Who says crime pays? Ronnie Knight is broke and living in sheltered housing... (2023)

Ex-husband of Babs Windsor. Gangster king of the Costa del Crooks. Today, Ronnie Knight is broke and living in sheltered housing...

For Ronnie Knight, the worst thing that can happen is for a man to lose face. So when we meet, I'm not too surprised to find he's wearing a pair of handmade Spanish shoes and a white tailored shirt.

He likes to look dapper. That's why Barbara Windsor, his former wife of 22 years, fell for him, he says. 'She said women love to see a man with his shoes and socks on. She told me it's why she fell for me, because I had my suit on.'

That was back in the days when Knight had wads of cash in his bespoke pockets.

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Who says crime pays? Ronnie Knight is broke and living in sheltered housing... (1)

Today, though, the man jailed for his involvement in the £6 million armed robbery at a Security Express depot in Shoreditch, East London, is 73, 'skint' and getting by on a state pension.

After 11 years on the run, living it up on

the Costa del Sol, he has had to settle for a £360-a-month rented one-bedroom flat in a sheltered housing complex for the elderly in Cambridge.

Knight is clearly sensitive about this. He tells me to describe him as a 'loveable rascal', not a 'gangster'; and he prefers 'luxury flat' to 'sheltered housing'.

Last month, when a newspaper photograph showed him looking less than dapper in a shapeless sweater and slacks, he says it hurt him 'more than getting seven years [his prison sentence].'

Ramming home the message, he adds: 'I don't want people feeling sorry for me

because I'm Ronnie Knight. You have to put on a face, show you're the guv'nor.

'I don't want people to know I'm skint, because when you're a skint person nobody wants to know you.

'A few months ago, I saw Freddie Foreman (a fellow 'rascal', also jailed for his role in the Security Express robbery) at a funeral. He had no idea I had no money. I don't want to let anyone know. I can't. It's pride.

'I've always had money. I remember I was in a restaurant in the West End with Barbara one day, and I saw this couple with these two kids with a menu, saying: "We can't afford this, we can't afford that."

'I called the waiter over and said "Give them what they want. I'll pay for it." That made me feel fantastic.

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'Now, I can't really take a young lady out and treat her how I'd like. I've been used to giving them a lovely time with a terrific meal, but I can't do that - and that's sad.

'These flats, though, are beautiful. They're all luxury flats. The only thing missing is a swimming pool. It's true that you can't rent a place there until you're 65. But everything else there is perfect.'

Knight doesn't show me his ' luxurious' home, though. Instead, we have arranged to meet at his friend Jim's house, a few miles away. Jim, I'm told, is a property developer who's 'done well' in the present boom.

There are two peacock statues in his garden, a huge outdoor bar, a repro barrel-organ and a Harley Davidson motorbike.

It turns out that Jim is something of a good Samaritan, as far as Knight is concerned, regularly whisking him off to a villa in Portugal and taking him out for meals. There's also a friend that Knight calls 'the other Jim', and a 'publican called Phil'.

Otherwise, he says, he spends his days alone in his 'luxury flat' in front of the television.

'I never go out until about 6pm. Then I'll go for walks around Cambridge, unless it's raining. If it's raining, you're never going to get me out. I walk for miles, regular as clockwork. I walk and walk and walk.

'I love being on my own. I love watching CSI [the TV crime drama] on a Tuesday and Saturday. It's my favourite, isn't it?' He turns to Jim-thepropertydeveloper, who nods.

Until two years ago, Knight was living in Barnet, North London, with Diane Lumley - a mother of three children - who is 29 years his junior.

They had met during his home visits, at the end of his sentence for handling £314,813 from the Security Express robbery, and moved in together upon his release.

Today, he blames her late father, Jim, for his penury. 'I got a hell of a lot of money from the newspapers to come home from Spain,' he says. 'One paper gave me £185,000, and a TV journalist came and offered me £20,000 to be on the plane back with me.

'Diane's father, Jim, looked after my affairs. He was a friend of mine - I've known him since we were schoolkids. He used to come over to the villa in Spain and we got close.'

I point out that during his trial, Knight pleaded poverty - claiming that he had lost £1million when the Spanish property market crashed.

'I can say what I like when I'm in court, can't I?' he says. 'Anyway, Jim died a couple of weeks before I came home, and when I got out of jail I discovered all the money was gone.

'What can I say? He was an old pal of mine who I trusted. He must have known he was going to die - otherwise he wouldn't have dared touch it.

'It was the first time I'd been f***** in my life. That's when you find out who your friends are, when the money's gone. Sad, isn't it?'

By this point, Knight has moved on from lager to white wine and is starting to think about how he will look in print.

He wants me to mention that the night before, a 'fella called Tony who's got a great big box at West Ham' invited him to watch a match. Oh, and he also wants a plug for his newly launched internet site for sex toys, from which he hopes to earn a legitimate crust.

It's all a far cry from his former incarnation as a flashy nightclub owner, dripping with bling, who regularly rubbed shoulders with celebrities before he fled from Britain in 1983.

On the so-called Costa del Crime - the sun-and-sangria bolt-hole where British criminals used to live openly without fear of extradition - he owned a villa called El Limonar at Benalmadena, two flats on the Marbella golden mile and a small townhouse at Mijas.

His 22-year-marriage to Barbara effectively ended the day he boarded the plane to Spain.

'I've loved all the ladies in my life,' he says. 'But I found what I wanted with Barbara.'

If it weren't for her, he acknowledges, he would never have become a 'name' that has lodged in people's minds.

He has called Barbara 'a couple of times' since a debilitating case of the Epstein-Barr virus forced her to take a two-year break from her role in EastEnders.

'I do get embarrassed to phone up, in case he [her third husband, Scott Mitchell] answers,' Knight says.

I wonder if this 'embarrassment' might have something to do with his autobiography, Ronnie Knight: Memoirs And Confessions, published nine years ago, which reviewed Barbara's performances in the bedroom. She apparently impersonated Dick Turpin ('stand and deliver'), Dick Whittington ('stark b****** naked except for thighlength boots and a floppy hat') and a Fairy Godmother ('in lacy suspenders, waving her magic wand').

Knight was in his late 20s and married to his first wife, June - with whom he had a son and daughter - when he met Barbara.

'What can I say? June and I were schoolkids, we left school together. Poor June, I don't really want to talk about her.

'I was introduced to Barbara by a fellow who was an extra in the film business. I thought "She's nice," and called her up a couple of times, then started taking her out.

'It's lovely to have a glamorous wife. I've always had money, you see. I had money coming in from everywhere. I owned all these clubs and bought and sold things. I ain't got receipts for it all, but that's the way life is.

'When I was young, where I came from, living in a sawdust yard, there was nothing else you could do but go out and try and get some money somehow.

'My ambition was always to be like my older brother Jimmy - to have smart clothes and plenty of money. As long as you didn't hurt anyone, no one was fussy where it came from. I do have this soft spot, you see.'

Knight says he didn't say goodbye to Barbara when he fled Britain in the wake of the Security Express robbery. 'The robbery had nothing to

do with it. The police said I was on the run, but I wasn't. I was going to go anyway. I knew Barbara wasn't going to go because she was fixed on this showbusiness thing.

'It was an addiction for her. I'd asked her to stop. I had enough money to look after both of us. But she didn't want to miss a part.

'We had a villa built in Spain, and when we went, she used to bring scripts over. She'd have the script, read it, then get up, phone her agent and fly home.

'It wasn't a holiday for me. It used to hurt me. What hurt the most were the number of New Years I spent on my own. I wanted her to turn the business down.

'I only left because she was always working. I wanted a life where she was home every night with me, even if I was cooking for her.

'Perhaps if she'd been in East-Enders, like she is now, it would have been different because she'd be home at night - and perhaps we'd still be together if I'd waited longer.

'But I couldn't wait any longer. She was always away. She went to the States for a year once, and I was left on my own. By the time of the robbery, I'd sold up everything. I was ready to go. Johnny [Knight's brother] asked me to take the money over for him so, of course, I did.

'I went when Barbara was working. I'd already said to her I was going, that everything was over there. She said: "I don't want you to go. I won't be doing this forever." But I'd had years of her saying that.

'I just woke up that morning and thought: "I'm going." The next morning, I woke up in brilliant sunshine. A couple of years later, Barbara phoned and said: "We should get a divorce." I said: "OK, mate." I got the papers through and I signed them.'

Knight had quickly set up home with a barmaid - Sue Haycock - who was 16 years his junior. They married in 1987. It was the high tidemark of the Costa del Crime, and Knight revelled in his role as one of its leaders.

He was certainly the biggest 'name' of the gang that had been dubbed the Famous Five - all wanted by Scotland Yard in connection with the Security Express robbery. At his wedding, he arrogantly sent out glasses of champagne to police monitoring the event.

Knight left his third wife in Spain when he returned to Britain in 1994, citing his mother Nellie's ailing health (she was suffering from Parkinson's) as the reason.

His big mistake was to think that he would never be put on trial - 'because no jury in the land could say they hadn't heard of me'. In fact, he was in prison - on remand - when his mother died, and did indeed have to stand trial.

'Sue had promised to wait for me, but I stopped calling her when I got seven years. I loved her, I loved 'em all, but she was a young girl, younger than me. I didn't want her to waste her life. That's the gentleman I am. She couldn't come home because the police had told her she was in trouble, too. They thought she was involved.

'When I left her, I said: "I'll be back." I thought I would. Eventually, she did come home - but by then I'd found someone else.'

Knight was introduced to Diane by her father - the man who later 'ripped' him off - during his weekend visits from jail.

'Sue couldn't understand how I could go with someone with three children, nor could anyone else, but I loved her. In prison, I'd decided that I wasn't going back to a life of crime. I was a pensioner, and I thought: "If I do that again, this is where I'll die."

'I just depended on people to come round and write their stories about me and pay me a few quid. There was nothing else I could do. I wasn't going to go out working and do anything stupid again, so I had to live that way. I accepted it and I was happy.'

The relationship with Diane lasted seven years - but, like all his affairs, it descended into rows. He started spending a lot of time with 'the two Jims and Phil' in Cambridge.

'If you're going to have a row and put a few things in a bag and disappear, there must be something wrong somewhere,' he says. 'I can't say I'm fed up with women, because there's no way I am, but I hate rows. Maybe what I'm searching for, I haven't found yet.

'I found it with Barbara for a bit. Still, I think I've got another ten years in me. I've never tried Viagra, but I think I might.

'I'm already a good lover, but I want to be better. I don't want women to say: "Have you finished?"'

There are plans afoot to make a film about his life, he tells me. Meanwhile, he's working on a happy, face-saving ending.

'I'm content now,' he says. 'To meet people like the two Jims, Phil and the man that's got the box at West Ham is unbelievable. They never stop spending money on you.

'No, I don't have any regrets. I don't think there's anything I would have done differently because I'm who I am - Ronnie Knight. I only ever robbed the rich and I never hurt anyone.'

He's hardly a Robin Hood... 'Oh no, I wasn't a Robin Hood - I was a Robbing Bastard,' he says.

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