This article was originally published on VICE Denmark.
There are many ways to describe Leon Fristup Jensen – as a pimp, a family man, a violent offender, a friend to the stars, a drug slinger, a charmer. Most people in Vesterbro, Copenhagen, just know him as "Lonne" – a pretty incorrigible neighbourhood gangster who's spent nearly half of his life in prison.
Lonne tells the story of his life in Born Free, a book written by Peter Grønlund. Lonne was born in a working class family in Vesterbro – which in his day was Copenhagen's notorious Red Light District. It still technically is, but gentrification has had its way with Vesterbro. Lonne was 15 when he first spent Christmas in prison, which was the start of an endless string of prison stints on account of – among other crimes – theft, violence, smuggling, pandering and handling stolen goods.
Lonne's story is symbolic for the change in Vesterbro itself. In the 1970s and 80s, the area was riddled with adult movie theatres and dingy pubs, but these days you'll mostly find galleries and coffee shops with stellar flat whites. Lonne was part of the old Vesterbro – as were his friends – who all had telling names like John the Butcher, Bent Ricardo and Violent Willy.
"All of Lonne's friends and acquaintances were criminals – Vesterbro was a rough neighbourhood and boys who grew up there usually had two options. Either you became an unskilled worker or you did what Lonne did, and found more sketchy and usually illegal ways to make a living," says Born Free author Peter Grønlund.
Lonne has been a fixture in mainstream Danish media for years, but Peter Grønlund figured there still was enough to tell about his life to fill a book. It explores what it's like to be a hardcore criminal and a celebrated party animal at the same time – as happy to throw money around as to plant his fists in someone's face.
"There aren't many Danish people who have spent as much time in jail as he has, but he doesn't whine about it. He spent such a huge chunk of his life behind bars – 17 long months of which in solitary confinement. But he just accepts that those were the consequences of his actions, that that was his life" says Peter Grønlund. "That piqued my interest. He's someone who lives by a completely different moral code than the rest of us."
Today, Lonne leads a pretty secluded life and helps takes care of his nine-year-old son. According to Peter, Lonne has "hit some minor bumps in the road" during the past few years – some 30- and 60-day incarcerations, fines for a few petty crimes – but nothing comparable to the crimes of his heyday in the 1970s and 80s.
"He doesn't go on benders like he used to anymore, but he still appreciates a drink from time to time – to put it mildly," says Grønlund, who thinks Lonne is "fundamentally a nice guy." He adds: "Once you see beyond the face tattoos and that past of his, you're left with a friendly, talkative man full of crazy stories, because his whole life revolved around crime."
Lonne doesn't have much thought for the victims of the crimes he committed. "The way he sees it, he's done his time, and doesn't feel sorry for the people who were scammed, robbed, or beaten to a pulp along the way," says Grønlund. "That's what I meant with that different moral code. It doesn't trouble him in the slightest that he flooded Vesterbro with heroin, for example. His reasoning is that if it hadn't been him, it would've been somebody else. He's only sorry he got caught."
In the following excerpt from Born Free, Lonne explains how he first made a name for himself in the criminal underworld of Copenhagen.
When I was 15, I spent two years and ten months in a youth prison in Nyborg. That was basically the maximum sentence you could get as a minor. If anyone thought that jail time would be a deterrent for me, they were wrong. That sentence was only the beginning.
I was lucky enough to get locked up in Nyborg with a bunch of my friends from Saxogade – the street where I lived in Vesterbro. Elvis, Buller, Violent Willy and I stuck together in prison as "The Saxo Gang". Elvis was a funny-looking guy, who always wore pretty garish outfits and drowned his hair in Brylcreem. Buller was a big lug who packed a mean punch – the same went for Violent Willy. Not many people had the balls to stand up to them. Elvis and Buller drank a lot. Once, they stole a crate of rectified spirit from the hospital in Frederiksberg, and then whenever we went out, they'd exclusively drink chocolate milk mixed with a bit of that stuff. Both of them died a long time ago, but Willy's still alive. He almost never drank – loved beating the shit out of people, though. He also had this habit of head-butting drainpipes on the street – they'd all have dents in them. That was Willy's contribution to the street scape. Until one day, one of the dented and broken pipes was replaced with a new one, made of stronger metal. That meant Willy was the one walking around with a huge dent in his head.
I was locked up with my friends, but also with older, more hardened criminals from around the country. They told us stories of big vault heists, smuggling runs, expensive cars, women, and all kinds of other exciting stuff. That youth prison was a factory – mass producing hardened criminals. So as soon as I had done my time and was picked up by one of my friends by the prison gates, I knew exactly what my next move was going to be. I wasn't thinking about getting an education or finding a job. I was going to be a full-time criminal.
I'm not sure why, but I stopped doing break-ins after a while – maybe the other guys were just better at it than me, or maybe I was just sort of sick of it. So I don't remember why, but I know that quitting burglary opened up new opportunities for me.
Regulars in Den Lille Cafe were a mixed crowd: criminals, smugglers, rowdy blokes looking for a fight, hardened labourers, unemployed labourers, and the local crowd of hookers and drunks. I befriended a girl named Søs, who'd recently run away from a group home for girls in Viby, not far from Aarhus. She was 16, but she was one hell of a nice girl who'd hook in the main spots in Vesterbro and generally lived life in the fast lane. Not long after we'd met, she asked me if I could help her get a friend to Copenhagen. She told me that her friend was living at the same group home she'd run away from, and that it had gotten harder to get out. You couldn't do it without help anymore.
I was happy to help out, so we took a car and set off for Jutland. The other girl's name was Jonnie, and getting her out wasn't a problem at all. Jonnie had tied two sheets together and climbed out of a second floor window when we flashed our headlights. Then we all drove back to Copenhagen with beers and loud music.
A couple of days later, Søs came to the pub and gave me 300 kroner (£35). I was confused and asked her what the money was for – she didn't owe me anything. But she said it was for me. The guys sitting around the table all laughed and said I should take the money. Before long, Jonnie started bringing me money, too. That's how I became a pimp.
It was pretty random, to be honest. Them just stopping by to give me 300 or 400 kroner was a bit weird in the beginning, but I quickly got into the rhythm. In return, they expected me to help out if they had a client who refused to pay or was causing trouble. I also rented an apartment for them on Eriksgade, where they could bring johns.
We got into a routine where every day before noon, I'd bring them fresh toilet paper, paper towels and clean towels. Then I'd usually have a drink and a good time at Den Lille Cafe or another pub, De Fire Årstider ("The Four Seasons"). That was where all of the other pimps from the neighbourhood were hanging out at the time. The girls would stop by with money, have a drink with us, then head back out again. When they'd earned enough money, we'd go eat at expensive restaurants and party. We spared no expense. When we were out, I would make it rain with free drinks, entire bottles of liquor. I'd treat anyone in the bar to rounds. I was making so much money that I – like any self-respecting pimp – bought myself a yellow Mustang. That really got some attention. The girls had 'Lonne forever' tattooed on their arms.
Times were good, but there was a lot to keep an eye on. At least a few times a week I'd have to go and flex my muscles at someone. If customers were complaining, drunk, refusing to leave or pay, then the girls would come by the pub to get me. We would usually run up to their place with a few of us – we helped each other out. We sent a lot of guys down the stairs with blacker eyes and looser teeth than they'd come in with.
These incidents were almost never reported to the police. No matter how badly bruised and battered people were, the authorities were very rarely involved. Nonetheless, it didn't take long before I was back in jail for aggravated assault and battery. One of my friends, a little rowdy guy called Benny, came into the pub one day completely fucked up. He'd had the living daylights beaten out of him. It turned out Benny had been at our local fishmonger, who was a massive beast of a man, to get some things for dinner. As a joke, Benny had slapped the man across the face with a fish. That was just Benny. He might have gotten a kick out of stuff like that, but the fishmonger wasn't happy about it so Benny got smacked around a bit.
I had been sitting around drinking but when I heard that, I flew up, ran over to the fishmonger to head-butt him and pound him to the ground. When he was down, I kicked him in the face a few times, to show him that nobody fucked with my boys.
Unlike most of the johns, the fishmonger did report the incident to the police and had to identify me in court. Of course he had no trouble doing so – it had been a very scary experience for him, I'd gone completely feral. He told the court that I had stormed into the shop and jumped him. I denied any knowledge of the event he described. I was completely innocent. I stuck to that, even afterwards. I've always pleaded innocent in court, I've never admitted to anything. That's a principle I live by. The judge, however, didn't believe me, so I spent the next 10 months in Vridsløselille Prison for beating up the fishmonger.
Born Free was released in Denmark by publishing house Bogkompagniet.