From Drug Lord to TED Talker

Shaun Attwood has lived a life that could span an entire lifetime, but he’s not even 50 yet. He’s been a stock market millionaire, lived a lavish lifestyle many would envy, built up his drug empire, rivalling notorious drug dealers such as ‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravano all that while raving his way through the 90s. Then the next chapter of Shaun’s life began in prison… Shaun, exclusively tells The Breached his epic life story, and how all these experiences have shaped him into an entirely different person to the one all those years ago.

Early entrepreneurial years

“In school I had an unnatural interest in the stock market, I wasn’t a traditional ‘nerd’ as such, I was actually a bit of a class clown” Shaun tells me. He speaks about when he was 16 and got hold of his Nan’s BT shares worth £50, and doubled them.

“I started taking ecstasy and speed – it became my religion”

When Shaun was younger he suffered severely from anxiety after he had been brutally attacked by a group of men, which prevented him from making friends, and talking to girls. When he took ecstasy for the first time, he recalls all his anxious feelings melting away. Shaun says: “Most things you worry about never actually happen. Your brain has an internal pharmacy – when feeling anxious the brain creates negative feelings.” This is a mantra he has since learnt from his therapist while in prison, who he refers to as ‘Dr.O’.

“During university the rave scene had started, I got totally caught up in that when I was 19. I started taking ecstasy and speed – it became my religion. I lived just to go out and rave at the weekends. Even during my exams, I was coming down off ecstasy and speed,” he explains.

“Most things you worry about never actually happen. Your brain has an internal pharmacy – when feeling anxious the brain creates negative feelings.”

Having this unusual interest in the stock market from a young age motivated Shaun to move across the pond to Arizona at 21, to work on the stock market and make some serious dollar. “I went to Arizona, because as a kid my two aunts lived there. I was dazzled by the swimming pools, the cars and how everything was twice the size.”

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Shaun graduating from Liverpool University. Credit: Shaun Attwood

Untouchable

There was no doubt about it, Shaun at this point in time (throughout the 90s) was living the high life. Extremely wealthy, a successful businessman, and equally as accomplished drug lord running an ecstasy empire as well as having any woman he wanted. “The enterprise was run like a corporation, I held weekly board meetings, I had divisions and heads of divisions. I did a business studies degree, and I utilised it, I structured the whole thing as a business.” Shaun says. He then explains that later the people he met in prison would talk about how they didn’t know how to make money unless they were working with drugs. Shaun was quick to point out that if they’ve run a drug empire, they’ve most certainly got all the entrepreneurial skills to run a legal business.

Shaun had established himself as notorious Arizonian drug dealer to the point where the New Mexico Mafia were protecting him from rivals. He explains: “Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano underboss of the Gambino crime family was my competitor and he murdered up to two dozen people. His son told me that he had been dispatched to kidnap me from a nightclub and take me out to the desert one time.”

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Meltdown. Credit: Shaun Attwood

Reality strikes

While Shaun was holding one of his regular 48-hour drug fuelled raves at his beautiful home in Arizona the authorities seized his house and he was arrested. The plentiful money, women, drug lifestyle was about to come to a dramatic end.

“Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano underboss of the Gambino crime family was my competitor”

I asked Shaun what his first night in jail was like, he described it as a series of cells called the ‘horseshoe’ which was the intake area of Madison Street Jail. He explained that you’re held there for days, going from cell to cell to cell until you see a judge – by law you must see a judge, otherwise they can release you. The judge then reads you your charges and sets your bail. Meanwhile the other new arrestees around you are high, drunk, some are homeless, starting fights and there’s blood everywhere. Some people were sat in restraint chairs, he describes as looking like ‘medieval torture devices’. “The guards would put hoods on their heads so couldn’t spit on people, they’d rock furiously back and forth – honestly it was like something from Dante,” Shaun says.

Originally, Shaun was charged with; conspiracy, crime syndicate, and continuous criminal enterprise. Which the judge originally sentenced Shaun to 200 years in prison. This was later negotiated down by his lawyer and reduced to 9 years. I ask Shaun how he reacted when he thought he might be serving 200 years, he says: “I wanted to kill myself, I couldn’t bear the thought of spending my life in those conditions. The prosecutors have performance quotas, if they want to get promotions they need to give people as big sentences as possible. If they can make a headline, they’ll get a promotion. It’s pointless as no one will ever live that long.” Shaun talks about contemplating suicide, and then planning it out. It was only when he considered his family, more specifically his parent’s reaction that stopped him from taking action.

Due to all of Shaun’s millions being seized he had no money for legal representation. Shaun’s parents re-mortgaged their home to be able to afford the legal bills.

Jon’s Jail Journal

While Shaun was in the jail, before he received his final sentence and was moved to prison he was held in a jail with terrible conditions, and unlawful behaviour from the guards. Shaun spoke with his family about documenting it, eventually they all agreed that the world needed to know what exactly was happening within this jail.

“I would write about guards murdering the mentally ill inmates – 66 people died in the period I was there”

“A guard said to me previously ‘the world has no idea what’s going on in here, in response to the human rights violations and the murders of mentally ill inmates’, that lit a spark in me, I wrote my journal under the name ‘Jon’ initially for anonymity. It was my second year in jail, my aunt would come and visit me and smuggle my notes out of maximum security visitation within my legal documents – she was taking a brave risk” he says.

Jon’s Jail Journey was born, Shaun remembers: “I’d first write about cockroaches in the jail, the Guardian newspaper picked it up first and covered it as a main story with a giant cockroach in the page if I remember rightly. I’d cover anything out of the ordinary – I would write about guards murdering the mentally ill inmates – 66 people died in the period I was there. I’d also write about certain prisoners, this became a bridge to the outside world for those guys, who would get letters and books sent to them from people they didn’t know but were following their stories.”

Prison life

Shaun explains that the moment he no longer had liberty was the moment he stopped taking drugs. “I was on drug charges, the last thing I wanted to do was get high and make my situation worse. It was the wakeup call I needed to snap out of it” he says.

“To this day I sit with my back to the wall if I’m in pub or restaurant. I’m conditioned to think anything can happen, the adrenaline never stops”

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Shaun Attwood. Credit: National Geographic

Prison seems an unlikely place to meet great people, but in Shaun’s eyes he met some of the most influential and memorable people while incarcerated. Two of his most trusted friends while inside was a man called ‘Two Tonies’ who was a mass murderer, had a 100+ sentence and was also an avid chess player. Two Tonies asked Shaun to write his life story, having heard about Jon’s Jail Journey (Shaun published it under his own name when he left the jail and went into prison). Two Tonies was a very established and respected inmate, he protected Shaun. After Shaun was released, Two Tonies died of cancer, but Shaun is set to publish his story that he did write for him in the future. He also met another character, Shaun explains: “T-Bone was another very strong relationship I formed. He was, and still is trying to stop prison rape. He uses his skills as a US Marine, and fights the attackers. He gets stabbed, he gets hit with rocks in socks and he’s still doing it now, he’s still in there. He writes to me regularly.”

Regrets

I want you to understand that Shaun is entirely not what I expected when I met him. Naturally when you embark upon meeting an ex-drug lord, you are going to feel slightly apprehensive. But as soon as I spoke to him, it was evident that he was a very ‘happy-go-lucky’ kind of chap, with his still very strong northern accent and his ability to make light of any situation. I wanted to know if he regrets what had happened, to this he says: “I regret the harm I’ve caused society by putting them on the road of drug use. I saw the horror of what it led to in prison; 90% shooting up drugs, two thirds Hep-C, yellow jaundice skin, teeth rotting out, and it made me realise I’d put people on similar paths in the past. I felt ashamed. The other thing is the harm and upset I caused my family. I was ashamed of my actions as a young man.”

A life beyond bars

Shaun tells me that he now still feels uneasy in public places. “Every single day, to this day I sit with my back to the wall if I’m in a pub or restaurant. I’m conditioned to think anything can happen, the adrenaline never stops.”

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Credit: Libi Pedder

Shaun ended up serving just under 6 years of his 9 year sentence as a first time offender. He says the advice he’d now give people is that the key to succession is slow and steady process, nothing is going to happen overnight. He now prides himself on replacing negative addictions with positive ones. To always have a smile on his face and appreciate the small things.

Shaun is now banned from entering the USA for life. He does a lot of public speaking including TED talks, and speaks to schools up and down the country about his experiences and how not to go down the wrong path like he did.

Sometimes you’ve got to experience the darkest and most restricted experiences to be able to truly change yourself from a questionable human being to someone who has a deep understanding of emotions and behaviour.

Shaun took a bad situation and he made the most out of it. Maybe we can all learn a thing or two from him, and not cloud our own futures by making futile mistakes.

You can watch Shaun’s TEDx talks here:

“What facing 200 prison years taught me about happiness”

“Overcoming Fear & Building Resilience in Jail”

To watch Shaun’s YouTube channel click here

Main image credit (at top of feature) Libi Pedder

 

 

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