Peter Bleksley was a teenage dropout destined to spend his life working in retail when his mother invited a police officer around for a chat. The officer convinced Bleksley to join Scotland Yard and he never looked back. He climbed the ranks to become an undercover officer, bringing down drug lords and loving every minute of his job. That is, until he was recruited for Operation Zulu Cricket, the biggest case of his career and one that would have a lasting impact on his life.
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True Spies Podcast Episode 50 - Operation Zulu Cricket

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies Episode 50: Operation Zulu Cricket. 

NARRATOR: It’s 1993. You’re a top undercover operative. And you’ve just been told about the biggest job of your life.

PETER BLEKSLEY: We were going to negotiate to buy the largest parcel of heroin that would ever have been seized inside the UK. I was delighted. It was my bread and butter.

NARRATOR: After painstaking work, you set up the trade.

PETER BLEKSLEY: Al comes to the room carrying this large and heavy holdall. I take it. And inside there are 30 packages. They are all half-kilo packages of heroin.

NARRATOR: The violent gangster selling the drugs is on edge. He was like a cat on a hot tin roof.

PETER BLEKSLEY: He just couldn't wish the time away quick enough. I was a lot more relaxed through all of this than Al was.

NARRATOR: That’s because this week’s True Spy was one of Britain’s best. A work-hard, play-hard detective, he was a founding member of Scotland Yard’s undercover unit. A master of disguise, he infiltrated criminal gangs and scammed the scammers out of millions of pounds worth of drugs and counterfeit money. By his early 30s, he’d earned some of policing’s top honors. But then along came a job that would change everything, Codename: Operation Zulu Cricket.

PETER BLEKSLEY: I never knew that this operation was going to have such a catastrophic effect on my life.

NARRATOR: This is the story of an undercover copper like no other and the mission that changed everything.

PETER BLEKSLEY: My name is Peter Bleksley, I was born and raised in a fairly leafy part of South London.

NARRATOR: Peter doesn’t start life on the straight and narrow. As a boy, he tends to fall on the other side of the law.

PETER BLEKSLEY: My alcoholic and physically abusive dad left when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I became an errant youth. So I'd go into school to tick the register. And then as soon as I possibly could, I'd slide out, head home, get changed out of my school uniform, and then go into the bookmakers, have a bet, watch the racing.

NARRATOR: Even at this tender age, a talent for subterfuge is emerging. 

PETER BLEKSLEY: And I made sure that I hid myself close to the window in case my mum passed by on the bus on the way home and happened to peer in and see me. There were three televised horse races every afternoon, so after placing a bet, I'd dash home to watch them on the telly, and on one famous occasion all three horses won and I made a small fortune. I could not believe I had so much money in my grubby little hand.

NARRATOR: And not just money but some of the skills he'll come to master later on as an undercover.

PETER BLEKSLEY: Those teenage years when I was off the rails gave me an insight into how not to get caught. And It gave me quite a grounding in crime, criminality, and evading the police.

NARRATOR: At 16, Peter leaves school. He gets a job in a warehouse at a London department store.

PETER BLEKSLEY: I loved it. I was shifting boxes around all day long and carrying huge lumps of cheese down to the ladies on the delicatessen counter and having a really good time - and of course, getting paid for it, which was the major attraction. But this job really didn't match my mum's ambitions for me. And one night I came home and, to my absolute horror, there was an enormous uniformed policeman sitting in the lounge of our flat. And my first thought was: “Oh, s***. What am I going to get arrested for?”

NARRATOR: The policeman has indeed come for a serious chat. But not the one Peter is expecting. 

PETER BLEKSLEY: My mum had arranged for this cop to come and give me a proper talking to and explain to me the benefits, the attractions of joining the police. And this cop did a really good job. He told me about the opportunities, the variety, the excitement, the regular wage, the pension at the end of it. And he did such a good job that before he left our flat, he pulled out the application form and I filled it in.

NARRATOR: So Peter bids adieu to the deli ladies. The cheese racket is over. A new existence is beckoning.

PETER BLEKSLEY: A few short weeks later, I walked through the front gates of the Metropolitan Police Cadet Training College. And in stark contrast to school, I suddenly discovered self-discipline, respect for others and myself, mainly because a lot of the instructors there were former Royal Marines. And when they went: “Oy Bleksley, I saw you leaning on that wall. Get down for 10 press-ups!” And “Or what?” wasn't an option. I loved it, I relished the discipline. I got fit, learned how to iron my trousers, press my shirt, polish my boots and do what I was told most of the time.

NARRATOR: Training done. It’s time for Peter’s first posting and he doesn’t have to travel far from where he grew up.

PETER BLEKSLEY: I was posted to Peckham in Southeast London. Now, if I thought I'd been a bit of a ‘Jack the Lad’ and I knew a bit about crime, well, Peckham taught me that I knew absolutely nothing because this was an area of chronic social deprivation. It had some very, very tough people and crooks to catch.

NARRATOR: Crooks to catch? No problem. Soon Peter knows Peckham back to front.

PETER BLEKSLEY: Policing is all about neighborhoods and if you were what was called, a ‘thief taker’ like me, then you wanted to know who was getting up to what. Who was the burglar? Who was the car thief? Who was the robber? And I knew them. I knew the majority of them and I'd know where they'd go, what they'd do. Consequently, I would often leap out of bushes and nick ‘em. I had a nose for sniffing out crime and criminals. And I loved it. I relished it. I absolutely lived for the job. 

NARRATOR: Up the ranks Peter rises. Soon he becomes a detective and leaves behind the mean streets of South London.

PETER BLEKSLEY: My first posting as a detective was to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea - a very, very different area from Peckham. All of sudden, I was surrounded by people and streets that just ooze money and wealth and privilege and position. And many of those people could afford cocaine, a drug that I was largely unfamiliar with.

NARRATOR: Cocaine is booming in 1980s London. A drug squad is set up by Scotland Yard - covert operations to tackle the growing threat. Peter joins up. Now he begins to watch undercover work close up. And he notices something strange. So many of them would put on a suit, go to a friendly local jeweler and drape themselves in gold and an expensive watch and would stay in the bar or the restaurant of an inexpensive hotel and they wouldn't move from there.

PETER BLEKSLEY: And whilst that had been very successful, I was hearing word on the street from the drug dealers that they were saying: “You go to a hotel, you go to a posh bar, and the guy with the expensive watch and the suit who won't move out of there has got to be an undercover cop.” There was a desperate need for change.

NARRATOR: But what is that change exactly? Soon after joining, Peter goes on a fateful operation with some undercover officers. That afternoon he learns a crucial lesson about how to do things differently.

PETER BLEKSLEY: Three detectives were buying about five or six kilos of heroin and they parked their car up in a large park in central London called Regent's Park, right near London Zoo. And they had £70,000 of the commissioner's money in the boot. Now, in the negotiations leading up to this, the female undercover officer had refused to take her clothes off in front of the bad guys. The bad guys wanted to see if she was wearing a wire and she'd refused. And what happened then was that the bad guys went: “You know what? We can rob this lot. They're not tough. They're not hard. They're not proper drug dealers.” The day of the trade came around and I was lying on the floor of a double-decker bus with a Smith and Wesson snubnose revolver in my shoulder holster, ready to jump out of the bus and arrest the bad guys when they delivered the drugs. Well, they didn't deliver the drugs. They knocked on the window of the undercover officer’s car. The driver wound the window down - yes, folks, it was that long ago that it was window winders and not electric windows - and one of the bad guys squirted ammonia in the undercover cop’s eyes. He screamed. There was pandemonium. The bad guys snatched the car keys, opened the boot, and legged it with the £70,000. All hell broke out.

NARRATOR: Not your usual trip to the zoo then.

PETER BLEKSLEY: Eventually, we got the £70,000 back. The bad guys were arrested and the undercover officer got his eyesight back. But after that, I thought to myself: “You know what? I can do this undercover lark and they're never going to rob me.”

NARRATOR: These officers don’t know how to act tough. But Peter realizes he can convince criminals that he is part of the underworld. A very Kensington operation is about to become a little more Peckham.

PETER BLEKSLEY: A few days later, my Detective Inspector swaggers down the office and says: “An undercover operation has come in. Who wants to have a go?” It was that unsophisticated. No recruitment process. No training. You just did it on the hoof. Well, my arm shot up like a child in primary school who knows the answer to the teacher's question. ‘Yes. Me, me, me, me. Yes, I want to do it.’ And so began a decade of working undercover.

NARRATOR: So how do you convince crooks who are selling vast quantities of drugs that you are one of them? Let’s open Peter’s box of tricks. Here’s how you con a conman. Step one: be yourself - or at least a slightly exaggerated version.

PETER BLEKSLEY: I always stuck close to my true personality. There was no point, me trying to pretend to be a public school-educated expert in fine art, for example. That just wouldn't have washed. So I used to stick to talking about the things that I knew about, which were the three F's - pardon the language - fighting, f******, and football. Right? I had some degree of knowledge about those.

NARRATOR: Less ‘shaken-not-stirred’, more ‘did United beat Spurs?’ Step two: Look the part.

PETER BLEKSLEY: One of my bosses described me as an imaginative dresser. Well, at the time, Miami Vice was on the TV, so there was Don Johnson in Miami with his white linen jackets and Hawaiian shirts. And I've got to confess, I did copy a bit of that.

NARRATOR: Ah, Don Johnson. Not the first time a True Spy has confessed to copying the louche style of James ‘Sonny’ Crockett. It won’t be the last either. Three: act like you mean it.

PETER BLEKSLEY: There had to be a bit of swagger. If you were going to convince people that you'd got £100,000 to invest in illegal drugs, then you had to be the part. I would say that I ran a bar or a snooker hall and I made a few quid. I always had cash in my hand and would sometimes flash a bit of that. And I was just basically a cocky kinda South London boy done good.

NARRATOR: Four: leave the gadgets to Hollywood. Not for Peter the pinhole camera or exploding pen. He uses things closer to hand. One of his most effective weapons? His hair.

PETER BLEKSLEY: Having long hair was very helpful because I could have it pinned back, looking relatively smart, tied back in a ponytail. Or alternatively - because I had a mass of long, brown, curly hair - I could have it as wild as you like, blowing in the wind, looking like some kind of rockstar. Some of the crooks I operated against did want to meet in posh hotels, but many of them wanted to take me to a safe house on a sink estate in a very dangerous part of London. So adaptability was key.

NARRATOR: But although dressing up or being in disguise may sound fun, the stakes are sky high. One slip-up means more than a botched operation. It can get you killed.

PETER BLEKSLEY: The work was often terrifying. It really was. Some people you negotiated with were a joy and were a delight and were business-like and efficient. Others were psychotic, armed, and dangerous. It was a real kind of high-octane, adrenaline-pumping world that I was living and working in.

NARRATOR: And it’s a world in which Peter thrives. He nails countless crooks. Stops millions of pounds of drugs hitting the streets. And he is awarded the Commissioner’s highest commendation, a top policing award. Just don’t mention the sandwiches.

PETER BLEKSLEY: I was invited up to the Commissioner's office for cucumber sandwiches and a cup of tea. I'm still haunted by those cucumber sandwiches, by the way. But anyway, I smiled and ate a couple and really I wanted to get out there and go to the pub, but it was all very nice. Got presented with a lovely certificate which still hangs proudly in my house. And then after that, the following day back at it, undercover. New case. New bunch of crooks. New negotiations. Let's do it.

NARRATOR: Then word reaches him of something coming down the pipeline, a new mission. Its codename is Operation Zulu Cricket and it changes everything.

PETER BLEKSLEY: In 1993, I got a phone call and they said: “Bleks, we've got a really major job on now. You'll be working undercover with a Customs and Excise undercover operative. This is a big job.” I was delighted. It was my bread and butter. I went along to a briefing and I was told that we were going to negotiate to buy the largest parcel of heroin that would ever have been seized inside the UK.

NARRATOR: The criminals are major league. Their method of payment is… well… a bit of a red flag.

PETER BLEKSLEY: They told us that they would accept payment in weapons instead of money. Well, we were never going to pay them with hundreds of AK47s or pistols or explosives or anything like that. We were always going to pay them in cash. But that really kind of cemented the fact that these guys were undoubtedly connected to terrorists.

NARRATOR: The mark is an Irishman called Robertson.

PETER BLEKSLEY: He was very well connected to terrorist organizations and there were proven links for that. He came from Ireland and basically had fingers in lots and lots of different pies, and he was clearly capable of delivering - or arranging, shall we say - the delivery of industrial-scale quantities of illegal drugs.

NARRATOR: Peter and another undercover officer arrange to buy a large quantity of heroin from Robertson and his crew.

PETER BLEKSLEY: There was a series of meetings in hotel bars and restaurants because they liked the finer things in life. And actually, I was quite happy with that because it made a bit of a change from some of the sink estates where I might have been doing some of my own cases' negotiations.

NARRATOR: The other undercover handles Robertson and the transfer of the money. Peter handles Robertson’s lieutenant Al, and the handover of the drugs.

PETER BLEKSLEY: Al was not a bit-part player. He had criminal credentials all of his own. Like his boss, extremely well-connected. And there was always an air of menace that would never go away whenever I was talking to him.

NARRATOR: Everyone meets one evening so that Robertson can see the money - hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash. The tension is high. You’re at a smart hotel. Your undercover colleague is taking Robertson to a safety deposit box. And you’re left with Al, the man who is soon to hand you 15 kilos of heroin. You need to befriend a dangerous man with connections to terrorism. If your cover is blown, the mission is over and your life with it. So how do you take Al into your confidence?

PETER BLEKSLEY: I really did not need to know too much about the bad guys that I was operating against. Some undercover cops want to know everything about them - their shoe size, their family, their kids, what football team they support - all that kind of stuff. I didn't because what I don't know, I can't make a mistake over. That was always my attitude.

NARRATOR: So Peter does what he does best. He treats this hardened criminal like a mate down the pub. No doubt the ‘three F’s’ are used.

PETER BLEKSLEY: Me and Al really hit it off, and I think part of that was because we both occupied the same position within our criminal organizations. In other words, Al was the man that delivers the drugs. I'm the man that takes the drugs from him. Very much the blue collar workers having a drink and a natter together. So we got on famously. We fulfilled the same role within our criminal organizations. We like the same things. We like to have a laugh and a joke. And we really were kind of brothers in illegality to a large extent.

NARRATOR: Is Peter getting too close? Losing sight of his purpose? Or is this how you know you’ve mastered your craft - when you can natter like brothers with a drug lord’s henchman?

PETER BLEKSLEY: I worked against many people in my undercover career who were all right. They were nice people. But they were on one side of the fence and I was on the other. And I never had my conscience pricked. And I never had any sleepless nights about them being captured, being charged, convicted, and facing lengthy jail terms.

NARRATOR: So Peter keeps Al sweet. Robertson sees the money and a date for the exchange is set. The location? A hotel room in Gatwick Airport where regular comings and goings won’t seem too suspicious. And then, just before the trade, the police intercept intelligence.

PETER BLEKSLEY: We'd heard that they would probably have armed minders on their side. So, of course, we had armed officers posted around and inside the hotel. They were disguised. They were in plain clothes. And there were other surveillance officers who I was told had borrowed uniforms from the hotel so that they could all blend in and look exactly as though they were members of staff.

NARRATOR: The day of a major undercover operation is like a theater production. There are lines that need learning, countless moving parts. The pre-show tension builds and builds. And at the heart of the tumult - the lead performer.

PETER BLEKSLEY: On the morning that the drugs were going to be delivered to me, there was a briefing and I was wheeled in to stand in front of all of the officers involved. So there are surveillance teams. There are arrest teams. There are the investigative teams There are firearms teams. There's a huge number of cops that I am presented to and they say: “This is the undercover operative. This is the man to whom drugs will be delivered.”

NARRATOR: The minute hand tick-ticks towards Al’s arrival. Waiting in the wings, Peter collects himself. 

PETER BLEKSLEY: And I wasn't particularly superstitious so I didn't have any kind of pre-match ritual. I would just like a moment to myself. After the briefing, all the officers there, everybody chatting in your ear, people telling you this and that and having to absorb an awful lot of information. I would always like just a few quiet moments on my own, gather my thoughts, get ready and do this.

NARRATOR: And then the moment arrives. Al checks in and takes the lift to the fourth floor. Everyone into position. Lights down. Curtain up. 

PETER BLEKSLEY: Al comes to the room carrying this large and heavy holdall. I take it. And inside there are 30 packages. They are all half-kilo packages of heroin.

NARRATOR: This is it, the opportunity for potentially the biggest land seizure of heroin in British policing history. So what do you do? Call in your colleagues to arrest Al? Or do you play a more patient game? When does the performance end? How far are you willing to push it? 

PETER BLEKSLEY: Now, I could have just opened one, had a look at it, confirmed that it was heroin, and given the signal for Al to be arrested then. But that would really give the game away very, very quickly, and, of course, what I wanted to do was play it for real.

NARRATOR: If he takes the drugs without testing them, Al might get spooked. Who hands over a small fortune without sampling the produce? Al could get violent or call in his ‘armed minders’. But Peter’s background comes to his aid.

PETER BLEKSLEY: When I was off duty, I very rarely socialized with police officers. I socialized with my mates from the area where I lived. And being in South London, it's fair to say I was no stranger to drugs. And of course, I'd come across loads of drugs in my life as a detective working at Scotland Yard. It was really important for me when I'm negotiating with these bad guys to know the gear inside out. So I could wash up powdered cocaine into rocks or crack, as many people called it. I could rack up lines of cocaine into people's initials, which was always a bit of a novelty thing to do. And I could build a three-skin, a five-skin or a seven-skin joint, which could end up being the size of a baby's arm. It was crucial I knew my gear.

NARRATOR: Peter knows he needs to keep playing it for real. That means testing the gear. And there’s another reason for continuing the charade with Al.

PETER BLEKSLEY: The longer I had Al in my company in the hotel room, then the greater the opportunity it gave the investigating team to try and figure out where he'd come from, who he might be meeting, who else might be involved in conspiracy and where else they might be able to gather some evidence.

NARRATOR: So Peter doesn’t just test one bag of heroin. He tests every single one.

PETER BLEKSLEY: I carefully opened every parcel with a Stanley knife, a sharp crafting knife, and I took a little bit of heroin out of each parcel, placed it onto a piece of silver foil, and then burned the heroin to see how good quality it was. If the foil burns virtually clean and you can smell it’s heroin - I knew the smell of heroin very, very well, of course, because I've been undercover for so many years - and this gear was good. But then I had to parcel up the package again, cover over the hole that I'd made, make it secure, and weigh each and every one, of course. And I did that 30 times and it took a long time. I wasn't leaning over it and, you know, chasing the dragon, hoovering up the smoke. I was holding it well out in front of me trying exactly not to do that. But it was inevitable with that amount of testing for that length of time that I would have some kind of effect from it. And I did get a bit of a headache.

NARRATOR: How’s that for a test of nerve?

PETER BLEKSLEY: I was a lot more relaxed through all of this than Al was. He was like a cat on a hot tin roof. Because he just wanted to get this process done, and be out of there so we could undoubtedly meet up with his boss, get handsomely rewarded for what he'd done and go off and enjoy himself. He went down to the bar on one occasion and brought a tray of drinks back up. He just couldn't wish the time away quick enough. But I kept him there, weighing another parcel, testing another parcel - all the time, trying to buy time, hoping that the surveillance teams and the investigation teams will be hoovering up evidence against Al or Robertson or anybody else.

NARRATOR: The testing takes four hours. No wonder Al gets twitchy. You’d almost think Peter was enjoying himself.

PETER BLEKSLEY: The weighing and the testing is all done, much to Al's delight. I package up all the parcels into the holdall, store it securely. And it's time for me and Al to go for a celebratory drink in the hotel bar downstairs and toast the start of a very lucrative and wonderful business arrangement. So he thought. We leave the hotel room, walk to the lobby where you press the button to get the lift. And while we're waiting for the lift, shouts of 'armed police' as coppers with guns appear from just about everywhere, force me and him to the ground unceremoniously, and handcuff us. Al is dragged off in one direction. I'm dragged off in another direction.

NARRATOR: For Al, the curtain falls. But the final act holds one more twist.

PETER BLEKSLEY: At the end of the day, I thought: “I've done my job well, everybody seems really happy. They've seized the heroin and Al's been nicked and what-so-ever else they're going to do around the operation, they will do.” I largely didn't need to know. I've done my bit. I went off and had a drink to celebrate and I thought that would be it until perhaps I'd get called to court to give evidence. I never knew that this operation was going to have such a catastrophic effect on my life.

NARRATOR: Months pass. It’s a bright afternoon. The sun is out. Peter’s in his car.

PETER BLEKSLEY: We've had an early day. We finished early. Terrific, I can drive to my local pub, meet my mates and have a drink. Happy days. So there I am and all of a sudden my mobile phone rings and it's one of the bosses from Scotland Yard. And he says: “Bleks, don't go home.” And I'm like “Oh, okay, guvnor, you going to tell me why?” And he says: “No. Get your girlfriend to go to your flat, pack an overnight bag, use one of your false identities and move into a hotel tonight. But you must not go home. Be at the Yard at 9 am tomorrow morning and all will become clear to you.”

NARRATOR: Peter does as he’s told.

PETER BLEKSLEY: And I got to the Yard the following morning not at 9 am like he told me - I'm a detective - I got there at 8 am. And a mate of mine said: “Do you know what all this is about?” And I said: “Not a clue.” And he pulled out a report and he said: “Right, you've got to read this.” He locked me in the photocopying room and I then read a six-page report and could not believe what I was reading.

NARRATOR: He turns the pages. The aftermath of Operation Zulu Cricket plays out in front of him. Al has been taken to court and convicted. Robertson has got away. Links have been discovered proving the connection between the major players and the IRA. And there is something else. When Peter didn’t turn up in court with Al, suspicions were raised. Was this pony-tailed south London crook who he said he was? Apparently not. The document explains what the criminals plan to do next.

PETER BLEKSLEY: A plot to kill me, a very clear, real plot to kill me with the assassin given a code name and the gun given a codename. There had been a number of telephone taps deployed throughout this operation by various law enforcement agencies. And apparently the plot to kill me had been discovered by one of the FBI phone taps on a bar in Boston, Massachusetts.

NARRATOR: An Irish bar, no less. 

PETER BLEKSLEY: The assassin who was going to come to the UK and kill me was going to be known as ‘the doctor’, apparently, in any future conversations that these bad guys had. And the weapon used to kill me would be ‘the doctor's bag’. This was very real. I was sitting there absolutely aghast. But what was really, really just unfathomable was that this report had my real name in it, not my code number, which it should have done, which is allocated to me by the undercover unit at the Yard. Oh no. My real distinct and unusual surname Bleksley. B-l-e-k-s-l-e-y. There's only about 14 of them in the UK and I've fathered most of them - well only three of them.

NARRATOR: Chilling, no? 

PETER BLEKSLEY: And then what happened to this report? It had been printed off, taken out of police premises, put in the back of the car. The driver of that car had gone shopping. And you can guess the rest. That car got broken into and the report got stolen. If that report found its way into the hands of those that wanted to kill me, I was in very, very real danger.

NARRATOR: A hit has been put out with your name on it. A ruthless criminal gang wants revenge. And now they know your name. Conspiracy or incompetence? And how will you escape their clutches?

PETER BLEKSLEY: I stayed at the Yard all day after I read that report and, quite frankly, I was just aghast at what had gone on that I didn't know about, and the fact that my life was in such potential danger. Eventually, at the close of play that day, it was decided that I had to abandon my home, abandon my life, abandon my identity and move into the witness protection program. And so began a catastrophic two years of my life.

NARRATOR: A witness protection program is difficult for anybody. For a neighborly man like Peter it’s a form of purgatory. 

PETER BLEKSLEY: I wasn't living in a home. I was living in a hideout with panic buttons and alarms and all that kind of paraphernalia. I was conspiracy theorizing all the time. How did it come to this? How was my name in that report? How did that report get taken out of that police building and stolen? You know: “What is actually going on here?” And I conspiracy theorized myself to the bottle and I drank and I drank way too much as I tried to self-medicate my way out of this confusion and this dreadful situation.

NARRATOR: Peter has always bulldozed past the pitfalls of an undercover’s double life. After a job’s done, he’s still the same old Peter down the pub with his mates. But now it isn’t just at work where he has to keep his identity under wraps. It’s at home too. Suddenly the feedback between his two worlds starts to crackle.

PETER BLEKSLEY: I would come downstairs in the morning and there would be my mail on the doormat, which was a stark reminder of the identity that I was living in witness protection. So that's my first identity for the day. I'd then leave that hideout, get in the car - or the van or whatever it was I was driving - and go to work. And for that hour I could be myself. I could turn the radio on, listen to whatever station I wanted to, and be Peter Bleksley for an hour because, yes, the police still wanted their pound of flesh out of me. They still insisted that I worked and worked undercover. So then I get to the office and the boss goes: “Here you are Bleks. Got another job come in for you, an undercover job right up your street. Off you go.” So by about 11 am, I could have been three different personalities in one day. Couple that with the conspiracy theorizing. Couple that with the continual fear of an assassin's bullet in the back of my head. Throw in excessive drinking into the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. Nobody oversaw it properly.

NARRATOR: Peter lives like this for two years. The pressure is immense. And then one evening it all comes to a head.

PETER BLEKSLEY: The moment when I knew enough was enough was when I seriously assaulted a friend of mine in the pub. I punched him, knocked him clean off the barstool, picked up the barstool, and was about to squash his head like a watermelon with it when somebody shouted my name very, very loudly. I had one of those split-second lucid moments when I stopped myself from bringing this barstool down upon his head. I dropped the barstool to the side, went and sat down, essentially collapsed in a heap, and knew that not only was I now a danger to myself, but I was becoming a danger to other people. And that was enough. A great friend came and collected me and within about an hour or two I was in a lock-in psychiatric ward.

NARRATOR: After 10 years as an undercover, Peter is burned out. He needs help fast.

PETER BLEKSLEY: Thanks to the wonderful staff in the National Health Service Hospital, the psychiatrist who I trusted hugely, the nurses who were brilliant, the support of my family and my friends, I began to piece my mental health back together again. It was a long process. It was hard. But I had medication, of course, that helped dramatically. And I still to this day, all these years later, take a small maintenance dose of antipsychotic medication. And I have no shame in saying that. For me, there is no stigma around mental health. We all have mental health. Sometimes it's good and robust. Other times it fails us and it's important that we talk about it and we don't stigmatize people for it.

NARRATOR: Peter rebuilds his life. He returns to the force, back to the job he’s loved for so long.

PETER BLEKSLEY: I did return to work eventually and did some surveillance work and worked on an intelligence unit. But, eventually, they farmed me out to a regular police station. And I was so kind of stigmatized. My reputation preceded me. I was made to feel very uncomfortable, couldn't access computer systems, couldn't get in a locker - all that kind of stuff. And after a couple of weeks of that nonsense, I was driving home and the whites of my knuckles were so bright they were almost blinding me. I steered the car home and said to my wife: “Nah, I'm going to get ill again if I carry on. I think me and the Metropolitan Police are finished.” And so began the process of my medical retirement.

NARRATOR: It’s time for something new. 

PETER BLEKSLEY: So at the age of 40, there I am on the scrapheap of life, flunked my education, as you may remember - no trade, no apprenticeship or nothing like that to call back upon. And I'm thinking: “What the hell am I going to do now?”

NARRATOR: You’ve faced down villains of all stripes. Risen to the top of your field. And it all comes to an end. What next?

PETER BLEKSLEY: And I said, you know what? I've got a really good story to tell, the story of my life and my undercover career and how it all went wrong. And I was lucky enough to get a publishing deal.

NARRATOR: But you face a critical decision. Have you outrun Operation Zulu Cricket? The doctor could be out there somewhere. You likely still have a hit out on you. Would you stick your head above the parapet? Would you tell your story?

PETER BLEKSLEY: The brilliant psychiatrist that helped me on the road back to robust mental health said to me: “You have to be Peter Bleksley. You've been too many people for too long - too many different identities. If you're going to get well and stay well, you've got to be Peter Bleksley.” So when I was deciding to write the book, I said: “Well, do I write it in a pseudonym? Am I still under threat?” And the publisher's lawyers wrote to the Met Police and they said: “Can you do a current threat level assessment on Peter?” And the Metropolitan Police came back saying: “We can find no current threat against him.” So that gave me the green light to publish in my own name.

NARRATOR: In the end, political events well above Peter’s pay grade secured his safety. A few years after he moved into witness protection the Good Friday Agreement was signed, bringing peace to Northern Ireland. It brought a halt to most IRA activity and finally set Peter free.

PETER BLEKSLEY: I think that my murder would have been a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, and I was told once upon a time that it's that agreement that I have to thank for the fact that I'm still here.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another encounter with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills created by a former head of training at British intelligence now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Peter Bleksley grew up in South London and was a founder member of Scotland Yard's undercover unit in the 1980s. He is the author of several books including The Gangbuster and is the star of the British television shows Hunted and Celebrity Hunted.

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