A former drug addict who stole a cash-filled Poppy Appeal tin to fund his habit today told how he has “seen the light” in prison and vowed to pay back the charity which he shamelessly took from.
Stephen Taylorson hit the headlines in 2014 when he was caught by CCTV cameras swiping a Royal British Legion collection tin from the counter of a Sunderland chip shop.
Mr Taylorson, 50, was handed a suspended sentence by city magistrates for the offence, but later ended up in jail after being found guilty of taking petrol without paying.
But Mr Taylorson, who was hooked on crack cocaine and heroin at the time of the theft, having been involved with drugs since his late teens, claims he is a reformed character after spending three months in HMP Durham – and says he will be doing this year’s Boxing Day Dip at Seaburn to raise funds for the Poppy Appeal.
He says he has already gathered in hundreds of pounds in sponsorship and wants to generate as much as possible as a way of making it up to the public.
Speaking from his Castletown home, the man who has 105 convictions for theft and other offences, said: “I stole the tin to get money for drugs, but it was only in prison that I saw the light. I’ve changed my ways.
“I was only eight and a half stone when I went in but I’ve been going to the gym ever since and I’m a healthy 12½st now.
“I read the Bible every day and I go to church in South Shields. The Lord has opened doors for me.
“People might not believe me and think what I’m doing is a scam, but it isn’t. When I’ve been into the town before people have said “there’s him who took the poppy tin”, but I want to show people it wasn’t the real me.”
Talking about his decision to plunge into the icy waters of the North Sea for this year’s dip, he added: “I’ve registered for it and got the sponsor forms sorted as well as a costume. It’s got a cape and is a mix of Thor and Superman. I want to raise as much as possible and I’ve already got £300 in.”
It was in November last year, just two days before Remembrance Sunday, that Taylorson went into Redz fish and chip shop, at the Barnes, and took the poppy tin off the counter while staff had their backs turned.
He pleaded guilty to charges of theft and of being concerned in supply of Class C drugs and failure to surrender to bail.
Mr Taylorson handed himself in after CCTV pictures of the theft appeared in the Echo.
In interview, he admitted taking money out of the tin to buy drugs, saying that there was about £25 inside. Staff at Redz, however, said that the tin was heavy, indicating that a more substantial amount of cash had been collected.Mr Taylorson said that he was high on drugs and could not say how much was inside.
District Judge Roger Elsey sentenced him to a total of 32 weeks in prison, suspended for 18 months and ordered him to pay £150 compensation to the Royal British Legion from his Employment Support Allowance.
Earlier this year however, he spent three months in prison after taking diesel without paying. He spent his 50th birthday behind bars.
“The drugs took over me because I know myself that it isn’t right to steal,” said Mr Taylorson, who says he now wants to do talks in prisons about the dangers of substance abuse.
“I want to give something back because it’s the right thing to do. I like my life now. I’m not putting my mam through hell like before and I know now not to rob or steal.”
Mr Taylorson’s mum Kathleen Rossi, 73, says she is stunned but proud at her son’s change of lifestyle.
“What he did was terrible and I understand the criticism he has got for it,” said Mrs Rossi, also mum to Mr Taylorson’s three brothers.
“I’ve fallen out with people over it but I had to stand by him. He got in with the wrong people and the drugs took hold of Stephen, but he’s my son and nothing can beat a mother’s love.
“I do believe that people can change and I hope this is the turning point. I’m as proud of him as much as I am of my other sons.”
Bosses at the Lions Club, which organises the Boxing Day Dip, have praised Mr Taylorson’s actions.
“If by doing the dip helps him turn over a new leaf then it’s definitely for the best,” said Anne Fielding, of the organisation.
“It’s a good way of showing his remorse and paying the appeal back.”
Entries for the dip, details for which are available on the Lions Club Facebook page, close on Tuesday.