Father who overstepped the fine line between loveable rogue and criminal
So the long arm of the law has finally caught up with cancer campaigner Kevin Wright.
He was found guilty of stealing £170,000 that he'd raised to help children with cancer. He sentenced yesterday to five years in prison.
I wasn't surprised to hear the news. And, knowing Kevin, I'm guessing he saw it coming too. There is a fine line between being a loveable rogue and, quite simply, a criminal. As I discovered when I went to meet Kevin and his family at their home near Exeter in 2006.
Back then, Kevin had been frantically fundraising to send his son Bobby, then four years old, to America for life-saving cancer treatment. Kevin had persuaded locals in Devon and Cornwall to donate vast amounts of money to send Bobby to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York.
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The treatment could cost up to £200,000. But over a roll-up cigarette and a can of beer Kevin confided in me that, in total, he had raised far more than that.
"But don't tell anyone," he said with a nod and a wink.
I'd met Kevin, then 43 and his wife Jacqui, then 37, at their home in the village of Kenn with the plan of writing up their story for a national newspaper.
I was expecting tales of tears and bravery – a desperately ill child and his crusading father. And yes, I found all of that, but a whole lot more, too.
Kevin, something of a rough diamond in his leather jacket, was certainly one of the more memorable people I have ever interviewed.
Kevin's story starts back in 2005 when his three-year-old son Bobby was diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer called a neuroblastoma.
Upon diagnosis, Kevin took to the internet. He soon learned that his son had a low chance of survival.
"No parent should ever go through that heartbreak," he told me. "I would read late into the night with despair like a stone in my chest. I used to sit there wondering if we should have Bobby buried or cremated." Kevin, an ad salesman, and Jacqui, a nurse, tried everything they could to increase Bobby's chances. They took in special organic food to the hospital.
Bobby saw an expensive private doctor specialising in complementary medicine on Harley Street.
He was prescribed a wide range of supplements, from a digestive herb called slippery elm to essential fatty acids.
Bobby also underwent NHS surgery to remove the tumour and had a gruelling 95 days of chemotherapy.
He was finally discharged from hospital.
But even so the Wrights knew their son's long-term survival prospects were slim.
Then the couple heard about immunotherapy treatment – powerful drugs which can replace a diseased immune system but are only available in the US. And so it was that Kevin's quite extraordinary fundraising project took shape.
He appealed to friends and neighbours and, within weeks, had raised many thousands of pounds. "One friend offered to remortgage his house, another sold his classic car," Kevin told me.
Next, he appeared on local radio and in the papers. Pubs held fun days and Kevin personally delivered 400 collecting tins with Bobby's picture on to shops and cafes.
"We rent our house, otherwise we would have sold it to raise money," he told me. "I was driving an old motorbike worth just a couple of hundred pounds, or that would have been sold too."
Finally, in a grand push, Kevin drew on his experience of selling advertising. He boarded out the barn next to his house to create 16 plywood booths and installed 20 phone lines. He took on dozens of casual staff from the local job centre. His team spent their days from 9am to 8pm cold-calling people in Devon and Cornwall with the sad tale of Bobby's illness.
To stay within fundraising rules, people were asked to buy tickets for a series of small raffle draws, rather than making donations. "Even though each draw prize was only £100, people sent in cheques for £50, £100 and even £150. One elderly lady sent in £1,000 and told me to spend it on whatever would make Bobby get well again," he told me.
Only two people from the dozens of draws actually claimed their prize – the rest asked for the money to go towards Bobby's treatment.
So money was streaming in – and out, too. As well as the American treatment fund, Kevin told me that Bobby's alternative therapies and tests on Harley Street were costing as much as £5,000 a week.
Even so, by Christmas 2005 enough money had been raised to send Bobby to New York. However, by then Bobby had begun to look, and feel, far better.
When I met him in the January of 2006, the little boy was pale but perky, running about and full of beans.
I saw him eat a hearty meal of organic salad, washed down with a nutritious drink – Kevin had spent £3,000 on a top-spec juicing machine for him.
The pricey supplements took up a whole cupboard in the Wright's kitchen.
All the air in the house was filtered and Bobby took baths in specially purified and oxygenated water, treated with yet another expensive new gadget.
In the end, his doctors decided that Bobby was "too well" to go to New York.
Immunotherapy is no walk in the park, as it involves a hefty course of chemotherapy to suppress the body's natural immune system.
Kevin told me that he would "hold the American treatment option up my sleeve" in case Bobby's cancer returned.
However, the good news is that Bobby today is alive, well and cancer-free.
Perhaps it was the NHS surgery and chemo that saved him, perhaps it was Kevin's battery of alternative treatments. Or maybe a combination of both.
We cannot be sure, but one thing is certain. By the beginning of 2006, Kevin Wright had acquired many, many thousands of pounds, all from the generosity of the general public here in the Westcountry.
What exactly happened to all that money is unclear. Much came in as cash, the rest as hundreds of small cheques.
When we met, Kevin told me that he was broadening his remit to help other families. He had just bought a family in Cornwall a juicer like the one he had for Bobby, as well as paying for £15,000 worth of blood tests for their little girl.
Just last year, I heard that Sally Roberts, mum of a little boy called Neon, was staying with Kevin for advice on how to treat her son's brain tumour.
Sally then sparked a national manhunt when she refused NHS treatment for Neon and went on the run with the seven-year-old.
I don't doubt that Kevin is genuinely crusading when it comes to children's health. When I told him my sons loved chocolate, his response was passionate – and largely unprintable.
"I used to give Bobby a f***ing Freddo choccie bar as a treat," he said. "It's poison. I was f***ing killing him, that's what I was doing. They should be banned."
Also on his hit list was the sponsorship of children's wards by fast food companies.
"At Great Ormond Street families stay in Ronald f***ing McDonald house," he said, outraged. "I saw parents taking in chips and a huge bottle of coke to kids who were having chemo. No wonder the poor children were ill."
He was also vehemently against microwaves, telling me about "Russian research" that proved they destroy all beneficial nutrients. It was all a bit extreme but there was no doubt he spoke from the heart.
As for the huge amount of money raised during the Bobby campaign and afterwards, the courts have ruled that Kevin spent much of it on his own "interests, investments and personal lifestyle".
He apparently bought cars for friends and put money into business ventures including an Exeter restaurant.
He also, it emerged in court, helped to fund-raise for other sick children and took a pretty cavalier attitude to their money, too.
When we met, his unusual approach to finance was perhaps best demonstrated by a couple of his remarks.
He first told me that the initial private treatments for Bobby were paid for by a generous, wealthy friend. But then, when Jacqui left the room, he turned to me and said: "Actually, I had about 50 grand in the bank that she didn't know about. So I used that. Don't tell her, though."
What's more, he freely admitted that he was being pursued by British Telecom for some sizeable phone bills run up by his cold-callers during the Bobby campaign.
"I've no intention of paying them, though. They can f*** off," he said.
I must have looked somewhat startled because he then expounded: "The way I see it, companies like BT have a certain amount of money set aside to cover fraud, unpaid bills and suchlike. And I think to myself, I'm going to be the man who gets that money. It might as well be me."
I wondered at the time what drove a man to do quite so much for his son and other ill children. His energy was admirable and any parent of a child with cancer must feel the same desperate impulse to try anything and everything.
But I also suspected that the overwhelming sense of urgency was, perhaps, coming from a desire to right earlier wrongs, too.
His first marriage had broken down, he told me, and he was completely estranged from his older children.
"But I can't really blame my first wife for stopping me seeing them," he said ruefully. "Hell hath no fury like a woman whose husband has been shagging 18-year-olds."
Be that as it may, Kevin was certainly a devoted father to Bobby.
He told me that his son's illness had "totally changed" him from the "selfish" person he was before.
After the verdict, he told journalists he was "crushed".
But then he added that nothing would stop him from helping children with cancer in the future. I can well believe it.
In fact, I can even imagine Kevin Wright trying to fund-raise from his prison cell.