'I got a gun. It was for protection but I wanted to use it': Former gangster tells of the dark side of Shropshire
“If I’d have stayed in Shrewsbury, I’d have ended up either in jail or dead,” says Ben Butler.
When people think of the county town, they picture flower shows, Tudor buildings and lazy summer days in the Quarry.
But reformed gangster Ben tells a very different story – one of organised violence, guns, Class A drugs and plots to kill rivals.
It was in the Quarry, a venue synonymous with fun and festivals, that the 32-year-old was inflicted with a stab wound which serves as a constant reminder to his chequered past.
“Shrewsbury is always classed as the town of flowers, but it isn’t all rosy,” says Ben, who shares his experiences in the hope of helping young people make better choices.
“The worst was probably when I was stabbed in the back of the leg with a glass bottle. That was in a fight in the Quarry involving one of my mates. It was over a girl.
"My mate got beaten up so we went looking for the lad who did it.
"We were fighting by the river. I got up and walked off, then realised there was something sticking out of the back of my leg. I’d been slashed as well.
“I’ve been bottled a few times and had my head stamped on a countless amount of times.
“It’s worse than people think in Shropshire. There are loads of drugs here, Shrewsbury and Telford in particular. And where drugs go, so does violence.”
Ben had a troubled upbringing.
“I got beaten up inside and outside of school,” he says.
“That racial abuse went on up until I was into my 20s.”
He also cites trouble at home as contributing to his lifestyle, but even after he moved to the Springfield area with his grandparents, he lost his way and got involved in violence and drugs.
At just 14 he made a mistake for which he believes he’s still paying the price.
“I used to go up to a guy’s flat in Coton Hill after school,” he says.
"That was the first time I took pills. I think it had a lasting effect on me, because your brain’s still developing at that age.
“There was a girl passed out who was 16. That’s what it was like.”
He added: “I used to get into fights. Gang fights, football violence.
“Knives were used quite often. I used them, and had them used on me. I’ve been stabbed in the back of a neck with a bottle. All through my teenage years up to my mid-twenties it was just violence.
“I was always getting into trouble. I was getting arrested every other week for violence.
“With the football it was all people looking for the fight. On the streets it was gang fights. It would be your estate against their estate.
"There were fights over drugs, fights over women. There would always be a reason to go and find someone.
“I got a gun. It was for protection but I wanted to use it.”
These days Ben prefers to follow a path more on the straight and narrow, and insists the pressure and stress weren’t worth the cash.
“A lot of my mates had nice cars, but I spent most of my money on designer clothes.
“I was spending at least £1,200 a week on clothes.
"But to be honest, most of my profits I was shoving up my own nose.
“I had a nice little wedge of money coming in. I had loads of boxes of trainers at my grandad’s house. He was asking how I got them and I just said it was money from work, because I was working as a labourer as well. But he wasn’t stupid.
“If people owed you money, you would go round their houses.
"Then if I didn’t have the money for someone else, I would have the pressure.”
Ben spent a stint from 2003 to 2005 in a Young Offenders Institute for gang-related crimes, but it wasn’t until a pal was murdered and the birth of his twins that he finally decided enough was enough.
He joined the Army for two years, and left with a desire to mentor young people.
He moved to Telford to avoid being dragged back into a life of crime.
Now he runs his New Generation Coaching company, mentoring youngsters disengaged with school and society, and thanks Ercall Wood School, Recharge, Energize and Smashlife for helping his work with youngsters.
“I want to show people where I’ve come from and that they can find a better way.
“It’s not just knife crime that’s the problem. It’s kids that are starting to go down the wrong path and might be on the periphery of that kind of thing.
“The youth clubs have all gone. I did an assembly at Telford Priory and some of the kids didn’t even know what a youth club was.”
He added: “I go to the gym with them. I think the gym and exercising helps people with their self confidence.
"There’s another lad who I speak to and we play Xbox. It’s about getting to know them and them getting to know you in a situation where they feel they can open up.
“It helps because they know I’m real and I’m coming from a place of experience. I’ve been places similar to them.”
Despite his sensational turnaround, it sometimes comes as a surprise when he’s reminded of his former life.
“I went to Shrewsbury Youth Association doing volunteer hours,” he says.
“A bloke recognised me, he was talking about a mad fight outside The Vaults with a bouncer.
"I’m surprised I’m not dead.”
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