Review after 'Skull Cracker' Michael Wheatley absconds

Michael Wheatley Image copyright PA
Image caption Michael Wheatley failed to return after leaving an open prison

A review has been ordered after an armed robber dubbed "the Skull Cracker" went missing when he was temporarily allowed out of an open prison.

Michael Wheatley, 55, was given 13 life sentences at the Old Bailey in 2002 for a string of brutal raids on banks and building societies.

Kent Police said he failed to return to HMP Standford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey.

Prisons minister Jeremy Wright said there would be a full review.

'Completely ludicrous'

It will include an assessment of the release on temporary licence (ROTL) process.

Wheatley raided 13 building societies and banks over 10 months in 2001 and 2002 while on parole from a 27-year sentence for other robberies.

He was given his nickname after pistol-whipping victims, including a 73-year-old woman, during the raids.

Police have advised the public not to approach Wheatley, originally from Limehouse in east London, who has links across south-east England.

Mr Wright said temporary licences could be important tools to help offenders reintegrate into communities but that "it should not be an automatic right".

"The system has been too lax up to now and we are changing that," he said.

"In future when prisoners are let out on temporary licence they will be tagged, more strictly risk assessed and tested in the community under strict conditions before being released."

Conservative backbencher Philip Davies, MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire, said whoever had allowed Wheatley out of prison was "a berk".

"It is completely ludicrous that a serving life-sentence prisoner is even in an open prison where they can simply walk out," he said.

"As far as I am concerned whoever allowed him to be in an open prison should be sacked."

'Hasn't been rehabilitated'

He said Wheatley's was not an isolated case.

"There are over 640 people serving life sentences in open prisons," Mr Davies added.

"He clearly hasn't been rehabilitated or else the police wouldn't be saying he was a dangerous person who shouldn't be approached."

Image copyright Met Police
Image caption The Met Police issued a picture of Wheatley when he was wanted in 2002

Former prisons minister Crispin Blunt said it was "fantastically stupid" of Wheatley not to return to the prison.

A Prison Service spokesman said: "This is now a matter for the police and we are supporting them in their investigation.

"We are toughening up the release on temporary licence scheme so that prisoners will be subject to stricter risk assessments and tagged."

The 2001-02 robberies took place over a wide area - from Southampton in Hampshire to Royston in Hertfordshire.

At the Old Bailey, in 2002, Wheatley received 13 life sentences for robbery and 13 concurrent five-year sentences for possessing an imitation firearm.

The judge said he must serve a minimum of eight years.

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