to let them use their house. Within 48 hours of the call from the retired teacher, Bates had set his trap.
One man stayed in the house. Bates and the other went out in unmarked cars. They all carried radios. They wore jeans and rough shirts and did their best to melt into the background – not easy in the sleepy streets of residential Seaford.
All three watched and waited. Nothing moved. Then the officer in the house took a radio message: a woman had reported a young man acting suspiciously a couple of streets away. The message was relayed to Bates who drove casually in that direction – and spotted a boy who answered Kevin’s description, loping along the pavement of Downsview Road.
Bates stopped, radioed the other two, stepped out of his car and started to saunter as casually as he could along the other side of the road behind Kevin. He watched him get to the end of the road, turn right down Southdown Road, cross over, pause and suddenly turn and stride through the gateway of a large, semi-detached house with pebble-dashed walls.
Bates could see his two colleagues walking down from the far end of Southdown Road. Now Kevin was ringing the doorbell. There was no answer. With one quick squint over his shoulder, Kevin stepped sideways and vanished down the side of the house.
Bates waved the other officers forward. One wriggled down the side of the neighbouring house to watch the back exits from the cover of the garden fence. Bates and the other officer took the front of the house where there was a low wall, barely three feet high. The two of them dropped to their bellies on the pavement to stay out of sight.
Suddenly, everything was terribly quiet. Bates knew Kevin was in the house. In five or ten minutes he was going to emerge. Would he run? Would he fight? Was he carrying a knife? Bates called on his radio for back-up. He was whispering, terrified that Kevin would hear.
Just as Bates was wondering whether Kevin could hear his heart banging, everything started to move. A woman drove up and started asking what was going on. She was obviously the owner of the house.
Bates told her what was happening but, to his surprise, instead of asking more, she simply drove off again. At that very moment, Kevin suddenly appeared at the side of the house. Bates was amazed to see him so quickly. He stood up. As the other two officers closed in, Kevin took one look and shrugged. Bates told him he was under arrest.
The victim’s story:
Helen Davis had never been burgled before. She had lived in Seaford for 15 years, teaching English at a local school and looking after her three children – Jason, Rowena and Barnaby – enjoying the security of life in a small town by the sea with none of the threats and fears of the big cities.
So when she drove up to her house that afternoon and found two strange men in the front garden, her first feeling was not one of fear, just slight irritation. She leaned out of her car and asked in her best schoolteacher’s voice what on earth they thought they were doing there. It was only when one of them told her they were police officers that she began to be worried.
They did not look like police officers at all. They looked very young and very scruffy and one of them, in particular, had a rather rakish modern hairstyle.
They said she had been burgled. Looking at them, she rapidly concluded that if that was true, it was probably these young men who were the burglars. So she turned the car around and drove straight to the police station to report them.
By the time she had established the truth and driven back to her home, the scene was calmer. Simon Bates was walking down the front path with Kevin, steering him into a squad car waiting in the road.
It was strange to see him so close, the little wretch who had broken into her family’s home, and she found it hard to look at him as he sat slumped in the back of the police car. Normally, she knew, the teacher in her would have taken his side but standing there, she didn’t feel at all sorry for him. She felt very angry.
Simon Bates took her aside and showed her the various things they had found in Kevin’s pockets: a cheque guarantee card which had been in Jason’s bedroom; a Sony Walkman which she thought might be Rowena’s; a ring; her backdoor key. Had he intended to come back and rob them again?
When Bates told her that Kevin usually worked with another boy, she felt even worse. She knew this other boy. She had taught him. Years ago, she had even fostered him for a couple of months.
Did that mean they had deliberately picked on her? After all, why else would they burgle her? She was a single parent with far fewer possessions than most people in the street. Did they have a grudge against her? When Bates led her inside the house, she was soon troubled by other questions.
Kevin had broken a pane of glass in the back door in order to slip a bolt and had then hidden the broken glass under a forsythia in the back garden. Why do that? He had not touched the television or the stereo, which seemed strange omissions. Then she noticed that the cheque card which he had taken had expired. So what was the point of taking it?
By the time that the police left her, with her back door still sporting its broken pane, she was feeling thoroughly unsettled. But over the next few days, she noticed a very different feeling coming over her.
She had heard of other burglary victims who felt insecure in their homes but she made up her mind not to let herself be traumatised. She had the back door mended and got some information on crime prevention and security locks. Life went on and the truth was that she had lost nothing. The police were on top of the whole affair and she was terribly grateful to them.
Finally she realised, with a little pride, that she had coped with the crisis. Even though she had often dreaded being burgled, the fact was that she was not afraid at all.
The burglar’s story:
Kevin spent the three days after his arrest with Simon Bates, driving around Seaford pointing at houses which be thought he might have burgled and then walking around Brighton showing him second-hand shops where he had sold his loot.
He was eventually charged with ten break-ins, all committed in Seaford in the previous three weeks, and the magistrates sent him to jail to wait for his trial. Five months later, he was sentenced to 15 months youth detention. Kevin is out now, living in Brighton.
He remembers the day he burgled Helen Davis very clearly, and the odd thing is, he says, that he knew there was something wrong that day. He had no idea that Simon Bates and his two colleagues were closing in on him but he says that as soon as he got into the house, he felt edgy and decided to get out before something bad happened. He shrugs.
He says he has been a professional burglar for the past two or three years, since he was 18 and he claims, at first, that his motive is simple: “It’s the only thing I know. I don’t enjoy it, it’s not exciting. I’m past that, I’ve done it too often, but I know that if I’m out of money and I need £100 quickly, I can go out and get it by doing what I do.”
He has certainly been busy. Helen Davis was only one victim among many. He reckons he has stolen property worth more than £300,000 in the past couple of years and, allowing for the fact that he has often had to sell things for less than their real value, he has still put more than £80,000 into his own pocket – an income which easily beats that of Simon Bates or Helen Davis.
The truth emerges more slowly. He remembers his first burglary, back in the autumn of 1989. An older boy invited him to join him. “He said it was an easy way to earn some money – just go along, we wouldn’t get caught. So I went and I found out it was easy, really easy. It was a private house, we went in the front door, up to the upper level, found some cash in a box and walked out. It was three hundred quid.”
His background was depressingly predictable. He needed the money because he had nowhere to live; he had nowhere to live because he had been in council care until his 18th birthday (that was where he met the older boy); and he was in care because when he was nine years old, his life blew up in his face. He recalls it all with deliberate calm.
“My mother and father’s marriage broke up, and my father went off, and my mother had a nervous breakdown and had to spend a lot of time in hospital. There were four children, and I was the oldest.
“My grandmother wanted to look after us until my mother was better, but the social workers said she was too old. So we were all taken to a children’ home and, after a bit, they decided to send the two youngest off for permanent adoption. As the oldest, I had to explain to the other three what was going on and try and show that it wasn’t really that bad.
“I’ve never seen the two youngest ones since. Anyway, my brother and I stayed in care until we were 18, and that’s it, that’s all there is to it.”
Long before he started breaking into houses, Kevin was in trouble at school. He was expelled from his first secondary school for setting fire to the lockers and from the next one for stealing a teacher’s bag. At his third school, he persuaded another boy to come out shoplifting in the lunch hour.
When they were caught he was expelled, although he was told he could come back to sit his exams if he wanted to. “I didn’t bother. I could have got them but I just blew it all out.”
Kevin still sticks to the simple idea that he steals because he wants the money. He admits he was “not too chuffed” about losing his home, his father, his mother, his grandmother, and his younger brother and sister; and guesses that some of his bad behaviour at school might have been “trying to grab some attention or something”, but he doesn’t claim to understand himself.
Friends say he is not interested in money and that if he goes thieving, he throws money around, spending hundreds of pounds in an evening buying drinks for strangers, relentlessly pouring out cash until he is broke again. He is, in truth, not a very good thief.
The mysteries which Helen Davis encountered in her home were really only the signs of his awkwardness. “I didn’t even know I had her key. I just put it in my pocket without thinking, like you do when you use a key… I hid the broken glass because I was just being tidy, but it’s a stupid thing to do, just wastes time… I had no idea the cheque card was expired. I didn’t really bother to look… I left the television just because I couldn’t carry it and I didn’t have a car.”
He says he picked her house the same way that he always does. “I go past the front and I’m looking to see whether its easily accessible – fairly flimsy door frames, no double glazing. I need an access point.
“If I see a place that looks a bit flimsy, I check it out. If I see dogs, I don’t do it – or alarms, don’t bother with It. If it looks all right, I just knock on the door. If anyone comes to the door, I ask for directions. I always have a pre-planned road to ask for. If the place is empty, I go in.”
Since his release from youth detention, Kevin has been in trouble almost constantly and is now facing three trials for numerous burglaries He says he is sick of it: “I regret a lot of things. I wish I could do my education now. It would make me feel like a better person. I feel dirty now.
“Everybody that I know, knows what I do and it doesn’t feel very nice to let people know that you are a burglar. They are always wary of me. I trust them and I would never do anything to hurt them, but they are a bit wary of me. People that I genuinely care for and have good intentions for, don’t trust me.
“I haven’t achieved a lot – just a record as long as my arm and a few bars behind me. I always wanted to be an RAF pilot, just me in control of the most powerful machine in the world, on my own. That always appealed to me. But that’s not going to happen, is it?
“I would like to do brick-laying, maybe be a trainee surveyor, but I have been doing what I do for most of my working life and it’s hard to break off. I don’t want it any more. I’d rather live on £39.90 a week from the DSS. I get caught all the time. If I was any good at it, I wouldn’t get caught.”
He is expecting to go to jail soon for two or three years. “I find the idea of it horrifying, but I know I can handle it. I’ve done it before. It won’t change anything. Being in jail was like an induction course. Before I went in, I did have a bit of respect for the police, but now I loathe them. I’m fully-fledged anti-police.”
Kevin’s name has been changed to avoid the risk of causing prejudice to his impending trials.