The most dangerous pub in Britain?: Just last week, a customer was shot in the face with a sawn-off shotgun. Cal McCrystal reports

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The Independent Online
ON A warm afternoon, the St Helier Tavern does not quite live up to its reputation as 'the most dangerous pub in Britain'. On a roundabout just north of Carshalton, in London's south-western suburbs, its dark brick looms over a bookie's next door and dwarfs a public library further on. But apart from sheer size, there is nothing about the pub's exterior to disturb the casual passer-by, nothing to indicate its long history of violence.

Inside is a different matter. When you approach a loose throng at the long, glittering bar, hubbub ceases. Ordering beer, you lean across a heavily muscled customer in cut-off denims and dark glasses. There is an almost imperceptible turn of the head as you pay. Other eyes follow you to a window seat, beer slopping over the rim of the glass in your anxious hand. Ensconced on salmon-pink upholstery, you are relieved when the din is renewed. It seems imprudent to linger.

'Ah, a strategic withdrawal,' said a sympathetic Superintendent Ray Newark later. 'I trust people didn't come and stand intimidatingly next to you. Anyone who's a stranger is made to feel thoroughly unwelcome. One of their favourite ploys is to stand either side of the poor unfortunate who's just ordered his half-pint of bitter. It is not unusual for someone then to tail you afterwards for a mile or so, to make sure you don't get into a police vehicle or something like that.'

Yet it is remarkable how blindness strikes whenever something nasty occurs in or around the tavern, all of whose customers are white.

At 9pm last Sunday, for example, at least one shopkeeper on the far side of the roundabout had a clear view of the St Helier forecourt where drinkers lounged in the cooling evening. Two men in stocking masks casually selected a victim and shot him in the face with a sawn-off shotgun. They then tried to slice open his throat with a knife. Before running off, they also attempted to shoot his companion. The victim, a 36-year-old local man whose name has not been released, is recovering in hospital. The police have asked for witnesses to come forward - without much hope that they will. 'I wasn't exactly surprised at what happened,' the shopkeeper shrugged.

Nor are his neighbours. 'You wouldn't want to go anywhere near the place in the evening,' said one. 'The best thing anyone could do is to pull it down and put a police station there,' said another. 'I don't think that's far wrong,' agreed Mr Newark. 'Unfortunately, it has become a symbolic meeting place for villains who view it as a safe place.' But complaints tend to be anonymous. 'I enjoy having legs under me to walk around on,' a resident explained. Reporters on the local Surrey and south London newspapers readily forgo bylines when they write about the pub.

How did the tavern achieve such frightening notoriety?

It was originally built by the old London County Council in 1934 as a community centre for the St Helier estate, whose 10,000 properties made it the second-biggest (after Dagenham) in pre-war Britain. But when the money ran out, Whitbread, the brewer, bought a 99-year lease on the property.

In 1936, the St Helier Arms (as it then was) opened. For years it remained a focal point for the estate. In 1964, Paddy Kane, a Labour member of Sutton borough council who lives on the estate, had his wedding reception in the pub. 'It's very sad to see it has deteriorated to such a low ebb,' he said. Local magistrates share his regret. Next month they will respond to an appeal by the St Helier against the revocation of its licence. Until then, the pub is allowed to stay open.

The present licensee is Kay Vogt, who manages the premises for an Italian club owner, Carlo Spetali. Mr Spetali, who has a club in Piccadilly, sublets the St Helier from Whitbread. Until the end of the 1970s, the St Helier was a 'managed house' - run by brewery managers, rather than licensed sub-tenants. But by then the pub was attracting criminal elements. Violence was common. Managers came and went, some enduring only days in the job. The National Association of Licensed House Managers decided on a boycott and the pub was boarded up for a year. The brewery then opted for a sub-tenant system. In 1982, Alvin Williams, a 19-stone Welshman, sub-leased the premises and spent pounds 30,000 on refurbishment, receiving none of the financial support from the brewery he says he was expecting. He stayed for five years.

From Bala, in north Wales, he said: 'In my time, the trouble wasn't from organised crime, although there were people in the area capable of organised crime.' He kept a tight rein on his customers - builders, scaffolders and the like in one lounge; older, 'extremely nice' people in the other. 'At the back of the premises, I installed a pets' corner for the kids: rabbits, pygmy goats, pheasants, Chinese geese.'

'He was doing a good job, throwing out trouble-makers, bringing the place back to what it was: a good family pub,' a friend said. Nevertheless, trouble persisted. Drugs appeared. The police applied to close the St Helier. Mr Williams fought the application and won. He also employed bouncers to keep order - among them a local 'hard man,' Stephen Davison. When this failed, the Welshman left. Again, the St Helier was boarded up.

Whitbread then came to an arrangement with Carlo Spetali of London Leisure Holdings, awarding him a 20-year sub-lease and pouring pounds 400,000-pounds 500,000 into improvements. Peace did not ensue. Instead, the thick pile of the pub's new floral carpet began to absorb blood as well as beer. 'We're not just talking about a few Chelsea supporters getting topped up on lager,' a former customer said. 'We are talking hea-vy.'

On 28 May, 1992, Mr Davison, Mr Williams's former employee, was told to leave the pub by Michael Bond, a Spetali bouncer. Mr Davison refused and was confronted by Bond's 'associate,' Anthony Crabb. Crabb pulled out a sawn-off shotgun and shot Mr Davison at point-blank range. Outside, a passing schoolgirl heard the 'loud bang.' Inside, Mr Davison gasped: 'You got me', and died. There were 40 others in the pub who apparently noticed little that was out of the ordinary.

The dead man was loaded into a horsebox and taken to a caravan site where his head and hands were chopped off and all teeth removed. With the exception of a gold molar, which Crabb kept as a souvenir, these were burnt (to impede identification). Crabb then quartered the torso with a chainsaw, and persuaded others, including Bond, Gary Taylor and Tyrone Evans to help dispose of the remains. One bit subsequently floated to the surface of a pond in Reigate. Crabb and his assistants were arrested, partly because their disposal efforts were witnessed by five young girls. Three other witnesses were moved to secret addresses.

Crabb was sentenced to life imprisonment, Taylor to nine years (later reduced to seven), and Bond to two years (after giving evidence for the prosecution). Evans killed himself with pills from the prison hospital. When the trial ended last July, the police said they would see 'if there are matters that need to be brought before the licensing justices'. But Mr Spetali denied that his 'nice pub' had been tarnished by the murder. He has been quoted as describing Taylor and Bond as 'keepers of the peace'.

Business as usual followed. On a Saturday afternoon in March, three days before Sutton magistrates revoked the licence, two men, aged 27 and 37, crossed the threshhold for a pint of beer and a game of pool. Both were carried out on stretchers, the former with eight stab wounds from a stiletto knife, the latter with head injuries from a pool cue. When police arrived, pub customers formed a wall of silence.

It may be wrong to single out the St Helier Tavern. At least six other pubs in the Sutton area have been closed down by the police in the last five years, due to 'aggravation'. Ray Newark said: 'We feel very strongly that if premises aren't being run properly and we're getting incident after incident, what we do is help them sort the problem out. But if there is no co-operation, we will take revocation proceedings.'

Some of the extinct pubs are just a few blocks away from where the Prime Minister was born (Worcester Park) and where his brother, Terry Major- Ball, currently lives (Wallington). Mr Major-Ball's home is a short stroll from the flat where Anthony Crabb presumably scrubbed his fingernails after dismembering Stephen Davison. It seems an orderly, if uninspiring, part of London, offering such paradoxes as a solid Labour council in a Tory Westminster constituency. Asked if the MP, Nigel Forman, had had representations about the St Helier from constituents, his secretary said: 'From memory, no.'

Whitbread say: 'It would be improper for us to comment, pending the result of the licence appeal. But if the appeal is turned down we'll have to take the pub back into our possession and try to find another, suitable, leaseholder to take over.'

Despite the brewery's emollient words and assurances by Mr Spetali that he runs 'a family pub', few of the Londoners for whom the building was erected express any affection for the 'most dangerous pub in Britain'.

(Photograph omitted)

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