To the teenager sitting in the dock, Judge John Samuels QC, squinting at her through his spectacles, was from a different age, if not another planet. But at least he seemed to care.
A familiar figure at the Old Bailey and Inns of Court, esteemed by his peers and those in the wider criminal justice world, Judge Samuels was regarded then, and now, as progressive and compassionate.
He chaired charities and sat on numerous panels and committees, and, when time allowed, enjoyed high-minded conversation at his private London club, The Garrick.
Nicolle John, pictured, was appearing at Blackfriars Crown Court in September 2002 for her part in a violent hotel robbery
By contrast, Nicolle John’s background was troubled, her milieu the capital’s low dives and high-rise estates. Living on society’s margins, the then 19-year-old frequently stole to fund a crack-cocaine habit and was perpetually dodging abusive boyfriends and police.
Yet as The Mail on Sunday reveals today, the judge and the drug-addicted tearaway, two people with diametrically opposed lives, would later forge an unlikely but remarkable bond, with Judge Samuels supplying Ms John with what he called ‘emotional as well as financial support’.
He became both her mentor and landlord, lent her thousands of pounds, including £200 a month by standing order, which she was unable to repay. He even invited her to find a house which he then bought and she rented from him.
He once assured her in a message: ‘I have told you lots of times that you can depend on me for everything while I am still around to look after you… Lots of love GF xxxxx.’
The GF stood for godfather, the nickname the judge gave himself. She signed herself GD, goddaughter.
Theirs, as Judge Samuels would later describe it, was a ‘special relationship’ – affectionate but entirely platonic.
At its heart was a well-intentioned experiment in rehabilitation that ultimately, some might say inevitably, went badly wrong.
Although grateful for his support, Ms John, now 40, claims that over time she found the judge’s influence too pervasive and says ‘he crossed an invisible line’ by becoming too involved in her life.
And in retrospect, she believes she also became unhealthily dependent on him.
Judge Samuels, meanwhile, who denies any impropriety, insists that he was simply trying to help her achieve her goals and says the relationship soured because ‘Nicolle let me down’.
Back in September 2002 at Blackfriars Crown Court in London, they were on less familiar terms. Ms John, a single mother, was anticipating a hefty sentence for her part in a violent hotel robbery.
Not for a minute did she consider that the letter she wrote to Judge Samuels expressing remorse and explaining her situation would secure much leniency. It certainly did no harm. Judge Samuels decided justice would be better served by giving Ms John a rehabilitation order rather than a custodial sentence.
Having expected prison, she was amazed to walk free from court that day. But her unexpected liberty was short-lived. The Attorney General appealed and she was later jailed for four years.
Ms John charts her relationship with Judge Samuels from this time, though they spoke to each other only across the courtroom. It would be nearly ten years before their next encounter.
In the intervening years Ms John left prison only to return in 2007 after another, this time more serious incident in which she attacked and robbed a vulnerable 53-year-old man in his home, striking him twice with a tripod.
For this Ms John was given (not by Judge Samuels) an indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) with a minimum tariff of 18 months. This controversial punishment, designed to keep dangerous offenders in jail until it was felt they no longer posed a threat, even if it meant holding them beyond their tariffs, was much criticised and eventually scrapped.
Back in September 2002 at Blackfriars Crown Court in London, they were on less familiar terms. Ms John, a single mother, was anticipating a hefty sentence for her part in a violent hotel robbery. Not for a minute did she consider that the letter she wrote to Judge Samuels expressing remorse and explaining her situation would secure much leniency. It certainly did no harm. Judge Samuels decided justice would be better served by giving Ms John a rehabilitation order rather than a custodial sentence
Judge Samuels called IPPs ‘the most monstrous injustice of all time’. But this time Ms John used her spell in prison constructively.
‘I was appalled with what I had done and decided to try to turn things around and grab every opportunity prison offered,’ she says. ‘I did every course and programme going.’ While she was locked up, her son, then aged eight, lived with her parents.
Alongside conservation and restoration, Judge Samuels lists his other recreational interest in Who’s Who as ‘serendipity’. And it was by chance that Judge Samuels and his wife saw Ms John in a prison production of Some Like It Hot, though she did not know they were in the audience at the time. ‘It ran for eight nights and the first night was for visiting dignitaries,’ says Ms John. ‘It was staged by a prison project called Pimlico Opera and I think John [Judge Samuels] knew the founder, Wasfi Kani.’
Several months later she learned from her solicitor that Judge Samuels was due to chair the panel deciding her fate at her forthcoming Parole Board hearing. Whether he considered this a stroke of serendipity is not known. But for Ms John it certainly augured well.
She recalls: ‘My solicitor asked if that was a good thing, and I said it was a very good thing because he was the judge who let me off at Blackfriars.’
Arriving for the hearing at HMP Send in Surrey in April 2011, Ms John recalls: ‘He smiled and said “Do you remember me?” and I replied, “Yes, I do Mr Samuels – I’m sorry, your honour.” ’ She adds: ‘I felt very confident. I had done everything and more in prison, so I wasn’t surprised when he made the decision to release me.’
It is Judge Samuels’s heartfelt belief that, given the chance, people can change their lives. And alongside rehabilitation he has long promoted the idea of judicial monitoring. Outlining his philosophy, he once urged judges to ‘cast off the gilded blindfold’, adding: ‘They [judges] can only do so if they routinely engage with those whom they have sentenced, albeit in a light-touch and overarching way, throughout the sentence that they have imposed.’
He is involved with the charity Learning Together and was at the prisoner rehabilitation conference it organised at Fishmongers’ Hall, next to London Bridge, in November 2019 when convicted terrorist Usman Khan stabbed to death two Cambridge University graduates.
Khan, 28, released from jail 11 months earlier, had been granted an exemption to attend the conference because probation bosses believed he had reformed. After the attack, Khan, who was wearing a fake suicide vest, was shot dead by police on London Bridge.
With Ms John, Judge Samuels wanted to know whether his continued support would enable her to achieve her professed aims.
Judge Samuels regularly gave Ms John financial support as part of an experiment in rehabilitation
In addition to being a judicial member of the Parole Board, Judge Samuels was chairman and is now president of the Prisoners’ Education Trust. He was also a trustee of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University and chairman of the Criminal Justice Alliance.
A few weeks after Ms John’s release from prison, Judge Samuels, who by then had retired, wrote to her solicitor, saying: ‘I was very impressed with your client.
Judge John Samuels, pictured, said he was 'unwise' to be as supportive to Ms John has he had, but denied it was a lapse in judgement
‘I noted that during her recent sentence, she had successfully undertaken a distance learning course under the auspices of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, which I chair, and I wondered whether she might consider becoming a vocal ambassador for the value of distance learning in prison.
‘Perhaps you would be kind enough to ask her to get in touch with me personally.’
Ms John says she jumped at the chance. ‘I rang him from a phone box. I was nervous and felt really awkward. Things like this just don’t happen. My mind was blown. I was so grateful.’
At the judge’s invitation, Ms John addressed a Prisoners’ Education Trust event later that year. Judge Samuels and his wife were in the audience and congratulated Ms John afterwards.
She also took part in other events, and at one of them the judge asked how she was getting on. Having moved to Southampton to escape the pressures of London, she explained that she was having problems with accommodation.
Judge Samuels sent her money from himself and his wife to cover rent arrears, and some time afterwards offered to mentor Ms John.
Boundaries are usually set at the start of mentoring relationships, with the mentor acting as neither coach nor adviser but as an equal to help the individual work out decisions and actions for themselves. This, though, was an altogether more informal arrangement.
In many respects, Ms John’s childhood was unremarkable. The daughter of hard-working parents, she enjoyed Brownies, horse-riding and canoeing and was educated at a mix of private and state schools. ‘But I was bullied at school and suffered from depression, and it left me with low self-esteem,’ she says. She first took crack aged 17. ‘Because of drugs, I got in with some bad people and had a couple of abusive relationships,’ she says.
During the period he mentored her, Judge Samuels described Ms John as ‘very vulnerable’. But he was impressed at her apparent determination to rebuild her life.
Bright, confident and articulate, it is hard to reconcile the Nicolle John of today with her past. She has not taken drugs for several years, her life is ‘back on track’ and next month she begins training to become a healing practitioner. She says: ‘John always said to me, “I can see something in you that you can’t see yourself.” ’
Normally they met once a month, always in Southampton. Recalling the first time, Ms John says: ‘He came down for the day and we met in Costa Coffee. It was bizarre, sitting there with the judge who I was up before in court.
‘I shook his hand and addressed him as your honour. He said, “Just call me John.” He made me feel very comfortable. He said I should be proud of the person I’d become.
‘We talked about everything: our lives, what I was up to, personal stuff. Later on he was in contact two or three times a week by phone or email or both. Sometimes I spoke to his wife. After eight months of being mentored by John, there was a close friendship. We went for walks and he took me to some nice places for lunch and coffee. His favourite was a Beefeater and he always ordered fish and chips. He used to like to help himself to the peas on my plate. Once we went to the New Forest for the day.
‘He always left Southampton before sundown because he didn’t like to drive in the dark.’
With the judge’s encouragement, Ms John enrolled in various courses and resisted resuming her drugs habit.
And then he made her an extraordinary offer. He would buy a house in Southampton for her to live in, and she would use her housing benefit to pay him rent.
Ms John, pictured, said the judge said he would buy a house in Southampton for up to £150,000 and she would use her housing benefit to pay him rent
He asked her to choose somewhere for about £150,000. The one they chose cost close to £144,000.
‘I couldn’t believe it,’ she says. ‘It was a dream come true. I viewed about five properties before finding the right one in a quiet area with a landscaped garden and even an office. John came down to see it. I introduced him to the estate agent as my grandfather, which he was annoyed about – he said he was my godfather, so it was all a bit awkward. John bought it outright and we signed a tenancy agreement in April 2014.’
Judge Samuels explained that the house was bought by a family trust and was a ‘sound investment’, adding: ‘Nicolle agreed to find work to meet the agreed rent out of her earnings and the housing benefit to which she was entitled.’
By this time he was paying Ms John a £200-a-month standing order – an arrangement that lasted more than two years – and occasionally giving her cheques and cash. She says: ‘He said I could pay him back when I was working. He has a list of every penny he gave me, but he knew I couldn’t pay him.
‘At one point he worked out that he had given me £17,000. We went to John Lewis to pick out furniture. He asked me what did I want and said he would put it on the tab. That’s what he called it – the tab.
‘My fridge cost £1,000 and I had a custom-made sofa which was £2,000. The bed was £1,500 and the mattress cost £1,000. He gave me an antique chest of drawers that belonged to his son’s wife. And when he was down he took me supermarket-shopping and paid for that.’
Judge Samuels told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I provided Nicolle with financial assistance. She always promised to repay what was initially described by her as a loan, and she had what I believed to be a substantial and viable civil claim… which she had agreed would be used to repay me what I had lent her.’
The civil claim for compensation, related to an incident with the police, was not pursued, however.
Having assumed a duty of care towards Ms John, Judge Samuels was concerned that ending his financial support might undo the good work achieved in keeping her off drugs, or could even lead to her reoffending. On at least one occasion Ms John cooked a meal for the judge and he later declared a preference for eating in her home rather than going out to restaurants.
In his capacity as mentor, he also intervened in her battles with officialdom, including issues with Southampton City Council.
Writing to the council in November 2015, the judge said: ‘You now have Nicolle John’s signed authority which permits you to discuss all matters with me in relation to her claim for Council Tax reduction, as this was enclosed with the letter which accompanied my [£800] cheque.’
More astonishing still, he urged the Probation Service to revoke the supervisory element of her licence and to share information about her case with him, a ‘retired Crown Court judge’. It declined.
By the end of 2015 Ms John was growing increasingly dependent on her ‘godfather’.
But she says Judge Samuels, 40 years her senior, was beginning to make her feel uneasy.
She says: ‘Often when he saw me he would say I looked radiant. He was my saviour and I liked having him there for support.
‘In hindsight I can see it was all wrong but at the time I was so grateful as he opened doors for me. He wanted me to solely rely on him. Over a period of years, I became more and more dependent on him. He gave me more and more money.
‘He would buy me paintings for my house. Samuel Palmer was John’s favourite painter so he hung one of his works on my hallway. I hated it, but because John wanted it I let him put it there.
‘He was doing so much for me. He got me a printer, he got me two laptops.’
But in the second half of 2016, their friendship grew strained.
Judge Samuels was disappointed to learn she had not been attending her college course. But Ms John says this was because she was looking after her then partner, who had a long-term illness. In December that year she became pregnant by the partner. Judge Samuels recalls: ‘She asked me for advice and I suggested that she should consult her GP. My understanding was that she did so and accepted his advice to terminate the pregnancy.’
Afterwards, Ms John was left emotionally fragile. ‘I wasn’t in a good place,’ she says.
Another source of tension was her boyfriend’s continued presence in the house, in breach of the tenancy agreement. And despite the judge’s generosity, Ms John had amassed more than £7,000 in rent arrears. She split from her boyfriend, who then began sending the judge threatening messages.
And in January 2017, Judge Samuels received an email from Ms John who suggested he finance her now ex-partner’s move to Jamaica. She wrote: ‘My opinion on this is that there is no price on my safety as well as yours – I need him out of my life – you’re the only one who can help our situation.’
But that situation had become intolerable. The judge’s grand rehabilitation experiment had foundered. He wrote to Ms John saying he could no longer be her mentor.
And within weeks, having been clean for eight years, she was back on drugs, which led to her being recalled to prison a few months later.
Judge Samuels told The Mail on Sunday that while he was ‘unwise to become as supportive to Nicolle as I became, I reject the suggestion of a “lapse of judgment” unless it is a lapse of judgment to try to help those who are in such apparent difficulty’.
For her part, Ms John, who left prison 18 months ago and is returning to college, says: ‘I will always be grateful for John’s support but his involvement in my life got too intense. There were no boundaries and, looking back, that wasn’t good.’