Remembering 'Gunchester'

Former armed robber Jason Coghlan talks us through the average Manchester bank heist.

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Oct 8 2014, 1:52pm

Jason in front of his BMW, outside his childhood home in Brinnington, Manchester.

Active throughout Manchester's "Gunchester" heyday in the 1990s, Jason Coghlan was eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison for his part in a bank robbery in Lancashire in 1998. Now he runs JaCogLaw, a specialist law firm representing British expats caught up in foreign legal systems, from Costa del Sol to Bangkok. VICE met Jason while making a documentary about his life as a reformed robber turned law firm owner. Here he talks us through an average bank robbery, and then his spectacular, and not so average, escape from custody.

It's pissing down in a satellite town on the outskirts of Manchester. Everybody has got their heads down, avoiding the rain, hiding under umbrellas. Just how I like it. "Stand by, stand by... Okay lads, Group 4 Security van just arrived at the end of the street. Radio silence now. You know what to do when I roll, fellas".

At this point I was stood in a telephone box right on a high street, wearing an anorak, the hood covering my ear piece and a burner - a pump-action shotgun loaded with birdshot - to hand, and a back-up revolver stuffed down my pants. 

We know, usually through inside intel or weeks of watching from the back of blacked-out transit vans, that the cash delivery van is there to deliver the bank's cash consignment for the week. Another giveaway is the number of trips that the cash custodian makes from the van to the bank: they are only insured to carry a certain amount per trip, mainly due to the high volume of game bastards who make their livelihood relieving cash-in-transit guards of their burdens - like me and my little firm. The money gets delivered to the bank, taken directly behind a security door, and into the secure area, where the main vault is kept. Nevertheless, the money cannot go straight into the vault until the staff have counted it, and hundreds of thousands of pounds take time to plough through. 

The guard made his last trip. I clicked on the two-way radio net three times, meaning, "Are both ends of the street cool"? One click back was the go sign and I didn't need any further encouragement. I burst out of that telephone box like Clark Kent minus the leotard and cape, but with a full-face balaclava and brandishing the burner. 

It's vitally important to grab the attention of everybody in the bank at the very outset. Until we turned up, the poor folk inside were going about their mundane, lawful business, depositing money and paying bills. I jacked the burner and let one go straight up into the ceiling. "This is a bank robbery. Everybody get down on the fucking floor, face down, and do not move! You can all live through this and go home later to see your families, but for their sake and yours, do not do anything stupid that will prevent that from happening. You, open that security door right fucking now or he gets it and I kid you not"!

All of the fresh cash consignment is usually sat there, either being counted or waiting to be. I'd gratefully swipe the whole lot into my large sports bag and if the safe happened to be open (it's amazing how regular folks who want to make sure that they get home on time do silly things, like breaking their own security protocol) I'd have a quick nosey in there too. 

The "control member" of my team, whose job is to control the clients and staff in the bank while I filled my boots, would then hold open the front door for my speedy exit. Laden with my bag of loot and feeling a level of pure adrenaline that very few things in life can produce, we'd be out and into the powerful, four-door, recently stolen getaway car. The driver usually maintained his position at the top of the street right up until it was time for us to make our sharp exit. 

By this point the world and his brother would be looking for two or three men wearing boiler suits and full-face balaclavas in, let's say, a red Ford saloon, so the trick is to bail that car as soon as possible. It makes sense to plan your car change as close as possible to the bank, but at a point only accessible by foot. For example, we used to park the second car on the other side of a footbridge over a canal or railway line, or through a foot tunnel. On a few occasions we were even known to jump across a small river or stream. The point being, if some do-gooder busybody saw us exiting the bank and decided to have a go at performing his civic duty, he'd find himself at a dead end, staring up the barrels of a shooter, when the time came for us to abandon and petrol bomb our first-stage getaway car before crossing the obstacle. 

So that's how we used to do it. If this is giving some young bright spark any ideas... do yourself a favour and think again. First and foremost, it's a complete mug's game, and to be entirely honest, it's morally reprehensible. I was in my twenties when I was at it and ended up getting caught aged 29, in 1998. 

One time, I escaped while being held on maximum-security remand by feigning a leg injury the day before a court appearance. I was duly issued a set of crutches, which precluded the screws from handcuffing me. They knew full well from the minute I hobbled off the prison van and into the secure yard at the court that I was known as a bit of a handful. But I made a smart crack about getting too old for the gym and even stumbled off the van, earning some degree of concern from a couple of the staff. At that time I was charged with my last bank robbery, as well as three others, and was being investigated for resisting arrest with a firearm. Some poor bobby on the beat had chosen the wrong man to stop and search, and had a shooter pointed in his face. I was looking at over 20 years. It was the cumulative effect of these circumstances that provided me with the determination to attempt escape, and in retrospect I wish I hadn't bothered.

"Coghlan to court number one". Off I hobbled, flanked by four screws. It was a closed dock, surrounded by toughened glass and locked at its entrance to the main court room, and even the door back to the cells behind us was locked - not that I had any intention of heading back in that direction. My plan was simple: I'd knock out the bigger of the screws next to me with a nice, clean, unexpected uppercut to his jaw and then "do my best with the rest", as my uncle Mike used to say. I've boxed since I was 12 years old, so stage one went like clockwork. I landed a couple of nice, clean shots on the next screw too; the third dropped to his knees and cowered behind the seats; and the fourth was a woman who mercifully had already ran to the door and was unlocking it, shouting for help. I turned my earnest attention to the reinforced glass and began bouncing off it, headbutting, punching and kicking it until it all shattered. 

I personally found the next part of the escapade quite funny. The court exit was at the very back of the room and already had a bunch of press guys, people from the public gallery and court staff, all clambering away unceremoniously through the doorway. Nonetheless, it was never my plan to go in that direction - courts are full of security in the main public areas, including plenty of police officers waiting to give evidence. 

It's a prerequisite in England for all public buildings to be fitted with emergency exit signs above all doors that lead to a fire escape, including the magistrates' retiring room. So my plan, sketchy as it was, was to head in the opposite direction from the main exit and storm towards the esteemed magistrate, who, with all due respect to his lordship, had been a bit of a dick throughout the hearing. As you might expect, he turned a very funny colour when he saw me heading in his direction instead of the main exit. I blew right past him as he made some sort of strange, and from his point of view, embarrassing whimpering noise. His door was conveniently unlocked, and I was then in the inner sanctum of the court, and just kept heading for emergency exit signs, which showed me out as easy as 1-2-3. Off I went. 

Some press reports stated that I spent the first few days of my freedom hiding out at my mate's strip clubs, up to my eyes in bums, tits, cocaine and champagne. Which was abso-fucking-lutely true. I allowed a couple of the girls to take some snaps of me in the jacuzzi with them parked up on my lap, holding bottles of champagne and bundles of cash. I told them to report it to the press a few hours after I'd left and say they'd only just realised who I was when they saw my face on the News at Ten, earning themselves a nice few quid in the process. Sadly, even the tabloid newspapers have got certain rules and regulations, which resulted in the girls' hot snaps being handed directly to the police, who used them as their one and only "hot lead". That "hot lead" led to them staking out the region's strip clubs for some time. As it happened, I was relaxing up in the Peak District at another friend's very comfortable countryside retreat, fly fishing for rainbow trout. 

After a few days' rest, I dropped straight into the middle of a war that my best mate had got himself involved in against some other firm in Manchester. In truth, it was absolutely nothing to do with me, but it was something that loyalty prevented me from turning my back on. All I wanted was to withdraw from the situation, stash myself in a hidey-hole in one of the many articulated trucks in which my friends used to bring narcotics and weapons into the UK (usually from eastern Europe, where there were plenty of wars going on in the 90s). I wanted to go the opposite way, across to a new life in Europe. Nevertheless, that was not to be. As a direct result of being loyal to my "pal", I was recaptured and faced a new catalogue of charges. 

One of my abiding memories of being a villain, gangster, armed blagger (or whatever you want to call it) is that other folk are not worth the effort. "There's no honour among thieves" is a very well-worn and true saying. Of course it does not apply across the board, but when one looks into where one is more likely to find loyalty, integrity and meaningful friendship, it would seem that an obviously erroneous starting point would be a bunch of inherently dishonest gangsters and thieves! We live and learn, but usually in my case, I learn the hard way. 

For more on Jason and JaCogLaw, look out for our upcoming documentary on VICE.com

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