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The remarkable true story of a modern-day Robin Hood: a British college student who started robbing banks as the financial crisis unfolded.
“Completely fascinating . . . [The Unusual Suspect] reads like a deep psychological thriller, but it’s real. Is truth stranger than fiction? You bet.”—Lee Child, #1 New York Times bestselling author
Stephen Jackley was a young British college student when the global financial crisis began in 2007. Overwhelmed by the growing indifference toward economic equality, he became obsessed with the idea of taking on the role of Robin Hood. With no prior experience, he resolved to become a bank robber. He would steal from the rich and give to the poor. Against all likelihood, his plan actually worked.
Jackley used disguises, elaborate escape routes, and fake guns to successfully hold up a string of banks, making away with thousands of pounds. He attempted ten robberies in southwest England over a six-month period. Banknotes marked with “RH”—“Robin Hood”—began finding their way into the hands of the homeless. Motivated by a belief that global capitalism was ruining lives and driving the planet toward ecological disaster, he dreamed of changing the world for the better through his crimes. The police, despite their concerted efforts, had no idea what was going on or who was responsible. That is, until Jackley’s ambition got the better of him.
This is his story.
Acclaimed journalist Ben Machell had full and direct access to Stephen Jackley, who in turn shared his complete set of diaries, selections of which are included throughout the narrative. The result lends an intense intimacy and urgency to Jackley’s daring and disturbing tale, shedding light on his mental state and the challenges he faced in his own mind and beyond. It wasn’t until Jackley was held in custody that he underwent a psychiatric evaluation, resulting in a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.
Behind the simple act of bank robbery lies a complex and emotionally wrought story of an individual whose struggles led him to create a world in which he would succeed against all odds. Until he didn’t.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Unusual Suspect
It was a cold December morning, the sky was gray and heavy, and a young man stood at the edge of a high cliff. He looked out to sea as the wind whipped against him, stinging his eyes and making his blond hair stream and dance. Directly in front of him, just a single stride away, was a five-hundred-foot drop onto a shingle beach where rolling green waves frothed, crackled, and vanished. He looked up and down the narrow track running along the top of the white chalk cliff. It was deserted. He could have been the only living soul for miles around. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. Gulls cawed beneath him. The sharp smell of the sea filled his nostrils. He thought of everything that had led to this moment: the decisions, the beliefs, the fears, the regrets. He thought about what he was about to do, and it left him euphoric with terror, light-headed and weightless. A small, insistent voice inside him said that he did not have to go through with it. That it was not too late to change his mind. He squeezed his fingernails into the palms of his hands and pushed the thought away. He had to see this through. He did not have a choice. He took a few more deep breaths to steady himself. And then he opened his eyes, turned away from the precipice, and started to walk along the high coastal path.
He moved quickly, picking his steps without hesitation, despite the danger. He had known these cliffs since childhood. They formed part of Devon’s Jurassic Coast, mile after mile of rugged, almost unbroken rock face, 185 million years old. He was heading west, which meant that, directly to his right, the English Channel stretched toward the horizon. To his left were gorse thickets and coarse meadows that, come springtime, he knew would be dotted with wildflowers: sea lavender and samphire, bluebells and garlic. Beyond were trees—ash, sweet chestnut, rowan, sycamore—which, in turn, gave way to the rich, rolling green farmland of South Devon. Beneath his feet was the rock of the cliffs themselves. Formed of strata upon strata of ancient rock, these cliffs drew geologists and paleontologists from around the globe, home, as they were, to an incalculable amount of ancient life, frozen in time. Fossils of ammonites, trilobites, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs. Again, he knew all this. He knew their names and shapes as intimately as he did the sight of the hovering peregrines that nested along the high rocky outcrops, or the sound of the green woodpeckers in the woodland beyond.
He was slim, wore a waterproof jacket, and carried a small nylon bag slung over one shoulder. As he walked along the narrow track, he passed sites he had known for years. The remains of an Iron Age hill fort overlooking the sea. A series of limestone caves and quarries first dug by the Romans. Small coves and seaside villages once home to prolific eighteenth-century smugglers. Eventually, he reached a high headland, and the cliffs that stretched ahead of him in a concave bend were no longer white. Instead, they were a tawny, dusty red, which meant he had almost arrived. Another fifteen minutes and he was approaching the outskirts of Seaton, a small town with a harbor, shops, churches, pubs, bed-and-breakfasts, and neat rows of white wooden beach huts along the pebbly seashore. It was approaching noon and, of the few pedestrians who were out and about, none seemed to pay the young man any attention. He made his way toward the center of town. As he walked, he reached into his bag and pulled out a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses. He put them on and quickened his pace.
A few moments later, a middle-aged bank clerk was sitting behind a plexiglass screen in the Seaton branch of Lloyds TSB, typing a few lines into her computer. A greystone Victorian building, the bank sat some one hundred yards from the sea on a narrow street of cafés and thrift shops. The clerk had just dealt with a customer and seen them off with a brisk smile. The bank was quiet. There were only two customers present: one who was already being dealt with by a colleague, and another who had just entered the building. The clerk looked up at the approaching figure and saw a young man with long blond hair and sunglasses, holding a small zippered bag. He walked straight to her screen and, without saying a word, slid her a piece of paper.
loaded pistol. no alarms. stay sitting.
She did not quite know what to make of this. She looked back up at the strange figure in front of her with the wry curiosity of somebody expecting a punch line. The figure, sensing this, placed the small bag on the counter and partially unzipped it, revealing a black automatic pistol. There was a pause as the cashier absorbed this. Then she began briskly taking money from her till before sliding it under the screen, as though she were dealing with any other customer making a large cash withdrawal. She looked at the man on the other side of the plexiglass trying to get all the banknotes into his small nylon sack and asked if he would like a bigger bag. He shook his head and gruffly told her that he would not. She shrugged. “Well, don’t blame me if you drop it all,” she said. Seconds later, the man had turned away and was walking back toward the door of the bank. He waited for the piercing sound of an alarm, or for police sirens, or for the wind to be suddenly slammed out of him as he was forced to the floor from behind. None of these things happened. He walked out of the bank and back into the cold sea air.
It had just struck noon. He passed pensioners and local workers starting their lunch breaks, but otherwise, the town was quiet. He walked for ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds, every moment expecting the peace to be shattered by the sudden chaos of pursuit. After sixty seconds, he turned into a small local park and vanished from sight. A minute passed. And then another. And then a different figure emerged. It was a slim young man, but his hair was short and dark rather than long and blond. He was not wearing sunglasses. He had on different clothes and was wearing a backpack rather than carrying a shoulder bag. Leaving the park, he broke into a jog and headed toward the coastal path west out of Seaton, following the track as it rose up and up and up. He jogged past coves and smugglers’ villages. Past Roman quarries. Past Iron Age hill forts. After a few miles he slowed to a walk. Bespectacled and unassuming, he could have been a bird-watcher or amateur geologist. Couples out walking their dogs along the high path smiled and nodded at him, and he smiled and nodded back. Behind him, in the distance, he could hear the sound of a helicopter flying over Seaton. He forced himself not to turn around and scan the horizon. It would simply be the coast guard, he told himself. He kept walking, as the English Channel rolled and broke hundreds of feet below him.
When detectives from the Devon and Cornwall Police arrived in Seaton to investigate, they could guess, very quickly, who was responsible. They did not know his name or identity, but they knew that he was almost certainly the same man who had been targeting banks and credit unions across the region—and possibly farther afield—for weeks. Armed bank robberies in this peaceful, coastal corner of the UK were almost unheard of. And the individual carrying them out had, so far, evaded them, dissolving into the background within moments of striking. As the crimes continued to mount, the investigating officers began to understand that there was something distinctive about their quarry that went beyond an ability to vanish into thin air. He left strange mementos. Pound coins with a single line scratched through their faces were found at the scenes of his crimes. When at one point the police arrested the wrong man, he let them know through an anonymous letter to a local newspaper. In the same letter, he announced that he would be carrying out more robberies. These were not the kinds of things that most bank robbers did. It made no sense at all. Why was he doing it? What did it mean? And, above all else: Who was he?
That same day, as night drew over Devon, the figure from the cliff top slowly approached a grove of trees at the top of a small hillock. It was dark, and he paused to look and listen before slipping in among them. His backpack held, among other things, a long blond wig, a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses, and a black semiautomatic pistol. It also contained £4,830 in cash, most of which he had divided into thick stacks of notes, each wrapped tightly in a plastic bag. Taking hold of a large, low branch, he pulled himself up and began to climb one of the trees, moving slowly up through the darkness until he found what he was looking for. Pulling the plastic bags of cash from his backpack, he began to stuff them into a deep nook within the crown of the tree. The lights of a small town shone beneath him. It was December 19, 2007. Five thousand miles away, the United States had just officially entered recession, precipitating what would soon become known as the global financial crisis, a cataclysm of unimaginable scope and scale. It was an event that the figure in the tree, at least, had been expecting and preparing for. His crime that day, like all his crimes, was not random. Nor was it motivated simply by greed. What the police detectives had yet to understand was that they were not hunting a criminal. They were hunting an outlaw. He dropped down from the tree and slipped away.
Ben Machell is a feature writer for The Times and The Times Magazine and a contributor to publications including VICE and Esquire. He has been shortlisted for Feature Writer of the Year at the British Press Awards. Ben has full and exclusive access to Stephen Jackley and his surviving diaries, as well as access to law enforcement and the key characters involved in Jackley's story on both sides of the Atlantic.