A mob steeped in violence with extensive links to underworld
They called themselves the Krays and had the ambition to match. Led by the swaggering Acourt brothers, Neil and Jamie, and David Norris, the gang was steeped in violence and the price for entry to their club was a stabbing. A litany of violent incidents in and around the predominantly white estate where they lived was attributed to members of their gang and their associates.
After several attacks they thought they were untouchable on their patch, which covered south-east London and north Kent – and for several years they had good reason to believe so. "They travelled around in a gang; they would never do anything individually," said a relative of one of their former victims, who declined to be named because of continued fears of reprisals. "They were trying to be like the Richardsons [a violent south London gang and rivals to the notorious Krays] but they bit off a bit too much."
Eighteen years on, the original suspects still live within a few miles of the murder scene – and from each other – in a protective white working-class community. But their circumstances are a far cry from the cocksure gang of the early 1990s.
Whatever the Old Bailey jury decided yesterday, Gary Dobson was going nowhere. When he was arrested in 2010 for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, he was already in a cell at High Down prison in Surrey serving a five-year jail term.
He was caught in a sting operation by the Serious Organised Crime Agency handing over nearly 50kg of cannabis worth £350,000 to another dealer, Stephen Fennell, in a lay-by at Thurrock, Essex. Dobson, now aged 36, was the secondary prize – Fennell had been the focus of the undercover operation.
The Stephen Lawrence jury was not told that Dobson was serving a prison sentence – he usually appeared slightly dishevelled in a three-piece suit and tie – but they were told he had no convictions for violence. He had been due to leave prison in August this year.
The unemployed former van driver told the Old Bailey that his own aspirations had been dashed after being put in the frame for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. After the murder, he was sweeping up after an electrician on building sites and involved in petty crime. He was investigated in a people-smuggling case, but never charged. He was also investigated for handling stolen goods after neighbours saw him unloading garden furniture late at night at his former home in Westerham, Kent.
At the trial, Dobson, a father-of-one, claimed he had been spat at in the streets, received death threats and become bitter and angry against black people and the police. It was the reason he gave for being caught repeatedly expressing what he himself admitted was "moronic" racist abuse by a police surveillance camera hidden in the skirting board of the living room in his flat in 1994.
He also claimed he had Asian, black and Chinese friends – none of whom gave evidence on his behalf. At the time of the murder, he was living with his parents, Steven and Pauline, and his sister a few minutes from the murder scene.
"Gary was a very nice boy, very courteous. If you saw him in the street he would always say hello," said a former neighbour who declined to be named. "I was shocked. I think they are innocent. Gary was friends with my children."
The jailing of David Norris marks the final ignominy for a once powerful criminal family whose malign influence cast a long shadow over successive police investigations into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
When he was first arrested in May 1993, Norris was living at his parents' luxurious home in leafy Chislehurst, bought with the proceeds of his father's multi-million pound drugs empire.
By the time he was arrested in 2010, he was sharing a room with a cousin in a hostel above a Greenwich pub.
Norris, a father-of-five, cut a shambling figure, regularly changing phones, homes and unable to hold down a regular job. He has complained of mental health problems and at the trial needed headphones to hear what was being said.
His poor hearing stemmed from a prison attack while on remand at Belmarsh last year. Norris was said to have been involved in a dispute with a black Muslim convert during morning prayers. The next day, the inmate smashed a television on Norris's head, leaving him in a pool of blood, according to a source with knowledge of the case. Norris's defence team said only in court yesterday that he had been beaten up and had been left with a broken nose and ribs, and teeth knocked out, affecting his speech.
Since the killing, Norris, now 35, has been in and out of prison. In 2002, he was jailed for a racially motivated crime after he shouted "Nigger" at an off-duty police officer and threw a drink at him. The incident was in Well Hall Road, where Lawrence was murdered. Norris was jailed again in 2004 after breaking into a pub and handling a stolen car.
The jury was not told that David Norris was cleared of attempting to murder a white man by stabbing him in the chest with a nine-inch sword five weeks before Stephen Lawrence was killed.
He stood trial but was acquitted after a controversial trial when his father allegedly tried to pay off the victim.
Norris was also allegedly the stabber during an attack on two brothers, Terry and Darren Witham, in June 1992. One of the brothers – deeply tanned after a month abroad – was attacked outside a shop and badly beaten. Norris was charged with wounding and Jamie Acourt with possession of an offensive weapon, but the charges against them were withdrawn shortly before the killing of Stephen Lawrence.
By the time of the murder, his parents had split – though his father's drugs racket meant that the family was not short of money. He lived with his mother Teresa and his younger brothers Clifford and Ben, two terriers and a Rottweiler.
His mother claimed he was being victimised when he was jailed for the first time in 1999 for three months for driving offences. He was fined in the same year – along with Jamie Acourt and Danny Caetano – for stealing empty soda siphons. At that trial, his lawyer said that the man who once claimed to have ambitions to be a landscape gardener was "unemployable for the foreseeable future". He has been married twice and claims his first wife left him because of the unwanted attention, and he hasn't seen two of his children since. He has three children by his second wife.
The snarling face of the gang, Neil Acourt was the man caught on police surveillance footage tucking a knife down the waist of his trousers and urging his friends to get "chivvied up" with weapons for a night out. It was Neil Acourt who was filmed saying: "I reckon that every nigger should be chopped up, mate, and they should be left with nothing but fucking stumps."
He was well-known on the estate where he grew up, his house at Bournbrook Road the centre of gang meetings. He was the leader of the group who emerged from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry after a stonewalling performance with slicked back hair and dark glasses, taunting angry crowds to fight.
His notoriety kept him in the police's crosshairs. He was charged with people smuggling in 1999 after he was seen in a car at Calais with Dobson following a van with seven illegal immigrants in the back. He was cleared but sentenced to 50 hours' community service in 2001 after a metal cosh was found in his car. The court was told he had changed his name to Stuart – his mother's maiden name – and feared reprisal attacks over his link to the Lawrence case.
He was jailed in 2002 with Norris over the racist attack when he drove a car at the off-duty officer. His legal team claimed he lived a reclusive life after he became a suspect for the Lawrence murder, could only find work with family and friends, and was unable to form relationships because of the scrutiny.
He has been working sporadically as a painter and decorator and has spent time at a gym, fishing and practising golf near his brother's home in Sidcup.
Mr Acourt, 36, has recently moved with his parents to a trim white bungalow in Eltham with a battered silver Mercedes 4x4 on the forecourt where he has been decorating the house.
His swagger has been replaced by wariness, peering at arrivals through the window before opening the front door. He checks that his conversations are not being recorded before condemning the media. "And I thought the Iraq war was corrupt," he told The Independent. He declined to say more about the case.
Neil's younger brother, aged 16 at the time of the murder, now lives a life of outward respectability in a smart terraced home with his partner and two children in Sidcup.
It followed a delinquent childhood that saw him excluded from schools following violent incidents. He was also charged with having an offensive weapon, a truncheon, in the attack on the Witham brothers he allegedly carried out with Norris – with whom he had played football since the age of 14 and had family links – but that charge was dropped.
He is a notable absentee from the secretly recorded surveillance footage at Dobson's house in 1994, 20 months after the killing of Stephen Lawrence. He was on remand at the time, accused of a stabbing a man at Stars nightclub in Greenwich. Darren Giles, who was white, was trying to stop Mr Acourt from attacking a black friend when he was stabbed in the heart and nearly died. At the trial, Mr Acourt pleaded self-defence and was acquitted.
His neighbours told The Independent that the sharp-dressing Mr Acourt, 35, had lived in Sidcup and was said to be working in the car trade. "If he was involved in that nasty business he now has a nice family and a nice house," said one man. "I can't imagine it is very nice for him to have it all dragged up again.
"He is very nice, chats with me. His wife is lovely. I can't imagine he was directly involved but if he fell in with the wrong people I am sure he wants to put it behind him."
Visitors to the home of Luke Knight on an estate in Eltham are given short shrift. "I'm just waiting for it to be thrown out again like the last time," said a woman believed to be his mother at the house before firmly shutting the door.
The "last time" was an apparent reference to her son's acquittal when the private prosecution brought by the Lawrence family collapsed in 2006. Mr Knight's parents have since applied to have clothes seized by the police returned to them but the request was turned down.
Mr Knight, 35, is thought to be living with his parents – his father is believed to be a market stall holder – his partner and at least one child. They are fiercely defended by their neighbours. One woman, who declined to be named, told The Independent: "You won't hear a bad word said about them around here. I can't fault him – they are a nice family."
He used to live closest to the scene of the murder in Well Hall Road. A person who lived there, and also declined to be named, said: "He was a nice lad, never caused any problems."
And the father: Clifford Norris
The "evil influence" of Clifford Norris – who had been on the run for five years at the time of the murder – was cited as one of the reasons for the suspects evading justice for so many years.
He was a serious player in the south London criminal underworld. Both he and his brother Alexander were implicated in allegations of major crimes involving drugs and murder from around 1987. Alexander was arrested in 1988, and sentenced to nine years in jail in 1989. He had to forfeit more than £750,000 to the authorities over drug-dealing activities.
Clifford had been on the run since 1988 and while he was out of custody was a looming presence over the police inquiry. Police believe that he schooled the suspects in the art of giving nothing away at a police interview.
When his son was charged with wounding in a stabbing a few weeks before the murder, he was alleged to have had a more hands-on role: he was twice believed to have met the victim, Stacey Benefield, and offered him thousands of pounds to change his story. "This is how I sort people out, not by shooting them," he told Mr Benefield, according to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report. The case went ahead anyway and Norris junior was acquitted.
He was finally run to ground in 1994 in a raid after a new investigation into the Lawrence murder concluded that he had to be taken out of circulation. At one point Dobson and Neil Acourt – who had known Clifford from an early age – visited him in prison. Clifford Norris's fortune has now gone. He was released in 2001 and is now living in a flat with a large dog above a hardware shop in a seedy area of Ashford, Kent. He has long since sold his house. In an interview six years ago, he said he rarely saw his son but denied he was racist. "I have always thought he was innocent, otherwise he would have been convicted, wouldn't he?" he said then. He was less forthcoming last month. "Fuck off," he told The Independent and slammed the door.
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