'I remember being tied, gagged and driven in the boot of a car'

As bank manager Roger Ball left work at his usual time of 6pm, on September 14, 1988, he was about to be thrust into one of the most dramatic robberies in Lancashire's history.

Thursday, 13th September 2018, 6:32 pm
Updated Thursday, 13th September 2018, 7:42 pm
Vanessa Ball, who was 13 when she was abducted as part of a horrifying Lancashire bank robbery
Vanessa Ball, who was 13 when she was abducted as part of a horrifying Lancashire bank robbery

Approaching his car, which he had parked as usual on a side street near Woolworths in Preston, he was momentarily distracted when he spotted a flat tyre.

Seconds later he was kidnapped by two hooded gunmen, gagged and blindfolded, before being driven to a phone box in Bolton-le-Sands.

He was forced to phone his wife Jean and instruct her to let himself and his abductors into their Morecambe home.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The robbery of Natwest bank on Fishergate, Preston, in 1988 Police marksmen surrounded the bank

No doubt at the height of their concern was their little girl Vanessa, then only 13, who was present throughout their terrifying ordeal.

The family faced an agonising overnight wait, chaperoned by the masked robbers, who nonchalantly helped themselves to apples and oranges – devouring every part of their snack, including cores and peel.

It was probably a detail that most victims in their horrific situation would glance over - but it proved a key to solving the case.

At about 4am the teenager and her parents were bound, hooded and placed in the boots of two vehicles before being driven 30 miles to a disused building off Fishergate, near the NatWest.

The robbery of Natwest bank on Fishergate, Preston, in 1988 A fleet of ambulances were waiting during the stand-off

The ruthless armed criminals kept Vanessa and her mum hostage but forced her dad to open up as usual at around 8.30am.

As each member of staff arrived at the bank, they were also taken hostage. Eventually 62 workers held at gunpoint whilst the gang stole the money from the vault.

Throughout the 30 minute operation one kept his finger on the trigger of his gun, watching over the staff as cash, foreign currency and travellers cheques were grabbed.

Around £500,000 was stolen, including two and a half hundredweight of coins.

Main picture, detective constable Steve Moorcroft. From left top, to bottom, James Gibson, Leonard Newsham and Sharon Crawford

Mr Ball was instructed to tell the staff that if they alerted the police or failed to assist the robbers his family would be harmed.

It was a meticulously planned raid - the villains had even dug up bollards outside Preston railway station to help them with their getaway and avoid the main street.

When the alarm was first raised, police surrounded the wrong NatWest branch in the confusion.

The crime quickly made national headlines as the hunt for the robbers got under way.

It may be 30 years ago, but for Vanessa, now 43, many of the details are fresh in her mind.

Vanessa, who lives in Dubai, has a digital marketing agency and leads trips for an adventure travel group exploring ‘off the beaten track destinations’ in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

She also pens a travel blog called wandersmiles.com.

She recalls: “I still remember quite a lot about the events of that evening, from the initial phone call, conversations throughout, being tied and gagged whilst we were driven in the boot of the car to Preston and the derelict building where we were again tied up until we heard the bank robbers flee.

“The roller-coaster of emotions were certainly a big part. It’s almost like I was outside looking in, it didn’t seem real at the time and, being a 13-year-old child, I didn’t understand the enormity of what had just happened. For me, it really began to hit home in the following weeks as we were questioned by the police and saw the story unfold to the public in the national press and TV.

“I remember being petrified at the thought of giving evidence in the court room and recounting the events that took place the night we were all taken hostage.

“Initially, the effects of being taken hostage did impact on my life somewhat. It made me very aware that the stories you see on the news and Crime Watch can actually happen to you. I felt nervous and anxious, but this is only natural and fortunately this has faded over time.”

She added: “I don’t have any feelings towards the offenders. They have been punished by losing their freedom, missing those special moments with friends and family and unfortunately, these are years they will never be able to get back.”

The orange peel

Steve Moorcroft was among between 60 and 80 officers enlisted to investigate the challenging case, which happened at a time when there was no DNA, CCTV or telephone evidence available to the team, and for the first few weeks their efforts appeared to be fruitless.

Three men are believed to have taken part in the raid but only one was ever convicted.

Steve, then a detective constable, recalls the extraordinary breakthrough that led to the arrest of Merseyside man Leonard ‘Len’ Newsham.

He explains: “It was a street bobby who worked in Newsham’s neighbourhood in Liverpool who raised the alarm. He had read a crime report which referred to their strange way of eating a whole fruit, and their Merseyside accents.

“One of the criminals also had a speech impediment."

He remembered speaking to Newsham and another man called Jimmy Gibson in the street and watching as they ate a whole orange, including the peel.

Lancashire Police had their two suspects. But two months after the raid James Gibson, 23, was shot in the head and found dead in the street, still with his hands in his pocket, in a gangland-style slaying. Police have always believed that Gibson was Newsham’s accomplice. The third has never been traced.

Newsham was then spoken to by Lancashire Police about the death. But unknown to the force, Merseyside Police’s undercover surveillance team were watching when he left Preston police station.

Steve says: “They obviously got the wind up his sails. They followed him back to Liverpool to the grounds of Fazackerly Hospital and watched him dig a package up.

“They pounced on him. The package had bank notes in it – they were fingerprinted and contained prints from staff at NatWest in Preston.

“A further package was found containing two balaclavas linked to fibres found in their vehicle, which had been abandoned in a hotel car park in Morecambe.”

Steve was eventually tasked with interviewing Newsham.

In November 1989, Newsham, then 24, of Fazakerley, Liverpool, was jailed for 13 years for his part in the raid. Only £6,900 of the £527,912 haul had been recovered when he was caught.

Two years later four people were charged with handling the proceeds of the robbery after police recovered £140,000 in a dawn raid on a house in Fleetwood.

Ex plumber John Hay, then 44 and of Garfield Street, Fleetwood, Newsham’s girlfriend Sharon Crawford, then 22, of Elstead Road, Liverpool, and engineer Desmond Penny, then 22, of Ronaldsway, Thornton, Merseyside, admitted handling cash and travellers’ cheques valued at £528,112.

The trio had taken part in an elaborate plot to divert the robbery proceeds to two Irish bank accounts in Dublin.

John Hay - known to the underworld as Scotch John - was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison in November 1991 for laundering some of the haul by opening five separate bank and building society accounts, while the others got suspended jail terms.

He went to the USA on his release but in 2010 pleaded guilty at a court in Nevada to attempting to smuggle a kilo of cocaine into Britain, and was told he would serve between 10 and 25 years.

It appears Newsham did not learn his lesson either. He was on home leave from Sudbury jail in Derbyshire when he committed a raid on the home of a businessman and his family, and was given an additional 12 years.