No lack of suspects for murder of Kray associate

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The Independent Online

As an old-time crook and associate of such criminal luminaries as the Krays, Kenneth Noye and the great train robbers, perhaps there was an inevitability that George Francis would come to a sorry end.

Early on Wednesday morning, the 63-year-old bought his favourite reading material – the Daily Star and The Sun – in the centre of London before driving to his courier firm, Signed, Sealed and Delivered, close to the Old Kent Road, in the east of the city.

As he started to climb out of his new executive car, a green Rover 75, a hitman who had been lying in wait shot him four times in the head and chest.

Neighbours reported the gunshots and the noise of the getaway car's squealing tyres at just before 5am. When police arrived they found the dead man hanging out of the Rover.

A murder inquiry has been set up, but as one police source noted: "There is no shortage of suspects."

One of the original south London gangsters of the 1960s, Francis had of late made a good living not only from his courier company but also from the career of choice for many a villain – scrap metal. While he was still a "face" within the Bermondsey underworld, his days of violence and big bucks appeared to be increasingly a thing of the past.

Wednesday morning's hit was not, though, the first time someone had tried to end Francis's life. In May 1985 while he was behind the bar of his pub, The Henry VIII near Hever Castle in Kent, a hooded gunman dressed entirely in black burst in and shot him at close range. He was lucky to survive the attempted murder – thought to be part of a feud with a rival south London gangster – with nothing worse than a bullet wound to the shoulder.

From his first – of five – convictions for violence at the age of 16 he quickly established a reputation among the hard men of south London who included such legendary figures as the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, the Richardson gang, and "mad" Frankie Fraser.

He came to prominence in 1981 when he was cleared of involvement in a £2.5m cannabis smuggling operation in which Peter Bennett, a customs officer, was shot dead.

His next major brush with the law followed the £26m Brink's-Mat gold bullion robbery at Heathrow in 1983. One of the chief suspects was Kenneth Noye, a close friend and associate of Francis.

Scotland Yard's Flying Squad pursued Francis and searched his property in Kent, including draining and digging up the floor of his swimming pool, but found nothing.

Noye, who would later be jailed for life for murder during a road-rage incident on the M25, was jailed for his role in laundering the bullion.

When Francis's daughter married in 1984 the reception was attended by Buster Edwards and Charlie Wilson, two of the gang who carried out the great train robbery in 1963 in which £2.6m was stolen from the Glasgow to London night express.

Francis was jailed for a year in 1986 for possession of forged bank notes.

Once out of jail he became involved again in drug smuggling and was sentenced to 16 years in prison after he was convicted in 1990 for importing cannabis. He received an extra four years when he refused to pay £300,000 from assets bought with the drugs money.

Throughout Francis continued to remain a close ally of several members of the Brink's-Mat gang, including Noye and Brian Perry, a leading member who was himself shot dead in an unsolved contract killing outside his south London minicab firm in 2002.

Police are investigating a number of possible motives for the murder of Francis, including a falling out with an underworld rival, possibly over drugs. There is also speculation that Francis was killed because someone believed him to be a police informer.

Detectives investigating the murder appealed yesterday for whoever sold Francis the newspapers on the morning he was shot to contact them. They also want to trace a white Ford Transit and a black VW Polo or Golf that were filmed by surveillance cameras near the murder scene in Lynton Road at about 5am, the time of the fatal shooting.