Convicted drugs baron from Sheffield seeks to repay debt to community he 'destroyed' with 'poison'

Earl Odeyemi says he is determined to atone for his criminal past
Earl Odeyemi says he is determined to atone for his criminal past

A convicted drugs baron from Sheffield who was jailed for torturing a teenager with an axe says he is determined to repay the community he 'destroyed' by peddling 'poison'.

Earl Odeyemi, who grew up in Arbourthorne and on the then-notorious Park Hill estate, was handed a life sentence in 2003 for grievous bodily harm and dealing cocaine and heroin.

Mr Odeyemi says funding cuts have reduced the opportunities for rehabilitation which he benefited from in prison

Mr Odeyemi says funding cuts have reduced the opportunities for rehabilitation which he benefited from in prison

The 35-year-old spent 12 years behind bars before being released in 2015, but says he began rebuilding his life while locked up and has continued that transformation on the outside.

He wants to turn the leadership skills which helped him climb the criminal ranks to positive use, by opening a restaurant where he will train up ex-convicts and others in need of help.

He hopes his example will act as a beacon to those who feel trapped in a cycle of crime and can see no escape from their gang lifestyle, including his former underworld associates, by proving to them there is still hope.

The father-of-two now lives in North Anston, Rotherham, having initially been barred from the whole of Sheffield on release because probation officers feared his influence could spark a surge in drug-fuelled violence.

Mr Odeyemi says prison 'saved my life'

Mr Odeyemi says prison 'saved my life'

It is there he hopes to set up a restaurant called The British Eatery, serving classic homegrown dishes and offering staff the second chance in life he believes everyone deserves.

Racked with guilt over his criminal past, Mr Odeyemi is driven by a desire to atone for the unconscionable acts of his youth.

"I want to say sorry to all my victims and for selling that poison. I have to live with that for the rest of my life and it rides my conscience so hard I feel I have to give something back," he says.

"I have to be able to become part of society in a positive way and hopefully influence people who knew me and were hoping I would come out and be the same person, that horrible, greedy monster lurking in the shadows."

Mr Odeyemi in Jamaica, where he says he went on the run for a year while wanted for drug offences

Mr Odeyemi in Jamaica, where he says he went on the run for a year while wanted for drug offences

More than two in five offenders commit another crime within a year of being released from prison, according to the latest government figures.

Mr Odeyemi says this is not surprising given the lack of support available to those leaving such a regimented way of life, usually with very few skills or training, and facing a huge readjustment.

He aims to offer the mentoring and training he says is so sorely lacking, and to provide a platform for ex-convicts to go straight and become valuable members of society.

"I want to prove to people prison isn't the end. We can't just accept that half the prison population go back to crime within a year of being released," he says.

Earl Odeyemi with his mum Julia Kavanagh, whom he describes as the one constant in his life

Earl Odeyemi with his mum Julia Kavanagh, whom he describes as the one constant in his life

"A lot of people think the drugs and the gangs are their identity, and that's the only life they can lead. I want to show them that's not the case, and it's never too late to change."

Sitting across a table from Mr Odeyemi, it is hard to associate this compassionate, articulate and convivial figure with the sickening offences he committed.

A court heard in 2003 how he had repeatedly struck his 17-year-old victim with an axe before sadistically pouring boiling water over his battered feet mixed with sugar to make it stick and exacerbate the pain.

Mr Odeyemi also tried to carve his name into the terrified teenager's arm as punishment for running off from the crack house where he was employed with money which he claimed to have been owed in unpaid wages.

He visibly shudders as he recalls the horrific actions for which he says he is 'absolutely ashamed and deeply apologetic'.

"I can't even comprehend that was me. I look back and think how did that happen, how did I manage to believe that behaviour was OK?" he says.

Mr Odeyemi on the run in Jamaica

Mr Odeyemi on the run in Jamaica

"There are lots of people who to them it doesn't feel like crime. It's everyday life. You're living in a bubble and you think things are OK because your mates think they're OK."

Mr Odeyemi admits his crimes 'destroyed' countless lives and he doesn't have to look far for evidence of the ruinous effects of the drugs he pushed.

His sister died last year, aged just 29, her body ravaged by a lifetime of drug abuse.

He makes no excuses for himself, but his life story is a bleak one of a child robbed of innocence too soon following the only path he knew.

While most youngsters are chided for playing with the remote control or mobile phone, he recalls being warned to keep his mitts off the white powder and scales lying around the living room.

By the age of eight, he was a drugs runner, digging packages up in the woods and dropping them off at various addresses for a family friend.

"Every single male figure in my life was a drug dealer and to me it felt normal. Powder was part of everyday life," he says.

A former student at Myrtle Springs School (now Sheffield Springs Academy), Mr Odeyemi had dropped out of education by the age of 11 and was a hardened criminal by the time he reached his teens.

Aged 16, he began an 18-month spell in a young offender institution for drug offences, but within three days of his release he was 'back selling smack'.

He was soon being hunted by police and spent a year on the run in Jamaica before being locked up again, but he says prison 'saved my life' and he knuckled down inside.

Having begun life at her majesty's pleasure with a learning age of just 11, he took advantage of the education on offer to gain a clutch of GCSEs, including an A grade, before taking a catering course.

He soon developed a passion for cookery, which he continued to pursue at Barnsley College after being released, gaining a distinction in patisserie.

Martyn Hollingsworth, curriculum leader for catering and hospitality at the college, said he had reservations about taking Mr Odeyemi on given the severity of his crimes but was glad he had given him a chance.

"He's a great guy who excelled in every area of his qualifications and became a mentor to the other students. He's an inspiration and a constant advocate for education and how it changes lives," said the tutor, who added that Mr Odeyemi had been named star student last year.

Mr Odeyemi feels blessed by the opportunities he had inside but says swingeing budget cuts have seen a return to the dark days of Victorian prisons, with today's convicts denied the same chances to rehabilitate themselves.

"A lot of people I know would rather stay in prison than be released, because they're so lost, which is scary. They've become institutionalised," he said.

Rebuilding his life was not easy, says Mr Odeyemi, who has gone into catering after leaving college.

It meant starting from scratch and severing links with everyone he had known. At times he felt 'so alone', but he assures others in his position 'you will meet new people and it will get better'.

For him one of those people is Eddie Birks, a 62-year-old ex-Para he met on a business course and with whom he has teamed up to launch The British Kitchen and another community interest company, Green Oak Clearances.

The waste clearance and recycling service will employ ex-offenders and former service personnel, who face similar difficulties adapting to life on civvy street, as well as homeless people and recovering drug addicts.

Like The British Kitchen, it will seek to provide training to help them gain precious skills and rebuild their lives.

Mr Odeyemi, who is chairman of Woodland Drive Community Centre in North Anston, already has premises in mind for his new restaurant - the Old Town Hall in Rotherham, which was a Burger King.

But he and Mr Birks are now seeking the funding and support to get their twin ventures off the ground and start providing the support they say is so badly needed.

For more about their plans, and to find out how you could help, call Mr Birks on 0791 3281 786 or email edward.birks@hotmail.co.uk.

Mr Odeyemi in Amsterdam as a young man with his mum Julia (second from left)

Mr Odeyemi in Amsterdam as a young man with his mum Julia (second from left)

Mr Odeyemi with Eddie Birks, an ex-Para who is setting up a social enterprise to help ex-service personnel readjust to life on civvy street

Mr Odeyemi with Eddie Birks, an ex-Para who is setting up a social enterprise to help ex-service personnel readjust to life on civvy street