Charlie, eldest of the Kray clan, dies

Charlie Kray, elder brother of two of the most notorious criminals of modern times, died last night, aged 73.

Kray, who some claim was the brain behind the younger twins Ronnie and Reggie who terrorised Sixties London, died at St Mary's Hospital, Newport on the Isle of Wight. His girlfriend, Diane Buffini, and two friends, were said to be with him when he died. Reggie, 66, now the only surviving Kray brother, had visited him from prison earlier yesterday.

Charlie Kray was moved to the hospital to be treated for a heart condition last month after collapsing at Parkhurst Prison where he had been serving a 12-year sentence for masterminding a £39m cocaine plot. A spokesman said he died at 8.50pm. His brother had made repeated visits to see him after being moved to Wayland Prison, nearer the hospital.

Peter Ferdinando, the landlord of the Blind Beggar Pub in Whitechapel Road in the East End, a notorious Kray haunt where the gangster George Cornell met his death, said last night: "Charlie Kray was no gangster, he was just a very, very nice man. It was a shame that towards the end of his career he got roped into drugs because he was short for cash."

Seven years the senior of Reggie and Ronnie, Charlie was said not to like violence but was nevertheless happy to play a role as the Krays built up their empire of extortion. As "the Firm" preyed on bookmakers, pubs, owners of drinking clubs and gambling bosses, he was seen as the quiet one. But he was the one with the business brain - and he would have been aware that those who refused to comply with protection demands were viciously beaten.

In the late Sixties, after the murders of Jack "The Hat" McVitie and George Cornell, he was one of many suspects brought in. He always claimed he did not take part in any operation to dispose of McVitie but was convicted in 1969 of helping the brothers get rid of the body and jailed for 10 years.

After coming out of prison in 1975, he said he found life difficult and claimed he was "unemployable" because of his name. He tried to run a pop group and tried his hand as a theatrical agent. He lived in Benidorm, Spain, for a while, tried property development and had a minor coup when he was hired as a consultant for a film about the Krays. He was said to have spent the £100,000 he was paid within two years.

Police believed he was linked to the production of amphetamines and counterfeit videotapes and pound coins; underworld whispers connected him to protection rackets.

The detective who convicted all three Kray brothers in the late Sixties, Leonard "Nipper" Read, once said: "He was well and truly part of the Kray firm. When the twins were in trouble, he was the first person they turned to." He said Charlie was clever, but never violent. "All he had to say was that he was Charlie Kray. People looked over his shoulder and wondered where the twins were."

In June 1997 he was found guilty of masterminding the multi-million-pound cocaine plot and jailed for 12 years. He claimed he was a victim of entrapment by police after being convicted of offering to supply the drug to undercover officers.

His death leaves Reggie Kray still dreaming of release after serving more than 30 years for murdering McVitie, whom he stabbed to death in a flat in north London. Ronnie died of a heart attack in Broadmoor in 1995.

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