Theres never a good time to get a phone call from an escaped prisoner. I was at a talent show in Essex in August 2001, watching a succession of soul singers, when three missed calls from an unknown number appeared on my mobile, starting at 10.07pm. Stepping out of the club, I listened to the first message: Its David. Im at Kings Cross station. This is urgent.
David Blagdon was a longtime prisoner who had become a friend after I interviewed him for a story in 1999. Hed left the number of a phone box for me to call him back, and when we spoke, he said he was on temporary home leave from prison and needed somewhere to stay. I called my neighbours in London, who agreed to let him in. It was after midnight when I returned to find David chatting to my neighbours, eating a sausage and drinking a beer.
You wont believe whats happened to me today. Its been terrible, he said, beginning a convoluted story about how he was on short-term release when someone stole his bag and then he got lost. But he soon gave up on it and admitted he was on the run: Ive had enough. The Home Office keeps knocking me back. Im 50, and theyre never going to let me out.
At that point, David had been in prison for 23 years for starting a fire in a church. Absconding from day release was his latest rebellion against a system that would end up keeping him in prison for twice as long as the average time served for murder.
On the face of it, his was not such a terrible crime: the church, in a village near Oxford, where he set a pair of curtains alight, was empty, the fire was quickly put out, no one was hurt and he wasnt convicted of any subsequent crimes. And yet David spent half his life in jail.
The system holds on to people who spend their days in prison railing against sentences they see as grossly unfair. And when these unrepentant inmates get old and infirm, the Prison Service finds it hard to release them, because theres nowhere for them to go. But David also fared badly in the risk assessments required for parole.
For two decades, David was a constant presence in my life and became a good friend. He was nothing like the utterly feckless, dilapidated personality described in official reports, but sociable and resourceful enough to make friends and find supporters around the country, and to survive on his wits. He once managed to persuade an Oxford law lecturer to hire him to do some building work, even though he had no skill or experience. (His employer had to hire another builder to clear up the rubble David left in his wake.) He was a passionate Manchester United supporter. He was always giving people little gifts, usually picked up in charity shops. When I attended one of his probation hearings, he handed me a bag containing a blue-and-white striped regulation prison shirt. Id half-jokingly told him I wanted one, though this was hardly the time or place to receive it.
He also had an unerring ability to sabotage his case, usually by absconding just when freedom was edging into view. Still, as bad as many of his decisions may have been, the justice system undoubtedly failed him time and time again.
David was born in Surrey in 1951, the youngest of three illegitimate children whose mother had at one time been a certified patient in a mental hospital, according to a Home Office memorandum. When David was a few months old, his mothers struggles with mental illness led to him being fostered by a couple in Oxfordshire, Arthur and Renee Blagdon (or Blagden: both spellings are used, even by David). They also fostered two other children.
During his early years, Blagdon was retarded in speech and emotional development, the memo said. It noted that he was deeply affected by the death of his baby foster brother in 1959: His behaviour deteriorated from this time, and he later claimed to have smothered the child, although the cause of death was bronchial pneumonia. Mrs Blagdon, the report said, responded to the babys death by taking to her bed, barely leaving it until she died, 18 years later.
Over the years, David filled in more detail. His foster father was hardly ever home. After his foster mother became bed-ridden with depression, David said he left school, aged nine, to look after her. His writing and his psychiatric reports refer to her sexually abusing him from this time. He started running away. I thought no one cared about me at all, so what the hell, he told me. He started getting into trouble.
In 1965, aged 13, David appeared in court for the first time: proceeding from juvenile to magistrates and then crown court, and from borstal to prison; picking up convictions for trying to steal from a cigarette machine, stealing money from a handbag, taking a car without consent, assault, blackmail and possessing an offensive weapon. At 15, he was convicted of indecent assault against two girls of a similar age.
He also lit fires. Like many arsonists, a psychiatrist later noted, this happened at moments of emotional distress. In May 1974, after arguing with his foster parents, he set a derelict van alight (12 damage, nobody hurt). In June 1976, he set fire to bins in a doorway (24 damage, nobody hurt), and the following day he ignited rubbish near some sheds that contained medical equipment (3,000 damage, nobody hurt).
In September 1976, David was sentenced to two years for these acts of arson. The day before he was released, in November 1977, Renee Blagdon died of cancer. Her husband died a few months later. By now, David was sleeping rough. He had a maze of scars on his forearms from self-mutilation, had a history of being sectioned and taking overdoses, and had once threatened to jump off a multistorey car park.
On 6 July 1978, David, then 27, appeared at Grantham magistrates court for kicking in a high-street shop window, and was placed on probation. Afterwards, he made his way to Oxford and spent the night wandering the streets. The next day he stole a bike from outside a shop in Oxford city centre and began pedalling along the A34. After about a mile, he reached the edge of the tiny commuter village of South Hinksey, and stopped at St Laurence church, part of which dates back to Saxon times.
He threw a stone at the door, then went in. There was no one around. A stained-glass window depicted St Laurence, the third-century Christian martyr who was burned over hot coals by the Romans, according to legend. A curtain hung from the pulpit, and David set fire to it. He then set fire to the curtains by the main door, but immediately ripped them down and tried to stamp out the fire.
A local man, Chris Moss, was passing. I saw smoke coming from the church, he later said. This man came out and sat quietly on the steps while I called the fire brigade and police. When the police came, David told them he wanted to be arrested.
The fire had spoiled the curtains and scorched a processional cross, a door and a tablecloth, causing about 1,270 damage. A psychiatrist wrote that David was a man of rather dull intelligence who was suffering from a longstanding and severe disturbance of personality and possibly low-grade schizophrenia. He recommended detaining him in a high-security hospital under the Mental Health Act. Two other psychiatrists concluded that David didnt have a mental illness, but a severe personality disorder, which was untreatable. He has a large fund of aggression, which is sometimes directed towards society and sometimes towards himself, one of them noted.
At Davids trial at Oxford crown court in November 1978, the judge, Christopher Young, faced a quandary. Forgive me, I am troubled by the psychiatric reports, he said. They are in total disagreement with one another. He asked the defence if they wanted to adjourn the trial, in order to obtain another psychiatric opinion. But David instructed his lawyer that he just wanted the whole process over with.
I recognise that you have had a very difficult life, Young said. You have sustained a great many hardships and you have been deprived of affection when, perhaps, you needed it most. But my regrettable function at this stage of your life is to protect the public from a person I see as dangerous I impose the sentence that I am going to with a heavy heart, because I personally wish it was otherwise. You will go to prison for life. He recommended a minimum term of seven years.
Not long after, Young felt compelled to write to the then home secretary, Merlyn Rees: In a just society, Blagdon should not be in prison, but in a secure place where he could be offered and given treatment.
By then, David was in HMP Wakefield, the first of at least 23 jails he was to be held in over the next four decades. It was a measure of how wretched his existence was up to that point, that, at 27 years old, he saw prison as an improvement on what had come before: This was now my life, and it was a better one than I had since the age of nine.
This feeling did not last.
David appealed against his conviction twice in the following year, and was turned down both times. According to the Home Office, in his first years in jail he made no attempt to address his offending behaviour.
By 1982 he was in Kingston prison in Portsmouth. It was there that he met the person who would become the most dependable, and significant, figure in his life. Now 75, Anita Bromley has spent decades traipsing around the UKs jails, wheeling a heavy bag of files behind her, visiting clients and attending hearings. A Joe Strummer fan, a former Greenham Common protester and a prison law specialist, she made it her mission to fight miscarriages of justice.
Before qualifying as a solicitor, Anita worked as a prison education officer. She was running a literacy class in Kingston when David turned up one day, despite having no trouble reading or writing. The overriding impression he left on her was of his vulnerability. He kept saying he shouldnt be in prison, she told me recently.
David was working in the kitchen at the time. On Anitas birthday, he appeared in her office with a cake. I have no idea how he found out it was my birthday, but hed pinched all the ingredients from the kitchen. I was completely stupefied.
In Kingston, Anita was struck by a realisation that has remained with her ever since: Our prisons are full of David Blagdons: people with learning disabilities, mental illness or poor coping abilities, who are a nuisance, but who dont pose a risk of serious harm to the public I came to understand how easy it is to end up with a life sentence. And the people who maintain their innocence stay in prison much longer.
Risk assessments are carried out by probation officers, prison staff and psychiatrists throughout an offenders time in prison, to assess the dangers they may pose. Anita came to see these assessments, which keep people like David Blagdon locked up, as entirely inappropriate. A lifers risk assessment is often determined by actuarial figures [calculations based on statistical data] and by interpreting their behaviour according to the theory adopted by the prison psychological service at the time. And the longer a prisoner serves, the more institutionalised they become, and the harder it is for them to present themselves as having a manageable risk.
Disdain seeps through the pages of the prison psychiatrists reports on David. Blagdon is an immature, attention-seeking psychopath much of his time is spent producing toys for whatever charity is in vogue, reads one. He never tires of telling staff how much money he has raised He is tolerated by his peers even though he is regarded as somewhat odd.
His seven-year tariff expired in 1985, but it was another decade before he was finally moved to an open prison. A few months later, in December 1995, he was let out on his first unescorted town visit part of the slow adjustment process towards eventual release. It had been 17 years since he had been out by himself. When he got to town, he climbed on to the roof of a public toilet in protest against his continued imprisonment and threatened to harm himself with a piece of glass. As a result, he was sent back to a higher-security jail.
Three years later, back in open prison, he absconded again. After two months, he handed himself in at the Oxford probation service, before being picked up by the police and taken to HMP Bullingdon.
A year later, a psychiatric report stated: There is no evidence that [he] would be physically violent to another person. Davids escapes led the judicial system to tighten its grip on him by sending him back to a high-security prison. At the same time, news coverage of his escapes and his protests had prompted a campaign for his release. The Oxford Mail took up his case. Two thousand readers signed a petition to the home secretary, Jack Straw, calling for David to be freed; so, in a separate petition, did 70 inmates from Bullingdon prison.
Chris Moss, the witness who had alerted the police to the fire, now told the Oxford Mail he was disgusted that David was still inside: I feel quite upset that in a way I was responsible for his arrest. If I had known what was going to happen, I would have said: On your way, son. The vicar of St Laurence, the Rev John Davis, called Davids continued detention barbaric. The pew [which was burned in the fire] was still in use until the other day, when it was found to be riddled with woodworm, so they burned it. I said: Someones been in prison for life for that.
I first met David in August 1999, in a drab visiting room at HMP Lindholme in South Yorkshire, where I had come to interview him. He was missing an index finger, lost in an accident making soft toys for charity, and had stick-and-poke tattoos on his arms: a heart, a dagger and Don, the name of his baby brother who died in infancy.
He appeared anxious, and at 48, looked older than the other prisoners who were cuddling their wives and girlfriends. There was a woman he had become close to, he said, called Melanie one of the growing number of supporters who wrote to him after reading about his case. He said it was his ambition to live with her, and go to the seaside and the zoo as a family things I couldnt do as a kid.
Over the next couple of years, I continued to visit and write about him. At that time, Anita Bromley re-entered Davids life. Since they first met, she had retrained and qualified as a solicitor, and in January 2000, she started representing him. She and Alan Masters, a barrister working often pro bono on Davids case, won a judicial review against the Home Office for unlawfully holding him in a closed prison. Three years after his last escape, David was moved back to open conditions, this time HMP Sudbury in Derbyshire.
On 17 August 2001, David met some supporters in Derby while on unescorted day release (to help him adjust to the outside world). Afterwards, instead of returning to prison, he caught a bus to London, emerging in Kings Cross with 6 in his pocket. That was the night he called me. After I got back, we talked for a long time about his case, and some time after 3am, he crashed out on my couch.
The next morning we called Anita, who was on holiday. If David went back to jail voluntarily, she told us, the damage to his case might be limited. So we decided that I would help him get to Milton Keynes, where a supporter would pick him up and drive him back to the prison. At Euston, I watched the train pull out with David on it. There were no stops before Milton Keynes. But when the train arrived, David wasnt on it. He had jumped off during an unscheduled stop at Watford.
For two days, he was a conspicuous fugitive: he gave an interview to the Oxford Mail, and found his way to the home of Melanie, the woman he planned to marry, in Derbyshire. He turned up out of the blue and gave me a hug, Melanie said. I didnt feel uncomfortable or scared with him, because hes lovely to me.
But the police were on his trail by this time, and he was arrested at Melanies house. It was a horrible situation, seeing him handcuffed, she said. The wedding, though, was off. Melanie admitted shed had doubts about the marriage for some time.
Back in prison, David was dejected. He wrote to me: If theyre not going to let me out, Ill come out in a body bag.
Anita continued to make representations to the Home Office on his behalf, and finally, in August 2002, he had a Parole Board hearing. The Home Office and the Probation Service opposed his release. In their report, the Probation Service referred to Davids poor decision chain. However, three days after the hearing, my phone rang. On the other end, Davids voice was trembling. Prisoners shouted in the background. Im free. I cant believe it. Im very happy. Absolutely buzzing.
On 23 August 2002, cheered by staff and inmates, David walked out of Wayland prison, and was met by a huddle of supporters and press. The man freed after 24 years in jail for setting fire to some curtains posed with champagne for the cameras outside the crown court building where hed been sentenced. He drove around Oxford with a TV crew, gave interviews to the Sun and Radio 4s Today programme, and visited the scene of the crime, St Laurence church.
But beneath the euphoria, there were troubling signs. A week after Davids release, at a meeting at the hostel in Oxford where he was required to live, he was chided by a probation officer for not telling them he had visited the church, citing victim issues. But there were no victims, David replied. He never denied starting the fire in the church, but he did feel that his prolonged detention was wrong. For the authorities, this sense of injustice was a problem.
Dr Louise Hewitt, the director of the Innocence Project London, which investigates miscarriages of justice, said: I have clients who have been overlooked for jobs because they maintain their in nocence. Ive even seen a report from a clients probation officer which said that they would not visit him for six months, so he could think about accepting his guilt. This is a very real problem.
Following Davids release, probation kept him on a tight rein. One probation officer wrote with concern about Davids stubborn reluctance to confide in his supervisor and his trust in his solicitor and some key supporters.
Forty-nine days after being released from jail, David vanished from the hostel. A few days later, I came out of my local tube station late at night to find him waiting for me, agitated and breathing heavily. The restrictions of his licence were like being in jail, he said. That night, he slept on my couch again, and the next day, after hed gone, I left messages for his probation team, but I heard nothing back.
Less than three months after the fanfare of his release, David was arrested at a homeless hostel in Edinburgh. Hed been staying in his own room on the third floor, under the name David Thomson. He was recalled to prison for breaching the terms of his licence by disappearing from the Oxford hostel, and losing contact with probation. For 10 months he remained in prison: only after Anita Bromley threatened to bring a judicial review against the Home Office for its delays was he granted another parole hearing and finally released.
By this point, he was 51 years old. This time when he came out, it seemed as if things might be different: the pattern had been broken, and his compulsion to run away, which started at the age of nine, was waning. He was given his own flat in Oxford, where he lived unsupervised. He had a probation officer he liked. In September 2006, he cycled from John oGroats to Lands End to raise money for the Oxford Transplant Centre. Anita and I teased him about his remarkable speed over the final stages, and wondered whether he had jumped on to a train.
After four years of unbroken freedom, however, David made another calamitous decision.
The last time Anita and I saw David as a free man was in a pub in London. He wore a garish white tracksuit that looked like a castoff from Elviss Vegas period. Anita gave him the keys to her home in Devon so that he could have a break by the seaside.
A neighbour of Davids was having personal problems, and he offered to take her two boys, aged about 10 and 11, with him when he went to stay at the holiday home. But he didnt tell his probation officer. One of Davids licence restrictions stemmed from the conviction for indecent assault when he was 15. That incident was in July 1966, more than 40 years before, and Anita had applied for it to be lifted, but until that happened, David wasnt allowed unsupervised contact with minors. When the children returned after a few days, they were interviewed by social services. David had done nothing untoward to them, they said. But in December 2009, he was sent back to prison.
Over the years, David had tested Anitas patience, but now she risked professional embarrassment. He hadnt told her about taking the boys to her house, or that his probation officer wasnt aware of the trip. It was impossible, she said, for her to continue representing him. Meanwhile, in Oxford, news spread of the two boys interview and the reasons for it. People turned against him, and one local man posted Facebook messages calling him a paedophile.
David spent the next nine years in HMP Stocken in Rutland. His time there coincided with changes in the prison system that were arguably more far-reaching than any since he was sentenced in 1978. Budget cuts led to conditions that the chief prisons inspector described in July 2018 as some of the most disturbing his team had ever seen conditions which have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century, with prisoners forced to share cells designed for one, for up to 22 hours a day.
After being in a lot of prisons in my lifetime, I find that Stocken is the worst, David wrote. Spice, the zombie drug, was wreaking havoc. Staff and inmates are attacked most days. Its not the staffs fault as they try to do their best The staff on the wing have been good to me. Even when Ive been ill they clean my room and make my bed.
The cuts came as the prison population was getting older. In the 15 years to 2017, the number of prisoners aged over 60 tripled, partly driven by tougher sentencing, and the successful prosecution of historic sex offences. As over-60s became the fastest-growing group of inmates, jails in England and Wales became the largest provider of residential care for frail, elderly men.
The number of Davids supporters had now shrunk to two: Elizabeth Thoday, an elderly woman from Cambridge who had stood by him for years, and Eamonn McNamara, the law lecturer from Oxford who had once given him building work. Anita and I visited David, by now in his 60s, once a year, usually around his birthday. Each time, we would find his physical decline had accelerated: he used a wheelchair, and had glaucoma, prostate cancer and breathing difficulties, a legacy of smoking since he was nine.
He had become an active campaigner. In one letter, he wrote: I am off to the meeting in the Governors [office]. They should be sick of me by now as I keep asking for things to be done. I am now on the march for more disabled cells to be made. Only four at the prison at the moment. He seemed resigned to never getting out. Whenever Anita found him a solicitor, he would invariably sack them. Finally, however, in May 2018, the Parole Board directed his release.
As the number of older and infirm prisoners has risen, so has the difficulty in releasing them: either because of a lack of resources to pay for their care, or because there werent the available spaces in care homes. For nine months after his release had been ordered, David was stuck in jail while local authorities disputed who should fund his care. As you can see I am still in prison, he wrote. What is the point mate. I will still be here at Christmas, but that is my problem We [Manchester United] lost 3-2 at the weekend.
When his new lawyer, Killian Moran, who was born 14 years after David was first jailed, threatened to bring a judicial review against the justice secretary, David was finally moved to a care home in Somerset for ex-offenders and men with multiple, complex health needs. From there, each morning he sent text messages to Anita, Elizabeth and me, and wrote letters to us prolifically. I didnt get round to reading all of them.
I opened this one much later: I see you [Arsenal] had a 2-0 at the weekend ok we will still beat you. I love it here, should have happened long ago. Have Freeview on my tv, downstairs there is Sky Sports. Eat your heart out. Having ice cream at the moment. Looking forward to when you come down you can take me out, as I am an OAP now. Take care. Your good friend Dave. Man Utd forever.
In a letter to Elizabeth, he wrote: While I think of it, I would like a XL jumper green with Father Christmas or a reindeer on the front I think about you a lot as I see you as my mother. You have time for me and care about me.
On 8 December last year, David died in hospital, aged 68, from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. On a bright day in January, a dozen people gathered in Taunton Deane crematorium in Somerset. A man with a grey beard and purple varnish on the nails of one hand who had been coughing furiously between gulps on his inhaler glided to the front of the chapel in his electric wheelchair.
We didnt know Dave very long at the house, he said. Like others, hed been a long time in prison. Unfortunately, his brief life [at the care home] was cut short. He was a very independent person. Very stubborn and proud in the way that he did things Some of us at the house will miss him more than others. All I can say is maybe hes gone to a better place.
We filed out into the winter sunshine, where Anita, Alan Masters and I fell into conversation with two of the mourners. They were volunteers at the care home where David had spent his final months.
We never ask what anyones done. Its much better that way, one said.
We told them that David had been in prison for more than 34 years, or half of his existence, after setting fire to a pair of church curtains.
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- Thieves Steal Firearms from Gun Show in Morgantown - Berks Weekly - September 4th, 2020
- Kick The Hobbit - The Free Weekly - September 4th, 2020
- Behind the Ink: Tattoo Culture at Yale-NUS College - The Octant - September 4th, 2020
- Jeffree Star's boyfriend Andre Marhold's Baby Mommy Responds To their Relationship - Dankanator - September 4th, 2020
- Chinese university dress code sends a wrong message. How other schools deal with campus clothing - Simcoe Reformer - September 4th, 2020
- Childhood Sweethearts Fall In Love 30 Years Later Thanks To App - Comic Sands - September 4th, 2020