Barbara Attwood was incredibly proud of her son Shaun. He had finished university with a first class degree, moved to America, got a job in the incredibly competitive world of stockbroking and had a huge house with a swimming pool. There was nothing to worry about; he was clearly a success.
Then one night, comfortably watching Coronation Street with her daughter, she received a phone call that turned everything on its head. Shaun had been arrested. He hadn’t been to work in months. He had been caught running a vast drugs ring. He was looking at a sentence of 200 years in a US prison.
“He was trying to hold it together on the phone,” she explains, her voice dropping to a whisper. “But he was begging for a lawyer, pleading for help. He kept saying we had to get him a lawyer.”
Barbara is the last person you’d think could be connected to a drug lord. She’s a smart, softly-spoken, former college lecturer, living in a neat home in a small north-west town. But between 1997 and 2001, her only son was at the centre of a ring that sold tens of millions of dollars-worth of ecstasy. Shaun told his family his stockbroking career was going well, but he was living a lie. When it all came crashing down, it dragged his family with him.
“When I came off the phone I became hysterical,” Barbara continues. “I was laughing and crying, hugging my daughter Karen. And I was just full of dread. You don’t want to believe it could be true and, as a mother, you just want to rush over there and make it all okay but you can’t. I felt so frustrated, so powerless.”
Still not quite believing their son could be guilty, Barbara and her husband Derek began to pour money into the US legal system. “My husband had been made redundant and had some money, but that all went so fast. The initial bill was $55,000 and we thought that would be enough to take him to trial but it wasn’t; there was a hearing every month while the prosecutors tried to get enough evidence. Eventually the money just ran out.
“At one point I was working just to pay the lawyers’ bills. We even remortgaged the house, and now Derek can’t afford to retire.”
It wasn’t just the family’s finances that were rocked by the revelations; Barbara had a breakdown. “I was in a state of shock at first; I didn’t want anyone to find out. I didn’t even tell my sister. I’d go the shops and be frightened to look at the newspapers in case it had got out; I thought I’d lose my job.”
After four months of secret anguish, Barbara was at work when she finally snapped. “I went into the staff room and just lost it. I was running around shouting that they ‘all knew, they all knew’… But no one had a clue what I was talking about.”
She was signed off from work and put on medication, which she still takes today. After extensive counselling, she’s come to terms with what happened, but doesn’t think she will ever fully recover.
“He still has nightmares”
Visiting Shaun in jail and then prison was a stark contrast to visiting him at the height of his stockbroking success. “When we used to visit him, we’d see these poor women pushing prams with toddlers down the dirt track to the prison, in the baking sun. And we were all treated abominably; we were treated as though we were criminals. In fact, you felt as though you were a criminal, that it was all your fault.”
You can read about Shaun’s experiences in one of the toughest US jails in his Yahoo! interview ‘Cockroaches, violence and mouldy meat: Life in a US jail’.
Does Barbara think she should take some of the blame for her son’s actions? “Obviously you blame yourself. I went through blaming everyone and everything until Shaun said that he didn’t blame anyone except himself. It was his hedonistic lifestyle and his greed for money. Everything has its roots in childhood and genetic inheritance but I do believe we have choices and that he made the wrong choices.”
When he finally came home after serving almost six years, her handsome, confident son had been worn away by his time in prison. “It was like having a child again, he was institutionalised,” she says, absently wiping away tears. “He’d ask me before he had a shower; it took 12 months to rebuild his confidence. He still has nightmares.”
But while his family may have come to terms with his time in prison, they’ve recently been forced to confront what he did to get there. Shaun’s new book Party Time tells the story of how he built his drugs empire and it’s hard to read. It’s not just the criminality and drug abuse, there’s violence and gang warfare.
“It was like reading about someone else, not my son. Not the man who’d been my lovely baby… He’d done so well, I was so proud of him. Everything he’d ever done he’d been a success at…” She breaks off and smiles painfully: “Including drug dealing.”
Today, Shaun Attwood tours schools talking about his life and warning teenagers not to experiment with drugs. His message is clear; they risk ruining their own lives and destroying their families. For Barbara, this is proof of his rehabilitation and makes her suffering seem worthwhile.
“All the temptations are still there but he resisted them and he devotes his time to writing and talking to schools. You should see the affect he has on those kids, I am so proud of him. If he can stop one child from going down the same path, then he’s done something wonderful.”
Shaun lives daily with the knowledge of how much pain he’s caused his parents. He says: “My biggest regrets are the hurt I caused my family and for sending people down the road of drug use that ends in disaster for so many. This regret motivates me to do well in the future.”
You can read more about the Attwood family’s experience in English Shaun by Shaun's sister Karen.
Would you forgive a member of your family if they had committed serious drug offences? Have you? Should there be more support for the families of criminals. Have your say using the comments below.