Thrill at Leeds United fan’s freedom from Manila prison

JOY: Gary Edwards with a photograph of his friend Billy Burton taken in 1993.
JOY: Gary Edwards with a photograph of his friend Billy Burton taken in 1993.
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A lifelong pal of Billy Burton – the Thalidomide victim released from a Philippine jail after 19 years – has spoken of his joy at his friend’s freedom.

Gary Edwards, the well-known Leeds United superfan and author, said there was going to “one hell of a party” to celebrate Billy’s return to the UK.

Gary has known Billy, also a familiar face on the terraces at Elland Road, since childhood and had been in regular contact with him during his time in jail in Manila – also sending money collected by fellow Leeds supporters.

Gary, from Kippax, Leeds, said he was thrilled to hear of Billy’s pardon from Philippines president Benigno Aquino III on Boxing Day – 19 years to the day since he was first put behind bars for trying to smuggle 12lbs of cannabis out of the country.

Gary told the YEP: “I’ve known Billy since we were kids. I’ve been writing to him and sending him money from collections we have done.

“Sadly his mother Theresa died over a year ago and this would have helped her no end, I’m sure.

“The treatment given to Billy has been scandalous. In 2000, the King of the Philippines pardoned all sorts of people: paedophiles, rapists, muggers, but not Billy.

“I emailed Billy and his girlfriend Mafe only a week ago with Christmas greetings and this is his best Christmas present ever.

“Despite deteriorating health, he has remained upbeat. We’re going to throw one hell of a party.”

He said he remained certain his friend did not set out to smuggle drugs.

He added: “I am convinced Billy was set up and used as a decoy. But he has never once asked for sympathy and we’re now just relieved he’s coming home because I’m not sure how long he could have gone on.”

Billy, from Wetherby, now 48, was given a life-term of 30 years after he was caught with the drugs in 1992. He was told he could expect to serve eight years before being considered for parole.

However, before he reached eligibility to apply, the Filipino government changed the law, imposing stricter sentences for drugs offences, even retrospectively.

He would not have been due for release until 2032, by which time he would have been 70 and have served 41 years in jail.

President Aquino granted Billy a pardon on the grounds of his deteriorating health.

He will now be freed – providing he never returns to the Philippines and pays a £294 fine.