Thalidomide victim arrives home after 20 years in Filipino prisons

NADV 1204031 Billy Burton (1204031AM42)
NADV 1204031 Billy Burton (1204031AM42)

Billy Burton lands back on UK soil after two decades of hell and regret.

The former Wetherby High School student, who suffers from severe deformities of his arms due to being a victim of the morning sickness drug Thalidomide, gave a frank, in-depth interview with reporter ANDREW GROVES – who helped bring his case to national attention – on the mistake he made that led him to be sentenced to life in prison in the Philippines.

NADV 1204031 Billy Burton (1204031AM10)

NADV 1204031 Billy Burton (1204031AM10)

BOXING Day 1992 would prove to be the turning point in Billy Burton’s life.

Aged 29 he decided to leave his home in Wetherby and embark on a life changing round-the-world trip.

After landing in the Philippines, however, things started to go badly wrong for the young man who suffered from severe upper body disabilities caused by the drug Thalidomide which was given to his mother during pregnancy to combat morning sickness.

He fell in with the wrong crowd, got himself into financial difficulties, and stupidly decided to try and smuggle 12lbs of cannabis out of Manila airport in a bid to make some quick cash so that he could continue his journey.

NADV 1204031 Billy Burton (1204031AM57)

NADV 1204031 Billy Burton (1204031AM57)

It was a decision which would haunt him for the next 20 years of his life.

After a lengthy period in custody he was finally sentenced to life behind bars in one of the most dangerous prisons in the world – a place run by ruthless gangs and filled with murderers and rapists.

The sentence was for eight years before parole. He was half way through this when the Filipino government changed its stance so that people convicted of drugs crimes would not receive any parole, leaving Billy to spend a full 30-year term in prison.

Billy’s story has and will continue to polarise opinion. There were those who felt his sentence was fair. Others believe he served his time and should be given a second chance to rebuild his life.

NADV 1204031 Billy Burton (1204031AM6)

NADV 1204031 Billy Burton (1204031AM6)

The Thalidomide Trust started a campaign to get Billy freed in 2010. It argued he had served his sentence and needed to be brought home to receive medical treatment for his condition. Due to his disability his life expectancy is reduced and conditions in prison were taking a further toll on his health.

He also got support from Elmet and Rothwell MP Alec Shelbrooke and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne.

Billy was pardoned by the Filipino authorities on Boxing Day 2011 and finally touched down on UK soil on Tuesday morning.

Speaking exclusively to the Wetherby News this week – the paper he credits as the reason his freedom was secured – Billy tells his remarkable story of survival and regret.

“I’m not proud of what happened,” he begins.

“I will have to live it for the rest of my life. I lost everything: my family, my house, my friends and of course my freedom which you take for granted.

“When you are over there you have a lot of time to think about the decisions you’ve made. It is something I will always regret.”

His experiences and the vivid description of the prisons he stayed in are harrowing.

In 1993 he remembers the holding prison he stayed in while in custody waiting for his case to reach court.

“If there’s a hell on earth, it is there,” he said.

“You’re in a 20 by six foot room and there’s 60 of you living in the same room. I was in there for a month, 24-hours-a-day.

“You get one gallon of water per day, per person, that’s to shower and go to the toilet. You sleep huddled up against the wall, right next to the other inmates.

“There’s people all around you. If you get up to go to the toilet you are stood up for the rest of the night.

“The toilet is just a bowl and everyone has to use the same one; there’s no wall around you, everyone watches you and of course there’s no sink.”

Despite his desperate situation – and throughout his 20-year nightmare – one of his most endearing traits helped him survive.

Billy is a likeable person, a funny man. He has had to battle through some major barriers in his life, but he still retains the same wicked sense of humour he had when he left.

“Sometimes I’d wake up and think, ‘What the hell am I doing here? How did I get into this situation in the first place?’ But it’s amazing really how after a while you can adapt to any situation,” he said.

“I met a lot of bad people, but in amongst it all there were some good people too.

“I remember one story in the holding prison. There was this guy in the cell who was only 17 and he’d been arrested for stealing a toothbrush.

“The local mayor came to visit us. There were 300 prisoners in the place and 299 were saying they were innocent, only this one guy said he was guilty.

“At his sentence he was offered the choice of either paying a fine of 1,000 Philippine Peso or spending a month in the prison. Because he didn’t have any money he said he’d have to go to prison. So the mayor went up to him and said ‘What’s your fine?’ he turned around and said it’s 1000 Peso, so like that they let him go.

“Everybody else was saying why didn’t you let me go? We’re all innocent and he pleaded guilty? The mayor turned around to them and said: ‘Maybe he’s a bad influence on the rest of you!’”

In the run up to Billy’s sentence he had to endure the stress of six separate court cases over the course of a couple of months.

One of them, in particular, will stay with him and wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood courtroom drama.

“The two policemen who arrested me at the airport gave their testimony,” he said.

“The first one was asked by the judge, ‘Did you arrest him?’ and he answered, ‘Yes’. Next the judge said , ‘Did you read him his rights?’ and he replied again, ‘No, it must have been the other guy.’

“Next the other policeman stands up and is asked, ‘Did you read him his rights?’ and he said, ‘No it wasn’t me,’ so in effect I’d been detained for a 100 plus hours before they charged me, which is an illegal detention, an illegal arrest.

“The case goes on. My attorney asks the judge if we could take a recess so we could talk things through. This usually takes 30 minutes, but instead the judge cut it to five minutes.

“When I was on the witness stand I had my legs crossed and the prosecutor turned around to me, pointed and said, ‘Look, look he’s got a tattoo!’

“The judge just looked at him and replied: ‘Many priests have tattoos, many criminals do not, it doesn’t mean anything, but let’s have a look anyway.

“Then after a while the prosecutor turned to me again and said, ‘Have you heard of The Beatles?’ and of course I said yes. ‘The Beatles are from Liverpool are they not?’ he continued and I replied that they were. ‘Isn’t it true The Beatles are synonymous with drug use?’ he added. I said I was only a kid and may have read it in the papers, but you can’t believe everything that’s written in the papers.

“But he kept going on. He then said, ‘If The Beatles use drugs in Liverpool, maybe the people of Liverpool have a high percentage of drug users?’ and then he begins to shout, ‘And isn’t it true that you come from Liverpool and you use drugs?’

“I said no, he said, ‘Yes, it is’ and we got in a strange situation where the judge is looking at me and the prosecutor.

“So finally I turned around to the judge and explained I’m not from Liverpool, I’ve only been there twice, once for a football match and the other time to the immigration office to pick up my passport. He didn’t ask any further questions.”

After a lengthy legal battle he was pulled in front of the judge in October 1993, when his fate was sealed.

“I went there and I saw we had Judge Life, he’s called that because everyone gets lined up, he points and says: ‘Life, life, life, life.’ That was about it.”

Shackled and led away, Billy was transferred to the notorious Bilibid Prison, close to Manila, home to an astonishing 12,000 inmates.

“I remember walking into the prison on my first day and seeing open canals full of sewage,” says Billy .

“There were people hanging out of the bars threatening to rape you. I was the only white guy in there and because of my disability they probably thought he looks vulnerable, easy prey.

“My first thought was I’m not going to survive here for eight years before my parole, but then you take it day by day and see if you can survive.

“When you first go in there you are taken to an office and asked which dormitory you want to stay in. There are gangs all around the prison and one of them sent a representative to the office to speak to the officer.

“I’m put in this specific dormitory which I later find out was because the gang paid money to get me in there. On my first night they asked, ‘Do you want a drink? Do you want anything?’ but you’ve got to pay for it. So for the first three months I was under control of this gang and it took me three months to get out.

“I had to be very diplomatic.

“The whole place is centred around money. The money from the Thalidomide Trust kept me alive, they used to send it to my mother and she used to send a small amount of it to me to live on every month.

“At first I didn’t have anything but then I managed to buy a piece of cardboard. After a while I could afford a bit of lumber and plywood to build a little room. Later I got some electrical wire and some light switches. Then after building all this up, the people who run the place, the ones who sold you the floor space, would try to kick you out so they could sell it to someone else.”

Billy refrains from talking about the most horrible stories, but they are still very much etched in his mind.

He recalls the cramped conditions, the disease, widespread drug use and prisoners with severe mental illness.

Western comforts were few and far between but as the digital age spread across the globe he did have access to some electrical equipment like CD players and videos.

His best friend, John Wade, used to send him boxes of books, CDs and most importantly Leeds United magazines, books and later DVDs to watch. His beloved club gave him something to focus on to get him through the darker times.

Over the years Billy developed a strict daily routine as a coping mechanism, but he never gave up hope of freedom.

“Three times I tried to actively campaign to raise my case but we just got nowhere,” said Billy.

“The last time me and some Chinese blokes put some money together and we got an attorney. The attorney looked at the president’s decision and said, ‘Legally you have a valid case, but you are going to have to take the president to court. He said, ‘There’s not an attorney in the country that’s going to represent you, because they’re not going to work again, so good luck with that!’

“Then we managed to speak to the Commissioner of Human Rights. But again they said they were funded by the government, so best of luck but we can’t help you.

“I was also getting to a stage where I’d been in there for so long, I was becoming apprehensive about leaving, prison life was all I knew and you do become institutionalised.”

Billy was beginning to give up hope.

But through a mutual friend he was put in contact with a local law student called Mafe, who promised to look into his case and flag up any legal issues tied up with it.

Her involvement helped get the wheels in motion for a review. Then a visit from Dr Martin Johnson, director of the Thalidomide Trust, in 2010 changed everything.

After a frank discussion with Billy, Dr Johnson convinced him to allow people in the UK to campaign for his cause.

“Dr Johnson told me, ‘If you don’t try and get out soon you will lose all your dexterity to the point where you will end up in a nursing home and after a long, painful process you will die,” said Billy.

“So I decided to get on board. Over the years I had come to the conclusion that I was guilty of a crime and should be punished for it.

“But he looked at me and said, ‘Get over it, you’ve nearly served 20 years, no-one should serve that for hash, in the UK you would serve three years.’”

After giving him the green light, Dr Johnson returned home and set up an action plan with prolific Thalidomide campaigner Guy Tweedy from Harrogate. The two had been instrumental in striking a deal with the UK government to pay a grant of £20m to victims of Thalidomide the previous year.

They both looked through his case file and then contacted reporter Daniel Foggo at The Sunday Times, the paper which originally investigated and unearthed the Thalidomide scandal.

The paper ran a story in May 2010.

The same week, Billy’s friend from Wetherby, Rob Ellis, contacted the Wetherby News and the paper ran a front page editorial piece describing Billy’s plight.

Along with Billy’s cousin, Angela Morris, his mother Teresa, John Wade, Andrew Carrick and, in conjunction with Wetherby News readers, who remembered Billy from his time growing up in the town, an action group was set up.

After receiving scores of letters and emails, the paper decided to start a campaign to free Billy in June 2010, a turning point for Billy; one which gave him renewed hope.

“After 17 years the Wetherby News’s story somehow reached the Filipino ambassador,” he said.

“That was the crux of it. This ambassador must have been thinking, ‘Who’s this Billy Burton?’ ‘Why are they so bothered about him?’.

“A Free Billy Burton Facebook page was set-up with nearly 400 messages on there, which were just amazing to read.

“Over there they didn’t know what the Wetherby News was. They didn’t know whether it was a huge paper or a small paper. But the frequent articles made a huge difference.

“Then a TV company did a piece, then there was the backing of more MPs and suddenly after all this time things started to happen.”

Mr Tweedy’s constant pressure was a huge factor in Billy’s release.

He worked in conjunction with newly-elected Wetherby MP Alec Shelbrooke when he took office after the general election. Then before Christmas 2011, Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne backed the campaign and met with new Filipino president Benigno S Aquino III on a visit to the country.

A change in the Filipino law in 2011 was also a turning point after it was ruled the decision to stop parole was unconstitutional. This opened up the possibility of clemency. Finally on Boxing Day 2011 Billy was officially pardoned, 19 years after his initial arrest at Manila airport.

Tragically, Billy’s mum, Teresa, did not live to see her son freed and back on UK soil.

She died suddenly in 2010, just as the campaign to free him was set in motion. Billy is now hoping to reconcile relationships with the rest of his family.

As for the future, he is hopeful of making a difference and working with Mr Shelbrooke, educating youngsters on the dangers of drugs and the pain they can cause.

It is a cautionary tale told by a man who has gone through a personal hell.

Billy’s final message is clear: “If by reading this someone is scared into not making the same mistake I did then I’d be happy with that.”