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Captured Skull Cracker questioned

A serial armed robber nicknamed "the Skull Cracker" continued to be questioned by police today after his five days on the run from an open jail came to a dramatic end.

Career criminal Michael Wheatley, 55, was held in London yesterday hours after allegedly robbing a building society in Surrey.

The Chelsea Building Society branch in Sunbury-on-Thames is reportedly the same branch Wheatley raided in July 2001.

Yesterday he was arrested in Tower Hamlets, east London, on suspicion of the armed raid along with an alleged accomplice, a man aged 53.

Witnesses described how armed plain-clothed officers forced Wheatley to the floor with the words: "Armed police, get down."

Angel Todorov, 22, told the Daily Mirror: "I looked out the window and there was police officers everywhere. There was a great deal of shouting and swearing."

Wheatley's arrest brought to an end a high-profile manhunt sparked after he went missing while on temporary licence from HMP Standford Hill on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, on May 3.

Wheatley, who earned his nickname after pistol-whipping victims including a 73-year-old woman, had gone on the run twice in the past and each time staged a series of violent robberies before being caught and returned to jail.

Kent Police said in a statement yesterday: "Kent Police, in partnership with officers from the Metropolitan Police Service, have today arrested two men in east London on suspicion of conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

"On May 3, Kent Police began a search for Michael Wheatley, who had failed to return to HMP Standford Hill after being released on temporary licence.

"At 2pm on May 7, two men, aged 55 and 53, were arrested in the Tower Hamlets area and are now in police custody. The 55-year-old man was also arrested on suspicion of being unlawfully at large."

Jodie Aston, 30, who works in a hair and beauty salon yards from the building society at the centre of the raid, said police told her they knew who the suspect was.

She said: "They came in and said the man that robbed the bank was the man that escaped from the open prison and it happened at 10.20am.

"We heard nothing until someone came in and told us. It's quite scary to think we were so close. It could have been in here."

Barmaid Chloe Theobald, 26, said she was alerted to the incident when she was having lunch with her manager.

She said: "The police said to my boss, 'We think it's the Skull Cracker and he's been sighted in Sunbury'.

"It's quite scary. It's not something that happens every day that there's a man on the loose."

Wheatley was first jailed for nine years in the 1980s for a post office raid, but fled in 1988 when he was given permission to go to hospital and failed to return.

He went on to commit a series of nine armed robberies, and was jailed again in 1989.

Three years later, authorities released him to go to the optician and again he went on the run, committing eight robberies. He was jailed for seven years in 1993.

The career criminal was released on parole in 2001, and within weeks was staging a series of raids on banks.

Prosecutors said he returned to a life of crime after a relationship with a woman he met while in custody turned sour, and she spent his money and ran up debt.

At the Old Bailey hearing, lawyers revealed that, when asked his occupation by a custody officer, he replied: "Armed robber."

He was given 13 life sentences in 2002, and was ordered to serve a minimum of eight years before being considered for release.

The suspect in yesterday's robbery burst into the building society in The Parade, Staines Road, at around 10.20am and threatened staff with a handgun before being given money from a safe and running away.

Police said they do not know whether the gun was real or imitation.

Wheatley was released on a temporary licence from HMP Standford Hill on Saturday and is thought to have boarded the 9.20am high-speed train from Sittingbourne, which was heading to Stratford International station.

Police were called when he failed to return to the prison at 6pm and a specialist team of officers pieced together a timeline of his movements.

There was a confirmed sighting of Wheatley at 7.55pm on Monday in the Strawberry Hill area of Twickenham, and several homes were searched but he was not found until yesterday.


From Belfast Telegraph