A mercenary from Hampshire, will be sentenced to up to five years in prison for his part in a conspiracy to kill the Colombian drugs baron Pablo Escobar. She tells Clare Longrigg about a life spent waiting for one of the original 'dogs of war' to come home.
Somewhere in her house, among the clutter of family photographs and letters, Mary Tomkins keeps a little bag of memories: it contains the marble her son swallowed when he was a baby, and a piece of shrapnel that was removed from her husband's behind.
Dave Tomkins's unfortunate accident happened in Angola in 1976, at the height of the civil war, where he was fighting as a mercenary with the notorious Colonel Callan. He was Callan's explosives expert, and had been in Africa less than a month when he tripped a mine he was laying, and blew himself up.
"He had been operated on in a hospital in Angola, which sounded like a butcher's shop to me," says Mary. "By the time he got back, I think it must have been near gangrene." After two days, when nurses came to dress the wound, they found Tomkins had got up and gone out. "The injury didn't stop him for a moment," his wife recalls. "He was restless, as ever. The first thing he said to me was: 'I'm going back. Tomkins's career as a mercenary began in Africa and took him all over the world, to Afghanistan, fighting with the Mujahideen, Croatia with warlords, and Uganda, where he was briefly involved in a plot to assassinate Idi Amin. His ceaseless quest for adventure led him, in the late Eighties, to Colombia, where he spent two years trying to assassinate drug baron Pablo Escobar. It was this episode, more than a decade ago, that finally landed him in an American jail.
In September last year, Tomkins, then 63 and in search of adventure, decided to look for security work in Iraq. He was due to take a course in chemical warfare survival at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but, when he landed in Houston, he was arrested and charged with conspiring to export a fighter bomber from America in 1991. Tomkins admits he was looking into buying an A37 Dragonfly as part of the plot to kill Escobar but, after a tip-off that he was under investigation, he abandoned the project and returned home to Hampshire. In June this year, he pleaded guilty, and today he will be sentenced. He faces a maximum of five years.
Mary Tomkins, an elegant and vivacious woman of 58, finds her husband's incarceration harder to cope with than any of his dangerous adventures. "I've always handled it because I knew he was happy doing those things," she says. "I would never have tried to stop him, because that's the man I married." She has not flown to Florida to see him, but she did try to help him fight the case from home. "I was trying to deal with the American lawyers. I would be in his study trying to find things, and it got me so stressed. I don't know what I'm looking for. You've no idea how many files he's got up there. I found the whole thing, this time, too much."
The Tomkins's home is in a tree-lined close of immaculate, mock-Tudor houses on the outskirts of Basingstoke. Most of the residents would surely be surprised to find that they have been living next door to a man the United States alleges to be a major arms trader.
Mary has never mixed with the neighbours. "I have been very isolated. People say: 'What does your husband do?' I mean, what do I say?" At a school prize-giving, the couple's daughter was once asked what her father did for a living, and replied in a clear, loud voice: "Daddy makes bombs." Her mother, sitting in the audience, wanted to crawl under her chair. The couple were introduced by a friend in 1969. "He wasn't my usual type of boyfriend, to be honest; I had been seeing office types," Mary says. They married soon after, on impulse, at a register office. She knew he had been in and out of prison in his twenties but thought that part of his life was behind him.
"I knew he'd been in trouble," she says, "but he was running a company when I met him and I'm not narrow- minded enough to think that people don't get into trouble - they do." Dave had been just 18 when he first went to prison, and there he met a man who was to reappear in the couple's lives over the years. "I really didn't like him. When he got out of prison, he came to stay with us, and he was the rudest man I've ever met. He called me 'Doll'."
Through this undesirable connection, Dave got back into his old safe-cracking ways and, in 1975, he was arrested on conspiracy charges. She gave birth to their son while he was in prison, awaiting bail. "I remember my son was four days old, and I walked down the street with a piece of paper to release him. I can remember getting down there, and thinking: 'Oh my God, my insides are going to drop out.' When I got there, they had already sent him home." The trial was a sensation, and they had the press camped outside their house for days. In the end, after a retrial, he was acquitted, but was now broke, bored and more restless than ever.
"We were living in Camberley, in a little terraced cottage," recalls Mary. "My eldest daughter was four, and my son was about 10 months. I remember we had no money to pay the telephone bill; they were going to cut us off. I'd gone to bed and Dave had gone out to the local nightclub with about 52 pence in his pocket. He came back, threw some money on the bed and said: 'Pay the phone bill, I'm going to Angola.' I didn't have time to protest. The next day, he was gone."
Though she had barely heard of Angola before then, Mary spent weeks obsessively watching the news on their little black and white television. A month later, Dave was home, wounded, but addicted to war. From then on, he was drawn to conflict zones all over the world, putting teams together for dangerous missions. He wrote a book, Fire Power, about the mercenaries in Angola. His reputation as a soldier of fortune grew, and his image with it: he always looked the part, in a white jacket and aviator sunglasses, or posing for pictures in combat gear, holding a rifle. He had thick blond hair which he wore long; it went white when he was 40, earning him the soubriquet "White Wolf of the Andes". He had dropped his real Christian name, Brian, years before.
Throughout her husband's career as a mercenary - a word that she uses without any trace of embarrassment - Mary has believed he was on the side of good. She got to know his fellow soldiers, whom she counts today among her best friends. They phone from all over the world to hear his news. "There are some real men out there, and some absolute..." she says. "The men who went to Colombia with him, they were real men." The closest Mary ever got to the action was driving her husband and "the boys" to the airport.
Life with a man addicted to war can be exhausting. When Tomkins comes home, he sits up for hours into the night, smoking roll-ups, eating chocolate and watching current affairs programmes on television. "I used to think, why doesn't he just wind down? He's very tiring." He seems not to have contributed much to the running of the household. "He is not in the least bit domesticated," says his wife. She has dedicated herself to bringing up their three children - she still cooks and does the laundry for her son, David, 29 - but her husband does his own thing.
"I once asked him to pick up the children from school, and he said: 'Where's the school?' Honestly, he knew his way around the Khyber Pass better than he knew the streets of Basingstoke." In spite of all her supportive talk about Tomkins always working for the good guys, one does catch occasional glimpses of anger beneath the surface. She and the children have striven to be a normal family while their father has been off risking his life in crazy wars. The children were taunted at school and she has received threatening phone calls in the middle of the night.
The mercenary lifestyle may have promised more riches than it delivered. Mary drives a Mercedes and their house is in a prime commuter belt but mercenaries do not, as a rule, have pension plans and Tomkins's work in Iraq was intended to give them a nest egg for their later years. "I can't say I've never got depressed or down - I have, a lot. He's been away weeks on end, weeks... not a word. When he was in Colombia, I didn't hear for nine weeks at one stage."
Since he would, after all, probably prefer to be somewhere in the Khyber Pass than on the A303, Tomkins is also hard to live with when he's at home. "It's hard to deal with," his wife concedes. "You've got all this tension. He never settles." At times, it seems, she almost wishes her husband would just resign himself to armchair-bound, grumpy old age. "He ought to have something wrong with him, like most people his age do