A former gangland enforcer has revealed how top cops presented him with a bravery award -- unaware he was serving time in jail for attempted extortion.

John Lawson, 49, was deeply involved in the criminal underworld where he would dish out beatings, kidnap people and even planned a murder.

The dad-of-four eventually changed his wicked ways and became a church minister after serving time in jail when he was caught for attempted extortion.

But while out on bail and awaiting trial, John saved nine people from a burning building.

He was locked up at high-security Saughton Prison in Edinburgh where his wife revealed he had been nominated for a bravery award during a visit.

Luckily, he was transferred to the low security Castle Huntly Prison in Perth and Kinross a week before he was due to accept the gong in late 2005.

He said he was allowed to put on a suit and take off handcuffs in order to shake hands with police top brass -- who were unaware he had been on day release from prison.

John, originally from Glasgow, said: "When I was back in prison, my wife told me I'd been awarded a bravery award from the police and the fire brigade for saving nine people's lives.

"I was staying in an open prison close to the date of the ceremony.

"I was allowed out for the day and got dressed up for the occasion. It was surreal being out after spending most of the last 14 months locked up in jail.

"I was just a member of the public to them. On one side of the venue they had all these police officers getting their awards and on the other side were outstanding members of the public.

"So when I went to the award ceremony I was dressed in a suit so they wouldn't have known I'd come from prison that day.

"I shook hands with the chief constable and the fire chief then picked up my awards and got changed to get back to prison as quickly as possible.

"I got a good reaction from the senior officers when I went back to prison who were quite pleased I'd got the award.

"And some of the other prisoners thought it was quite funny that I went out and met all those coppers and went straight back to prison."

While working as a bouncer, John had kicked down a door and woke up those who were sleeping in burning building in the Gorgie area of Edinburgh.

He saved nine people from the flats and was later thanked by top emergency service workers who were unaware of his background.

But, despite recognition of his bravery from the fire service and police, the incident was used as an argument against him in court.

He said: "I had just finished working on the doors. I was driving down Gorgie Road in Edinburgh at around 3am to drop my work mate off.

"There was smoke coming out of a close of flats and shops. There were people banging on the doors and windows yelling out that there was a fire.

"Some kids had got some firelighters from the local garage and shut them behind the shutters and set fire to the building.

"I kicked the door in and went from flat to flat and woke everyone up to get them out and eventually got to the top floor to carry some elderly people out of the burning flames.

"But when I was back up in court, my lawyer said to the judge that 'he isn't that bad, he just saved nine people from a fire' but they used that against me.

"They said 'that just shows the mentality of the guy - normal people would stay outside and phone the fire brigade. He didn't even consider what would happen to him. He could have died in there'.

"So they slapped me in the face with that one."

Since the 1980s, John had served time in prisons for his crimes working with gangs in Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool.

But he now volunteers as a minister with Escape Ministries in Newhaven, East Sussex.

During his last prison sentence for extortion in 2004, he joined a bible study group with the intent of stealing some biscuits and cake.

But it was while serving time at Saughton Prison in Edinburgh that the son of a policeman joined a Christian fellowship and turned a corner in his life.

He has since travelled the world telling of his remarkable story to cons in some of the toughest prisons in countries such as France, Germany, India and Nigeria.

He added: "I thought Christians were weak, vulnerable, pathetic people - I planned to fill my pockets as soon as they were all Christianising with each other.

"I couldn't figure out how these criminals were getting so much joy in jail. I thought they'd been smoking too much dope or something.

"But I realise now that they knew who God was at that point and I didn't. I never even got the biscuits and cake that I initially came for.

"I had three years to sit in my cell and absorb the bible. I really responded to the message of the pastor who visited and learned a lot from it.

"As I travel around the world, I get a lot of letters from prisoners who have really appreciated my story and hopefully it helps them find a new path."

His mother Josephine, 70, is proud of the change her son has made in his life since leaving prison for the last time.

She said: "I didn't know the half of what he did. I never knew anything about it until he went to jail. I only found out when he last went to prison.

"It's remarkable to see the change in him since he has given his life to the Lord. I'm so proud of him now. He's doing what God wants him to do. He's showing people that they can change after prison."

John was speaking while signing copies of his biography 'If a Wicked Man' in Glasgow.