Gangster reveals how he ditched crime to become peace ambassador

One of UK’s most feared gangsters says watching a boy die while growing up in The Troubles led him to a life of organised crime before a ghostly encounter saw him change his ways – as his memoirs are set to become a £30M film

  • Reformed gangster Stephen Gillen, 49, spent 28 years in organised crime 
  • New book reveals bloody encounters that saw him ‘cheat death 100 times’ 
  • Says watching a young man die in the The Troubles as a boy deeply affected him  
  • Served 20 years in Category A prisons, but ghostly visit put him on right path 
  • Now travels world as a peace ambassador encouraging others to avoid gang life 

The ‘brutal, violent’ memoirs of one of the UK’s most prolific gangsters – who remarkably turned his life around at the age of 40 – are set to be made into a £30million Hollywood film.  

For 28 years, Stephen Gillen, 49, who was brought up in Belfast at the height of The Troubles and now lives in Windsor, was one of the most feared characters in the UK’s criminal underworld, and describes recounting his own history as like ‘galloping through hell on horseback’. 

New book The Monkey Puzzle Tree documents in unflinching detail the cat-and-mouse encounters with the police and the Flying Squad that saw Gillen ‘cheat death 100 times’ before he was finally brought to justice for armed robbery in the early Nineties. 

Forced to serve almost 20 years in Category A high-security prisons for his crimes, Gillen’s dramatic and eerie redemption – after a ghostly encounter with his late aunt – saw him finally turn his back on his former life as a gang boss in London’s East End. 

Stephen Gillen ‘cheated death 100 times’ in bloody turf wars during 28 years as an East End gang boss; after serving 20 years in prison for his crimes, his memoirs reveal how he finally decided to stop holding grudges and turn his life around


Childhood horrors: Stephen, pictured left, was born in England but spent the first nine years of his life in Belfast during the height of the The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Right: by his mid twenties, the former East End gang boss had already served prison time

The ‘profound’ epiphany saw him go on to become an International Peace Prize Nominee, philanthropist and entrepreneur – who was once flown to New York to meet with the Secretary-General of the United Nations – as he now helps others to reform against gang life. 

A childhood in Belfast’s slums saw the seeds of brutality grow in Gillen, he says. 

Despite the efforts of his Aunt Madge, who tried to protect him from the ‘horrors’ of The Troubles outside their front door, the reformed gangster says he frequently witnessed death and destruction as Northern Ireland’s communities were at war. 

As a seven-year-old, he watched a young man ‘beg for his mother’ as he bled to death in front of him after being shot on the street.

After moving back to England following his Aunt Madge’s death, Gillen spent time with various foster families and was in and out of the care system. He had addiction problems, something he’s clean of now, from his early teens.  

His unsettled upbringing saw him lured into a life of crime. He describes how ‘anger had been my fuel, rebellion my guide. I had been forged with gritted hardness from the inside out’.

Back to his manor: Stephen pictured in London’s East End, where teenage petty crime quickly escalated to major organised crime, during a life he describes as ‘galloping through hell  on horseback’


A life reformed: A ghostly encounter with his late aunt saw him finally turn his back on his former life as a gang boss in London’s East End and Stephen hasn’t looked back

By the time Gillen was just 10, he was already starting to dominate his peers on the council estates of London’s East End, and would be escorted back to the home he shared with his foster family after ‘throwing stones or being where I shouldn’t have been’, the book reveals.

The screenplay of Gillen’s life is being written by Kieran Suchet, son of broadcaster John Suchet and nephew of David, best known for his role as Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and looks set to bring the violence Gillen experienced to screen. 

A particularly bloody encounter in the book sees Gillen faced with ‘rivers of blood’ from his own head after a deep slice to the side of his head following a turf war fight in Camden. 

Despite the severity of his injury – his head ‘spun like the final cycle of a washing machine’ – a shirtless Gillen said vengeance was all he cared about in a city where ‘you had to eat or be eaten’. 

Elsewhere Gillen plays out some of the major crimes he’s been involved in during decades as a gang boss, including listening in as police helicopters chase stolen Securitas vans containing thousands of pounds – and watching his closest criminal confidantes come unstuck as the police successfully honed in on them.  

The screenplay of Stephen’s book is being written by Kieran Suchet (right), whose father is respected broadcaster John Suchet and uncle David known for playing Agatha Christie’s Poirot

His past catches up with him; Gillen describes how he eventually meets the father of the young man whose life he watched ebb away while getting caught up in the riots.

Gillen describes how he notices the man has missing digits as he reveals he was struck by a letter bomb: ‘He took his hand from his pocket and rubbed the slight stubble on his skin, and I saw he had only three fingers. 

‘A claw-like hand with two smooth stumps where once there had been active moving fingers.’

He also speaks of watching ‘a few people murdered’ in front of him and ‘unspeakable acts of cruelty’ in prison, where there is a hierarchy with ‘top villains, gangsters, importers and terrorists’ at the top, and grudges could last ‘for decades’.

During his time in Full Sutton Prison, Gillen recalls how he and his friend Shane, both ‘tooled up’ with two homemade knives, confronted a group of four violent inmates to assert their authority.

After hitting rock bottom while in a segregation unit reserved for high risk, disruptive inmates, Gillen says he believes he was visited by the spirit of his late Aunt Madge, who helped bring him up as a child

As a Category A prisoner, Gillen told how he was moved around the country, and would sometimes arrive where he had friends, and other times, the jail would be ‘full of your enemies’.

‘I even saw the prison service move people into serious circumstances on purpose,’ he writes in the book.  ‘The bitter years of high security imprisonment had battered and clawed away my emotions, ripped and torn them like a thief in the night. My humanity had been stolen. Anger had been my fuel, rebellion my guide. I had been forged with gritted hardness from the inside out.’

After hitting rock bottom while in a segregation unit reserved for high risk, disruptive inmates, Gillen says he believes he was visited by the spirit of his late Aunt Madge, who helped bring him up as a child.

The spiritual encounter offered a full stop on his life of crime, as he vowed to let go of the grudges that had led him to gang violence.  

The Monkey Puzzle Tree by Stephen Gillen is published by Filament Publishing on September 2.

‘Charlie has a lot to give society now’: Stephen Gillen insists Britain’s most notorious prisoner, Charles Bronson, is a reformed character…

Reformed gang boss Gillen describes in his memoirs how he was incarcerated next door to notorious criminal Charles  Bronson during one of his many stints in high security prisons.

Bronson, whom Gillen affectionately calls ‘Charlie’, was a neighbour while the pair were both category A inmates at Woodhill Prison’s close supervision unit in the late Nineties.

Stephen said Bronson, 67, pictured in 2005, is not the person he was years ago when he was locked up for armed robbery in 1974 and caused havoc by taking fellow prisoners hostage, attacking police officers and causing £500,000 worth of damage in rooftop protests

Gillen maintains Bronson, 67, is not the person he was when he was locked up for armed robbery in 1974 and proceeded to cause havoc by taking fellow prisoners hostage, attacking police officers and causing £500,000 worth of damage in rooftop protests.

‘Charlie has a lot to give to society now,’ he said. ‘I certainly, having known him and been through tough, challenging events with him… as I was going through it as well, know that there is a completely different side to Charlie that’s very endearing and very caring.’

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