It’s coming up for a decade since the most terrifying day of my life. Not a week goes by when I’m not reminded of the morning when I was carjacked/kidnapped in broad daylight in the centre of Birmingham.
The day had started like so many in 2001. I was presenting 4-7pm Drivetime at BRMB Radio with my ‘Barmy Brummies’ show, but in order to prepare all the sketches and songs we wrote every day to keep the programme fresh, it meant coming into work at around 10am to do stuff with my co-writer Sean and record it all from lunchtime into the early afternoon.
This early start presented one small problem for me. The BRMB building’s car park on Broad Street had only 2 spaces available for presenters – the current on-air presenter and the next on air presenter. As I arrived in Birmingham City Centre to start work fully an hour and a half before the guy who presented lunchtimes before me, I couldn’t park in a space until after 1pm.
And so, I got used to parking on Granville Street just off Broad Street and putting a couple of quid on the pay and display machines there to tide me over until I could move my motor into the BRMB building. I always seemed to get the same space on that road every morning, about 100 yards from the t-junction with Broad Street.
And, on this particular day, my usual space was there again, and I duly parked up and got out to get my ticket from the machine adjacent to my car.
As I started to put coins into the meter, I became aware of three young men who’d walked behind me from left to right, stopped 10 yards past me and then promptly turned and walked straight back towards me. I froze in terror.
“Don’t f***ing move” said one of them roughly from behind me and I immediately felt hands around my wrists and something pressing against my side. Looking down I saw a hand brandishing a 4-inch camping knife pointing into my stomach and a second, much younger voice added with extraordinary calm “I’ve just come out of prison – I WILL stab you, you know…”
“Which one’s your car?” demanded the third bloke (at this point I couldn’t see any of them). This was the first (and only) point where I cried out for help or attention. There were several people walking up Granville Street on the opposite side to me, but even my strangled yelps did nothing to make them turn their heads or rush to my aide. To be fair to them, they probably did hear me but had no intention of being a hero with 3 knife-wielding maniacs to contend with. Don’t blame them either - I was on my own.
“Don’t f***ing try anything pal - I promise you WILL get stabbed if you don’t do exactly as we tell you, right?” said the first. It was surreal-almost like being in the bloody movies and these bastards were far too well rehearsed. I stopped struggling and relaxed-a bit.
“So which one’s your f***ing car then???” he asked again, more impatiently this time. I nodded to where I’d parked. “Right, keys then - and we’ll have that and that” he went on rummaging through my jacket to find my wallet and mobile in quick succession.
My heart sank whilst at the same time it raced at a pace I will probably never experience again. My personal possessions were being taken from me and I had a knife against me with its sharp tip almost breaking the flesh. What the hell was going to happen next? I was being frogmarched to my own car when I thought they were just going to take it and leave me by the roadside.
“In the back, now!” said a voice and the rear door was opened for me to get in. It was around now that I first caught proper glimpses of my assailants. 1 white male, 2 black males, none of whom looked over the age of 20. Indeed, the knife-wielder was in the back with me and I swear he looked 15, no more than that (which proved correct in the end)
I felt sick already. A real pit-of-the-stomach sickly feeling when you know there’s absolutely nothing you can do to stop a chain of events that could lead to absolutely anything. However at the same time, I was trying to form a mental picture of each of the 3 blokes as clearly and as patiently as I could. Hairstyles, nose shape, clothes labels, distinguishing marks, you name it – how to take that all in when you have no idea how long you’re set to be under their control. All the time, you’re thinking of your loved ones and how you just don’t want to tell them what’s happened; how you already feel like an idiot for LETTING it happen, even though you know you were the unlucky one in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I was also taken aback at the sheer brazenness of the attack. It was 10 o’clock on a bright October morning not 100 yards from one of Birmingham’s busiest streets – it wasn’t a dimly lit alleyway at night or a mostly-deserted industrial estate in the middle of nowhere. That immediately set off alarm bells in my mind – if they were prepared to risk what was in effect a kidnapping here, they’d be prepared to do plenty more to get what they wanted…and yet I hadn’t thought for one moment what they might’ve wanted other than my phone, cash and car.
Broad Street and Brindley Place have transformed in the last 20 years. BRMB moved to Brindley Place at the turn of the century, sensing that the area was fast becoming the entertainment hub of Birmingham, with bars, restaurants and lap-dancing clubs strewn up and down Broad Street in what had become known as the ‘Golden Mile’ on stag nights and hen parties in the city.
Such affluence that attracted businesses like BRMB, Walkabout Bar, Hard Rock Café and Legs 11 also attracted crime – and Brindley Place/Broad Street is sandwiched neatly between 2 districts of the city that have become more deprived and crime ridden the more things changed in the city centre – namely Highgate & Ladywood. Before my brush with crime, there had been a number of muggings in the area, but usually at dusk or late at night and usually over within seconds as the criminals got their wallet or mobile and ran. This was different for me, however, and it scared the shit out of me to think what might end up happening
The older guys sat in the driver & front passenger seats and had a quick discussion about what they were going to do. I sat as still as I could in the back to prevent that bloody knife from sticking into me any further. Before long the car was jerking up Granville Street as the driver (older black male) wrestled with a car he’d obviously not driven before. He quickly turned left down another side road that ran parallel with Broad Street and turned into a car park by some council properties just next to the Five Ways Shopping Centre. He turned the engine off. What now??
The driver wheeled round to face me, giving me the best view yet of his features. “Right, give us your PIN number for this card or you’ll get stabbed man, I promise you. And don’t give us a wrong number I’m f***ing warning you” I didn’t piss about and told them the 4-digit number pronto. This prompted an argument between the 2 in the front which, had I watched it in a gangster movie, might’ve tickled me. This was reality however and it was not funny to see these two become increasingly agitated with each other over who was going to take money out of my account (as this was now clearly the plan). All this time, the young black lad with the knife stayed silent, impassive, unflinching with his gaze straight at me, presumably making sure I didn’t look set to bail out or try something ridiculously heroic.
Eventually the older black male won the argument and got out of the car with my card and marched off in the direction of the HSBC at Five Ways. The white male was left to clamber across into the drivers seat quietly cursing at his mate as he disappeared from view. There was no small talk for the next few minutes – no ‘criminals movie script’ for them to work from. Just deafening silence, save for the pounding of my heart that I feared was going to beat out of my chest at any moment.
Whilst I tried to calm myself, white male suddenly crunched my car into first gear and lurched out of the car park and down to the junction with the road that leads from Five Ways to Belgrave Middleway heading out of the city. As he kangarooed towards the junction, the older back male re-appeared, got smartly into the front passenger side and suddenly we were off – at high speed. To nowhere in particular.
The next 10 minutes or so are a blur to me, both literally and figuratively. I saw pretty much the whole of the city of Birmingham whizz by my window as my car was recklessly thrown around corners and through red lights as the 2 up front argued yet again about their next move. Thankfully, knife boy had withdrawn the weapon from my stomach, fearing that he might inadvertently stab me the next time we were forcibly swayed from left to right as white male screeched into the next road.
I saw landmarks, but I couldn’t tell you in what order they appeared. Nor can I tell you much about what the guys up front were arguing about. I was just numb. And shit-scared. I had visions of being taken to some stupid deserted bit of wasteland somewhere nearby and…well, f**k knows what.
Next thing I know we’re somewhere just off Sherlock Street heading uphill towards the Bristol Road and suddenly there’s a cry from the front. “NOW! F*****G GET OUT NOW MAN!! I MEAN IT – NOW!!!” I was being told to bail out of my own car whilst it was moving – admittedly not at 50mph but it was moving all the same. Knife boy motioned towards me to open my door and get on with it. Again, it’s a blur from this point. I must’ve jumped and landed just next to the curb, rolled over once or twice onto the pavement and looked up to see my car race up to the top of the hill and bear left without a pause onto Bristol Road. With the 3 blokes my wallet, cash & phone along with it. Gone.
I picked myself up and checked myself for bumps and bruises. Amazingly I seemed to have emerged without a scratch – dusting myself down I looked around to get my bearings. There was a pub just across the road (think it was called the Great Western) and the door was open. I made a dash for it and thankfully the landlady was in cleaning up and was only to happy to provide a free phone when she heard my predicament. Bless her for that.
Even at this stage, I had focused enough to know what I had to do. First, 999 and get police here, and ring the bank to cancel my card in case there was another local cashpoint about to take a hit. Then, ring work and tell them what had happened. Then Mum & Dad, girlfriend, you know. The call to 999 and then the bank was straightforward enough and as I detailed what had happened to the Police and my account manager I amazed myself at how together I seemed to be.
That façade quickly crumbled as I then rang the station to speak to my boss Adam. I think I got one sentence into my explanation before I broke down, just suddenly lost all composure where 30 seconds before I’d been totally unruffled. Call it delayed reaction, call it whatever you want, but that was the moment I’d been dreading. Adam was great and understood that I was in no fit state to come into work and be the life and soul of Drivetime – he said to take the rest of the week off (it was a Tuesday if memory serves) told me not to worry and to call him later.
I couldn’t break down on the phone to my parents, I just couldn’t - and so I composed myself for a few moments before telephoning them and tried not to overstate what had happened for fear of sending them (especially Mum) overboard. I seemed to succeed up to a point – Dad took the call anyway, which was probably best in hindsight and he would’ve relayed the info to Mum in such a way as not to scare her stupid.
Almost as soon as I’d finished speaking to Dad, the police arrived. One male, one female officer in a patrol car, and by now I meant business and had sorted my mind and emotions out ready for whatever would come next.
What was next was a tour of Highgate and Ladywood in the back of the patrol car as the officers did a routine search of the area for my car – no joy. Next was the drive back to my house – my former housemate who had a spare front door key was contacted and he was waiting outside my place as we pulled up, looking just as ashen faced as I must’ve appeared to him.
Once inside, it was kettle on and statement time – a statement that seemingly took hours to compile as we all sat there on my sofas. Timeline of events, descriptions of my assailants, personal information; you name it, it was taken. My girlfriend Jo came back from work having been alerted as to what had happened. And then, amazingly, the house phone rang and I took a call from a crime reporter at the Birmingham Mail who wanted to know if I would give him a quote about what had happened to me.
“HOW DID YOU BLOODY KNOW ABOUT THIS???” I roared. “IT’S ONLY BEEN A SODDING HOUR SINCE IT HAPPENED!!”
The reporter refused to reveal his source, apologised and hung up. (I checked back at the radio station later thinking it was leaked from there – but Adam had mentioned nothing of my situation to anyone other than to tell the newsroom that a carjacking had occurred in the city to a 33 year old man just off Broad Street – I still have no idea how the Mail got the story so quickly…police informants?)
A number of things were slowly dawning on me at this point. Primarily that the carjackers had my house keys and wallet which contained my driving licence and therefore my home address. There’d be nothing to stop them paying me a 2nd visit here and taking more stuff by force or whilst I was out. The locks had to be changed pronto. I also needed to cancel my phone’s sim card – funnily enough, my co-writer Sean had been the only person who’d unwittingly called my phone mid-morning and whoever answered gave him a tirade of “Bumba-clart!” and other such choice patois phrases. Now Sean knows I’m good at impressions, but he was well aware that it wasn’t me delivering such brusque one-liners.
I took the next 2 days off work to stew in my juice and flap about a visit in the wee small hours where someone would put more than just a bat up my nightdress. I also began correspondence with Stewart, the detective assigned to my case and others who’d been mugged in the street seemingly by the same gang – I was the only one who’d endured the kidnap and carjack stuff. Typical.
He convinced me that the perpetrators would be caught – and within a week he’d been true to his word. All 3 alleged suspects arrested and ready for me to participate in their ID Parades.
Two of these line-ups came at New Street Station in a specially-constructed room for such things, where the individuals sat in booths and the 2-way glass meant you could see them but they couldn’t clock you. Along with part of the arrest team, on each occasion the alleged suspect’s solicitor was in tow – to make sure that I made my choice firmly and without hesitation so as not to allow a window of opportunity for him to exploit.
He’d reckoned without my sphincter muscle on those 2 visits to New Street. Both times when I came upon one of the threesome, an involuntary reaction seemed to run from the back of my dry throat all the way down to my backside. I knew it was them straightaway and didn’t need a second look. The solicitor looked almost crestfallen that I’d made my selections without fuss or delay. Money-grabbing bastard.
The other parade took place in Coventry Police Station for reasons best known to someone else and was, I admit, a tad farcical. I was sat in a room in front of a monitor where I was told 10 mugshots would be shown in turn and each numbered for me to make my choice. As I waited for the tape to be played, an officer walked past the open door with my 3rd assailant being marched along in front of him, presumably to a holding cell. I saw him but he was too busy complaining about his rough treatment to notice me, and his solicitor was nowhere to be seen until a few minutes later when the tape started – and there he was…No. 3. To be fair, I’d have spotted him even without the bonus showing of his ugly mug just beforehand, so justice was, it seemed, being done.
But that was a stupid thing to think with the judicial system yet to get involved. Once back at work, Stewart would ring periodically to give me info, and as the court case beckoned (at which I would have to give evidence if a ‘not guilty’ plea was entered) he was confident that 8 years, 8 years and 6 years respectively would be handed down to the 3 amigos, who as it turned out were crack heads needing their daily fix and would get cash however they could to feed their addiction. A sad indictment of the times, but I felt no sympathy for them, and hoped they’d get more time than that.
In the end, though, they got less. Much less. A dejected Stewart rang me to say that they had all pleaded guilty and said ‘sorry’ to the presiding judge. That, apparently was enough to see their sentences reduced to 6yrs 3yrs and 2yrs in a young offenders institution for the youngest one – so he’d be out inside a year, whilst his accomplices would probably both be free to ruin people’s lives inside 3 years.
They weren’t f*****g sorry. Come on – sorry? For what? Sorry for screwing up my brain and threatening to kill me…or sorry because they got caught? Has to be and always will be the latter. I have no idea whether they’re dead, re-offending or drinking White Lightning out of a brown paper bag in Pipe Hayes Park – and frankly I couldn’t care less if they’re reformed characters, because when they cheat the system to get less time, they lose all of my sympathy.
And therein lies the problem facing the Criminal Justice System. Violent criminals can play it like a harp to suit their own ends, leaving the victims frustrated and angry. Not saying that I ever needed or wanted counselling/compensation...I just wanted to know that crackheads like these couldn't just flutter their eyelashes in court and get a relative let off.
So a decade on, have things changed? I'll bet they haven't one single bit. And there's me thinking that we're supposed to have progressed as a species and as a society...
The car turned up, incidentally, 5 days after the incident at Jacksons Garage in Newtown, apparently relatively unharmed by being thraped all over the city as though the Super Prix had returned. Jo drove me over there to collect it, and the fellows there (who knew me off the radio) came up with the jolly jape of filling my glove box and boot with heavily-thumbed copies of Razzle and Asian Babes in order to embarrass me in front of the missus!! It was at least lighthearted of them - and a better way to end the episode than other ways it could’ve turned out...
Although they kept the magazines at the garage in the end.