Police catch 'Skull Cracker' amid fears he struck again

An armed robber Michael Wheatley, known as the "Skull Cracker", who has been on the run in the UK has been found and two men are in custody in London, Kent police said

Police catch 'Skull Cracker' amid fears he struck again

An armed robber Michael Wheatley, known as the "Skull Cracker", who has been on the run in the UK has been found and two men are in custody in London, Kent police said

The fugitive is feared to have struck again after going on the run from prison for the third time.

The force said that at 2pm Wheatley and another man, aged 53, were arrested in the Tower Hamlets area of east London and are now in police custody.

Detective Chief Inspector Ann Lisseman, from Kent Police, said: “We are no longer looking for Michael Wheatley. We would like to thank our colleagues at Metropolitan Police Service, Surrey Police and the public for their assistance with our inquiries.”

The force said: ``Kent Police, in partnership with officers from the Metropolitan Police Service, have today arrested two men in east London on suspicion of conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

“On 3 May, Kent Police began a search for Michael Wheatley, who had failed to return to HMP Standford Hill after being released on temporary licence.

“At 2pm on 7 May, two men, aged 55 and 53, were arrested in the Tower Hamlets area and are now in police custody. The 55-year-old man was also arrested on suspicion of being unlawfully at large.”

Wheatley went missing when he was released on a temporary licence from an open prison in Kent on Saturday, and has since been seen in Twickenham, south west London.

He has gone on the run twice in the past and each time staged a series of violent robberies before being caught and re-jailed.

Today a branch of the Chelsea Building Society in Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey, was robbed, and Surrey and Kent Police are trying to find out whether Wheatley is the culprit.

Jodie Aston, 30, who works in a hair and beauty salon just yards from the building society, said police officers told her they knew who the suspect was.

She said: “They came in and said the man that robbed the bank was the man that escaped from the open prison and it happened at 10.20am.

“We heard nothing until someone came in and told us. It’s quite scary to think we were so close. It could have been in here.”

Barmaid Chloe Theobald, 26, said she was alerted to the incident when she was having lunch with her manager.

She said: “The police said to my boss ’We think it’s the Skull Cracker and he’s been sighted in Sunbury’.”

She said she received a text message from her daughter’s school telling parents that their children should not walk home alone this afternoon.

“It’s quite scary,” she said. “It’s not something that happens every day that there’s a man on the loose.”

The suspect is a white man, in his late 40s or early 50s, around 6ft with short grey hair. He was wearing a dark woolly hat, dark-rimmed glasses, light blue jeans, a light blue denim jacket and black trainers.

The suspect burst into the building society at The Parade, Staines Road, at around 10.20am and threatened staff with a handgun, before being given money from a safe and running away.

Police said they do not know whether the gun was real or imitation.

Detective Chief Inspector Chris Raymer said: “Officers were at the scene within minutes of the emergency call and are doing everything possible to find the offender including recovering CCTV from the premises and surrounding area.

“Anyone who was in this area at the time and may have seen the offender is urged to contact police with information if they have not done so already by calling 101.

“Due to the nature of the offence and elements of the description, we have linked in with Kent Police as part of our inquiries and are working closely with them and colleagues in the Metropolitan Police. However, at this time, the identity of the offender has not been established.

“No doubt this robbery will unnerve other businesses in the area and the local community and I would urge anyone affected by the incident to contact their local neighbourhood team on 101 where they will be able to obtain safety and security advice or visit the Surrey Police website.”

Wheatley was first jailed in the 1980s for nine years for a post office raid, but fled in 1988 when he was given permission to go to hospital and failed to return.

He went on to commit a series of nine armed robberies, and was jailed again in 1989.

Three years later, authorities released him to go to the optician and again he went on the run, committing eight robberies. He was jailed for seven years in 1993.

The career criminal was released on parole in 2001, and within weeks was staging a series of brutal raids on banks.

Prosecutors said he returned to a life of crime after a relationship with a woman he met while in custody turned sour, and she spent his money and ran up debt.

At the Old Bailey hearing, lawyers revealed that when asked his occupation by a custody officer, he replied: “Armed robber.”

He was given 13 life sentences in 2002, and was ordered to serve a minimum of eight years before being considered for release.

Wheatley was released on a temporary licence from Standford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, and is thought to have boarded the 9.20am high speed train from Sittingbourne, which was heading to Stratford International station.

Police were called when he failed to return to the prison at 6pm and a specialist team of officers, headed by Detective Chief Inspector Ann Lisseman, pieced together a timeline of his movements.

There was a confirmed sighting of Wheatley at 7.55pm on Monday in the Strawberry Hill area of Twickenham, and several homes were searched but he was not found.

Kent Police said Wheatley, who earned his nickname after pistol-whipping victims including a 73-year-old woman, has connections in Ireland, Cheshire and North Wales.

Earlier Sir David Calvert-Smith, chairman of the Parole Board, which carries out risk assessments on prisoners to determine whether they can be safely released into the community, defended the decision to allow Wheatley out on day release.

“I think putting all prisoners in open conditions is an essential step to their integration. Otherwise, we as a society simply have to put up with paying for their accommodation in prison for the rest of their lives,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“There has got to be a system which manages the transition from prison to the outside world.”

Sir David said “decisions are not taken lightly” if a prisoner tells the board they have left their violent past behind them.

“We cross-examine the prisoner to see if he’s simply paying lip service,” he said.

“What we are not testing is whether he is likely to escape. What we are concerned with is the risk to the public of serious further crime.”

There are currently only 45 to 50 people on whole-life sentences, meaning every other prisoner is forecast to be released at some stage, he added.

A spokesman for Kent Police said: “Officers searching for Michael Wheatley are aware of a robbery which took place today at a building society in the Surrey Police area. Kent Police is working closely with the Metropolitan Police Service and Surrey Police as part of ongoing inquiries.”

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