Busted: The fall of Britain's most ruthless gangster

He's the godfather behind a £200m business built on murder, drugs and money laundering. Now Terry Adams is finally behind bars. But how did he become Britain's most feared gangland boss? And why did it take more than three decades to bring him down? Terry Kirby investigates

"Everybody stood up when he walked in. He looked like a star," recalls David McKenzie, a London financier. "He was immaculately dressed in a long black coat and white frilly shirt. He was totally in command.''

Indeed, the middle-aged man described by McKenzie as looking like "a cross between Liberace and Peter Stringfellow", was entitled to have an air of authority. He was the head of an international business empire worth an estimated £200m. Its employees were, by the very nature of that empire, few in number and unswervingly loyal.

The man's home, where McKenzie was introduced to him, is a discreetly guarded but substantial north London mansion, tastefully decorated and filled with antique furniture and expensive objets d'art. He is a well-mannered man of cultured tastes, with a liking for good wine and custom- built cars. He was once so wealthy that he considered putting in a bid for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.

But this is no ordinary captain of industry. His name is Terry Adams and he was - and possibly still is - the head of Britain's most enterprising (and most feared) organised criminal gang - the Adams family, otherwise known as the A-Team, or the Clerkenwell Crime Syndicate.

Their "business" began with petty extortion from market traders, moved into armed robbery and finally blossomed into drug trafficking, all backed up by a willingness to use violence whenever necessary, a willingness that led to their rumoured involvement in up to 30 gangland killings. Their ability to evade justice gave them an air of invincibility, fuelling the belief that they had detectives, lawyers and prosecutors on their payroll - and that even jurors were not immune from their menaces. Anyone considered an informer against them or a threat to the family was ruthlessly targeted. "A formidable and feared organisation steeped in the highest levels of criminal activity,'' one Old Bailey trial was told. Or, as one gangland expert put it yesterday, they "made the Krays look like clowns".

***

Yesterday, Adams, 52, was in a rather different environment from his north London manor - across the Thames, inside the high-security Belmarsh Prison, awaiting sentencing next month for money laundering. He could receive up to 14 years in prison but is almost certain to be sentenced to less - and with automatic parole and time off for good behaviour, Adams may well be free again long before he turns 60.

And while Adams' guilty plea to money laundering (thus avoiding a lengthy trial) was hailed by police and the Crown Prosecution Service as the climax of a long-sought, hard-fought quest for justice, the man himself will see it very differently. "I think Terry Adams will view this as something of a victory," said Wensley Clarkson, author of Gangland and an expert on Britain's criminal underworld. "He will consider that, after all the efforts that the police have made to get him over the years, he has done rather well out of this."

It is certainly not the first time that encounters with the judicial process have worked out to the advantage of Terry Adams, and other members of the Adams family and their associates. One of Terry's brothers, Tommy, was cleared in 1985 of involvement with the laundering of the £26m Brinks Mat haul, while Gilbert Wynter, one of the family's "enforcers", was tried in 1994 for the murder of Claude Moseley, a former athlete turned drug dealer, only to be acquitted after the main prosecution witness mysteriously refused to testify.

Then there was the case involving the aforementioned Mr McKenzie. A Mayfair-based financier, McKenzie was asked in the late 1990s by the Adams family to launder large amounts of drug money on their behalf. However, his investments were less than wise and around £1.5m was lost. McKenzie was duly invited to Adams' mansion in Mill Hill, north London. He was left in no doubt that the money had to be recouped.

A few days later, when the cash was not forthcoming, McKenzie claimed that he was summoned to another meeting, at the Islington home of John Potter, Adams' brother-in-law. Here, an Old Bailey jury was later told, one Christopher McCormack, a close associate of the third brother, Patsy, set about Mr McKenzie. As well as being kicked and beaten, sustaining three broken ribs, he was carved up with a Stanley knife to the point where just fragments of skin were keeping his nose and left ear attached to his face. Two tendons on his left wrist were severed, permanently affecting the use of his hand.

When Potter gave evidence during the trial, he accepted that McKenzie had been injured at his home, but maintained that the attacker was a total stranger. He was cleared of committing acts intended to pervert the course of justice.

When McCormack gave evidence, he admitted meeting McKenzie three times to recover the debt "for my old mate Patsy", but claimed that the presence of McKenzie's blood on his jacket must have come from an earlier meeting, when he had broken up a fight between the financier and another man. McCormack was cleared, thanking the jury profusely and offering to buy them a drink "over the pub". One male juror apparently winked at McCormack and raised his hand in greeting, an incident that was never explained. While these jury acquittals have to be taken at face value, many police officers involved in the investigations expressed incredulity at the decisions.

Belief that the Adams brothers were attempting to interfere directly with the judicial process was confirmed not long afterwards, when Mark Herbert, a clerk with the Crown Prosecution Service, was convicting of selling the Adams family, through an intermediary, the names of 33 informants in return for £500. Adams was subsequently acquitted of charges of importing cannabis worth £25m. Admitting that he knew he was signing the informants' death warrants, Herbert said: "They will send them flowers, but not possibly for their birthdays." Victor Temple, QC, prosecuting at his trial, told the Old Bailey that this was an organisation that was "no stranger to the imposition of serious violence against those who might seek to challenge them - and few could afford to trifle with their wishes."

***

So how did this extraordinarily arrogant and powerful crime organisation begin? The three best-known Adams brothers come from an otherwise law-abiding and respectable working-class Irish Catholic family, in one of the less salubrious parts of Islington, north London. Terry was the eldest of 11 children born to truck driver George Adams and his wife, Florence, but it was his younger brothers, Patrick, otherwise known as Patsy, born in 1955, and Sean, otherwise known as Tommy, born in 1958, with whom he became most closely associated.

The three brothers began their criminal careers by extorting money from traders and stallholders at street markets close to their home in the Clerkenwell area, before moving on to armed robberies. Patsy found himself serving seven years in jail in the 1970s for armed robbery offences.

By now, Terry Adams had emerged as the brains of the operation, chairing their meetings in a businesslike fashion, with financial matters dealt with by Tommy, and the "muscle" supplied by Patsy.

But in the mid-1980s there was a seismic shift in London's criminal culture, led by the Adams family. As Scotland Yard's Flying Squad became more adapt at tracking down armed robbers, and the amount of cash in transit diminished in favour of electronic money transfers, the so-called "pavement artists" moved into a new and infinitely more lucrative field: drug trafficking.

This was a trade fuelled by the demand for cocaine and cannabis during the 1980s, and ecstasy during the 1990s. And it was a trade hitherto largely (although not exclusively) the preserve of amateurish and often ideologically-motivated hedonists of the Howard Marks variety. These small-time amateurs and part-timers now found themselves usurped by ruthless career criminals who were more than willing to use violence at the drop of a hat.

The vast profits generated by drug trafficking also required new ways of laundering the money. Criminal gangs like the Adams brothers needed to find themselves corrupt financiers, accountants, lawyers and other professionals to help them "wash" their cash to a squeaky-clean white and then invest it in property and other legitimate businesses.

The Adams family are said to have laundered their money through the jewellery quarter of Hatton Garden, using a diamond merchant by the name of Solly Nahome, through a restaurant in Smithfield and also a West End nightclub.

***

But as their power grew, so did their arrogance and violence. Patsy Adams began to develop a reputation as one of the most violent figures in the underworld, pioneering the use of high-speed motorcycle hit-men to carry out assassinations. An accountant, Terry Gooderham, said to have crossed the brothers by creaming off £250,000 of drug money, was found dead, alongside his girlfriend, in Epping Forest in 1989, a double "hit" attributed to the Adams empire.

One rival Irish family, the Reillys, attempted to challenge the Adams' dominance of their Islington stronghold. In response, Patsy Adams is said to have gone into a pub controlled by the Reillys and allowed one of his associates to insult a member of the rival family. The Reillys, greatly offended, went away to arm themselves and returned to the pub, only to find an ambush awaiting them. Their BMW was fired on repeatedly by members of the Adams gang. No one was killed, but the incident, with echoes of 1930s Chicago, sent out a message - both to the Reillys and anyone else who needed to know - that the Adams gang was prepared to go all the way to preserve its territory.

And it was a territory that rapidly expanded, breaking the unwritten rule that gangs were allowed unimpeded control over their own "manors" - as the Krays once held sway over east London and the Richardson gang ruled the tract of London south of the Thames. "What distinguished the Adamses from other London gangs," said Wensley Clarkson, "is that they moved into areas that were way beyond the normal territorial ambitions of gangs. They ended up owning practically a whole west London street of bars, which they need for drug trafficking. And their operations spread to places like Lincolnshire and across to Spain."

And their reputation went before them as they reached the peak of their powers in the 1990s. Clarkson added: "They created fear just through their name, and undoubtedly a lot of violence was carried out on their behalf. I heard about a guy who owned a bar in west London and some of their people came in one night and simply demanded the keys. He handed them over and got out fast." They were also willing to take on some of the older remaining members of the gangland community. In August 1991, "Mad" Frankie Fraser, once a member of the Richardson gang, was shot in the head and almost killed outside a nightclub in Clerkenwell, in an attack attributed to the Adams gang. As the drug trafficking continued, they built up links with Yardie groups and the Colombian cocaine cartels, with Tommy reportedly negotiating an $80m credit agreement from his Latin American associates.

***

Throughout the Nineties, they seemed untouchable - immune from the law despite the best efforts of dozens of different inquiries, led by Scotland Yard, HM Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue. Cases against them or their henchmen, like McCormack, either never got off the ground or somehow collapsed. Rumours about the gang having senior detectives in their pay, and their determination to "get" jurors were rife. The brothers carried on their business separate from normal society - they had no bank accounts, virtually no tax records and may not even directly own the homes they live in.

Then, in the late 1990s, things began to go awry. In 1998, Tommy Adams was convicted of organising an £8m hashish smuggling operation, and was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. When a judge ordered that he surrender some of his profits or face a further five years, his wife turned up twice to the court, carrying £500,000 in cash inside a briefcase on each occasion.

In the autumn, Nahome, who was effectively their principal financial officer, was shot dead outside his north London mansion - in the same street as Terry Adams' home - in a classic underworld motorcycle hit of the type often attributed to the Adamses themselves. And Wynter, the man who was cleared of murdering Moseley, disappeared suddenly. It was later reported that Nahome and Wynter had died at the orders of another London gangland boss, who believed they had double-crossed him in a cannabis deal. They truth may never be known. But, from about this time, Patsy Adams began spending more time in his Spanish villa.

***

Terry Adams must have regretted the light that was trained on his activities by the McCormack trial. He carried on as normal, although he is believed to have made strenuous efforts to move as much of the business as possible into legitimate areas, such as property investment. This was hampered by the family's lack of involvement with any legitimate financial institutions or mechanisms - a problem which is said to have scuppered his plans to buy Tottenham Hotspur, which might have required some financial disclosures.

By the late 1990s, a new means arose to tackle the nation's biggest drug dealers. MI5, no longer focused on investigating Irish terrorism and Communist subversion, was charged with helping tackle the massive drug importation problem. Its officers are said to have bugged Adams' homes and cars and followed him closely over a period of several years, working in tandem with both the newly created National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Agency, as well as the Inland Revenue.

Adams, who was almost certainly aware that he was being followed, is at this point thought to have been forced to invent spurious companies and organisations to account for his wealth, claiming at various points to have been employed as a jewellery designer and a public relations executive.

Eventually, in May 2003, Adams, a man, let us not forget, with a spotless record, was arrested and charged him with money laundering, tax evasion and handling stolen goods. His wife, Ruth, was charged with similar offences. Since then, while free on a bail of more than £1m, he has fought a lengthy game to delay his day in court, sacking his legal team twice, ordering the transcription of thousands of hours of taped conversations and once claiming that his IQ was too low to understand the charges.

In the end, he did what many do - a deal, culminating in Tuesday's brief court appearance, at which he surrended himself to prison officers. In return for admitting one charge of conspiring to hide £1m, the remaining charges against him and his wife, who has been seriously ill with a stomach complaint, have been allowed to "lie on the file" or, in other words, have been effectively dropped. When it comes to sentencing on 9 March, the judge will undoubtedly be reminded many times by Adams' barristers about the extent of his helpfulness and co-operation, as well as his previous unblemished record. He will have made careful plans for the next few years, including an inevitable appeal.

"He did what it is a matter of honour for people like him to do, which is to protect their families and particularly their wives from criminal prosecution," notes Clarkson.

So, does his demise mean that the Adams family are no longer a force to be reckoned with? "While they were certainly once the most feared family in the history of British crime, I think their influence is much less than it was, particularly since they have begun to legitimise much of their business," says Clarkson.

Another prominent expert on the British gangland and author of several books on the subject was less forthcoming. After pointing out that the Adamses were more feared than the Krays ever were, he added: "Look, I'd prefer not to have my name used, if you don't mind. You see, I don't think they have been diminished at all..."

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