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The Johnsons – they were the Godfathers of Cheltenham

By This is Gloucestershire  |  Posted: August 08, 2008

FOR more than 20 years the Johnsons have been the godfathers of Cheltenham's criminal underworld. Their name has become synonymous with violence, dishonesty and intimidation.

Whether it was conning the vulnerable or raiding the wealthy, no target was too big or small if it meant earning a quick buck.

They've always claimed to be small-time crooks – a group of persecuted, misunderstood travellers – but there is a darker side to the roguish face they present to the world.

Those brave enough to stand up to them are forced into witness protection for their own safety. Those who don't dare are sworn to silence.

Police say crime has dropped significantly since seven members of the family members have been behind bars, jailed for a total of 69 years between them.

The Johnson dynasty stretches back to post-war Cheltenham when 16-year-old Muriel Slender married travelling Irishman Albert Johnson in 1952.

It was the start of a relationship between two families that have dominated Cheltenham's criminal fraternity ever since.

The pair had eight children, Jimmy, Ricky, Lee, Danny, Martin, Tracy, Jane and Julie who, over the years, had children who spread throughout Hester's Way and St Paul's.

They weren't all bad – but the villains of the clan were Ricky and Jimmy, Ricky's sons Chad, Albi, and Sonny, and his nephew Danny O'Loughlin.

Jimmy was the eldest and grew up to become a notorious household name.

The 54-year-old, who is currently serving four-and-a-half years for stealing a cash machine, has fiercely defended his family.

He claims they are persecuted travellers who are merely doing what they can to survive.

His mother Muriel found herself a single parent of eight at the age of 36, after the death of husband Albert from cancer in 1972.

Jimmy took up the reins as head of the family and quickly made a name for himself with police. He married Kathleen, a member of the now equally notorious O'Loughlin family.

When he was 34, Jimmy was stabbed and nearly died. A year later, in 1989, the self-taught antiques expert was charged with attempted murder.

That sparked his first rooftop protest at Horfield Prison, Bristol, in March 1990.

He staged another rooftop protest in 1996 and was banned from every council building in Cheltenham after serial squatting.

Inspired by Jimmy's head for heights, his sister Jane – who also married into the O'Loughlin family – took to the rooftops of the Gloucestershire Echo in May 1995.

She was protesting against the jailing for five years of Danny O'Loughlin and accomplice John Bloomfield after they attacked off-duty policeman Robert Holt with a claw hammer at Royal Well taxi rank in Cheltenham.

The family staged a sit-in at lawyer Tim Robinson's office in Hester's Way and a rooftop protest at Cheltenham Magistrates' Court.

They even took their 'fight for justice' to Buckingham Palace – although that ended up with Lee Johnson being jailed for three months after he smashed the windscreen of a car in London.

Jimmy was back to his old tricks in 2000 and staged a bizarre tree-top protest after he was charged with stealing caravans.

Shouting from his 35ft vantage point up a leylandii, behind St Lawrence's Church in Swindon Village, he threatened to hurl himself to the ground in the 18-hour stand-off with police.

The tree-top stunt came in response to his impending trial for stealing caravans in 1998 with his nephew Chad and two associates. He was later sentenced to two years for theft.

As the years passed, it was Ricky who became the more audacious criminal of the family, along with his sons Chad, Sonny and Albi.

It was in 1995 that Ricky first made the move from small-time crook to big-time fraudster.

Then 41, he set up Christian Construction – a charity he said would take young criminals off the streets and teach them a trade – after claiming he'd witnessed a miracle.

He said he'd gone to the war memorial in Salperton to decide whether to give up crime.

He flipped a 50p piece, but instead of landing in his hand, it landed on the hand of the statue of Jesus.

But just two years later Ricky was starting a three-year jail sentence for using Christian Construction as a front to con vulnerable pensioners out of thousands of pounds.

He pretended he was conducting essential building work and claimed all proceeds went to charity.

On his release from jail, Ricky maintained he had been acting on a request from God and begged forgiveness. "I hope they can see that God moves in mysterious ways," he said.

He still wears a 50p piece around his neck and was often seen fiddling with it as he sat through his trial at Reading.

His easy demeanour and undoubted charisma was evident throughout the two-month trial when he was found guilty of conspiracy to burgle 13 stately homes of antiques worth more than £80 million.

Far from shying away from the media, the 54-year-old was happy to sit and chat to reporters about life over a bowl of chips in the court canteen.

He loves to discuss his teenage antics – from police chases to drunken burglaries – as if they were an episode from the Keystone Cops.

A wild grin spreads across his weather-beaten face as he relays the tale of how he and two mates broke into a safe in Cheltenham.

His chuckle erupts into a manic laugh as he explains how the contents caught fire when the chainsaw they were using to try to break into the steel container overheated.

On the surface, he appears to adopt an "act now, think later" ethos. But the twinkle in Ricky's eye tells a different story and five minutes in his company leaves no doubt that every action is carefully calculated.

When his son Chad was jailed for marrying 70-year-old Tania Campbell in order to get his hands on her fortune, Ricky went to great lengths to make sure the schizophrenic pensioner was being looked after. He visited her regularly, invited her to Christmas lunch and generally made sure she was all right.

Cynics might say he was making an investment in what was left of her fortune, while others say he was merely doing the decent thing and was, deep down, ashamed that his son sank so low.

While there have certainly been moments of black humour in the Johnson criminal merry-go-round, there were also times when they sank beyond redemption.

The marriage of Chad Johnson to Tania Campbell, a vulnerable woman 32 years his senior, must be the worst.

The diagnosed schizophrenic, who spent her adult life in and out of psychiatric care, was left homeless and nearly bankrupt after the sham marriage.

With no family and few friends to protect her, Tania was only too happy to sign her house over to her 'Chaddie' after their marriage at Cheltenham Register Office in 2002.

Little did she know Chad shared a caravan with his partner Carly Gill and their children at Cleeve Prior, Evesham.

He tricked her into signing blank cheques for £25,000 and left her with debts of £90,000 before he was jailed for three-and-a-half years for conspiracy to defraud.

To this day Tania is convinced he will come home to her. But those who watched Chad kiss Carly through the glass of the dock at Reading Crown Court know differently.

One of the Johnsons' constant problems has been finding a place to live. For they are not the best of neighbours.

Unable to find a pied-a-terre in Cheltenham, a dozen of them and assorted animals left the town and set up camp in Withington in March 2001 without planning permission.

They remained for nearly three years before Cotswold District Council managed to move them on.

Their next stop was a field near Andoversford, which became the scene of several police raids.

Reporters who have visited the site have always found them pristine.

The caravans are kitted out with widescreen TVs, stereos and microwaves, as well as some fine antiques.

But a complete disregard for the law means police are never far from the Johnson camp. Their paths cross with such regularity that many officers are on first name terms with them.

At the peak of their criminal activities, it is thought the family were responsible for three major crimes a week in the county.

But to this day Jimmy maintains his family are not malicious.

In a bid to prove it, Jimmy invited TV cameras to the family's woodland camp near Northleach in 2003.

The move backfired when drifter Martin Bowen was found dead in a car, a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The fly-on-the-wall documentary was supposed to show the world the family had changed.

Instead, 'Summer with the Johnsons' ended up being crucial evidence in an inquest into the death of the man they called "a lovable nutter".

That didn't stop the family selling bootleg DVDs of the programme on the streets of Cheltenham the next day for £5 each.

In 2004, the self-professed "untouchable" son of Ricky, Sonny Johnson, was given a five-year Asbo.

His campaign of terror brought havoc to Hester's Way, Fiddler's Green, Rowanfield, Springbank, St Mark's, The Vineyards, Wyman's Brook, Marle Hill, Whaddon, Lynworth, St Paul's and Fairview.

His reign was ended by grandmother Diana Morgan, who catalogued his behaviour.

It was her evidence that convinced the courts to impose the order – although she was put under police protection and had to leave Hester's Way for a secret address.

Sonny, 24, is now serving a two-year sentence for his role in the conspiracy to steal £365,000 of metal.

Like his cousin Chad, Danny O'Loughlin started as a low-level crook but emerged to become one of the key players in the Johnson criminal game.

Danny, jailed for 19 years for the stately home raids and the precious metal thefts, is related to the Johnsons through his father Paul who married Jimmy and Ricky's sister Jane.

The father-of-five grew up around the Johnsons and split his time between his Nine-Mile Ride caravan site in Berkshire where his children live, and the Johnsons' Cleeve Prior site in Evesham where his girlfriend Crystal stays.

He stood trial a decade ago with Chad for carrying out burglaries on country homes. He was accused of committing 80 raids involving the theft of £446,000 of antiques.

The tentacles of the Johnson clan spread far beyond the confines of a police cell and the court room.

Even their lawyer, Tim Robinson, was jailed for seven years in 2001 for running a massive legal aid fraud.

His head clerk, Howard Banton, was once a co-defendant with Jimmy Johnson, accused of intimidating witnesses.

He was cleared of that charge but later went to prison for four years for his part in the Robinson fraud.

The so-called "Prince of Whaddon", Sean Lamb (pictured), jailed in 2005 for the murder of Terry Rogers, first came to the courts' attention for his part in Ricky's Christian Connections building scam. Lamb's sister Julie was Ricky Johnson's partner.

Then there was teen tearaway Vinnie Smith – aka Pyjama Boy – given into the custody of Jimmy Johnson as his own in 1993 when he was 12 years old.

Two years later, Smith was before the courts charged with 15 offences. In 2004 he was jailed for five years for robbing a newsagents.

Ironically, the person who sealed their fate was one of their own adopted sons.

Timothy Margerrison lived with the Johnsons at Cleeve Prior. He tipped police off after he became wracked with guilt when Chad fleeced Tania Campbell.

Like Martin Bowen, Margerrison was taken in by the Johnsons at a low point in his life. But he was taunted and ridiculed. And the heroin addict became disillusioned with life on the Johnson campsite.

Fed up with the taunts, he spilled the beans on Chad's marriage.

Detectives knew a break like this might never happen again. They convinced him that once he'd breached the code of silence he may as well tell the whole story.

Margerrison gave evidence against the Johnsons in the stately home trials and is now in witness protection.

It was the breakthrough the police needed to finally shut the Johnsons down for good.

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