Photography by David Levene
Peter Woolf was a career criminal and heroin addict when in March 2002 he broke into the home of businessman, Will Riley. As a result Peter received a three year prison sentence. Sometime after the attack, Will was asked if he would like to meet Peter at a Restorative Justice conference. Will is the founder of Why Me?, an organisation promoting Restorative Justice for victims.
I can remember a gang fight in London when I was ten years old. All the bigger kids got tooled up so I got a big shovel and nearly pummelled someone to death with it. Another kid saw me and said, “look at him, he’s completely mad!” I decided then it was all right to be completely mad. So, at 10 I was picking up drugs; at 14 I was taking heroin and soon I was committing every crime imaginable, apart from murder and sex offences. Over the years, I went from being a very successful criminal, knocking about with stars and footballers, to becoming totally addicted, totally broke and living in non-stop fear.
On 6th March 2002 I woke up in a squat in East London. There was a bath half-full of human waste, drug paraphernalia all over the floor, and blood squirted up the wall. I drank my last half can of lager and then went out and walked to a rather exclusive area where I burgled a house. When I went into the bedroom, I thought I’d change my clothes because I was stinking. Opening the wardrobe, I saw a large pair of quality shoes and thought to myself: “Good grief, the geezer who owns this house must be big.” Then, at that moment, I heard a voice say, “What are you doing in my house?” I looked up and there was Will. We immediately got into a nasty fight, falling down several flights of stairs until he manoeuvred me on to the street where I was finally arrested.
When I was asked to meet Will at a Restorative Justice conference only part of me wanted to attend in order to say sorry. Mostly I just wanted to get out of my cell. So, when I met him face-to-face, I started going on about poor old me until it came to a point when I said, “Will, when we first met…” And at that he blew. “We didn’t meet in a cocktail bar,” he said, “YOU broke into my house”, and he started listing all his feelings. Until that moment I never knew that a burglary could make people feel sad, angry, depressed, guilty – yes guilty about things I’d done!
Suddenly I was feeling his pain. He handed it over to me as though he was saying, “since you’re here, you can share this with me.” And when that happened, all of a sudden I knew there was no way on this planet I could ever harm another human being the way I’d harmed Will, and thousands like him.
When the conference facilitator asked Will what he’d like to see happen to me I was certain he’d say “lock him up and throw away the keys”…but he didn’t. He said he’d like to see me get an education, address my drug and alcohol problems, even get a job. That blew me away.
Today life is good. I have a beautiful wife, a lovely home and everything I need. I believe all of this came out of that one event. All my life I’d chosen the wrong path but on that day, having met Will, for the first time in my life I chose the right path.
The thing that is easy to trivialise about someone breaking into your house is the violation. It’s a forced entry, like a rape. And then you go into a Restorative Justice conference, having had this awful experience, not knowing what’s going to happen. All you know is that you will meet the person you fought with, who robbed you. As I sat there, and Peter gave his spiel, I started feeling really annoyed and very bored. I just switched off, saying to myself, “what am I doing here? This is a complete waste of time.” Then Peter said those words….. “when we first met” ….and suddenly I wasn’t bored anymore. I was furious now and I told him exactly how I felt. It came out like a fire hose. I told him how he’d destroyed the one belief I had in myself, that I could protect my home and my family. When I’d finished, I looked at the guy. It was like a train had hit him. His lower lip was almost quivering. I could see he was gutted
Finally, when the meeting was over, we had tea and biscuits. We were just people who had been pushed against a wall, and who slowly but surely had come together around a table to work it out.
Now, six years later, it’s clear the meeting wasn’t simply about Peter, but had a huge impact on me too. Talking is the only way forward. People who don’t talk (which is the majority of victims) are delaying and even maintaining the pain. Luckily, Peter and I are still talking. He’s a great man, very clever, has a lovely sense of humour, a genuine raw presence and I’m hugely fortunate to be able to count him as a friend.