UK & World News

  • 6 May 2014, 1:34

'Skull Cracker' Victim 'Uneasy' As Robber On Run

A woman held hostage by a violent bank robber dubbed "the Skull Cracker" has told of her surprise after police did not warn her he is on the run from prison.

Clare Townsend said she feels "uneasy" knowing Michael Wheatley - who earned his nickname for pistol-whipping victims - had walked out of jail in Kent.

The Government has ordered a full review of prison security, examining why such a dangerous criminal was being held in an open prison.

Conservative backbencher Philip Davies said whoever allowed Wheatley out of prison is "a berk" and should be sacked.

Wheatley, 55, was given 13 life sentences at the Old Bailey in 2002 for a string of brutal raids on banks and building societies.

A major police manhunt is under way after he failed to return to HMP Standford Hill on the Isle of Sheppey.

Ms Townsend, who gave evidence against the serial armed robber, told Sky News: "I was very surprised that I wasn't notified (of his escape), because I gather it happened yesterday.

"The police would have had our details on file and I was very surprised to suddenly learn he was free because I remember his face very, very clearly.

"I went to the Old Bailey when he was sentenced, and it made me feel uneasy."

Wheatley carried out 13 raids between June 2001 and April 2002 in bank branches from Southampton in Hampshire to Royston in Hertfordshire.

Ms Townsend was in one of the banks when Wheatley struck and thought he was going to kill her.

"Suddenly, without any warning, I was grabbed around the neck, he stuck a gun to my head, grabbed me towards the counter and started screaming at the cashiers to give him money," she said.

"All the time he was also saying: 'Don't you dare press the button! Don't you dare set off an alarm!'

"Unfortunately for me, initially, the cashiers froze. They just stared at him and I could feel the pressure of the gun, and also his hand round my neck.

"And I actually thought at that point that I wouldn't survive because he was very het up and very angry."

She said his grip loosened as the cashiers began handing over cash, which he shoved down the front of his fleece.

"I thought at least I'm going to survive," Ms Townsend said.

"Unfortunately my mobile phone went off ... He whirled round at me, with the gun absolutely straight on me, and I just managed to get out: 'Do you mind if I answer my mobile phone?'

"You see, I think he thought it was on an alarm. At that moment, he seemed to suddenly come to, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said: 'Do what you like.' He picked up some more money and left."

She added: "I was very lucky, later on in the series of robberies, he pistol-whipped people, he hurt people quite badly. And I could see that he had that potential just because of the way he seemed so panicked and angry."

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