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Kim Avis: The Suffolk punk who became an international refugee

Kim Avis: The Suffolk punk who became an international refugee

Image description, Avis was a punk teenager in a band in Bury St. Edmunds

  • Author, Myles Bonnar and Calum McKay
  • Role, Disclosure by BBC Scotland

When eccentric street vendor Kim Avis from Inverness faked his own death in the waters off a notorious Californian beach five years ago, it sparked an international manhunt.

Avis was eventually caught and brought to justice after the women he had abused for years testified against him in court.

A new podcast for BBC Sounds has uncovered the whole strange and murky case of Avis, including his early days when he wasn’t Kim and wasn’t in Inverness.

Image description, Kim Avis faked his own death and fled to the USA in 2019

Earlier this year, a BBC documentary revealed how Avis managed to hide his crimes from everyone’s eyes: he abused women and children for decades while simultaneously portraying the public as a celebrated charity collector in Inverness.

The investigation also revealed that the fugitive used various names, including Kem Avis, Kim Gordon and Cameron MacGregor, until his arrest in the US state of Colorado.

While the documentary covered most of the story, there were still gaps – particularly about Avis’ life before he performed in Inverness in the 1990s.

Avis told people he had arrived in Inverness on horseback, and that was all the people of the Highland capital seemed to know.

The day after the documentary aired, BBC Scotland’s Disclosure team received an email from someone who was active in the Suffolk punk music scene in the 1980s.

It took investigative journalism on a whole new path.

The email read: “For me as a punk teenager in the early 1980s, the market town of Bury St. Edmunds was the safest place to hang out.

“One of the most famous characters in Bury was Vince Avis – he was never known as Kim.

“After seeing what a monster this man has become, I thought this information might be of interest to you.”

The author was Paul Devine, former bassist of the punk band Cult of the Head in the 1980s.

Avis, known to them only as “Vince,” was the band’s frontman.

Image description, Paul Devine on bass with “Vince” in the background

“I think the reason so many people came to see us – apart from our brilliance – was (Avis’) presence, because he was a legend,” Paul said.

“He was a local hero in a way.”

Paul said that ‘Vince’ was one of the first punks in Bury St. Edmunds and that this status had gained him a loyal following.

Image description, “Vince” was one of the first punks in Bury St. Edmunds

A schoolmate and fan of the band, Sonja Vandersteen Pyatt, remembers the younger “Vince”.

“I remember seeing him with a mohawk,” she said.

“I think that was the first mohawk I ever saw.

“I just don’t have any bad memories, and that’s pretty hard to figure out.”

Sonja had only positive things to say about the teenager she knew until she became aware of the documentary about his crimes in Inverness.

She said: “You just don’t know what might have happened to the teenager I would have known because I don’t know much about his actual upbringing, his childhood. And who knows, maybe he always had a dark side.”

Image description, Sonja Vandersteen Pyatt remembers the younger “Vince”.

With this new knowledge about Kim Avis’s origins, the focus of the podcast investigation shifted to West Suffolk to see if more could be learned.

There was no mention of “Vince Avis” in the local newspapers of the late ’70s and early ’80s. But there were a few hits for “Kim Avis.”

In his late teens and early 20s, Avis was fined for drug possession and theft.

There were no articles related to serious sexual crimes in West Suffolk.

Nothing that explained why “Vince” disappeared from West Suffolk and arrived in Inverness as Kim Avis.

During our research, one of Avis’ former teachers from King Edward VI Grammar School in Bury St. Edmunds got in touch.

He remembered “Vince” as a character, a loner and a little rebel.

Image description, Punk band Cult of the Head performed in Bury St. Edmunds

Another old friend, Andrew, told us that he remembered a teenager called Avis – who he also knew as ‘Vince’ – from the drug scene in the Bury St Edmunds area.

“Beneath the surface there was a huge drug scene, a dark underbelly of this small town,” he said.

Just outside of town lies the house where Avis spent his late teens, one of two cottages on a property surrounded by rolling fields.

One house is still well maintained. The other is dilapidated and run down. Avis lived here, apparently alone.

Andrew went into the house and experimented with drugs.

He remembered one evening when he and his girlfriend went to Avis’ cabin.

“We were laughing, you know, and then suddenly he turned around,” Andrew said.

“It was like he was saying, ‘Get out of my house, get out of here.’ And he just had a look in his eyes that made me not want to argue.

“It was a very unpleasant experience when someone changes like that. I just didn’t feel like going back there again after that.”

Three-stage story

Andrew saw “Vince” for the last time about ten years later, in the early 1990s, when he returned to Bury St. Edmunds.

Avis was gone – in Inverness.

“He had a strong Scottish accent and I knew he wasn’t Scottish,” said Andrew.

It seems that there have been many different versions of Avis over the years.

English, Scottish, punk singer, charity fundraiser, but for a long time a dangerous sex offender.

As for Cult the Head bandmate Paul Devine, the last time he saw or heard from Avis was decades ago, when he saw him busking outside a branch of the old Woolworths department store.

And then – nothing – until he learned about Kim Avis’ crimes in the BBC documentary.

“As uncomfortable as it is, I felt a certain protectiveness towards the guy, even though he’s obviously a monster,” Paul said.

“Obviously something happened and I wonder if this is a three-layered story.

“They have reached the level that Sonja and I know, namely a little bit out of their minds – fascinating, attractive, charismatic, talented.

“Then came one of the most horrific crime sprees imaginable.

“What the hell happened in the middle?”