ERic Allison, the Guardian and observer Prison correspondent, was scathing about the evidence I presented from the witness stand against him and others at the Old Bailey. “If I had known you were going to be that bad, I wouldn’t have pleaded guilty,” he told me more than a decade later, implausibly, when he was a reporter and I was the news editor observer.
When we first met in the early 1990s, he was holding a handful of stolen blank British passports and offering thousands more, and I was a reporter playing the role of an upscale crook who drove to the meeting in a two-person station wagon at an airport hotel in Manchester. Seat Porsche.
Unfortunately for Eric, the passenger seat was occupied by an undercover investigator from Scotland Yard and the hotel lobby was packed with armed plainclothes police officers.
Eric, who died last weekend at the age of 79, was one of seven men arrested across the country for their involvement in a conspiracy that included prison corruption, counterfeit US dollars, blank passports and alleged IRA involvement . The IRA connection turned out to be untrue, a story my informant had spun to make it more vivid at a time when terrorists were bombing London, but the passports and the dollars were very real.
When Eric was arrested, he was surprised that the police were armed as he was a short, lean man whose resume covered burglary, bank robbery and white-collar crime, none of it violent or successful, as his prison record showed.
I had called the police into the investigation earlier than usual after the supply of passports went from a few to thousands. Scotland Yard were initially skeptical, but after pulling a dozen brand-new blank passports out of my pocket, I was put in touch with a “buyer,” a detective with experience in infiltrating criminal gangs. Introduced as my partner, he gradually dug into the conspiracy, leading to Eric’s downfall.
I had completely forgotten about him until I joined this observer when he offered a story. We met and reminisced about our past lives, he as a crook and I as a hacker, and he delivered his savvy line that journalism wasn’t as lucrative as crime, but much safer. He was still a bitch of a man and reminded me of an ex-smoker who longed for his past life but knew better.
I remember talking to him about it Guardian‘s former editor-in-chief who asked me what I thought about hiring a jailbird as a prison correspondent. “No problem,” I replied. “But I would double-check his expense reports.”
Eric Allison, 1942-2022
Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the observer