Convicted armed robber Michael Wheatley was on the run after absconding during day release from prison in Kent
Michael Wheatley, known as the Skullcracker, pictured during an armed raid in 2002. Photograph: Metropolitan police/PA
An armed robber known as the "Skullcracker" is back in custody after absconding from prison for a third time, only to be recaptured hours after allegedly holding up a building society.
Michael Wheatley, 55, serving 13 life sentences for armed raids on 13 banks and building societies, ended four days on the run in a police cell after officers caught up with him in Tower Hamlets, east London.
The fugitive prisoner had been at large since failing to return to HMP Standford Hill open prison, on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, on Saturday evening after being granted a temporary release.
Having got on a high speed train from Sittingbourne to Stratford International, he had evaded capture despite a nationwide alert and a confirmed sighting in the Twickenham area of south-west London on Monday.
But for a man who once stated his occupation as "armed robber", it would seem old habits are hard to break.
A 999 call from staff at the Chelsea Building Society in Sunbury-on-Thames at 10.20am alerted detectives to the possibility the Skullcracker was back in business.
Less than four hours after shocked staff were forced to hand over cash to a man wielding what appeared to be a handgun, detectives traced Wheatley to east London where he and a 53-year-old man were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. He was also arrested on suspicion of being unlawfully at large.
It was the third time the career criminal – given his nickname because he brutally pistol-whips his victims – had gone on the run after prison authorities allowed him out on temporary release.
And, on each previous occasion, he had gone on to commit a series of armed robberies before being recaptured.
Having been jailed in the 1980s for nine years for a post office raid, he failed to return to prison after a hospital visit in 1988. While at large, he carried out nine armed robberies before being caught.
He was back in jail in 1989, looking at an extra 11 year stretch on top of his original nine. But three years later, having been allowed to attend an optician's appointment, he went on the run for a second time. Again he committed a string of robberies – this time eight raids. In 1993, having been recaptured, reconvicted, and re-jailed, he had added another seven years to the 20 he was already serving.
In 2001, Wheatley was granted parole. Within weeks he was at it again. In the following ten months, he managed to stage no less than 13 armed raids on banks and building societies, from Southampton in Hampshire to Royston in Hertfordshire. His modus operandi was to target small branches, and he netted around £45,000.
But the levels of violence escalated. Using an imitation firearm – a blank firing semi-automatic pistol – he pistol-whipped a 73-year-old woman in one robbery. His custom, too, was to grab a female customer putting the weapon to her head.
Convicted and sentenced at the Old Bailey in 2002 to the 13 life sentences he is presently serving, he gave his occupation as "armed robber" to the custody officer.
It was said in court that Wheatley returned to a life of crime to pay off debts he had run up during a relationship with a woman he met while in custody.
He was ordered to serve a minimum of eight years before being considered for release.
After his latest spell as a fugitive was abruptly ended, Kent Police said in a statement: "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 3 May, 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 7 May, 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."
Wheatley is believed to have boarded the 9.20am high speed train from Sittingbourne to Stratford International station on Saturday, with police alerted when he failed to return at 6pm to the prison.
After warning the public not to approach him, police responded to a confirmed sighting of him at 7.55pm on Monday at a property in the Strawberry Hill area of Twickenham, south-west London. Searches were made of other properties in the area, but he remained at large.
When the alarm was raised after the robbery in Sunbury-on-Thames on Wednesday morning, armed officers rushed to the scene. The suspect was said to be a white man, in his late 40s or early 50s, around 6ft with short grey hair. He was wearing a dark woolly hat, dark-rimmed glasses, light blue jeans, a light blue denim jacket and black trainers.
Jodie Aston, 30, who works in a nearby hair and beauty salon, said police told her the suspect was "the man that escaped from the open prison".
Barmaid Chloe Theobald, 26, said: "The police said to my boss 'We think it's the Skullcracker and he's been sighted in Sunbury'."
She received a text message from her daughter's school telling parents that their children should not walk home alone that afternoon.