A horrific murder case this week highlighted on the violent and closed world of English gangland: but these are a new generation of villains - the thugs from suburbia

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The Old Bailey trial this week of the men who murdered three drug dealers in Essex gave a rare glimpse into a violent and vengeful underworld on the edges of the capital - "the Home Counties connection".

In the leafy commuter towns of Essex and Kent, men step out of the front doors in the Acacia Avenues to go to work. But the briefcases they carry can contain, instead of office papers and a packed lunch, a pistol and a stash of cocaine.

The underworld is no longer confined to the urban squalor of the inner cities. Successful gangsters have gentrified and become upwardly mobile, leaving their council flats for the Home Counties, and their working-class lifestyles for the trappings of success - des res, Rolls Royces and Range Rovers, a boat in the local marina, ponies for the children.

The patterns of the migration have been to counties adjacent to various parts of London: East End villains moved out to Essex, those south of the river to Kent, the gangs around Islington to Herts and Bucks, and the ones from Shepherd Bush and Kilburn to Middlesex. The sons of these villains carry on the "family business".

South Londoner Kenny Noye, Brinks Mat money launderer and killer of a policeman, lived in some splendour at his mansion in West Kingsdowne in Kent until he disappeared following a fatal roadside stabbing; Roy Garner, police supergrass from the Tottenham area ended up with luxury houses and stud farms in Hertfordshire before being convicted of cocaine trafficking. And Charlie Kray had long left behind Vallance Road in east London, where he grew up with the twins Ronnie and Reggie, when he was arrested last year for a pounds 39m cocaine trafficking plot. Unusually for one of the East End criminal aristocracy, he had moved to Sanderstead, Surrey, where he lived with the daughter of a headmaster.

Criminologists maintain the arrival of such "quality villains" in the Home Counties brought with it a culture of crime and corruption which embraced local gangs. At the same time came the explosion in the importation of drugs and the money that came with it. Essex and Kent, in particular, became vitally important as routes for narcotics from the Continent to London and other major cities.

The murder of the three men at Rettendon, in Essex was over drugs. The victims, Pat Tate, Tony Tucker and Craig Rolfe were dealers who supplied drugs through nightclubs and pubs in Essex and east London. It is one of their gang, it is believed, who supplied the ecstasy tablet which led to the death of policeman's daughter Leah Betts.

The victims had been been in dispute with the men who killed them, Micky Steele and Jack Whomes, over a cannabis shipment. The court, which passed three life sentences on the men, with a recommended minimum of 15 years, had heard that a consignment of cannabis which Steele had supplied to Tate and his accomplices had been of poor qualtity and Steele agreed to take back the cannabis and return a deposit of pounds 70,000. The money was paid, but Tate denied receiving it and failed to return one third of the drugs haul.

Tate, an extremely violent mainline drug user, had threatened to shoot Steele after making him beg on his knees. His intended victim got to him and his two companions first.

After the shooting Steele said "they won't fuck with us again". He added he felt like "the angel of death". As Steele and fellow killer Whomes walked off after the shooting to be picked up by an accomplice, Darren Nicholls, they passed a sign saying: "The use of guns or any activity which disturbs people or wildlife are not allowed on this land. Enjoy your visit".

The violence of the triple execution and its apparent professionalism appeared shocking, especially in the context of the village setting. But police say extreme violence had become endemic in parts of the county over the years. Tucker and Rolfe were themselves suspected of a particularly brutal murder. Kevin Whitaker, a 28-year-old drug courier died of an apparent drugs overdose in November l994. But, Tate told his mother, Whitaker had been murdered by Tucker and Rolfe. They had injected him in the groin with a paralysing drug, often used on horses, known as Special K, then, powerless but conscious and pleading for mercy, Whitaker was killed with an injection of lignocaine.

The night before his death Tate himself had badly beaten up the manager of a pizza shop over an imaginary slight. He had phoned the shop and demanded a specially made pizza with four different toppings on each quarter. The manager, 21-year-old Roger Ryall had said this was not possible. Within minutes Tate had arrived at the shop, battered Ryall and then smashed his head into a glass plate on the sink. Like others crossed by Tate and his friends, Mr Ryall thought it would be wise not to press charges.

Drug dealer Reggie Nunn too has painful memories of the extreme violence of the Essex underworld. His face was mutilated with a narrow-bladed fencing sword, an epee, over another drugs dispute, the selling of a thousand tabs of ecstasy. He owed pounds 7,000 to trafficker Jason Lee Vella and had failed to pay. Nunn managed to escape from Vella's flat during the attack by throwing himself out of a window. Vella and his accomplices were convicted at their trial, and in July l995 Vella was sentenced to 17 years in jail.

Vella, who bought ecstasy from Dutch dealers, was suspected of the torture of other victims who had been too scared to make complaints. One man had his head shaved, and the back of his arms burnt by a hot iron, another was given a "Glasgow smile" on both sides of his face with a Stanley knife, and another was anally raped with a broom handle. He was also suspected of being behind the shooting of a man, who spent hours on a life-support machine and refused to give any information to the police.

In Kent, bootlegging of alcohol and cigarettes has been added to drugs as a source of underworld violence. In just one month, September last year, Dover had four shootings, a series of acid and machete attacks, and dozens of beatings. The reason behind this, say police and customs officials, is quite simple, organised gangs are fighting for control of a trade which is now estimated to be worth pounds 1bn a year. Smaller gangs are having to pay rents to bigger ones for the privilege of smuggling the contraband.

The gangs are not averse to taking on the authorities by force to protect their merchandise. Towards the end of last year police and customs officers raided a hotel and discovered pounds 70,000 worth of alcohol and cigarettes. The smugglers fled, only to come back with accomplices to try and storm the building and seize back the haul. They were only beaten off when the police themselves received reinforcement.

One CID officer said: "Crime in Dover and surrounding areas has gone up by 18 per cent, and even this is an underestimate as of course a lot of these attacks are simply not reported to the police.

"There are also links with drugs, because the heavies muscling in on bootlegging are also involved in drug trafficking. This is a problem which is not going to go away, we are facing a situation which was unheard of in Kent in the past".

His counterparts in Surrey would sympathise. A few years ago a pub described as the "most dangerous in Britain" was not in Brixton or the Glasgow Gorbals, but Carshalton. The St Helier Tavern had seen many fights and a man was shot in the face with a sawn-off shotgun.

A better class of villain has taken up residence further out in expensive areas like Weybridge where they rub shoulders in the golf club with actors and stockbrokers. A detective said: "They may think [that] away from the centre of London they would be away from prying eyes if the law, but we make sure we keep a watch on them. They may feel they are blending in with their neighbours, but we know who they are".

Criminologist Robert Emerson believes the expansion of crime into the Home Counties cannot be reversed. He said: "Social and logistical factors are such that this is bound to continue. However, it is unlikely the ordinary Home Counties residents would be directly affected by violence. After all, the criminals tend to only kill each other."

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