Getting Life Lessons from Manchester's Jet-setting Career Thieves
BV in Manchester city centre.
Two years ago, I was looking for writing work and got word that Mancunian football hooligan Colin Blaney wanted help writing a book. I was trying to make a name for myself at the time, and his story (coupled with the fact he'd already found a publisher) seemed the perfect way to do that. While working on the book, I got to meet a load of Colin's friends and soon learned that their involvement in crime went far beyond hooliganism.
They had nearly all been professional thieves at some point in their lives and could literally steal the watch off your wrist without you noticing a thing. The stories they began to tell me were like Dickens through the eyes of Ken Loach – Colin and the network of Mancunian pickpockets and jewel thieves travelling all over Europe, Asia and the Americas stealing safes, jewellery and cash boxes. Colin agreed to to get three of his old friends – BV, Stuart and Boon – together and talk to me about their long and lucrative criminal careers.
Colin and Stuart in Collyhurst, Manchester.
VICE: First of all, tell me about how you all got involved in crime.
Boon: Miles Platting, where I grew up, was full of roughnecks and thieves. I started thieving at age five when I saw some older lads breaking into goods trains and stealing electrical goods, followed them in and took some stuff for myself. By the time I was eight, I’d been nicked for breaking and entering.
Stuart: The first thing I got into properly was travelling around mainland Europe shoplifting clothes. I saw older lads coming back from abroad wearing Rolexes and wanted a piece of it.
So you all started young?
Colin: Yeah, my first ever crime was when I was ten on a school trip to Belgium. I got a five-finger discount on a flick-comb and a cig case.
BV: Mine was when I was six. I stole some lolly sticks because my mother wanted them but couldn’t afford them. I’ve been up to all sorts since then.
What kind of stuff did you get into later on?
BV: I was into picking pockets and doing sneaks (burglaries that rely on stealth rather than breaking and entering).
Boon: I’ve done bank snatches, affrays and wounding with intents. Then I got caught smuggling weed over to Japan for a gang of Liberians and did an armed robbery on a building society. I’m not usually into armed blags, though, and the whole thing was a shambles – the safe had already been emptied. I ended up doing nine years for nothing. I was also a zapper (pickpocket) and specialised in sneaking Peters (sneaking into the backroom of shops and stealing from the safe) as well.
Mancunian thieves and their friends in Barcelona, 1988.
Was doing stuff abroad a big part of your business?
Stuart: Yeah, we used to sell Es, coke and hash during the 80s in Ibiza, but couldn't sell heroin because that was the gypsies' terrain and they'd come for you if you started selling it. We’d graft in Europe using Amsterdam as our base, then spend the months from June to September in Ibiza. I was also charged with conspiracy to defraud American Express and I used to sell a bit of heroin and crack over here, but I wasn’t really into selling drugs when I was in England.
Colin: Mine was more sneaking into backrooms of shops for cash boxes, stealing shop tills and picking pockets. Oh, and I’ve also been involved in organising prison breaks.
What’s the story there?
Colin: The first was when I was in jail with a gypsy-armed blagger in Germany. I worked out a way that he could bolt out of the court building before his case without the security guards getting him, and arranged to have a motorbike waiting there for him. The second was for a Greek guy in a German prison who was facing extradition back to Greece for a kilo of cocaine. I had some diamond-encrusted wire passed on to his missus, who snuck it to him with her tongue when she kissed him one visit. He cut through the bars of the cells and scaled the wall using a grappling hook I'd made out of bed sheets and a coat hanger, but got caught outside the jail before he could be picked up by his brother, unfortunately.
That's a shame. Boon, you’ve been locked up in a Japanese prison – what was that like?
Boon: You had to sit cross-legged in your cell in silence a lot of the time, and if you made noise or sat in the wrong position they'd put you in solitary. It was corrupt as fuck. The Yakuza were given huge portions of food and the rest of us were hardly given anything. I ended up fronting up a Yakuza lieutenant in the end, and they have this code of honour that says if someone does that they've got to have straightener (one-on-one fight) with them. I said, "I’m giving you five days to get my fucking food sorted and, if it isn’t right by then, me and you are going to have a straightener and I’m going to bite your face off." Five days later, it was sorted.
BV with a cup of tea.
One of the things you’ve specialised in is stealing jewellery from under shop workers’ noses. What are your tactics for that?
BV: I’d get the woman to show me a tray of rings, and while I was pointing at one to ask how much it was, I’d hook another up with my little finger. It was easier when we went to Europe; they didn’t have jewellery cabinets back in the day, they just had curtains.
Colin: You can also slip a piece of jewellery into your mouth and hide it in your cheek pouch. We learned how to carry on talking to assistants with something hidden in there. We could steal necklaces from round people’s necks and watches off their wrists. It was just a matter of bumping into them until they got used to being touched, then slipping the jewellery off them.
What were some of the worst places you went on your thieving travels?
Colin: When we went over to do ticket touting at the 1988 Olympics in South Korea, we’d read about a notorious no-go area in the tourist brochures, so we decided to go there. The taxi driver refused to take us at first because it was completely lawless and violent, so we had to pay him extra. The locals were all covered in tattoos and the place had a moody-as-fuck atmosphere to it. We ended up getting on quite well with them, though, partly ‘cause we plied them with beers to keep them sweet.
Colin and Stuart at the Billy Green pub.
What about yourself, Boon?
Boon: Caracas in Venezuela is one of the heaviest places I’ve been to. I saw shootings over there on the street and all sorts. But I just dived into the thick of it and did what I went to do.
BV: Anywhere I went, I used to carry a flick knife and would front anybody up, so I never usually got much hassle. There was one situation I got into in Amsterdam, though, when I went to buy a gram of coke from this building that six people were sat around freebasing in. A guy put a flick knife to my throat and took some of my money, but little did he know that I had about £600 in each sock.
What’s the most extreme situation you've got yourselves in?
Colin: Mine was at a Hells Angels bar in Belgium. My brother went outside to have a spliff and sat on one of the gang's bikes and it kicked off. We used broken glass to cut the Hells Angels up pretty badly.
Boon: In Antwerp, we got set up picking up some dough for a parcel. Someone pulled a gat on us and we had to fight our way out. We talked shit until we got close to the fella with the gun and then got into him. Another time, I was coming out of a crack den with one of my friends when someone came to rob us with a gat and I ended up wrestling with him.
Sounds fun. Do you have any regrets about your lives of crime?
Stuart: I regret the time I CS gassed a lady during a theft. I meant to get the male shop worker.
Colin: No, I don't. Even though I spent a lot of time in prison, it wasn’t that hard to do.
Boon: I regret doing the armed blag because it was naughty terrorising people who were just there doing their job.
BV: I regret getting into drink. It ruined my thieving career for something like ten to 12 years.