All Xero Gravity episodes
Hosted by Alice Brine
John McAvoy survived years spent as a high-profile career criminal. With an insatiable hunger for success and Britain’s most prolific robbers as his role models, McAvoy quickly became one of Britain’s most wanted criminals.
Today, he couldn’t be further away from the person he once was. His incessant drive, determination and desire to succeed is still there, only he’s discovered an outlet to channel it into that sees him not only helping himself, but helping others on a daily basis.
In part one of this special two part episode of Xero Gravity, Alice Brine finds out about the years cycling in and out of prison that led McAvoy to the crossroads that would ultimately change his life forever.
Billy and the family business
Despite not realizing it at the time, John was always destined to be in the family business.
With his father passing away in bed one night, while sleeping next to his pregnant mother, John was left to find father figures in the men around him during his childhood. He had uncles and cousins, but there was one man in particular that would make quite the impact.
“Before my mom met my father she grew up in south-east London in a place called Peckham. She got married when she was 18 to a man called Billy. Billy’s dad was murdered and Billy saw it happen. He’d been a normal guy up until then, but that sent him totally went off the rails. He eventually became Britain’s most prolific armed robber and a multimillionaire at 21,” John says.
Billy eventually found himself in prison for 10 years, during which time John’s mom married his father. It wasn’t until his release that Billy walked into John and his mother’s life.
“Billy was released from prison when I was eight years old. He’d come round to Mom’s, pat me on the head and say ‘go make me a cup of tea boy’. When he left that first time he gave me £20. It was the first time an adult had ever given me paper money, and it had a massive impact on me.”
Billy took John under his wing, and it wasn’t until John grew older that he realized he was treated differently when out and about with Billy, the reason for which he was soon to find out.
“I never understood what was happening when we were out, but one night when I was 10 or 11, a film played on telly about a robbery called the Brink’s-Mat robbery. It was the biggest armed robbery in the world, and I realized my uncle Micky McAvoy had committed it.”
“In the film he was played by Sean Bean, and I remember watching my cousins being played by actors and actresses. The characters in the film were people I’d met and been introduced to. That film had a massive impact on how I went on to perceive success.”
It was this film, combined with seeing a pile of newspaper clippings at his grandad’s house detailing what Billy was involved in, that the wider context of the people John was surrounded by on a daily basis really started to sink in.
Young adulthood and bad influences
Eventually those people’s behavior started finding its way into John’s school life, and he really started on his path to becoming a professional criminal.
“Up until I was 14 or 15 I was quite good at school. I enjoyed it, but as soon as I started making the connection between success and money I started acting like the guys I was exposed to. I thought that was going to give me the success I wanted in life,” he says.
“When I look back to what was happening to me as a kid I don’t blame anyone for anything I did. Nothing I did was a mistake, it was a decision, but it was a terrible decision based on what I thought was right. You grow up and replicate what you’ve seen. I grew up being told not to tell the police my name if I got arrested, not to talk in cars or houses in case they were bugged.”
“My mom pleaded me to do my GCSE’s, but I knew it wasn’t going to get me where I wanted in life. I sat the exams, got Cs and Ds – while this went on my Uncles were in News Of The World every Sunday about crime – so the teachers in school were fully aware of my home life.”
It was at this point that John walked out on his studies, despite telling teachers he’d continue on to college, and started applying his fierce determination to the job he wanted.
Straight to the top
Unlike most criminals, John’s family ties meant he had the instant respect of those working alongside him and didn’t need to waste his time with petty crime.
“I never committed petty crime, which used to bamboozle the prison psychologists because normally there’s a chain where you progressively get worse. Because I was applying my drive I wasn’t going to mess around at the bottom. It embarrasses me now, but my ambition back then was to commit a bigger robbery than what my uncle had. I quickly got a reputation for being quite young and quite game, and because I had the same surname as my uncle people trusted me.”
Only the ride was short-lived, and it wasn’t long before police were on John’s case, eventually arresting him in a phone booth while on the getaway from a robbery.
“When I was 18 the police set surveillance on me and just waited for me to commit a robbery. When they did arrest me I lied and denied everything. They ended up charging me with conspiracy to commit robbery and nine counts of armed robbery.”
“I was put into custody, and because of my step-dad and uncle, I was considered a high escape risk and classed as a category A prisoner. They had me in a segregation unit and then transferred me to a young offenders wing of an adult prison. I stayed there for a year,” he says.
Obsessed with defying authority
Prison wasn’t the end of the world for John, because it gave him status and allowed him to continue pushing boundaries with authority and the law. It became a point of pride, achieving the complete opposite of the police officers’ desired outcome.
“The prison officers respected me, the prisoners respected me, and I was proud of what I’d achieved. It’s bizarre. It feeds into itself,” he says of his time behind bars.
John was risking a 16 year sentence by going to trial, but just two days before he was due for his day in court, the prosecution realized the case was flimsy at best, and instead offered him a plea bargain. John accepted the plea bargain, a five year sentence.
John ended up in segregation twice. Deciding on the second time that he wasn’t going to let the guards do that to him again. He was going to win his freedom back, and not in a traditional sense of the word, but in a way that would ultimately become his lifeblood.
“I didn’t come out of my cell for 365 days. I remember reading an article about Nelson Mandela, and he said when he was in prison he used to smoke cigarettes, and the officers would use his smoking as punishment against him, so he gave up smoking so they couldn’t blackmail him with tobacco. I made the connection that if they thought putting me in the box was a punishment, I had not be punished by it.”
Work hard, play hard
“Up until this point I hadn’t trained and had no interest in sport, but I started getting into a ritual of getting up at 6am, and over a series of weeks I started doing circuits in my cell. I’d do burpees, step ups, sit ups and press ups, and I built it up to doing 1000 of each exercise.”
“My hatred towards them fueled me. I wasn’t training to get fit or lose weight, I did it to make me feel alive.”
“Someone told me you don’t live in prison, you just exist, but doing that made me feel alive. I didn’t want to become institutionalized.”
“It isn’t normal for a human to be locked in a cage, so when you lock people up that mental stimuli dies. You’re looking at four walls and not communicating with people. I didn’t understand any of the science behind it, but I know when I did that I had control of my own body, I went through that for just over a year, got to the end of the sentence after just over three years.”
A free man
By the time John was released he’d spent several years behind bars. It’s a length of time that to any layman would seem an adequate amount of time to change one’s ways, but not for John. He returned to normal life more determined than ever to continue committing even greater crimes.
“When I got released I was even worse. I didn’t want to be rehabilitated, because to me that meant being broken by a system. I’d been so proud they didn’t break me. I became determined on getting retribution. I wanted £1 million pound for every year in prison. But a week after release I found tracking devices on my car. I became quite paranoid and didn’t want to meet up with criminals, so I started getting in the cycle of not doing anything. I was partying a lot, taking a lot of drugs, moving house every three or four weeks, changing cars every other week,” he says of his life on the outside.
“After a month I took the bugs off and went to see legendary organized crime lawyer Henry Milner. I showed him the devices and he just said ‘whatever you’re doing, stop, because you will go to prison.’ Only I didn’t believe him, because I thought I’d be that one to outsmart them.”
Like many great success stories, it took a sobering rock bottom for John to realize he had to make some serious decisions about the direction his life was heading in, a point he’d been slowly edging towards ever since his release.
“I had to decide what to do. I knew if I continued to live in England it would be a matter of time before they tried to put me back in prison. I couldn’t live there so I traveled to Holland. I was relatively happy, but needed to make money so I went down to Spain. Life there was exactly how you’d imagine a criminal would live. I didn’t respect myself and I didn’t respect money.”
“One day while over there I got a phone call from a friend I’d been arrested with all those years before who’d just been released from prison and was inviting me to his birthday.”
“I flew back to Gatwick airport, got a mobile phone from the airport, and then he dropped me off at my mom’s. The phone rang the next morning and I thought it was my friend who picked me up from the airport, but it was a guy called Kevin. Kevin was my stepdad’s best mate and a prolific criminal. I went to meet Kevin for breakfast and he asked me if I wanted to go to work. I said no, so then he asked me just to show him a big money storage unit in Kent. I was in two minds, but I thought it was just a favor so agreed to do it.”
“Unbeknownst to me, getting in Kevin’s car that day was the best and worst decision I’d ever made.”
Look out for next week’s episode of Xero Gravity to hear what happened in Kevin’s car and the odds John went on to overcome in forging himself a new career free from crime.