At Pulse we like to do things a little differently.
We made the decision awhile back that not all of our content had to necessarily be Budapest-centric.
Pulse wanted to go out there & find stories that will hopefully enthrall our readers.
First up in this new series is an incredible tale.
In an exclusive interview, we caught up with the brilliant Shaun Attwood.
Shaun is a best-selling author, activist & public speaker who has appeared twice on Ted Talks.
After moving to America in the early nineties, Shaun found himself embroiled in the ecstasy trade.
Here he talks about his life as an ecstasy king pin, why the Netflix hit Narcos is complete nonsense & how a visit from the swat team landed him in America’s most dangerous prison.
What’s your background? Which part of England did you grow up in and what was it like there?
I am from a little town in between Liverpool & Manchester called Widnes. It’s a chemical manufacturing town so I didn’t grow up with much money. But I got interested in the stock market as a teenager & that’s how I ended up making all that money in America.
And how did you become interested in the stock market?
I had a teacher, (Mr. Dillion) who taught economics & he saw I was interested in it and he started to give me classes on my own. We would read the financial times & he would explain what all the numbers meant. It’s like learning a foreigner language the stock market. And he just took time to help me learn the basics of that language.
What took you out to America?
I had a couple of aunts who lived in Arizona. I used to visit them when I was a teenager. Coming from The North of England where the sun is never shining & it’s all rain. So, in the Arizona desert where it’s so warm & everybody is really happy when they hear you accent, that made me want to move out there.
When was that?
You worked as a stock broker when you first arrived?
I wanted to be an investment analyst but in Arizona all the jobs were stock market jobs. So, that’s what I did to get my foot in the door.
And what was that like?
In the beginning there was lots of cold calling. I had to call 500 people per day. I had to be in the office every morning at 6 am for a sales meeting. We worked very long & stressful hours.
Did you enjoy it?
I did until I got burned out. Then I saw the potential of making money from ecstasy.
From what I understand you had already made a million on the stock market. So, you were already financially set. What made you want to deal ecstasy at that time?
Pablo Escobar was worth 30 billion dollars & his brother said to him “Why don’t we just buy our own island and live peacefully for the rest of our lives? And Pablo Escobar responded, “You want me to go to some boring old island when I have the excitement of running drugs & all this chaos going on?” You get addicted to being a character in the scene.
I was worth two million in the stock market but I wasn’t getting all that much attention.
So, going from being nobody in the UK to suddenly throwing rave parties for thousands of people. Got all these people working for me selling ecstasy. Got my own bouncers. All that stuff is more addictive than the drugs.
And the dealing all started through the parties?
It’s ego. My ego was as big as the Grand Canyon back then.
The parties were like a couple of hundred people in the beginning. Then it went up to a couple of thousand. The biggest one I ever had was with about ten thousand people. Things were going great for a while until the swat team knocked down my door.
Let’s go back to that. How did you first get into dealing?
In the beginning I was just buying pills for me & my friends on weekends. I wasn’t selling them to my friends. I was just giving them to my friends. But then I started to see the business potential of it (ecstasy). The local dealers couldn’t get more than 100 pills at a time, so I took a chance & drove out to LA. I bought like one thousand pills at about 12 dollars a pill. And in Phoenix I could sell these pills for about 25 to 30 dollars. They sold very rapidly & it was like an experiment that was successful. It just escalated from there.
That’s 25-30 dollars a pill?
At first. Then I started to import from Holland where I was paying 3 dollars per pill.
What was your drug organziation like?
I would give the tablets to my people in the States for 10 dollars a pill on credit. I am selling 5000 pills at a time & then this guy is selling it to his people at 15 dollars a pill. Then the dealers are selling them in a club for 25 to 30 dollars. So, there was a whole structure to the organization.
How dangerous was it to deal? Where there any outside influences on your business apart from the police? I read that Sammy The Bull Gravano’s son had been ordered to murder you?
Yeah. Sammy’s son told me that in prison. When I was taking the drugs & dealing, I am thinking that I am some character out of a Tarantino movie. But once I sobered up and Sammy the Bull’s son told me that, I couldn’t understand how I was still alive. Even to this day. I had put my head in the lion’s mouth so many times that I can’t believe that I’m still alive.
And how did you end up getting captured? You were no longer dealing at that time, right?
Yes. I thought that they had to catch you dealing drugs but they don’t. All it takes is someone from your past to tell them (the police) that they did a deal with you & that’s all the evidence that they need.
Is there a statute of limitations or can they arrest you anytime?
In Arizona the statute of limitations is seven years.
You were quite unlucky in the sense that you’d given up dealing by the time of your arrest?
Yeah. They had ten witness statements. They never caught me with any drugs. They never caught me talking about any major drug deals. They did hear me talking about personal use on the phone & that was it.
Did you go to trial?
No. Nobody goes to trial. 98% of the cases in Arizona you sign a plea bargain. Because if you go to trial & cost the state money they will make an example out of you. There was a guy who had a similar case as mine who went to trial before me and he got two hundred years. The District Attorney made it clear if I went to trial & was found guilty that I would get two hundred years.
The justice system is a business model. If you go to the trial you are taking away the states money.
What happened after you took the plea deal?
I was in the remand jail for 26 months. I was fighting my case & as I wouldn’t cooperate with the DA did all kinds of dirty tricks. Her final one was she told the prison system I had a thirty-four-year sentence instead of nine and a half years (that we agreed to). So that’s how I ended up fast tracked to the Supermax.
Tell us about the Supermax?
You very rarely get out of your cell. The guards all have on the Darth Vader outfits, the shank proof body armor. You’re allowed out to have a shower every three days. They handcuff you through a hole in the door. They open the door and say we are going to walk to the shower if you signal to another prisoner or turn your head, we are going to grab you and smash your face into the concrete. Then they leave you in the shower for hours on end. And you can imagine what it’s like in there. With mould, jizz & insects.
You’ve talked extensively about the different gangs in prison. Can you describe how the gangs work?
It’s all racial gangs. In the case of Arizona. It’s whites, blacks, Mexicans & Mexican Americans. Now as soon as I go in Neo-Nazi skinheads from the Aryan Brotherhood say, “hey we want a word with you, get in that cell”. You can’t say no as they are just going to smash you there and then into the wall. So, in the cell they want to see my charges. My charges are on a little sheet. On a little print out. I didn’t know how to behave in prison so they almost beat me up.
And what were they looking for?
They were ok with my charge sheet as they want to find people who are in for sex offences. It is KOS for prisoners who are in for sex offences. KOS is kill on sight. And that’s how (the Aryan brotherhood) earn their tattoos by killing & beating people up.
It’s kind of like a lawless state in prisons. Why is that? Why does no one on the outside really care about what happens inside?
The media only focuses on extreme crimes. Prisoners who are child molesters, rapists & murderers. But since the war on drugs, most arrests are of young people with weed possession. The average arrest is a black or Mexican kid with a little bit of weed. It’s all about filling these private prisons up to make money off the back of it. People don’t care about prisoners because of the media & they don’t understand what is going on.
Some of your stories are horrific. What was the worst thing you witnessed in prison?
The worst thing that I knew had happened, I didn’t physically see it, was what happened to my friend Xena. She was gangraped by other inmate’s multiple times. She was beaten unconscious & they shoved things inside of her anus including a broom stick. She told them that she didn’t care if she lived or died anymore. She came up with an idea & the next time they tried to rape her, the first guy who put his hand on her she plucked his eyeball out. She plucked two different rapists eyeballs out & they left her alone after that.
Wow. That’s intense. What about yourself? How did you survive prison?
Over one hundred people were arrested with me including some of my bouncers so at first, they were protecting me. After we were sent to different jails I got mafia protection from a guy called Two Tony’s. He’d killed a lot of people. He was looking for someone to write his life story, so I became his official biographer & he protected me.
How long were you in prison for?
I was in prison for six years almost.
What’s the routine like?
It’s quite boring really. You wake up early. Go for breakfast. Come back to your cell, do some working out, some reading, some writing. Then go for your next meal. Depending on your security level, at night time they lock you down again & do a head count. And it’s the same every day.
Who was the most dangerous prisoner in the Supermax?
The most dangerous prison in Arizona history was a guy named Bonsai. He was like the bogey man. As a young person he’d come to prison on a short sentence for some burglaries. I think his real name was Robert Wayne Vickers. One morning his cellmate didn’t wake him up for breakfast, so Robert murdered him. He stabbed him with a shank made out of a toothbrush. He carved the word bonsai into his cellmate’s chest but he spelt it wrong. Instead of bo- he wrote ba. And when the guard came & asked why he had killed his cellmate, Bonsai said because he didn’t wake me up for breakfast & he drank my cool aid.
Now he is going back & forth to court as he’s murdered someone.
He gets out of his handcuffs in court, stabs a guard and is running around the courtroom.
This goes on & on.
He is escaping out of cells. They put him in a high security prison. One day he shows his neighbor (in the next cell) a picture of his niece. The neighbor makes a crude sexual comment.
Bonsai then builds a bomb out of a hair care product. He makes the bomb inside a milk carton. And as he is going to the shower, he looks over at his neighbor throws the bomb and the guy burns to death.
The smoke coming from him almost killed all the prisoners in the building as the jail wasn’t very well ventilated.
He was considered so dangerous that he was the only prisoner to have a private shower built in his cell & his cell door was welded shut.
The only one time he ever got out again was when they executed him.
Who was your worst cellmate?
I had a guy who was breaking into drug dealers house. He was a home invader torturer and he didn’t like me at all. He had a padlock in a sock and he threatened to smash my skull in when I first met him. After a short time I managed to get moved.
When did you get released?
I got released in December 2007.
Did you go back to the UK or are you still in The States?
I am banned from America for life. I agreed to be banned for life in my plea bargain.
What was it like readjusting to life back in the UK after you had gotten out of prison?
It took a year really. I was a bit institutionalized. It took a year of living at my parents’ house before I could move to London and get all my work stuff going. I was happy to be free but the rules you live by in prison doesn’t work in society.
Tell us about your first novel Hard Time?
Well, Hard Time really began with me just documenting the prison conditions in letters & in my blog Jon’s Jail Journal in 2004.
When did Hard Time come out?
Hard Time was published in 2010.
And what about some of your other novels?
I have written ten true crime novels. In December of 2018 I have a thousand-page book coming out about Pablo Escobar.
And what inspired that book? Are you a big fan of The Netflix show Narcos?
Well, Narcos is a DEA fairytale. It’s the good guys, American drug enforcement heroes kicking the butts of the traffickers. When that is far too simplified versus the reality of what is going on in these countries.
Are there any films or TV shows that get things right when it comes to trafficking and prison?
There is a really good movie called Shot Caller. In terms of The Aryan Brotherhood Prison gang, I thought Shot Caller really represented them the best. American History X is also pretty close.
I am a huge fan of Ed Bunker’s No Beast So Fierce. Do you have any favorite books about prison life?
I like Bunkers style. I think of the Russian ones like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Viktor Frankl wrote about being in the concentration camps. He’s inspirational and talks about how people survive in dark times.
As well as your novels, you’ve done a couple of Ted Talks. How does one get to do a Ted?
I just got contacted by them (Ted). They said they wanted me to go & do one in Switzerland. So how it works is they get you to record a talk and then send it to them. It has to be 17-18 mins. They then mentor you to how to develop the talk and then I flew out to Switzerland & did it.
What’s your life like now?
Oh, my goodness. I do like over a hundred talks a year across the whole of the UK. And if I am not doing talks then I am constantly writing. I am going to have my Two Tony’s book come out this year.
And finally, if there was anything you could do differently when you first went out to Arizona what would it be?
If I had just stayed in the stock market I would be worth about ten million now. So choosing, excitement, fast cash & drugs I lost absolutely everything. But I credit going to prison now with turning my life in a completely new positive direction.
If you like what you read hear, please check Shaun out on social media.
All the links you need are below.
Additional reporting on this article was provided by Virag Eszter Toth.