When students begin to realize that everything bad in the world is capitalism's fault, the extent of their rebellion is usually limited to buying a copy of a socialist newspaper and tweeting about banker bonuses. Stephen Jackley took it a little further. While others at his college were joining left-wing student groups and painting placards, he was planning armed robberies on banks and building societies, with the intention of donating a portion of the takings to charity.
Jackley, who has Asperger's syndrome, was obsessed with Robin Hood. He viewed the man in the little felt hat as an icon of anti-capitalism, and thought he'd emulate his tactics as a way of righting capitalism's wrongs. At the peak of his crime spree, in fact, he went as far as writing a letter to local paper that read: "I will continue to take from the rich and give to the poor," signing it "RH."
Following his arrest and imprisonment, reports painted Jackley as everything from a violent psychopath who used anti-capitalism as an excuse, to an eccentric loner lost in a fantasy world. The reality was a little more complex.
Jackley grew up in southern England as the son of a painter and an engineer. His mother suffered from schizophrenia and was regularly being hauled away by either police or medics. Jackley blames his inability to trust or get particularly close to anyone as an adult on this part of his childhood.
As he was approaching late adolescence, he had the realization that a lot of teenagers tend to have: The world is a systematically unfair place. Traveling through Southeast Asia—a rare luxury in itself—this inequality was illustrated in front of him in the shape of all the four-star hotels built within a mile of shanty towns with no running water.
Back in the UK, and studying geography at the University of Worcester, Jackley got pretty into drugs and alcohol, specifically weed and cocaine. In 2007, living in student halls, the 21-year-old began devising his plan to make society more equal.
A number of studies have been done about the relationship between Asperger's syndrome and crime. Experts have failed to agree on whether or not people with the disorder are more likely to commit crimes than anyone else, but most suggest that it may affect how crimes they do commit are carried out.
When I asked this, Jackley says that his Asperger's played a role in his decision to go ahead with the robberies, "insofar as my inability to understand the effects of my actions upon others." However, it seems that a desire to be viewed in a heroic light had an equally significant part to play.
"I wanted to donate at least 60 percent to homeless people and charity," says Jackley. "I saw myself as a Robin Hood figure, which I used to justify what I did. Altogether, I donated around £2,000 [$2,819] to charity, which doesn't sound like a lot, but my intention was to donate more. I also gave to homeless people. This is going to sound crazy, but I marked the notes with an 'RH.'"
Unfortunately for Jackley, on one job he actually ended up doing the exact opposite of what he'd set out to achieve. "On one occasion, I burgled a premises, and it turned out to be a charity office, which I hadn't realized at the time. That was a nightmare. I gave the charity incremental sums, starting with £250 [$352] and eventually going up to £750 [$1,057]," he says. "I was going to keep increasing the amount until I reached about £20,000 [$28,193]."
Looking back on his actions, Jackley seems to comprehend the absurdity of it all. He's affable and relaxed, and it's easy, speaking to him, to forget that this is a man who used hammers, knives, and imitation guns to hold up bookies, building societies, and banks. But his remorse seems genuine. He says that while his intentions were, in part, altruistic, he regrets what he did and the terror he caused the people who witnessed his robberies.
After a string of successful heists, Jackley decided he wanted to use a real gun for future crimes, so he set off to the US to buy one that he could smuggle back to the UK. This plan was foiled almost before it had begun: The owner of the shop he tried to buy a gun from was a former police officer who immediately recognized his ID as fake.
After the shop owner reported Jackley to the police, officers searched him and found his University of Worcester student card, before alerting the local force in the UK, and suggesting that officers search his student accommodation. There, the cops found items linking him to the robberies—weapons, disguises, notes about past and planned hold-ups—and, bizarrely, an imitation bomb (Jackley claims he doesn't know what his intentions for the fake bomb were because he was drunk and high when he decided to keep it in his room).
British papers pounced and dubbed Jackley the "Robin Hood armed robber." For the time being, a trial by media was all he'd get in the UK; a judge in Vermont sentenced him to ten months imprisonment for trying to buy a firearm with a fake ID, and he spent the next few months being shifted around several different prisons.
"I kept getting asked if I knew the Queen, and the only place the prisoners knew about was London," he says. "A lot of them were quite decent. I got most hassle from the guards."
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In 2009, at age 23, Jackley was deported to the UK and charged at Worcester Crown Court with 21 different offenses, including robbery, attempted robbery, and firearms possession. He pleaded guilty to 18 charges and was sentenced to 13 years in jail, a sentence that was appealed and later shortened to 12 years after judges at London's Criminal Appeal Court said his Asperger's syndrome may have caused his "awareness of the consequences of his actions—and therefore his culpability—[to have] been significantly impaired."
Jackley was released in 2014, and with the help of the Prince's Trust, has since set up the publishing company Arkbound and founded the magazine Boundless, which focuses on sustainable living and social inclusion.
Speaking to him now, it's clear he's neither the deluded menace the press made him out to be nor is he a man who still believes he's an anti-capitalist crusader who has to commit crimes to somehow tackle economic disparity. He says life since being released from prison has been "difficult and enlightening," but there's no doubt he's trying to make amends for what he's done in the past. The Robin Hood days are long behind him. Now, he's doing his best to address inequality with words, not hammers.
Jackley has released a book about his crimes entitled Just Sky, which is available via his publishing company, Arkbound.
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