Yesterday’s post told the story of the time I stupidly got in the way of some unarmed police officers who were tackling armed robbers. Bravery like that truly earns the title Sussex’s Finest. Today, I tell the tale of a time when I was the victim of a very serious crime, helped the police catch the criminals and instead of receiving justice was encouraged to commit crime myself. It’s another true story, neatly illustrating societal dynamics little understood by those whose world is far removed from their youth, police malpractice and park life: violence begets violence and unprofessional policing provokes it.
It was the early 1990s. I was in my mid-twenties, single and living in Cardiff. One of my house mates had a very popular dog, called Basil. Women loved to stroke this creature and I took to taking it out for walks, hoping that they would fall for me too. One hot summer’s day I was walking up the footpath beside the River Taff, towards the foot bridge in Bute Park, with Ian Hoops (an old University pal) and Basil. We were killing time before our mutual friend Robert Donegan came from London to visit. As we approached the footbridge, we noticed a group of youths sunning themselves on the overflow chute. There were five boys and a girl. A very pretty girl. I let her catch my eye. Big mistake.
After walking across the footbridge, we started strolling across the playing fields towards Ian’s home. After a couple of minutes, we noticed that the boys who had been sun bathing were now following after us, quickly. When they were about ten yards behind they followed our path exactly. We weaved around. So did they. We sped up, they sped up. Trouble was obviously at hand. They followed us very closely for about fifty yards and we stopped. They stopped. We turned around and one them came up uncomfortably close to me and said, “You were staring at my girlfriend.” I replied, “No, I wasn’t.” I can’t recall what he said to that but it was a disagreeably confrontational statement. We were standing in wide open fields, outnumbered and being obviously threatened. Ian and I both knew that we would not be able to outrun these much fitter young men from a standing start. Whether an apology and some pleading would have worked, I do not know. Absent mindedly I gazed to the horizon to my right, so as not to look him in the eye and said, “Look, I don’t want any trouble, man.“
Ian said later that he had evidently had some form of martial arts training, telling me that he had curled his fingers into a jujitsu style fist and thrown the punch straight into my face. I never saw any of that. I was unconscious before I hit the ground. Ian was now outnumbered five to one and made the sensible decision to stand still and do nothing. Once I was on the ground, my attacker decided to use my head for a spot of penalty shot practice. Ian told me that he kicked my head five times from various angles. This is, of course, extremely dangerous. People get killed like this (or brain damaged). Ian witnessed the crime, making a careful mental note about my attackers’ appearances. When my assailant had done with his thuggery, Basil licked his hand! He got a pat on the head and lost all chance of another walk with me.
When I came to, I found myself lying on the ground with Ian leaning over me. Behind his legs and off in the distance I could see the boys walking back to the bridge. Ian was talking to me, asking me if I was okay and encouraging me to stay on the ground until they were out of sight. For some reason, I felt guilty towards Ian and immediately denied looking at the girl. Ian helped me to my feet and helped me back to his house. I had a top five headache.
Back at Ian’s house, we telephoned the police. When they arrived, we gave them an accurate description of my attackers. Each and every single one of them. We told them exactly where they were most likely still sitting. They radioed their colleagues and waited with us whilst other officers went off to make the inevitable arrests. Like so many spontaneous crimes, the perpetrators weren’t that bright. They were picked up exactly where we had first seen them. Ian and I repeated the description to the police, recalling a few extra details. It was a perfect description. Hair colour, eyes, approximate ages, clothing. By the time we had finished, it was impossible to give any more detail. Our police officers told us that the description matched the boys they had picked up exactly. What happened next was incredible.
The police informed me that they could not arrest these boys without further identifying features. Both Ian and I said we would be willing to attend an identification parade. The police said that would not be possible. We suggested that we could be driven past them in a car. We were told that was not possible either. We pointed out that we had recalled every last detail imaginable about the young men and therefore it was impossible to give any more information. The police said that as a result of that, they would have to let the boys go. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. What came next was astonishing.
I was begging the police officer not to let the attackers off the hook. The police officer said there was nothing he could do about it. He kept smiling at me and talking to me as if the whole thing was a bit of a joke. Then he said, “take my advice son – go and get yourself a gun“. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. Myself, Ian and the police officer were standing outside Ian’s house at this point, here. We had gone outside so that I could get some fresh air. My head was really throbbing now. Staggered at what I was being told, I asked the police officer whether he really was advising me to get a gun to hunt down my attackers with. “Yes“, came the reply, “we won’t do anything about it.“
Looking back, I wonder who these youths were? What was the reason that the police were unwilling to detain them in circumstances where a very serious crime had been committed and they had excellent evidence against them? Why were they so blasé about suggesting I commit a more serious crime still? Were they really determined to do nothing about that further crime and, if so, why? I don’t think the answer relates to them sitting around eating donuts.
After the police officer had left I sat in Ian’s house for a while. More of his house mates turned up. My face began to swell up. I sat at Ian’s kitchen table dazed. We talked about how if I wasn’t careful, I would find myself avoiding the physical location where the attack happened. That would be very inconvenient for me because it was one of my favourite places in Cardiff and the bridge itself a handy shortcut for my cycle routes. Ian suggested that since the boys had almost certainly left the area, we go back right away to cure this potential problem, to nip it in the bud. Someone else suggested that we should take some weapons, just in case they were there. The police advice on the legal risks involved seemed unequivocal.
I didn’t have access to guns. If I had, doubtless I would have taken one with me. I took a heavy crow bar. Ian took a large hammer. We concealed our weaponry up our sleeves and practised dropping them into our clenched fists. By the time we got to the park, I wasn’t just ready to defend myself. I was ready to attack. We went to the bridge but the boys were gone. Lucky for them. I was very angry indeed by this time and Ian was consumed by guilt at having stood by during the attack. If we had found them there would have been serious injuries on both sides.
After the bridge we went for a general stroll around the park, to make sure that I felt safe again in every part of it. Suddenly we noticed a fellow who looked like he might be my assailant. He was lying down a short distance away from us, sunning himself, all alone. No-one was within sight. His clothes were very similar to those worn by the fellow who punched and kicked me. The same shoes, the same shorts, the same shirt. He was facing away from us, resting his head on a miniature suitcase. His head was shaved too.
Without a word to each other, Ian and I widened the gap between us and approached the man ever so quietly, so as to be able to attack him simultaneously from above his head and both sides. We glanced at each other, dropped our tools into our hands and started silently swinging them so that if he turned around we would already have the momentum necessary to deliver crippling blows. Murderous intent flowed through my veins. Whether we would actually have struck fatal blows or not I do not want to know.
We’d just swung back our weapons back in the biggest arc, ready for the strike, when the fellow glanced over his shoulder, caught sight of us and sprang up alarmed. Had we not immediately recognised him, very possibly those would have been the last seconds of his life. Luckily for all us, we knew him very well. It was Robert, our friend from London. He had caught an early train. Without any means to contact us (although I had a mobile phone in 1992, virtually no-one else did). Having found no-one answering the phone at Ian’s house, he’d decided to relax for a bit in the nearby park.
It took Robert a few moments longer to recognise us. Immediately that he jumped up, we hid our weapons again. Being caught about to murder your best friend is embarrassing to say the least. Robert’s always kept himself in great shape. A second and a half after he’d first turned his head, he was on his feet in a defensive stance but frozen and stumbling out the words, “Duncan, Ian, what are you… what were you… what is going on?” Totally confused about why his quasi-hippy friends were apparently armed and stalking innocent victims in a public park, his words stuttered to a stop. Talk about awkward. I didn’t know where to start. I learnt an important lesson that day. His presence of mind and physical agility saved me from becoming a murderer, which is more than you say for South Wales police.