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Crimes committed by Canal Boy and his teenage cohorts

Just under a quarter of a century ago at Gloucester Crown Court, a judge is informed that the teenage burglar standing before him in the dock is a 'reformed character'.

Clinton Bowen had just spent three months on a canal boat, part of a plan designed to address the behaviour that first landed him in trouble with the authorities aged just eight.

Following the £12,000 taxpayer-funded trip, 15-year-old Bowen, his barrister explained, 'now appreciates how serious it is to break in to other people's houses'.

Sadly, that appreciation didn't last long.

Because in the years that followed, Bowen would break into property after property — houses, shops and businesses. On one occasion, he even broke out of a prison.

First in trouble as an eight-year-old, over the next two decades Clinton Bowen (above) would clock up 21 convictions for 33 offences

As for the most recent addition to his criminal record, he upped the ante last year by targeting a castle. Part of a gang of thieves, he helped steal £127,000 worth of jewellery and artefacts from Sudeley Castle, where gifts from Edward VII to his mistress Alice Keppel, the Duchess of Cornwall's great-grandmother, were on display.

Among the items stolen were a £50,000 gold enamel and jewelled snuff box, a £40,000 gold snuff box, and a £15,000 enamel and rose gold Cartier fob watch. None of the items have ever been recovered.

In the Nineties, Clinton Bowen  spent three months on a canal boat, part of a plan designed to address the behaviour that first landed him in trouble with the authorities. This would give rise to his nickname Canal Boy

For his part in the burglary, Bowen, now 39, was jailed for four years, a sentence that he will no doubt wear as lightly as the nickname — Canal Boy — that he was given back in the Nineties. 

At the time, questions were raised, not least by this newspaper, about the wisdom of an approach that appeared to reward rather than punish young criminals.

Because Canal Boy was not alone in this experiment in soft justice. Three other young criminals from Gloucestershire were afforded similarly benevolent treatment, prompting a national furore.

One of them was Bowen's older brother, Casey Bowen. He became known as Pocket Money Boy after being handed £60-a-week pocket money so he could buy whatever he wanted, rather than stealing it.

And then there was Vincent Smith, or Pyjama Boy, so-called because he once appeared in court in his pyjamas after three days on the run from a young offenders' home.

And, finally, who can forget Mark Hook — Safari Boy — who was sent on an 88-day Egyptian and African holiday at a cost to the taxpayer of £7,000?

How, then, have this infamous foursome fared over the past 20-odd years? Perhaps predictably, every bit as badly as the newly banged up Bowen. Indeed, between them, during that time, they have been convicted of almost 450 criminal offences, everything from ram-raiding to burglary, from kidnapping to assault.

All have been in and out of prison while any leniency has almost always been abused.

Of course, whether any other course of action early in their lives would have resulted in a different outcome, it is impossible to say. But it is hard to imagine how it could have turned out any worse, either for them or the members of the public, often elderly or vulnerable, whose lives have been blighted by their criminality.

Bowen's older brother became known as Pocket Money Boy after being handed £60-a-week pocket money so he could buy whatever he wanted, rather than stealing it. Vincent Smith, or Pyjama Boy, once appeared in court in his pyjamas after three days on the run from a young offenders' home.  Mark Hook — Safari Boy — was sent on an 88-day Egyptian and African holiday at a cost to the taxpayer of £7,000

Turn the clock back to 1994 and the then Home Secretary Michael Howard announced a shift in policy, banning sending young offenders abroad as part of their sentence.

'We are determined there should be no more cases where community service is seen as a soft option,' he said. 'All offenders should be punished, not rewarded, for their crimes.' Although he did not mention him by name, the move was a direct response to the furore caused by the treatment of Mark Hook.

The previous year, the 17-year-old had failed to appear at Gloucester Youth Court, only for the bench to be informed he was on an 88-day 'character-building' world trip involving big game spotting in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. 

He also visited Egypt, taking a cruise down the Nile and enjoying a tour of the Pyramids. The jaunt had been arranged by the Bryn Melyn rehabilitation centre in north Wales, a controversial therapy centre for out-of-control teenagers, to whom Gloucestershire social services had entrusted his care and to whom they were paying £1,600 a week in fees.

Their reasoning? That they had already tried locking Hook up and it had done no good and, in any case, the centre was cheaper than the cost of secure accommodation.

Sadly, their argument wasn't helped when Hook, a distant relative of Private Henry Hook, who won a Victoria Cross at Rorke's Drift in 1879, gave his own take on it. 'I knew I wouldn't come back a reformed character,' he said. 'I don't know why they thought that I would. They said to me: 'You are going to Africa'. I was 17, so I would say yes, wouldn't I?'.

His mother was equally unconvinced, accusing social services of lavishing money on him instead of punishing him. 'They spoilt him rotten and did not prepare him for real life,' she said.

And, sure enough, within three days of his return, Hook was arrested for drink-driving and possession of drugs. An addiction to heroin and crack cocaine would become a recurring factor in his offending. As the years passed, so his rap sheet lengthened — today, he has convictions for more than 120 offences. Too many to detail, but the following give a flavour.

In January 1994, Hook appeared at Gloucester Crown Court for 34 offences including burglary and taking a car without consent. In July that year, he was sentenced to six months' youth detention for burglary and, two months later, was given a further nine months for handling stolen property and driving while disqualified.

Clinton Bowen upped the ante last year by targeting a castle. Part of a gang of thieves, he helped steal £127,000 worth of jewellery and artefacts from Sudeley Castle

Then, in September 2001, he admitted passing a counterfeit £20 note, handling stolen goods and possessing an offensive weapon. The judge gave him the chance of drug treatment only for him to breach the order resulting in him being sent back to prison for two-and-a-half years.

Fast forward to 2012, the year he clocked up his 32nd court appearance. Branded a 'perpetual villain' by a judge, he was sentenced to 18 months for mugging an elderly shopper and handling stolen credit cards. Two years later, he was jailed for 22 months for raiding the home of an 86-year-old widower and escaping with a camera and more than £140 in cash.

Which brings us to a more recent court appearance at Gloucester Crown Court (where else?). In 2018, 25 years on from the junket that was meant to deter him from a life of crime, Hook was convicted of injecting his partner with a 'speedball' of heroin and cocaine.

Given a suspended sentence, Hook told the court: 'I appreciate the opportunity. I'm 41 now. I'm getting a bit too old.' The judge replied: 'I hope this is the last time you stand in a criminal court.'

Sadly not. In July of last year, he was back before magistrates pleading guilty to offences of assault and criminal damage. His punishment? Yet another suspended sentence.

Which brings us on to Clinton Bowen. His boat trip on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal took place in 1997, sanctioned by the council because it was a domestic trip. 'He is unfortunately one of those young people who nobody knows how to contain and this is just another try,' a councillor admitted at the time.

The boy's divorced mother was more to the point: 'He's an absolute horror, destructive and violent and with no respect for anyone or anything.' First in trouble as an eight-year-old, over the next two decades Clinton Bowen would clock up 21 convictions for 33 offences.

At the castle, the thieves took jewellery and artefacts (pictured) which were once owned by Alice Keppel, the great-grandmother of Prince Charles's wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall

In March 1998, he was sentenced to 12 months detention for breaking into an elderly couple's home in Cheltenham and stealing antiques. In November 2001, he was jailed for three years for the burglary of a 91-year-old great-grandmother's home. Four years later, he was sent to prison for four more years, again for burglary, at Swindon Crown court.

In 2009, he was jailed for five years after again targeting the homes of the elderly in a series of burglaries which funded his drug addiction.

In a move that a judge would later describe as 'absurd', a few months into that sentence he was transferred from a secure jail to Leyhill Open Prison.

He duly went on the run, breaking into a home in Gloucester and stealing possessions worth £1,500. He was sentenced to an extra three years for this burglary and six months for his escape.

Next came a £50,000 ramraid on the British headquarters of Mercedes-Benz in Weybridge, Surrey, in 2015, which earned him a jail sentence of four years and eight months. Clinton Bowen was still on parole when he burgled the castle last year. In mitigation, it was claimed he 'didn't gain financially' from the burglary and that he really 'wanted to be at home for the sake of his six-year-old son'.

Were that child looking for a good role-model in his absence, then he would do well to look beyond his brother. Casey Bowen earned the nickname Pocket Money Boy when, following 37 arrests between 1992 and 1994, he was paid £60 a week. It was hoped he would buy the things he had been stealing but, after paying out £1,560, social services stopped the money when his offending actually increased.

In and out of jail ever since, his crimes include ramming a police car head-on in 1998 and calling a senior magistrate a 'four-eyed old git' the following year. In 2003, he was jailed for 18 months for an unprovoked attack on a clubber in Cheltenham, which left his victim hospitalised, and, in 2006 he assaulted a prison officer, tearing the bicep away from the bone.

In September 2009, he was jailed for five and a half years at Gloucester Crown Court for stealing £870 at knifepoint. In 2013, he pleaded guilty to distraction burglary at an old woman's house and got a three-year sentence. By then, he had 37 convictions for 91 offences.

In 2017, he admitted trying to steal a safe from a nursery and, in 2019, admitted carrying out his 102nd offence, again a burglary.

It happened just three months after he had been released from prison for another burglary in 2018.

Which leaves just Vincent Smith — Pyjama Boy — who, during a recent court appearance, admitted that his criminal career had begun 'as a baby'. 'My mum put me on a trolley and got me to change the price tags,' he said. 'I have been in and out of this life for nearly 30 years. I was brought up to be a criminal, simple as that.'

Smith got his nickname aged 11, in 1992, when he appeared in court in his pyjamas after escaping from a young offenders' hostel and spending three days on the run.

He was later placed in the care of a family friend with convictions for dishonesty and violence, after the 37-year-old man offered to try to reform him. But weeks later, the boy was found at the scene of a £250,000 blaze at a scrap metal yard. He was charged with three burglaries.

Smith absconded from another home and was subsequently accused of stealing two cars and a boat. On another occasion, social workers who had delivered him to a children's home were overtaken by Smith as he drove past them in a car he had just stolen.

In 1996 alone, Smith faced 60 counts of burglary. Three years later he was given four years in youth custody for taking part in the kidnap of a man who had his eyebrows and hair shaved off.

On to 2016, and Smith was back in court after being arrested for a burglary in which he was accompanied by his partner, their baby daughter and another child.

During the raid, Smith targeted a barn and then attacked the owner's car, injuring him as he smashed the window with a golf club. He was given a suspended sentence after a probation officer assured the judge Smith had 'really changed'

He hadn't and, in 2018, he was given a sentence of four-and-a-half years for burgling a 73-year-old woman's Herefordshire farmhouse.

As he was being sentenced at Gloucester Crown Court, Smith stood up and shouted: 'I don't give a f*** about your court and I don't give a f*** about you. F*** the f****** public and f*** you all.'

He has since been released from prison and, when approached by the Mail earlier this week, insisted his criminal past was behind him.

'I'm a family man now,' he said. 'I've got a partner and kids and I don't want them to think the worst of me. I am going to do my best to keep out of trouble and go straight. I know it won't be easy but I've got to try, otherwise what else is there? The same old, same old bad ways.'

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