Gimme the money,” Pablo said to the building society cashier while he pointed the gun at her, wearing a balaclava.
Pablo was surprised when she answered him sarcastically, and he felt she was being deliberately slow while she put the money in the bag, so Pablo then pointed the gun at another cashier and told the sarcastic one that if she didn’t hurry up he would shoot her colleague.
Pablo didn’t enjoy doing armed robberies and says that they made him feel fearful. But he was driven to do them by his addiction to heroin, and he also sometimes took cannabis, methadone, speed, Valium, ecstasy and LSD.
Pablo ended up getting arrested by the Flying Squad and was found guilty of six armed robberies, three attempted robberies and nine counts of possessing a firearm. The crimes were committed against building societies, post offices and shops. He was sentenced to a total of 67 years, though the sentences were to run concurrently, which meant he was serving a sentence of 12 years. It was 1990 and he was 24. A year later at the court of appeal, his sentence was reduced to ten years.
Pablo served two-thirds of his sentence, as a third came off as remission for good behaviour. Towards the end of his sentence, a woman started writing to him and they started a relationship. When he was released on a short home-leave, he failed to return to the prison and went on the run with his girlfriend. He was captured 11 months later and returned to jail, where he completed the rest of his ten-year sentence. During this time, he married his girlfriend while he was still in prison. He was released in the late 90s.
Pablo says about his marriage: “The pressures were very great … and I ruined the marriage. It was completely my fault and we divorced three years later.”
He hadn’t had a good start in life and had a very unhappy childhood. He says, “At the age of five I was put into a Salvation Army children’s home [along with his sister] which I stayed at for three years the first time. I was returned to my home, but roughly a year later we were both put back in the children’s home in Whitstable … I stayed there till I was 12 and returned home and stayed [there] until I was 15 and I was put in a children’s home yet again, in Croydon. When I turned 16 I was put in [a] hostel, which I left on my own accord and started a long road of bed and breakfasts and little bedsits, which was a nice time until I reached 18. Things started going wrong then. A succession of [relationships] that went wrong, and I got in with the wrong crowds, doing wrong things.“After some years of testing the police and system, I was arrested for armed robbery when I was 24. There were nickings before that. I was arrested quite a few times, but when I went to court I always managed to get out of it, but obviously on the charges I was brought up on [armed robbery] – there was no getting out of them.”
When Pablo got out of jail he took drugs again for many years. A couple of times he overdosed and ended up in hospital, during which times the nurses weren’t that sympathetic, as overdoses by drug addicts are seen as self-inflicted. He did later go into a drugs detox, and he says that it was a completely different and therapeutic place, where the nurses and other staff were supportive, kind and helpful.
Drugs, though, eventually led Pablo to have a mental breakdown about six years ago, and since then he’s had a schizotypal illness. Pablo explained how the illness started.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing on a lot of occasions. I thought that people were spraying me with chemicals. And I wouldn’t talk to anyone … I used to tie my windows up and put extra locks on the door. I didn’t trust anyone. I had a mental health nurse, but she couldn’t get close to me, and I was put in the Bethlem [a psychiatric hospital] for three months. I was particularly ill, but after a couple of months of taking the medication I got better.”
Pablo was then discharged from hospital and agreed to continue taking antipsychotic medication, which he has by depot injection every four weeks. He’s stopped taking medication a few times since then, but became ill, and he’s taken about six different antipsychotic drugs, to see what works best for him. Soon after he was released from hospital, he moved to Canterbury House, a large hostel in Upper Norwood, south-east London that houses mainly people with mental illnesses. The residents have their own independent living facilities within the hostel, such as large self-contained living rooms with their own kitchen area and toilet and bathroom.
Pablo started going to church about a year ago, after being invited by Daz to the Freedom Forum, an award-winning Bible study and social group at Christ Church, Anerley, south-east London. The group is run by Daz, who’d spent time in prison and hospital, before committing his life to Jesus. Daz now has a small team who help him run the group.
The social group starts at midday and runs for two hours on a Thursday. This is followed by the Bible study group at 2 p.m., which usually lasts between 60 to 90 minutes. There are sometimes up to 20 people who attend the group, many of whom have been in prison, hospitals, and have mental illnesses. Pablo says he started attending the group at first, because he was curious.
After a year of attending the Freedom Forum, Daz was bringing Pablo to the group in his car, and he asked Pablo if he’d like to become a Christian. Pablo said, “Yes.” When they got to the church, Pablo said the ‘salvation prayer’ with Daz and gave his life to the Lord.
Pablo feels that he’s changed a lot since he’s been to church and become a Christian. He says, “I used to argue and fight with people, but now I’m much less likely to. In fact, since I’ve been coming to church I’ve walked away a couple of times [from arguments], which is something I’d never have done years ago.”
Pablo adds that it’s not easy living with 70 people who have mental illnesses, and says there’s bound to be problems sometimes, but he handles it better now. He says that since he’s been attending church, he’s more humble, calm and at peace.
Paul, one of the people who help lead the Freedom Forum, says about Pablo: “Like all new Christians, Pablo is in a transitionary period. I’ve seen a real change in him since he started coming to the group. When he first used to come he would often fall asleep during the Bible study, because he regularly gets insomnia. Gradually, though, he’s [starting to have] more energy and now sometimes helps in the kitchen, making teas and coffees for the group, and putting away chairs after. He was also very quiet when he first started attending, but has gradually started to open up more in conversations with people.”
Paul adds, “Tara, my wife, who also helps lead the group, usually buys snacks … each week, like sandwich stuff, sausage rolls, crisps and cakes etc., and now Pablo sometimes insists of paying for the snacks for the group. [He] has also given Tara money for petrol, as she’s the main person who picks people up from Canterbury House to bring [them] to the group and she drops them home after.”
Paul says, “When I found out that Pablo was an ex-armed robber I was stunned and so surprised, as though Pablo is quite a cool character, he is also very softly spoken and comes across as very gentle in spirit. He is … very likeable and I’m sure God has got good plans for his future.”
Pablo is hoping to do some voluntary work soon and has recently had a couple of interviews with an organisation about doing some volunteering to help people with mental illness.
I asked Pablo if there was anything he’d like to say to anyone reading this article and he replied, “I would tell them not to get into a situation where they turn into someone they’re not, because it’s so easy. It only takes one or two problems, and that will happen. Especially people that are really young. I’d tell them not to take drugs. It’s true what everyone says to you that it only ends one way. … So other than that, just take life as it comes, don’t strive for what you can’t get, just be happy with what you’ve got, and try to do it legally, and maybe with the Lord’s help as well!”