The first cut is the deepest

Between March 1999 and July 2000 James Sandall of Bolton, Lancashire committed a series of successful and lucrative thefts. Sandall, an unemployed heroin addict who stole to fund his habit, would brazenly walk into shops wearing a high-visibility tabard, rigger boots and, occasionally, a safety helmet; he would then blithely browse shelves and casually place items in a large orange bucket before leaving the store without paying. His favourite items to pilfer were large jars of coffee, packets of razor blades and boxes of chocolates. All relatively expensive for their easily transportable size. Stripped of his costume, Sandall would hawk his wares door to door or in pubs to unscrupulous tight wads. The cash would be converted into heroin at the earliest opportunity and squirted promptly into his femoral artery.

Sandall’s crime spree went unchallenged and the police were baffled by the apparently invisible thief whose grainy, luminous image only seemed to appear on CCTV systems after the crime had taken place. They dubbed him ‘the ghost bricky’ and made several appeals for information about his identity on regional and national TV to no avail. Detection and capture seemed unlikely and Sandall might have continued to prosper from his dishonest ways had he not been accidentally trapped in the temperamental revolving door at the Barnsley branch of ASDA and his subterfuge – together with a hundred and forty-seven boxes of stolen Loreal hair dye – having been finally discovered. Sandall subsequently admitted one thousand, five hundred and fifty three counts of theft throughout the North of England to a value of approximately £150,000. He was given a suspended sentence and fined £100. The presiding judge at Sandall’s crown court trial remarked on Sandall’s unkempt appearance in the dock – he attended the court in a dirty tracksuit, scuffed trainers and baseball cap – and the court’s inability punish him further or engender any sense of shame or social responsibility.

When staff members at the various stores targeted by Sandall were interviewed by police in the wake of incidents, some remembered having seen Sandall but assumed he was in the shop for some official or legitimate purpose, or else was patently honest and harmless due to his hard-working appearance. They then dismissed him from their minds. Others admitted that they had not even noticed Sandall. That they had been totally oblivious to his presence. It seemed that both sets of employees had mentally blanked out Sandall due to his costume.

Criminal psychologists call this the ‘YMCA effect’, named in honour of 1970s disco band The Village People. Workers, policemen, members of the armed forces, and stereotypical figures become almost invisible due to their psychologically established uniform. The businessman in his suit, the nurse in her blue smock with an upside down watch. The milk man. The Jehovah’s witness. The gas board worker. They are accepted at face value for what they apparently represent and blend in. They are stripped of their individuality. They become a type. We make assumptions about their presence and their purposes. The phenomenon was exploited by G. K. Chesterton in his Father Brown short story ‘The Invisible Man’ where a murder is committed by a man who alludes initial detection by employing the mundane disguise of a Royal Mail postman. As Father Brown observed: ‘Of course you can’t think of such a man, until you do think of him. That’s where his cleverness comes in.’

The principle underlines the fact that first impressions count. The con man’s second maxim. A lot can be achieved by decent tailoring and creating the right tone. Ask Robert Hendy-Freegard. Throughout the 1990s Hendy-Freegard convinced a number of people that he worked for MI5. That he was infiltrating various IRA terrorist cells. That his life was in danger from the Polish mafia. He conned them out of hundreds of thousands of pounds. They allowed themselves to be beaten up as proofs of their loyalty. They gave him money. They slept rough for days on end at his behest. They provided him with sex on tap. They surrendered their homes. They traveled the length and breadth of Britain to perform such cryptic undercover missions as buying tin openers from obscure hardware shops, traveling to another town and handing the opener over to a bewildered stranger in a certain pub on a certain street at a certain time. One couple were instructed by Hendy-Freegard to ditch their lives and go on the run. They obeyed and went on a four year odyssey. At one point on their journey to hell they spent three months inside a rancid Sheffield flat because the spy that never was had forbidden them to be seen in public. And how did the former bar man and car salesman achieve these surreal and vicious ends? Each one of his victims observed the same thing about the plausible liar. He spoke well and had exceptionally clean fingernails.

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

North Yorkshire police are appealing for witnesses to identify a male wanted for a series of street robberies in York. The thief has struck four times in as many weeks and on each occasion immediately melted into the oblivious crowd of shoppers. He is described as being Native American in appearance, 6’2” tall, wearing a suede suit with tassels, moccasins and an eagle-feather war bonnet headdress.


One comment

  1. GSmudger · February 9, 2009

    I’ve accomplished a scam no less fiendish for its being socially acceptable. Every day, I turn up for work wearing the required clothing at the required time; I make regulation smalltalk over regulation tea and digestives; I rearrange words on paper in a prescribed fashion and recirculate emails in the prescribed format; sometimes I even talk to real people with real feeling. Because I seem to belong there – yea verily, I have a photocard on a lanyard – nobody notices or indeed cares that I do nothing that you could actually call work. Admittedly it’s a slow-burning scam, but they do keep paying me.


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