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Sonny, the rebel who has found a cause

WHEN Sonny Leitch talks, people tend to listen. He unfurls his early career in good gangster tradition, from the Christian boy who dared to walk on the wild side, to the armed robber who teamed up with the legendary Johnny Ramensky in Peterhead Prison.

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The intervening years, he fondly recalls under the headings of desertion from the Navy, followed by a sojourn with the head-hunter tribes of Borneo, and the jailbird escapes which earned him the nicknames Saughton Harrier and Danger Man. It could be the script of a James Cagney movie and you get the feeling that Sonny, real name William, 64, knows it. He is talking from the local youth centre on a rain-lashed day in Craigneuk, Wishaw, where for the past 14 years he has devoted his time to voluntary work. Sonny is an affable character, silver-haired with generous features, who relishes in delaying the denouement until he offers round bacon rolls, courtesy of the centre's canteen lady, Doris. Cagney comes in after Doris serves up the tea, as he reveals how he used his life of crime, or ''turned yellow'' as the movie legend would say, to save youngsters in his home town from the same crooked fate. Most recently, his ''Angels With Dirty Faces'' (and there have been many), have included hermit Robert Sinclair, 51, the man ordered by the courts to live in a house after surviving two decades in the wild. It seemed almost fitting that Sonny, who had spent all those years in a wilderness of his own, the man who jokes about having ''contract killer'' on his passport (by way of the fact he used to tender his services to slaughterhouses) should get the chance to tell his story. Asked about the background to the friendship, he explains that the infamous safe-blower Ramensky introduced them in the late 1960s while they were all serving time in Peterhead. Mr Sinclair, then 21, had gone through the borstal system and was immediately adopted by the great escape man, mainly because fair-haired Sinclair, who shared Ramensky's Eastern European looks, was teased about being a long-lost son. It was a much-cherished observation. The master safe-blower, known as ''Gentle Johnny'', possessed unrivalled talents which were utilised by the Government during the war when he was parachuted behind enemy lines to steal top-secret documents from Mussolini. He was unique in being allowed the duplicity of model prisoner and revered criminal, and Mr Sinclair, who was already on the path to a hermit existence, was relieved to be taken into such an elitist fold. The backwoodsman was in prison for a string of petty thefts and would steal to eat and keep warm, a habit he continued until last month when the courts gave him a final chance at freedom and ruled he lived in a house. Dubbed Scotland's Davy Crockett by the media, he had tried to hang himself following a failed attempt at ''normal life''. But this time, it was Sonny who took him into his West Lothian home. Sonny casts a paternal glance at his protege before launching into the next instalment. He is acutely aware that Mr Sinclair would have made another suicide bid but was prevented because, in his own words: ''I really picked up because I realised somebody cared about me.'' In fact, Sonny started caring for him 30 years ago. ''When Rab arrived at Peterhead he was just a young laddie, he did not have a clue about anything, he was in with all the heavy gangsters that they could not contain. In our wee group, we preferred to pore over yachting or mountaineering magazines, all things we would like to do with our lives. ''And this was the story for us day after day, month after month, year after year, and it would always be 'One day I am going to do this or be that', except it never happened. We all lived in this airy fairy world of what we would do on the outside and before we even got the chance we found ourselves back on the inside.'' In total, Sonny spent 34 years dreaming on a tour of Scotland's prisons, doing time for car theft, serious assault, and armed robbery. He was born in Craigneuk into a well-respected family and supposedly earned his alias during the Second World War when the village was shelled. The story goes that the lad was coaxed away from the live explosive with calls of ''sonny, sonny,'' by none other than Lord Belhaven, whose ancestral seat was once in the village. Away from the war-time traumas, the young William led a relatively normal childhood, occasionally indulging in the odd apple-plucking spree, with a young Thomas Joseph Winning for company, as the Cardinal grew up in the same neighbourhood. By the time he was 16, he had joined the Royal Navy and served in Korea. Sonny was a cook aboard HMS Consort when he made the rash decision to desert while docked at Sandakan in Borneo. ''It was 1953, Hogmanay, and the rest of the crew were more or less ashore, and I thought 'Well I'm not having it', so I dived into the Sandakan river and swam to the opposite bank.'' Luckily for Sonny, he bumped into the now-threatened indigenous Dayak tribe of northern Borneo. The head-hunters adopted him for six months and fed him a native diet of snake and monkey before he was captured and sent to a military corrective establishment in Kuala Lumpur. It was here Sonny really started to rebel and developed a penchant for the thrill of escape. The camp was based in deepest jungle territory and Sonny soon hatched a plan with five other inmates to escape. He was the first to go over. ''I pulled the grills off and got out into the camp. I was on the perimeter wire when the floodlights and everything went on and the wire got shook about like a baby's rattle with Sten gun fire. ''They had been tipped off there was an escape in progress. I wasn't injured but I was like a spider stuck to the fence. When there are bullets rattling about your ankles and there is no place to go, you freeze. ''So that was that, they put me into a concrete bunker and left me there for 90 days. Looking back, the concrete bunker is akin to a cell in Peterhead. You get a palliasse at night to sleep on and you are on bread and water rationing for three days. ''I was there for three months and lost all of my remission. They were trying to break the spirit, they would stand you out in the sun and march you about a white playground and the heat is hitting off you and you were like a strawberry. But they couldn't do anything with me, so they just left me locked up in a concrete cell with a steel grill door and a big shutter, when the steel door was opened up they came to you with your breakfast, dinner, and tea, and there was no toilet, they just put a hose in and washed that thing out.'' The Navy shipped Sonny back to England where he served three months at Shepton Mallet military prison in Somerset, before being discharged at the age of 21. Even at Shepton, he continued in unbridled mode and infuriated the guards with his well-worn catch phrase: ''Are there lions and tigers in the cells? For I will have them for pets.'' Life on the outside was short lived for the young man who returned to Craigneuk only to become embroiled in allegations of car theft, which earned 60 days in Glasgow's Barlinnie prison in 1956. ''When I went into Barlinnie you weren't allowed to talk, you had to speak out of the side of your mouth when on exercise and there were screws at that time saying 'ah, you are on the road, you are on the road'.'' It is apparent in Sonny's voice when he repeats these words that he, too, knew he was on a slippery slope that would last until he was 50. Yet his motivation, particularly on the subject of jailbreaks, appears justifiable. In 1967, he was in the process of a divorce and desperate to see his children when he broke out of Saughton. According to Sonny, he went over the wall in his boiler suit, peeled it off to reveal his track gear and joined the harriers who regularly trained near the prison. He is also still remembered in Aberdeen as Danger Man for his escape from Craiginches in 1981 when his father was seriously ill. This time, he used two planks of wood in a bid for freedom, but did not count on the 40ft drop on the other side. His landing was conveniently cushioned by a healthy rhubarb patch. When he suddenly mentions that Channel 5 and STV have approached Mr Sinclair to make a documentary, you begin to wonder if they might also want to reserve an option on the Sonny story. Today, however, he seems content enough reserving those rights for the 300 teenagers who use the Glencassels Community Project. Sonny was instrumental in establishing the centre and heads up the Craighill Youth and Community Project, aimed at teaching youngsters outdoor skills in an effort to steer them away from crime and drug addiction. Mr Sinclair is also involved in passing on the skills he acquired while living in Scotland's woods. Doris interrupts at this point, explaining that Sonny bought the kids football strips and laid on a pensioners' tea by bare-knuckle fighting in Edinburgh. He would earn #200 a time in illegal bouts and, according to Doris, ''came out without a mark.'' Sonny elaborates: ''At 50, I thought if I can do something with the filth of my life, then I can do something for these kids. I was always open and honest, I was not frightening them, just telling them the facts. ''I have never ever given up on the kids of Craigneuk, they have had the entrails kicked out them with unemployment. This place was once the hub of industry but all we have left is industrial waste.'' All the while I am watching Doris for the odd disbelieving look, raised eyebrow, or furrowed brow in reaction to this remarkable life story. But the only occasion she calls him to task is when he tells me about his family of three children, an ex-wife, and current partner Edith. ''Three?'' Doris howls. ''You've got little Sonnies everywhere, you were a bit of a lad in your day.'' Sonny quickly moves on to the next instalment. ''I've been told my story would blow Jimmy Boyle's out of the water, now did I tell you about my cannabis patent . . ?''

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