A former drug dealer and prisoner who said he was so evil he was ‘like the antichrist’ has ditched his life of crime to become a church pastor.
Darrell Tunningley began his criminal career at the age of 11 by stealing badges off expensive cars.
By the age of 16 he was selling heroin and cocaine and funding a £300-a-day heroin habit before being jailed for five-and-a-half years for being the driver in an armed robbery.
Now Mr Tunningley, 35, who is married with two children, has been appointed senior pastor alongside his father-in-law at Hope Corner Community Church in Runcorn, Cheshire, where he preaches and discusses his former life.
‘I genuinely felt dead on the inside and didn’t feel anything apart from hate and anger and guilt.
‘Where I was knocking about and the people I was hanging round crime was everywhere and everybody was doing it, so it was only a matter of time before I got involved.’
He said: ‘I got into drugs like cannabis, LSD and solvents and when the drugs trend moved on to the rave scene and ecstasy came about I got into that.
‘We were going out to all the illegal raves taking drugs, selling drugs so I could cover whatever I was taking.
‘Then my drug habit escalated and with that the come downs were so bad I would smoke heroin to help me feel more normal.’
‘At worst when I was around 16 I was using an 8th of heroin a day which is around £250 to £300 so started debt collecting for dealers to fund my habit.’
A friend recruited him to steal a car and be the driver for an armed robbery at a wages depot but after the raid, one of their accomplices turned them in to police when he was held on a serious assault charge.
Mr Tunningley was sent to HMP Wolds in Brough, East Yorkshire, where he set out to be ‘the best kind of bad’ he could possibly be
He said: ‘Even in prison I would go looking for opportunities to cement my reputation.
‘I would do violent things for no reason – I put a lad in hospital after setting about him with a snooker ball in a sock because I thought he looked at me in the wring way and I even assaulted a prison officer who I thought was being disrespectful.’
He continued to sell drugs and spent time in segregation for the assaults.
But an encounter in the welding workshop, where another prisoner was signing people up to a meeting in the prison chapel – which meant an afternoon out of his cell as well as free coffee and biscuits.
Mr Tunningley said: ‘There were two nuns and I gave them a load of abuse but they were very patient and seemed to listen to what I had to say.’
He said the nuns responded with compassion and were ‘love bombs’.
‘I thought I would never have the capacity to feel any kind of love again – but the way they treated me stopped me in my tracks.’
That night he said a prayer and vowed to devote his life to God if He would take away his demons.
The next morning, he threw away his tobacco and cannabis after trying to smoke it made him feel sick, and began walking away from fights.
He was visited in prison by Mark Finch – who would eventually become his father-in-law.
Mr Tunningley said: ‘He spoke to me and said that the church would be a really good place for me to go after I was released.
‘I knew that it was the right place to go so I went back to his house and met his two children and his wife.’
Mr Tunningley joined the Hope Corner Community Church in August 2000 and after a few years of friendship with Mr Finch’s social worker daughter Rebekah, 26, they began dating.
The couple married seven years ago and have two children, Benjamin, four, and Lydia-Grace, 18 months.
‘I’ve never been so happy in my life,’ he said. ‘I love doing what I do and I hope those listen to what I have to say and like it too.
‘Previously what I did could have ruined lives yet what I hope I do now will very much enrich them.’
Mr Tunningley is now a senior paster at the church, alongside his father-in-law. He also helped found Hope Corner Academy last summer – a church-run special educational needs school.
Mr Finch said: “Darrell is not the same person that went into prison for sure.
‘He’s matured greatly since he’s been with us, and to be honest if you met him you would never guess the kind of life that he was involved with. It’s a radical change.
‘He’s enhanced all our community work – especially the drug awareness course.
‘It’s one thing getting information about a subject but it’s another thing when it comes from someone who has experienced it.
‘Young people get to understand what drugs can do because there’s someone standing there telling you what happened to them.’