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AN INFAMOUS Brighton knocker boy is back behind bars after getting up to his old tricks swindling elderly victims out of valuable possessions.
Lee Collins has spent years in and out of jail after making a living knocking on doors pretending to buy antiques when he was actually eyeing up other valuables he could pocket on the sly.
In his latest spree he was caught pretending to be a trader from Clarences of Sussex in search of buying antiques. But he was actually stealing watches worth more than £100,000.
Collins, who was handed a near six-year jail term for three thefts, belongs to one of the city’s well-known knocker boy families, so-called because they would knock on doors and try their luck in swiping valuables.
The punishments handed down to him in the last few weeks are his most significant to date.
In less than a week Collins, 50, of The Heights, Brighton, appeared in two courts in different parts of the country to be sentenced to jail.
The news comes as it emerged his son Jack was prosecuted earlier this year for attempting a similar offence.
Also known by the surname Kendal, Collins senior visited a couple in Great Missenden, near High Wycombe, in July last year.
He distracted the pair, who were in their sixties, and stole an Omega watch. But he was stopped by police and his car searched.
He was charged with theft in October, found guilty and handed an 18-month jail term at Aylesbury Crown Court at the end of June.
Just days earlier he was jailed for four years after being found guilty at Portsmouth Crown Court for two counts of theft.
He was charged in February last year after targeting victims in Sussex and Kent.
He visited an 88-year-old-man in Partridge Green in October 2015. The man invited him in because he recognised Collins from previous visits and sold him £700 of belongings.
But some time after the visit, the victim noticed his £24,000 gold Patek Philippe watch, which had been on the table during the thief’s visit, was missing. Then he also found more valuables, including an £80,000 Lange Sohne watch, had been taken.
Collins also stole a Cartier watch from a man in Sholden, near Deal in Kent, in December that same year.
It was not long before his son was also on the case – preying on an 88-year-old woman in July last year, pretending to be a clock repair man, in Gerrards Cross near Uxbridge.
The 21-year-old, also of The Heights, Brighton, arrived on her doorstep claiming she had asked him to fix her grandmother clock and went upstairs but was disturbed when a neighbour visited and ask him for identification. He pretended to go out to his car to produce this but fled.
He pleaded guilty to the attempted theft at Amersham Crown Court in May and was handed a 21-month suspended prison sentence. He was ordered to pay £500 in compensation and work for 250 hours unpaid.
Jack and Lee come from a long line of Collins knocker boys. Jack would have learnt from his father and he his father before him, the late Bertie Collins. Their family is generally seen as one of the core handful of families peddling the scam from their Sussex base across the country, with dozens of detectives from different forces on their case.
In 2012 The Argus reported how Lee Collins was in jail again after stealing jewellery from an elderly woman.
Still operating from his home near Dyke Road Avenue, he was handed a 20-month sentence after knocking on the door of a 73-year-old woman in Stanmore, Middlesex, in June2011.
He was asking if she had any antiques or collectables she wanted valuing. He offered to buy some jewellery for £80 on behalf of Burlington Galleries, a firm based at his address. When he left she realised some pieces she did not want to sell were missing and he had only given her £60.
A jury at Harrow Crown Court failed to reach a verdict but he was convicted after a retrial and given 16 months in jail for theft and another four months for breaching a previous suspended sentence.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman at the time said: “Collins appeared to be genuine, however at court it was proven he was in fact taking advantage of an elderly woman and stealing her property. This should be a warning particularly to elderly people: please do not invite strangers into your home. If in doubt, keep them out.”
Just months before, the force had been warning people to ignore leaflets and adverts he was distributing.
Officers said the Burlington Galleries antiques valuing firm was a cover for scams to steal heirlooms. The apparent company was operating from the same address as Westdene Galleries, which Collins also ran.
In 2010 he was given a ten-month prison sentence for stealing a woman’s necklace and earrings.
She had refused to sell them when he called at her home in Southampton so he took them when her back was turned.
At the time he was said to have four previous convictions for burglary.
A BRIGHTON SCAM, BORN AND BRED
THEY are known as the mafia of the antiques world.
When the humble knocker boy started out, he was just a lad chancing his hand by rapping on a few front doors and hoping to pick up a diamond at a bargain price.
They were an extension of the rag-and-bone man who would go from door to door collecting unwanted household items and selling them to merchants, saving you the hassle of disposing of it and pocketing any money they made from salvaging a few gems.
As they evolved they started to arrive at the door under the pretence of wanting to buying antiques but they were actually planning to surreptitiously swipe a more valuable item from under your nose.
They had only a rudimentary knowledge of antiques but they were cunning.
Sleight of hand always went a long way at the school of knocker boys.
In Death Comes Knocking: Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton, former city police chief Graham Bartlett and author Peter James told how these crafty criminals graduated into a life of “faux respectability”, setting themselves up as bona fide antiques dealers in The Lanes which had established itself as the go-to place for collectables.
“If your antiques have been stolen, head for Brighton – the Sussex resort is now a thieves’ kitchen for heirlooms” was a 1996 headline published by The Independent.
Mr Bartlett, from his days as a Detective Constable in Brighton’s Criminal Investigation Department, said this was fair advice.
But the way of life began long before. Brighton truly established itself as knocker boy territory in the 1960s and 1970s.
Robert Barrett and Michael Openshaw, pictured far left, were reputed as two of Brighton and Hove’s most notorious.
The pair used to buy voter rolls and highlight the addresses of lords and ladies.
Detective Constable Simon Muggleton, formerly of the Sussex Antiques Squad and now with the force intelligence unit, branded them a “blight” on the residents of Sussex and London and said they could rest easier once they had been jailed.
Barrett was born in Luton in 1943 and moved to Brighton as a young boy, attending Brighton Commercial College.
He left aged 16 and went straight into antiques. He was considered the “ultimate conman” who flew close to the “legal wind” but was well spoken and would talk sweetly to the elderly.
He was the subject of major national and international police investigations, including relating to the theft of valuables from nobility, and lived in a large Victorian house in East Drive overlooking Queen’s Park, regularly holidaying in glamourous destinations.
Openshaw was born in Brighton in 1947 and attended Whitehawk Secondary School until the age of 15.
He was later employed by a knocker boy and moved into a plush house in Hill Brow, Hove. He often evaded police and prosecutors.
More recently, Terence Boyle was another infamous knocker boy around town.
The 73-year-old is currently serving a four-year jail term alongside others after a £2 million cannabis factory found at a farm in East Grinstead Road, North Chailey, where he lived.
Brighton born and bred Steve Martin, 57, of Albion Hill, has written two books about the tales of the knocker boys.
He said he grew up with them and they often patronised the clubs where he was fighting as a boxer around the town.
He said: “They would sponsor the clubs and appear at fights all round the town, at The Grand, the Metropole, at Race Hill.
“There would be bottles of champagne, gin, brandy, cigars. I grew up with them, they saw me grow as a boxer and supported me. They were proud of me.
“There were four main families of knocker boys and they would all try to outdo each other.
“They were like the mafia of the antiques world. It is the type of crime that thrived in Brighton – known as the finishing school for London criminals. Brighton bred the type of characters. Yes there were victims of their crimes but they looked out for the community, they would give something back.”
Source: The Argus