Investigating Patrick Shaw, Kenya’s most dreaded cop

PHOTO | FILE Patrick Shaw (at the back) during his days as an administrator at Starehe Boys’ Centre.

What you need to know:

  • Patrick Shaw was enlisted as a police reservist in 1959 before joining Starehe Boys’ Centre as an administrator. DAVID SMITH tells the story of a man it took, in the words of Geoffrey Griffin, lots of patience to appreciate

“I am looking for articles on Patrick David Shaw,” I said, replying to a question from a librarian in the basement of Nairobi’s Macmillan Library.

The librarian’s jaw dropped. “Why are you interested in such a man?” he asked.

I had spent several Saturdays finding old Standard and Nation newspapers in the disarray of stacks in the basement of the library and had pored over articles from the 1970s and 1980s about the man known as “Romeo 9” and “The Crime Buster”, one of the world’s most infamous lawmen.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I just wanted to find out if the stories I’ve heard about Patrick Shaw were true. Did you ever see him in action?”

“Yes,” the librarian said. “It was in 1985. In those days, Nairobi was very different. Armed bank robberies took place in broad daylight. There were so many gangsters and criminals.”

He recounted how he witnessed a robbery one afternoon across the street from the library at the Bank of India. Three armed men, brandishing weapons, made off with a trunk of cash. As the getaway car pulled away, an enormous white man pulled up in a white Volvo before any police could intervene and gave chase. “He eventually caught up with the three robbers in Westlands,” the librarian said.

“Then what happened?” I asked.

With a quick shrug of his shoulders and a quaint smirk, he replied nonchalantly: “Shaw shot them all down — that’s usually how the stories end.”

Those who lived in Nairobi during the 1970s and 1980s will remember Patrick David Shaw, Kenya’s larger-than-life lawman who served as an administrator at Starehe Boys’ Centre and patrolled the streets of Nairobi through the night.

His life and identity 24 years after his death are laced with legends and tales of heroism and brutality. Unlike the tales of outlaws and lawmen of lore, the witnesses who saw Shaw in action are still living and the tales recounted are stranger than fiction.

A member of the Kenya Police Reserve, Shaw was an intimidating man, standing six feet tall and weighing in at over 300 pounds (about 136 kilogrammes). He rarely slept, suffering from a glandular disorder, choosing instead to spend his free time patrolling the streets of Nairobi in a white Volvo, hunting down criminals. He killed Nairobi’s most notorious gangsters and hundreds of others. He was probably the most prolific, if not the most unorthodox, lawman that ever lived.

Born in 1936 in London, Patrick David Shaw was the son of a prominent doctor who died of tuberculosis when Shaw was very young.

“He never really knew his father, but he was very close to his mother and wrote to her every week,” his sister recounts.

In school he was brutally teased because of his weight and entered a life of mischief, always getting into trouble. “He was never fond of school,” his sister added, “but had a tremendous sense of justice.”

It was the teasing at school that influenced the Shaw that Nairobi later came to know. In the years that Shaw served as an administrator, Starehe was known for having zero tolerance to bullying.

In the summer of 1955, at the age of 19, Shaw came to Kenya and worked as an agricultural officer stationed in and around the Rift Valley and served as the leader of the Young Farmers Club. In those days he was known for being kind but mischievous.

“He would organise outings for us to agricultural shows and even allowed us to drive his tractor,” a former Young Farmers Club member and student of Loreto Convent in Eldoret stated. “It was all in good fun. After joining Kenya’s police reserve in 1959, Shaw eventually moved to Nairobi where he worked for St John Ambulance and later Starehe Boys’ Centre as a school administrator. (Word has it that he was fired from St John for driving an ambulance without authorisation and then crashing the vehicle).

Shaw worked at Starehe with Geoffrey Griffin, founder and former director, and the two became close colleagues. He eventually became an administrator for the school, his salary sponsored with funds from Save the Children. He used much of his salary on the children, taking them to agricultural shows and the Nairobi National Park, among other outings.

“Though strict, he was very generous to us,” one former student recounted. “He would pick up five of us in his Volvo and take us to the Nairobi National Park. Before reaching the entrance, a few of us would have to get out and hide in the trunk so Shaw wouldn’t have to pay our entrance fees. He’d drive a way out of sight of the askaris before letting us out. After the safari, Shaw would pull over before the exit and have the same number of boys get back in the trunk… but never the same boys that he put in while entering.”

Some of the students were referred to as “Shaw’s Boys” — students he would cater to and also use as spies.

“He would take us to the of Eastleigh and Kibera and ask us to spy for him in the bars and restaurants,” one of those boys, now all grown up, remembers. “We would then report back and if the ID was positive, he would call in the reserves and surround the place.”

Pat Shaw always travelled in a Volvo, which, like his weight, shooting, and running ability and intelligence, became an embodiment of his persona.

It is said that the Volvo had been modified especially for him. It had a custom seat that he could lie back in, was fitted with a CB radio and a blue rooftop light. It was in his car that he spent most of his time in the evenings, reading FBI manuals, memorising photos of wanted criminals, and occasionally sleeping. Shaw spent most of his spare time driving around the worst neighbourhoods looking for criminals and maintaining an aura of omnipresence in the criminal world.

Despite his huge size, colleagues and witnesses described him as being lightening fast on his feet and able to run down and tackle suspects.

When arriving at the scene of a robbery, his Volvo would be met by cheering crowds. On other occasions, though, those crowds would scatter in fear.

He was also known for having a tremendous shot, able to shoot on point and from long distances. “He would actually count the number of shots the thug would fire,” one former student of Starehe told me. “He would wait for six rounds to go off, then go in for the kill.”

Like other folk heroes, Shaw was also seen by Nairobi’s populace as having supernatural powers and abilities. “He was like an angel,” a taxi driver told me one day. “He never forgot a face and knew where to find all the criminals.” Legend has it that criminals who came face to face with Shaw were so overcome with fear that their guns would drop from their hands.

“He was always the first to arrive on the scene of a crime… he was everywhere,” one shopkeeper told me. “Wherever he drove his Volvo, criminals would take refuge. I remember when Shaw came on the scene crime dropped substantially.” Shaw would always be the first to enter a building where criminals were holed up, or the first to enter after a bomb threat was given. “He would take his Volvo into the most dangerous places at night, like River Road,” one woman remembers, “where the normal police force wouldn’t dare to venture.”

Hitman’s role in building the enduring legacy of Starehe

Roger Martin, a former Starehe head and author of the book Anthem of Bugles, recounts that when the famous Brazilian Footballer Pele came to Kenya in 1976, Patrick Shaw had organised the Starehe Centre’s first and second XI students to go “to Jamhuri Park to watch a training demonstration”.

After a disagreement between Kenya’s Football Federation and Pele’s sponsors, the demonstration was cancelled, leaving the boys, Pele, and the crowd of 12,000 high and dry.

Seizing the opportunity, “Shaw rushed the boy’s back to change into their uniforms and stand in for the missing teams”. Impressed, Pele visited Starehe the next day to present a silver cup to the students and put on a dribbling show.

Before boarding his plane back to Brazil, Pele cut a $5,000 (Sh425,000) cheque for Starehe.

“A man of determination” is how Geoffrey Griffin, Starehe’s founder and former director, described Patrick Shaw. He “knew where he wanted to go and took the shortest possible route to get there”, Griffin added.

It was in 1962, while on a tour in London to promote Starehe’s Youth-Helps-Youth campaign, that Griffin recounts first meeting Shaw.

Previously while on police patrol, Shaw had occasionally stopped his car outside the centre to observe the activities.

While on leave back home in London, Shaw read about what the London press dubbed the “Sunshine Kids” and in turn made a call to Griffin’s hotel room to request if he could assist.

Griffin obliged and Shaw acted as an escort for the remainder of the London visit.

Martin references that upon his return to Kenya, Shaw began to volunteer more for Starehe and eventually took up the chairmanship of the “house committee”, which was “informally responsible for the fundraising activities.”

Shaw resigned from the agricultural service in 1965 and when Griffin offered him a position as administrative officer, at a very modest salary, he accepted.

The two went on to become close colleagues and friends — a relationship that would last for nearly three decades.

In 1969, Shaw rose to the ranks of assistant director in charge of administration.

Martin described Shaw as someone who brought “a willingness to shoulder any and every responsibility, and a meticulous attention to detail which were to prove of enormous value — above all his skilfull supervision of all the centre’s building operations”.

In his autobiography, narrated by Yusuf King’ala, Griffin details that if Shaw found a newly constructed wall that did not meet his approval, he would simply lean his massive weight on the side until it tumbled, and in turn, command the poor mason to rebuild it up to his specification.

He lived in a bungalow on the centre’s grounds, carrying his gun and a crackling hand CB radio wherever he went.

Due to his work with the police and his deep-seated commitment to respond to all incidents, whether during working hours or not, some felt that his work at Starehe was neglected.

Griffin described Shaw as someone who never left his office until 8.30pm and could not understand the concept of what “mere mortals” termed a “holiday”.

“He would occasionally spend a month or two visiting Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria, seeing his family, renewing friendships,” Griffin recounted, “but still spending most of his time in actively raising help for Starehe.”

Shaw was also responsible for managing the extracurricular activities at the school, including the school’s fire-fighting squad.

During one drill, King’ala alleges that Shaw directed the students to hose a British volunteer walking through the grounds (the two were not particularly fond of each other).

When the volunteer demanded that Griffin make Shaw apologise for his action, threatening to resign, Griffin did not budge, citing the incident as minor and his rant as “a storm in a cup of tea”. In the end the volunteer left.

It was not the only altercation Shaw had with a volunteer. One former UK volunteer, serving as a chemistry teacher, became fond of disciplining students by spraying a fire extinguisher in class.

King’ala reminisces that he would warn students “show me your prep or I’ll have Mr Shaw sit on you” — Shaw earlier complained to Roger Martin that each time a fire extinguisher was used on a student for disciplinary purposes, it cost the centre Sh104 to replace the valve.

“Perhaps you will request him not to do this in the future,” he sarcastically suggested in a memo. The volunteer, in a farewell speech at the final assembly, brazenly insulted the educational methods of Starehe (before ending with a jab at Shaw himself by thanking him from “the heart of his bottom”.

Not amused, Shaw ensured that the volunteer was detained at the airport on suspicion that he was carrying game trophies on the way back to England.

Shaw would also incorporate the help of the students in managing the Agricultural Society of Kenya shows in Nairobi and occasionally took them overseas for fundraising and promotion of the centre.

Like the experiences with the Young Farmers Club, Shaw let the students get away with quite a bit — even allowing the boys to briefly fly the plane.

In one dramatic incident, a disorderly boy had punched a prefect, then tried to escape by feigning insanity to avoid being caned.

He quickly crept under a building to block the director and administrator from reaching him. Attempts to flush him out were met with stone missiles.

As darkness approached the incident evolved into a veritable crisis. As a resolution, Shaw suggested employing the help of the city’s fire brigade to flush the boy out with a jet of water.

Luckily, Griffin “vetoed” him (King’ala). Later, three students armed with garbage can lids as shields were sent to overpower and tie him up with a rope so he could be dragged out.

Frequently, and allegedly at the displeasure of Griffin, Shaw would at time take students with him on his nightly police patrols.

In one instance, with the help of two boys, Shaw took down a street thief. The three were later presented with a “Guinness Stout Award for Courage”.

Kennedy Hondo, a former assistant to Griffin, recounts that on one evening in 1977 in Embakasi, Shaw with the help of three students and the police rescued a man stranded on a tree during a flood.

A couple of weeks later near Nairobi West shopping centre, Shaw and a group of students rescued two Asian youths trapped on top of a car that had been washed 200 yards down the road — a boy was enlisted to swim out to the vehicle with a rope.

Street boys, also known as “parking boys”, were used as spies in his network and many were brought into the centre to be reformed.

Besides using them to assist him in his police work and as spies, Shaw would encourage suitable students to enlist in the police, especially those who did not qualify for college.

These former students would become integrated into the Nairobi’s “Flying Police” or nicknamed “Mr Shaw’s Flying School”.

David Smith is researching the life of Patrick David Shaw. If the public wishes to share any information, stories or anecdotes on his life (as an agricultural officer, administrator at Starehe, and police reservist) or of the real-life characters covered in this story, please email [email protected] . The identities of sources will be kept anonymous and in strict confidence.