5 May 2014

Armed robber dubbed ‘Skull Cracker’ on run from open prison

A violent armed robber nicknamed “Skull Cracker” is on the loose after absconding from an open prison, police say. Michael Wheatley got his nickname for pistol whipping victims during bank raids.

Officers are searching for the 55-year-old, who failed to return to HMP Standford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey after being temporarily released on licence.

He was given 13 life sentences in 2002 for a string of violent raids on banks over a ten-month period in 2001 and 2002.

A Kent Police spokesman said: “Anyone with any information or who sees Wheatley is asked to not approach him and to instead contact police by calling 999.”

The spokesman said Wheatley, originally of Limehouse in east London, has links across south east England.

Conservative backbencher Philip Davies said that whoever had allowed Wheatley out of prison was “a berk” and questioned why he was in an open prison in the first place.

The MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire said: “It is completely ludicrous that a serving life sentence prisoner is even in an open prison where they can simply walk out.

“As far as I am concerned whoever allowed him to be in an open prison should be sacked, it is a complete disgrace.

“The top priority for the prison service should be the protection of the public. (Justice Secretary) Chris Grayling needs to put in charge of the prison service someone who will see protection of the public as a top priority.”

‘Pistol whipped’

Wheatley’s robberies were mainly in small bank and building society branches in areas he knew, ranging from Southampton in Hampshire to Royston in Hertfordshire. He made off with a total of £45,000.

In March 2002 he pistol whipped a 73-year-old woman and a building society manager. The Old Bailey heard at the time he would often grab a female customer, putting the pistol to their head, leaving many mentally anguished.

Wheatley admitted 13 charges of robbery and 13 of possessing an imitation firearm – a blank firing semi-automatic pistol – in October 2002.

He was given a five-year sentence on each of the firearm offences to run concurrently with the life sentences on each of the robbery charges. He was ordered to serve a minimum of eight years before being eligible for consideration for parole.

The Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said that a review would take place after the case was reported today, including an assessment of the release on temporary licence (ROTL) process.

Mr Wright said temporary licence can be an important tool to help offenders reintegrate into communities but that “it should not be an automatic right”.

He added: “We are not prepared to see public safety compromised, the system has been too lax up to now and we are changing that.

“In future when prisoners are let out on temporary licence they will be tagged, more strictly risk assessed and tested in the community under strict conditions before being released.”