Violent criminal had drastic career change after ‘visit from dead aunt’ in jail
Cowering in the hedgerow, seven-year-old Stephen Gillen witnessed a trauma that would profoundly affect his life.
It was during the height of the Troubles in Belfast in the late 70s, when little Stephen – who’d been born in England but raised in Ireland by an auntie – saw a young man shot right in front of him, calling for his mum while blood bubbled from his dying lips.
‘I stretched my hand out through the gap in the bottom of the fence to try and comfort him,’ recalls Stephen, who’d been out playing when he was caught up in a riot.
‘Over 20 minutes I watched him dying. And those images just lingered with me, the pain and the horror. I became sullen after that evening. I felt a darkness inside.’
Despite the efforts of his beloved auntie Madge, who tried to protect Stephen from the atrocities of the Troubles, it was impossible not to be exposed to death and destruction at that time.
And when Madge died, when Stephen was aged nine, the youngster ended up on the boat back to England, being raised by various foster families, falling in and out of the care system in the East End of London.
Stephen, now 49, had a reputation on the council estates where he lived by the time he was in double digits.
‘I became known in the flats among the other kids – throwing stones or being where I shouldn’t be. Then, when I was a teenager, it was the early 80s and the age of dance music. We went out for days, lost in the club and rave scene.
‘With the lifestyle came the drugs and money,’ he explains. ‘And with the drugs and need for money came the wars over territory, the enemies and the violence.’
By 14, addiction problems had taken hold, and Stephen was living a life of crime. He was sent to HM Prison Send, a detention centre at the time, after being charged with taking and driving away a vehicle without consent, theft and criminal damage.
‘The nights were freezing with inmates tossing and turning,’ says Stephen, remembering his early Borstal days. ‘Children had anxiety from being away from their families and what they knew.’
By the time he was 18, Stephen had been incarcerated at three different centres, where he’d got into fights, made dubious alliances and had his leg badly burned against a roasting water pipe.
‘I was already classed as a highly disruptive prisoner. I was trouble and a nuisance, a serious problem – like the others I congregated with.’
He was let out in 1989 but his freedom was relatively short-lived. Knowing no alternative, Stephen soon fell back into the world of violent crime and admits he ‘cheated death 100 times’ during bloody confrontations.
‘It was like galloping through hell on horseback.’
One time, following a turf-war fight in north London’s Camden, Stephen had ‘rivers of blood’ pouring from a deep gash on his head.
‘My head spun like the final cycle of a washing machine,’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t care, I just wanted vengeance.’
In 1993, when he was 22, Stephen was eventually jailed for attempted robbery and firearms offences after Scotland Yard’s elite Flying Squad foiled his plot to rob a bank in the capital’s East End.
During the ambush, he had accidentally fired two shots from a sawn-off shotgun while wrestling with a police officer.
Fortunately, no one was injured, yet the botched robbery saw Stephen serve almost 20 years in category A high-security prisons for his crimes.
Behind bars he struggled and rebelled. Stephen was moved around the country, and at one point was in the cell next to notoriously dangerous lag Charles Bronson.
‘Charlie described me as a big guy with a big heart, a true East-Ender through and through,’ says Stephen, who once wielded a homemade knife to assert his authority to other violent inmates.
‘They used to move us around a lot in those days. It was called “continuous assessment”, but we called it the ghost train. The idea was to manage the most disruptive prisoners in the system and share the burden.
‘While inside, I saw a few people murdered in front of me, and some unspeakable acts of cruelty. There is a hierarchy with top villains, gangsters, importers and terrorists at the top, and grudges can last for decades.
‘I was a cat A prisoner all the way through. If you cobble it all together you must be talking 20 years behind bars,’ says Stephen, whose nickname was ‘City’.
‘The bitter years of high-security imprisonment had battered and clawed away my emotions. My humanity had been stolen. I had been forged with gritted hardness from the inside out,’ he says.
It was while at HM Prison Whitemoor, in a segregation unit reserved for high-risk, disruptive inmates, that Stephen hit rock bottom. He feared for his sanity.
But while in there he believes he was visited by the spirit of his late aunty Madge, who helped bring him up as a child.
‘I was at my lowest ebb after being in solitary confinement for more than a year and was contemplating suicide.
‘Then I became aware of a profound feeling of comfort and love that swept over me, washing that desperation away and replacing it with a new, supportive strength. I’d never felt anything like it before,’ says Stephen.
The spiritual encounter offered a full stop to his life of crime, as he vowed to let go of the grudges that had led him to gang violence.
As the outside world welcomed in the new millennium on New Year’s Eve in 1999, Stephen got down on his knees and prayed to God.
‘I asked for his forgiveness for falling short, for not doing better and making the right choices. I made a vow to change the trajectory of my life for the better, and asked for His help with this to guide me.’
After nearly 12 years as a high-security prisoner, Stephen was released in June 2003 from Belmarsh Prison.
And keeping his promise to himself and to God to change his life, he turned to hard, honest work – on a building site initially.
‘I went from labourer to supervisor to running 25 men on my own contract to having my own company within 18 months,’ explains Stephen, who is a father of three and now lives in Windsor with his partner Daphne.
‘We had a deep connection and I told her everything about my past. She’s been nothing but supportive.’
Stephen went on to get a degree in business management, and has become a motivational public speaker who regularly undertakes charity work trying to improve the pharmaceutical industry in Africa, and helps others to build up their own businesses.
Together with Daphne, lawyers, community leaders, a former senior police commander and the secretary-general of a peace federation, Stephen is now launching a foundation in his name, which is committed to supporting and educating disadvantaged children.
Stephen has penned a book about his experiences, The Monkey Puzzle Tree, which is being turned into a film. And his proudest achievement was being nominated for the Sunhak Peace Prize – he was even flown to New York to meet with the secretary-general of the United Nations.
‘It was a surreal feeling akin to an out-of-body experience being told I’d been nominated,’ he admits.
‘For years I had to deal with and convert the great demons inside. But I felt like a peace-keeping warrior instead. Suddenly I got why my life had been worth living.’
Today Stephen is passionate about keeping youngsters out of crime and gang life. ‘If I can change my life, anyone can. I’m now obsessed with my work, but for the right reasons – making the world a better place.’
‘Charles Bronson should be released – he’s a lot to give to society’
Stephen was caged in the cell next to the UK’s most notorious prisoner for three years at Brixton, then also at Full Sutton, Wakefield and HM Prison Woodhill.
‘Charlie was a very private person and didn’t have a lot of exposure to people,’ says Stephen. ‘But with his friends he was very caring. He’d give you a hug. He’s got strong, old-school values about vulnerable people, women and children. He hates bullies.
‘He stood up for this skinny kid, Chris, who was very sweet-natured in a place where you’ve got a lot of sharks. He was doing life for murder. Charlie said, “Look, you leave him alone or I’ll bully you.”
‘He’d go out every morning and do thousands of press-ups. He was unbelievable at it. We really had nothing at Full Sutton. We had a bar of soap, maybe a book and a pen. Writing was an escape for me, a chance to create something beautiful.
‘Charlie wasn’t crude about women. He was very much a one-woman man. He’s not your gigolo type. In that way, he’s innocent – very sweet and quite pure.
‘There are people who need to go to prison and even people who should definitely stay in prison – but Charlie isn’t one of them.
‘Yes, he’s done stupid and mad things, and yes, he needed to be punished, but the way he’s been treated all the way through is wrong. Charlie should be released. He has a lot of stuff he can give society now.’