A CONVICTED armed robber whose life was transformed after an experience in prison came to Knutsford to share his story on Monday.

Darrell Tunningley went from being a violent criminal, addict and drug dealer to a church minister.

The 35-year-old told an audience at Knutsford Methodist Church he felt he was dead on the inside, so when he had an encounter which led to him becoming a Christian it turned his life upside down.

“I wasn’t quite the Anti-christ but wasn’t far off,” he said.

Darrell grew up in Yorkshire, and as a youngster he and his friends stole badges from expensive cars – progressing to the whole car.

By the time he was 11 he was smoking cannabis and drinking heavily.

The father-of-two said: “One high would lead to the next, and whatever drug we were taking we were selling.”

Darrell started smoking heroine, which began as a ‘cure for a weekend of stimulant drugs’ and ended with him bringing in shipments of the drug through Hull docks.

He added: “It became the drug we were selling and we realised if we got other people to sell for us there was less risk of us being caught.

“We were turning over thousands of pounds a week.

“So when somebody came to me and said do you want to be involved in an armed robbery through my own greed I said yes.”

The robbery in 1997 went to plan, but police brought in one of the men, who turned Queen’s Evidence against the rest of them.

Darrell was then locked up at HMP Wolds and had lost all hope.

He said: “I thought I don’t care if I live or die, so went looking for trouble.

“I put one lad in the hospital wing because I set about him with a snooker ball because I thought he looked at me wrong, and assaulted a prison officer who served in canteen because I thought he was being disrespectful.”

But then – lured in with the promise of coffee and biscuits – he attended a discussion about Christianity and the meaning of life called an Alpha Course.

It made him question his life and choices he had made.

Darrell, who also spoke to youngsters at The Welcome in Longridge on Monday, said: “It all started from two nuns who, on the face of it, didn’t have anything to offer.

“Because of the way they did it, it stopped me in my tracks because I thought I would never have the capacity to feel any kind of love ever again. I was dead on the inside.

“So when you get hit with that it’s like getting hit in the face with a wrecking ball.

“So I sat there, and said to myself, for once shut up and listen to somebody else.

“Is your plan A working out so well that you’re not even willing to listen to another plan? So I did, and it really started to make sense.”

When Darrell went back to his cell he said a prayer.

He said: “I need you to take away the violence, anger, bitterness, hate, resentment, guilt, the addiction – everything that’s ripping me apart inside.”

The next morning he threw away his tobacco and drugs and said he felt an overwhelming sense of joy.

Darrell added: “The chaplain said the man who went to bed last night is not the same man who is standing here this morning. You’re a new creation. As soon as he said it I started crying.”

Two years later he left prison, and within two days was giving his first talk at Hope Corner Community Church in Runcorn.

Darrell has since founded Hope Corner Academy, the first church-run special educational needs school in Halton.

He has shared his inspirational story on BBC’s Inside Out, spoke to 4,500 people at a leadership conference at the Royal Albert Hall and regularly gives talks at prisons and churches throughout the country and beyond.

Darrell spoke in Knutsford to launch the Methodist Church’s Alpha Course.

His message is – if God can reach him he can reach anybody.

The 10-week course, starting on January 21 at 7pm, is an exploration of the meaning of life, and includes a meal.

For more information contact Knutsford Methodist Church on 01565 652251 or e-mail office@kmc.org.uk.