Shaun "English Shaun" Attwood during his drug-dealing, rave-organizing, feather-boa-wearing days.
Think of drug lords in America, and it's likely that you'll think of emotionally erratic men with harems of coked-up megababes on big yachts in Miami. Or, if you watch a lot of DVD box sets, terminally ill chemistry teachers or Idris Elba. One cliche that probably won't spring to mind is a polite, educated ex-stockbroker from the UK's industrial Cheshire.
Shaun "English Shaun" Attwood is an incredibly unlikely ecstasy kingpin. Growing up in Widnes, just outside of Liverpool, Shaun invested in the US stock market when he was young, made his millions, moved to Phoenix, Arizona, started throwing raves, and became a major drug supplier. While he wasn't planning parties in the deserts of Arizona, he was working in direct competition with the Italian Mafia and alongside the New Mexican Mafia to supply millions of dollars' worth of ecstasy to the ravers of mid-90s Phoenix.
His motivation for doing all this, besides the fact that partying for a living is a lot more fun than selling shares? He wanted to introduce Americans to the British rave culture he'd grown up with. Unfortunately, as is often the way when you're handling millions of dollars of narcotics, Shaun was caught and ended up being sent to Maricopa County Jail, widely regarded as America's toughest prison. Shaun's been out of jail for a few years, so I called him to see if he's still so keen to spread the love to the Yanks.
Shaun, after being released from prison. Photo by Libbi Pedder
VICE: So you went from being a millionaire stockbroker to becoming a major drug dealer in Arizona. How did that happen?
Shaun Attwood: The Manchester rave scene made such a big impression on me that I decided to transfer that scene to Phoenix, Arizona, after moving over there. After becoming a millionaire as a young person, I had more money than common sense, so I didn’t see the law as an obstacle to my partying or a barrier to bringing tens of thousands of hits of ecstasy into America from Holland.
That was for the Mafia, right?
Yeah, I was supplying ecstasy to the New Mexican Mafia. In the beginning, I didn’t know who they were, but it came about because I was a friend of a gang member’s brother. Years later, they were all arrested and the news headlines reported that they were the most powerful and violent Mafia in Arizona at that time, committing murder-for-hire and executing witnesses.
And you were in direct competition with the Italian Mafia member Sammy "The Bull" Gravano—what's the story with that?
Yeah. Years later in prison, his son, Gerard Gravano, told me that he’d been dispatched as the head of an armed crew to kidnap me from a nightclub and take me out to the desert. I’d avoided him that night because my best friend, Wild Man, had got in a fight, and we’d had to leave the club in a hurry.
Shaun partying with his ex-wife in Arizona.
Talking of clubs, how did the rave scene in America compare with the raves in England at the time?
Oh, it was small at first. It took years to catch up. Ecstasy was very expensive—it was $30 a hit in the mid-90s.
Where did you put on your parties?
The first one was in a warehouse in west Phoenix owned by the Mexican Mafia, but they were at various different locations after that.
Did selling drugs come after you started putting on raves? It seems like throwing raves is the perfect way of creating a solid customer base.
Well, I was selling ecstasy before I started the raves, but they obviously provided more of a market.
How did you find it going from a high-pressure, high-income job to dealing and partying all the time?
I enjoyed it at first. There was one rave where I booked Chris Liberator and Dave the Drummer. I remember hearing Chris Liberator’s beats and being mesmerized by the sight of thousands of people dancing to English DJs with the same blissful expressions that I had on my face when I first got into raving. I thought, This is it, I’ve realized my dream. But I started taking too many drugs and got incredibly paranoid because of all the risks I was taking.
Photos from a couple of Shaun's raves. Images via
That sounds like a familiar story. Did the police get on to you?
It was inevitable. Dealing drugs leads to police trouble, prison, or death. I sowed the seeds of my downfall and take full responsibility for landing myself behind bars. Informant statements led to a wiretap, and 10,000 calls were recorded. I rarely spoke on the phone, but they caught me talking about personal use and many of my employees were referencing my name on the phone, which resulted in a conspiracy charge.
What did you make of the media dubbing your organization the "Evil Empire" when you were caught? Did you think it was a bit over the top?
My heart went "badum, badum, badum" when I saw the cover of the Phoenix New Times with a portrait of me as Nosferatu on it, which was where they called it the "Evil Empire." And the cover also had four of my co-defendants, including Wild Man and my head of security, Cody, in the foreground, with my arms encircling them like some evil puppeteer. I couldn’t believe it.
Was this when you were locked up already?
It was before I'd been sentenced, and I was worried that there was going to be something in there that might damage my case. I read in there that the prosecutor had classified me as a serious drug offender likely to receive a life sentence, and I went into shock. I'd thought I was getting out, but I was now facing 25 years. If I'd got a life sentence I would have been 58 when I got out, basically at retirement age. But yeah, when I read the article, I felt like some arch-villain from the Marvel comics I collected as a child.
Shaun with Wild Man after his release.
What was your time inside like?
Early on, I was with lots of people who were arrested with me, including my large and fearless best friend and raving partner from my hometown of Widnes, Wild Man, who the gangs respected for his fighting skills. He looked out for me. I was split up from my co-defendants after the first year, so then I had to rely on my people skills, Englishness, education, etc., etc.
You wrote blogs inside as well, right?
Yeah, that enabled me to make some powerful alliances with characters like T-Bone and Two Tonys, who was a Mafia mass murderer and was serving multiple life sentences. T-Bone was a deeply spiritual, massively built African American who towered over most inmates. He was a prison gladiator and covered in stab wounds. He was a good man to have on your side.
You’ve told me before about the trouble you had with the Aryan Brotherhood as well.
Yeah, all the way through my incarceration, I was trying to dodge Aryan Brotherhood predators. They run the white race in the prison system. You have to do what they say or else you get smashed or murdered.
So I take it racism featured quite heavily in the prison that you were in?
Yeah, it was completely racially segregated. The way it works there is that, as soon as you walk in, a soldier from your racial gang tells you the rules that are enforced by the head of each race. Disobedience means that you get smashed, shanked or murdered. The rules include stuff like not being able to sit with the other races at the dinner tables or exercise with the other races. But when it comes to drugs, the gangs all deal with each other regardless of race.
I bet there were some pretty nice characters in that environment.
God, it was full of scary people. In super maximum security, I lived next door to a serial killer and my first cell mate was a satanic priest with a pentagram tattooed on his head. He was in for murder and was part of a cult that was drinking blood and eating human body parts. Fortunately, he was quite nice to me.
That's good. So what are you doing with your life now? Are you a reformed character?
Yeah, and I credit incarceration with sending my life in a whole new positive direction. I tell my story to schools across the UK and Europe to educate young people about the consequences of choosing the drugs lifestyle in the hope that they don’t make the same mistakes I did. The endless feedback that I get from students makes me feel that the talks are a better way of repaying my debt to society than the sentence I served.
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