Eventually, the Duff sisters were arrested as a result of cameras recording their activities in the shopping mall in Milton Keynes. The video showed the sisters outside Marks and Spencers transferring items of clothing from one to another. An Inspector purported to identify the sisters and accordingly they were charged with conspiracy to steal as well as a number of charges of theft against different members of the family. The trial was listed in front of Judge Slack at Aylesbury Crown Court. I was instructed to represent the eldest of the sisters, Martha.
Just before the trial was due to start an usher told me the judge wanted to see me in his chambers. He told me that if they all pleaded guilty he was mindful of their family responsibilities and he would not prevent them from looking after their children. I went back to the robing room and told the co-defending of the Judge’s indication on sentence. It took a bit of effort to persuade them to plead guilty to enough of the charges to satisfy the prosecution. Judge Slack did keep his promise and they were all given suspended sentences and a stiff warning about the consequences if they continued their activities.
Later the Judge told me that he wanted them to plead guilty because he knew he would not be able to avoid laughing out loud when I cross examined the officer, as he knew I would, about his ability to identify which sister was which.
The sisters however did not heed his warning.
Shop Lifting 2
The modus operandi usually abbreviated to MO of the Duff sisters relied on the similarity in their appearance, despite the age range from seventeen to thirty two. They were of similar height and their hair was cut to the same length, almost grazing their shoulders, and was a dark blonde with silvery highlights. They were similarly proportioned, neither too overweight nor too slim, unless they were pregnant and they wore almost identical clothes. Each of them had at least one small child, and two of the children were mixed race; they would dress the children in very similar clothing. The family acted a lot like a pack of lionesses in the way they cared for their children; it was often difficult to know which one of the sisters was the mother of any particular child..
The sisters would go into the stores usually in a group and then split up as they wandered around looking at clothes, making a display of their selection, holding the items up and waving them around to distract the store detectives. Some of the items were then secreted in the back of a pushchair. The one who had taken the clothes would then switch her pushchair with child to another of the sisters, and take that one’s child.
Normally the store detectives would wait until the sister they thought they had seen take something from the shop and hiding it at the back of their child in the pushchair was outside the store. By that time she no longer had the stolen items and could look aghast at being stopped and accused of theft. Sometimes one or other of them would be caught but never all of them at the same time.
That is until CCTV…..
When I began my career at the Bar, I was instructed to prosecute a large number of cases of shoplifting for some of the large department stores in Oxford Street, London. The defendants were usually women and the items they stole ranged from expensive scarves to pairs of knickers. Often the women concerned were suffering from depression or had other problems and the thefts were largely a cry for help. They would appear at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court usually pleading guilty so that all I had to do was open the facts to the Magistrate. I would have about six or seven of these cases on each occasions and I always dreaded getting them mixed up and in outlining the facts would say the defendant had stolen six pairs of knickers and two bras instead of two pairs of knickers and six bras.
Later on I found myself representing a group of five young women for whom stealing from stores was a way of life. The five were sisters called Duff and, not surprisingly with that name, the family were Scottish by origin. They were travellers, moving from place to place following the horse fairs around the country. When I came to meet them they were living in the Buckinghamshire town of High Wycombe and had been there for several years after their father had an accident. He had tried to park the car and the caravan he was towing, by reversing into a lay by. As he did so the back of the caravan hit a concrete lamp standard. Mr Duff got out of the car to check the rear of his caravan at which point the lamp standard broke and part of it fell on to him. He did not survive.
I first became involved with the family when the partner of one of them was facing a charge of assault. The trial took place at Aylesbury Crown Court, a rather shabby building with inadequate facilities. At the end of one of lunchtime adjournments, I needed to visit the toilet before the afternoon session began. The only toilets female members of the Bar could sue were shared with members of the public. When I went into one of the cubicles I found a collection of clothing all with their price tags attached, clearly stolen from the local branch of Marks and Spencer. I spoke to the usher and she called a police officer who took one look at them, his eyes rolled upwards and he said. ‘Oh, the Duff sisters.’
Of course there was no evidence to link the clothes to any of the young women, only their reputation – they were banned from every Marks and Spencer’s store in the UK.
But that was just the beginning of my contact with these charming thieves.
More next week.
So what happened to Sharon, the young woman I was there to represent?
The women all exchanged glances but before anyone could speak the door of the family court opened, the usher appeared and Sharon’s case was called on. I pushed the stories I had just heard to the back of my mind and walked into court with my client, leaving the three other women behind. Once in the courtroom I called Sharon to give her account of the incidents which gave rise to the application for an injunction preventing her boyfriend from contacting her. She wasn’t the best of witnesses and I could see that the judge was not impressed. Then cross examination began with the boy friend’s barrister asking Sharon if she wanted to stay at the Hostel or go back with Colin to her flat. Sharon hesitated.
‘Of course I’d like to go back to the flat.’
The Judge interjected, ‘Of course she wants to go back to her own home. That Refuge is disgusting.’
‘Yes of course, your honour. But I am suggesting that the witness wants to go back to the flat with Mr Fenton.’
‘Well say so.’ It was clearly the end of a long day. He turned to Sharon and asked her if she did want to go back to her boyfriend.
Sharon looked round the court room. First at me with a look of desperation on her face and then at Colin’s barrister who was holding a piece of pale lilac notepaper in his hand. I looked away: I knew what was coming. Sharon had seen the letter as well and was struggling to find an answer.
‘Let me help you,’ said Colin’s barrister smiling, and he handed the piece of paper to the usher and asked her to give it to Sharon. Sharon looked at it. The barrister paused.
‘Did you write that?’
‘Would you like to read it to the court?’
Sharon read out the letter she had written asking Colin to meet her at the shop near the Refuge to talk about her going back with their child, Angelina.
‘You met Colin by arrangement and went back to the flat with him?’
Sharon’s voice was dull ‘Yes.’
‘And when you were there, you had intercourse with him.’
I looked up at the Judge and, as I expected, he told me that I did not have any grounds now for the application. I agreed and he turned to Sharon and told her to stop being so silly and return to her flat. Then, with a swift nod, he rose and swept off the bench before anyone could get to their feet.
Once outside the courtroom, the three women wanted to know what had happened. Sharon was crying so I told them she had agreed to give Colin another chance for the sake of the child. ‘That’s right, isn’t it?’ I said. Sharon nodded her head as she wiped away the tears and blew her nose. All three of them looked at her in amazement, turned on their heels and walked away, leaving me with Sharon.
Along the corridor, I could see Colin saying goodbye to his barrister and then he walked towards them. He came up to Sharon and put an arm round her shoulders.
‘Come on, let’s go and get Angie and your things.’ And, without a word to me, the two of them strolled out of the building.
The usher came out of the courtroom and stood watching them for a few moments before turning to I and saying ‘They’re such liars, these people aren’t they.’
I smiled ‘That one was.’ but I wasn’t sure about the confessions I had just heard. I thought then, and still do they were true.