Hoods: The Gangs of Nottingham, A Study in Organised Crime (2012)


 huge armed presence ringed the courtroom at Nottingham in March 2005 for the trial of the drug-smuggling Dawes Cartel. Police spent more than £500,000 on the security operation not because they feared John Dawes would try to escape but for his protection because they thought he might turn and offer information on his brother Rob, who was still at large in Spain, his partner Gary Hardy and, not least, the Bestwood Cartel. ‘We believed there was a genuine risk to Dawes,’ said Detective Inspector Peter Jones. ‘Our thinking was that when convicted, he may want to mitigate and give his side of the story. If he is willing to give evidence on the others he is working alongside, he becomes valuable.’

Over nine weeks, a jury heard details of how John and Rob Dawes headed a ruthless organisation making more than £1 million a month from the illegal drugs trade. At the end of it all, John Dawes, his father Arthur, Rebecca Bridge and Ryan Smith were all convicted for their parts in the operation. John Dawes was jailed for twenty-four-years, Smith for fourteen years, Arthur Dawes for eight and Bridge for four. Operation Normality had been a huge success and while Rob Dawes and Gary Hardy remained at large, police felt sure it would only be a matter of time before they tripped up. The case had shown just how much power an organised crime group could achieve. In a short space of time the Dawes Cartel had managed to corrupt officials in various organisations and rule through fear.

DI Jones pointed out the similarities between the Dawes Cartel and that run by the Bestwood mob. ‘John Dawes thought he was untouchable. But no one is untouchable, no matter how violent and intimidating they are. There was information that suggested this organisation was able to penetrate the police, social services, the local authority and other organisations through intimidation or other means.’

WHEN THE TRUSTHORPE murder trial got underway, in March 2006 at Birmingham Crown Court, David Gunn sat in the dock alongside his brother Colin, with the jury unaware David had already pleaded guilty the previous year to conspiracy to supply amphetamine, a crime for which he would eventually be jailed for eight-and-a-half years and for which Terry Witts and Kevin Worsop were also jailed. Eight defendants now faced the jury. Colin and David Gunn, John Russell and Michael McNee were joined by Shane Bird, aged thirty-nine, of Carlton Hill, Nottingham, Kevin Holm, thirty-eight, of Cliff Road, Carlton, Andrew McKinnon, twenty-one, of no fixed address, and Lanelle Douglas, twenty, of no fixed address. All denied conspiracy to commit murder. In the public gallery was Victor Bates, who had decided to attend the trial to see the face of the Colin Gunn, who he knew had been implicated in his own wife’s death.

Opening for the prosecution, Timothy Spencer QC said the killers were ‘calculated, ruthless and merciless’. The murders ‘were carried out with clinical efficiency. No disturbance, no sign of haste; the targets were located quickly and shot just as quickly ... in other words, as part of a well organised, well planned gang operation.’ There was, he said, evidence of a ‘command structure’ in the way the couple’s murders had been organised. However, there was very little direct evidence. In fact the case was one of the most difficult ever handled by Lincolnshire Crown Prosecution Service. Eyewitnesses and forensics were distinctly lacking. It would take a jigsaw of circumstantial evidence to build up a picture of those responsible; in particular, the detailed mobile phone records that the prosecution claimed placed the defendants at the heart of the crime. The prosecution sought to show how each of the accused was implicated through the use of phones they had bought for the sole purpose of planning and organising the murders and had then thrown away afterwards. Specifically these included eleven ‘murder phones’ used over hundreds of miles in a ten-day period. Over 7,000 calls had been analysed and more than 100 statements about phone usage disclosed.

‘With all the benefit of hindsight,’ Mr Spencer went on, ‘it could be said that if the police had acted more quickly to the prowler report then this killing could have been prevented. But they didn’t. It’s as simple as that.’ He admitted, ‘There are unanswered questions in this case and there will be unanswered questions at the end of it. The prosecution suggest that we have the greater part of this gang. We don’t suggest we have all of it.’

John Russell’s defence was to claim that he was half-drunk, flying a kite and chatting to girls when the Stirlands were shot dead. Andrew Hall QC, defending Russell, also disputed prosecution claims that his client had taken bloodstained clothing to a launderette the day after the murders. The court heard that Russell had more than 80 previous convictions for drug dealing, burglary and stealing cars, but no record of violence. He claimed that he was on the east coast with Michael McNee to look after a caravan full of amphetamines and to supply local drug dealers. ‘He is a professional criminal and no doubt a considerable menace to the people of Nottingham,’ said Mr Hall. ‘But that’s not the issue. The issue is: is he a killer?’

He continued, ‘On that Lincolnshire coast, it was high season, it was the summer and the pubs and clubs were full of young people. This was a busy time for those who wanted to sell drugs. It is perhaps unsurprising to find the two of them by the coast in August. If it wasn’t for the seriousness of the case, the notion of John Russell half-drunk and trying to get some girls back to the caravan while acting as a lookout would be comical.’ Mr Hall told the jury that the prosecution was ‘grasping at straws’ and had a ‘weak, circumstantial case’.

Defendant Shane Bird admitted he had used a contact to illegally access information on the couple before they were killed but denied knowing anything about the murders until he heard about them in the news two days later. In a transcript read out, and tapes played to the courtroom, the jury heard Bird make a tearful denial to police that he was involved. ‘What you are trying to suggest is that I knew about it before and that is not on,’ he told officers. ‘It’s come out all over the news. Things go through your mind, like was that anything to do with the number I got? And it made me feel physically sick.’ In the same interview, Bird could not explain frequent calls made a few days before the shootings to David Gunn. The records showed the calls to Gunn were made back to back with calls made to Bird’s British Telecom contact. It was suggested to Bird that the calls were about the Stirlands’ address and Bird’s progress in obtaining it. He denied the suggestion from police.

When he came to take the stand Shane Bird was more in control of his emotions than he had been in the police station. He told the courtroom, ‘I was proper upset thinking the number might have something to do with the murders. It actually broke my heart.’ Bird, who owned two scooter shops in Ingoldmells, Lincolnshire, had made no fewer than 1,600 calls on his mobile phone in the first eight days of August 2004. His phone was tracked to the Trusthorpe area in the days leading up to the murder but he argued that his businesses in Ingoldmells required his attention and his presence in the area was nothing unusual. On the day of the killings, Bird went to Leicester racecourse to watch a horse that he owned compete in a seven-furlong race.

By the time David Gunn decided to take the stand, the case against him was looking increasingly flawed. During cross-examination, Timothy Spencer suggested to Gunn that he decided to stay in Nottingham on the day of the murder so that Colin could oversee things on the east coast, ensuring that at least one of them had a watertight alibi. ‘There had to be a show and you and your brother decided that you could not both be on the coast when the Stirlands were shot,’ said Mr Spencer. ‘You are an intelligent man. You realise the value of being in Nottingham on the Sunday and being with your partner all day. Your role was to be the organiser, the setter-up, and that is why you did not go to the caravan on the coast. It needed one of you to be on the spot, hands-on, making sure things went to plan, and that was his role.’

David Gunn had previously told police in interviews they had no evidence against him. ‘At the end of it, apart from you putting me in a few places using my phone, you haven’t really got me doing anything. I am shocked that you have got me here,’ he had said after being arrested. Now he was even more emphatic in his denials. Trevor Burke, his defence barrister, asked him about the suggestion that messages he sent concerned two Beretta handguns. ‘That is complete nonsense,’ Gunn told the court. ‘I’ve never even seen a Beretta firearm.’ He also said neither text message had been received in any case. He had spoken to his brother later on another number and told him he was on his way to Lincolnshire with cannabis joints on August 5.

‘It’s suggested you handled one or two firearms in anticipation of a murder,’ said Mr Burke.

‘No, that is not true,’ replied Gunn.

The jury would believe David Gunn’s explanation about the ‘menthol’ text message and ultimately his alibi. With David Gunn in the clear, the calls that Shane Bird had made to him became an irrelevancy as well.

The jury deliberated for more than twenty-six hours. On 29 June, they returned and delivered guilty verdicts against Colin Gunn, Michael McNee and John Russell. The other five men, including David Gunn, were acquitted. At least twelve security guards packed the dock, with police stationed at the door. The judge pronounced sentence the following day. He jailed all three for life and ordered that Colin Gunn face a 35 year sentence before parole would even be considered – it meant that in all probability Colin Gunn would be spending the rest of his life in prison. Colin could not yet be named in the press because he still faced a corruption trial involving DC Charles Fletcher, but it did not stop him launching in a tirade of abuse against the jury and the judge, Mr Justice Treacy. Colin was the first to hear the jury’s verdict. He turned to them menacingly and snarled, ‘Thank you, you scum bags. I hope you die of cancer.’ As he was led away he called the female foreman of the jury a ‘slag and a whore’. He then directed his anger at the judge, calling him a paedophile.

The judge, undeterred, continued making his statement about Colin Gunn. ‘This was a murder which shocked the nation. You are a crook, a villain and a large-scale drug dealer. You were the leader of this criminal gang. To your gang your word was law. The utterly evil nature of what you did shows that you, as a criminal man, are prepared to commit the ultimate act of criminal violence as and when it suits your purpose. You are prepared to do that due to a perverted desire for revenge. You are a man who would not let anything stand in your way. You would, I believe, do the same thing again.’

John Russell gave the judge the middle finger as he was sentenced.

DAVID GUNN SUBSEQUENTLY issued a statement which read, ‘Since my arrest I protested my innocence and yesterday the jury, thank God, believed me. The last eighteen months have been the worst in my life, being incarcerated and not being able to see my partner and children has broken me. I hope now to rebuild my life with my family and close friends and finally I am truly sorry for the Stirland family’s loss.’

His estranged wife Sandie told the Nottingham Evening Post, ‘Colin had asked David and I if he and a few friends could use the caravan in Ingoldmells for a break, as it had been a really tough time for all the family after Jamie died. When we heard about what happened to the Stirlands we were both shocked. I always knew David had nothing to do with their deaths. He did drive down to join Colin and the others for a drink but he didn’t stay long.’

But a few weeks after being cleared of conspiracy to murder, David Gunn faced sentencing for the amphetamine seizure. When he was sentenced at Derby Crown Court, prosecutor Andrew Easteal described Gunn as the leader of an ‘organised crime group’ who was at the heart of a massive trade in amphetamine – the self-confessed ‘Colonel – alongside second-in-command Terence Witts. Through covert surveillance, the court heard, police tailed the two men as they arranged the collection and distribution of thousands of pounds worth of the class B drug on a weekly basis. David also talked about his connections in South Africa, which were set up to help the jobless gang launder their money abroad as they strove to avoid detection. He was convicted by his own words by reams of damning evidence from the electronic devices placed in his car and in houses Gunn was using throughout 2004 and 2005, allowing the police to discover more about their business than they thought possible. Mr Easteal told the court, ‘Any doubt about David Gunn’s role and authority in the operation was taken away by the listening device in the car.’ The bugs had recorded him regularly talking about a new ‘load’ or ‘delivery’.

Gunn’s barrister, Craig Ferguson, used his client’s association with his notorious younger sibling as mitigation. ‘By virtue of his name and association with his brother Colin, it is plain that he has achieved a certain level of notoriety. Many judges in Nottingham will know of the Gunn family by virtue of their day-to day jobs. The issue arises as to whether there is any prejudice, whether he can receive a fair sentence.’ Mr Ferguson said there was a ‘distinction in character’ between Colin and David Gunn, an argument, he said, that was proven by David Gunn’s acquittal for the Stirland murders.

But Nottinghamshire Chief Constable Steve Green held a very different view of David Gunn’s role in his brother’s gang. ‘We dealt with it as a single kind of business,’ Mr Green said later. ‘We acknowledged the centrality of Colin Gunn to it, but as far as we were concerned David was part of the inner sanctum. He may well spend less time in prison than his brother, but he will never leave our radar screen. For the rest of his natural life he needs to look over his shoulder.’

The amphetamine convictions meant that it would be some time before Gunn would be free to walk the streets of Bestwood again. By 2008, however, he had already enjoyed a couple of home visits in preparation for his release in April 2009.

IT WAS OVER for the Bestwood Cartel. Yet two days after Colin Gunn and his underlings were sentenced, Bestwood erupted in riots. Thirty youths overturned, smashed up and set alight cars, ripped down fences, knocked down walls and built barricades across Raymede Drive during a three-hour standoff with police. They also waved placards demanding the release of the jailed men. It was a hollow gesture. ‘This is the last hurrah of the remnants of people who know that their time has gone,’ said Nottingham North MP Graham Allen. ‘Their leader has been given nearly forty years in prison and is not likely to see the light of day so they are now feeling the squeeze. These people have realised that their days are numbered and they can no longer rule the roost in Bestwood.’

Pat Chambers, one of the community leaders in Bestwood, said the estate needed to leave the memory of the Gunns behind. ‘The Godfather – that was Colin Gunn. He was the boss and everybody was frightened of him. If you had a problem, you didn’t go to the police. You went to Colin and Colin sorted it. But there was tenderness as well – and he had very good PR in the fact that he helped people. He gave them money for fireworks displays for the kids. People loved him. He was a Robin Hood because if you was in trouble financially he would help you out. At any given time he could call on you. It took a long time for this culture to turn itself around and now it’s turned round and we are on the way up.’

Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Davies, the man to whom a lot of the credit must go in pursuing the Bestwood Cartel to the end and who spent many a night sleeping on the floor of the operation room as the investigations gained in intensity, described the ninety-odd operations against the family as akin to fighting a form of terrorism. ‘The difficulty in getting to the Mr Bigs is similar to that of trying to take on the IRA leaders in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. There was no evidence behind their alleged IRA activity. Some criminal networks in Nottinghamshire were organised like the IRA hierarchy, using the cell system. Anyone who tried to deal drugs or commit other crimes inside their patches would get at least a good beating.’

One of those cells – what might be termed an ‘intelligence unit’ – was the next to be dealt with. Jason Grocock, David Barrett, Darren Peters and Kevin Warsop all pleaded guilty in 2006 at Birmingham Crown Court to conspiring to commit misconduct in public office in connection with the corrupt detective Charles Fletcher. Grocock and Peters were jailed for four years, Barrett and Warsop for three years. The police also finally caught up with Jamie Neil. Though the thirty-nine-year-old was a wanted man for his role in the corrupting of police officers and for questioning about an attack on an undercover officer, he had been flying in and out of the country numerous times from Portugal or Spain for more than twelve months. He was working the doors of nightclubs in Portugal when police finally lifted him and brought him back. He promptly pleaded guilty to conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and commit misconduct in public office at Nottingham Crown Court and received a three-year sentence.

Fletcher himself pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office and two counts of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. He was jailed for seven years in October 2006. In return for his services, he had received discounts on designer clothes at Limey’s store. ‘His conduct was unsophisticated,’ said his lawyer, Hugh Davies. ‘In payment he received suits which are of no use to him where he is now and will be out of fashion when he gets to wear them next. His motivation is source material for a forensic psychologist rather than his counsel. Perhaps he found it exhilarating to be involved with criminals.’

After his conviction, Fletcher sent a letter to his former colleagues attempting to explain why he had done what he had done. The letter read: ‘I suppose you’re wondering why it’s taken me this long to write and offer some sort of explanation. To be honest, it’s taken me this long to come to terms with the shame of my actions but most especially the betrayal of all my old colleagues. In answering “why?” I feel my greed, vanity and naivety were to blame and the fact I didn’t have the strength or courage to face up to my wrongdoing and tell someone before the inevitable happened. I was blind to the consequences of my actions and chose to ignore them. So selfishness played a big part in my downfall as I showed no regard for how my actions would affect my family, friends and those close to me.’

Detective Superintendent Russ Foster, the head of professional standards at the force, said Fletcher had been less than comprehensive in his version of how Gunn had corrupted him: ‘There are two hypotheses. One is that he has infiltrated Nottinghamshire Police purely to supply information to organised crime groups or the criminal fraternity; or, he joined the Nottinghamshire Police, he became vulnerable, susceptible, and was corrupted by these individuals while serving as a police officer. I’m not certain which of the two theories are correct. Fletcher has given us no indication.’

IN MAY 2007, it was the deadly John McSally’s turn to face justice. He had been arrested after walking into his favourite pub drunk and waving a revolver around, saying he had a job to do that night. The landlady persuaded him to leave the revolver in the pub’s safe and McSally drove off to his home in Plaza Gardens, Basford, with the bullets still in his pocket. The brave landlady then phoned the police and told them what McSally had said, adding that she had managed to persuade him to leave the gun. Armed officers were dispatched to McSally’s home. They pounced as he got out of his Nissan 4x4 and seized the bullets from his pocket. They were .38 calibre and matched the .38 revolver later recovered from the pub safe. McSally could only say, ‘You planted those on me.’

A jury at Leicester Crown Court did not agree. They convicted McSally, aged fifty, of the murder of a forty-six-year-old Patrick Marshall outside the Park Tavern in Basford in February 2004, and of the attempted murder of youth worker Derrick Senior in May 2003. The pub landlady, who had been in regular contact with police from the middle of 2004, gave vital evidence to help bring him to justice. McSally boasted that he had shot Derrick Senior for ‘three bags of sand’, which he explained was £3,000. He had even boasted about shooting Joan Stirland and, although later evidence emerged that he had been somewhere else that day, his phone was linked to the Lincolnshire area in the days leading up to the murder, suggesting that he may have been involved in the planning. The judge jailed him for life and told him he would serve at least thirty-five years. ‘You are an incredibly dangerous man,’ said Mr Justice Pitchers, ‘ready, for money, to kill without a second thought.’ McSally, who according to his boasts had carried out five murders and at least eleven punishment shootings, did not react to the verdict, other than to tell the judge the sentence would be ‘no problem’.

Police believed that McSally had received some help with the getaway car on the Patrick Marshall murder from a man called Craig McKay. They recovered the Volvo used in the murder, which had McKay’s fingerprints on it, shortly after the shooting. In the glove compartment was a bill addressed to Colin Gunn and three pictures of his brother David. After the shooting, McKay was found severely injured by the side of the A608, close to junction 27 of the M1. Police believed he had received a punishment beating with baseball bats for being sloppy and leaving material in the car. However, McKay, thirty-three, of Bestwood Park Estate, a heroin addict with more than forty offences on his record, denied any involvement and was cleared of Mr Marshall’s murder, while his girlfriend was cleared of perverting the course of justice by allegedly giving McKay a false alibi.

In a message clearly aimed at a local populace traumatised by the constant gunplay, Detective Chief Superintendent Neil James, head of crime for Nottinghamshire Police, said afterwards, ‘We would like to pay tribute to the courage of the witnesses and their willingness to support the investigation. A conviction would have been less likely without their evidence. I also want to reassure the communities of Nottinghamshire that we possess the skills, experience and the determination to continue to relentlessly pursue the individuals who have historically terrorised communities and committed serious acts of violence. We will leave no stone unturned. Our structures remain in place to tackle these issues and dismantle serious and organised crime to prevent it escalating. We will not tolerate a culture of lawlessness. Our objective is for people who live, work and visit the county to feel safe, reassured and enjoy a good quality of life. We are committed to providing a service we are proud to deliver and one that the public expects.’

The landlady, who is now in the witness protection programme, had her own share of tragedy to deal with as well as the stress of helping the police. Her son had unwittingly handled the gun in the safe and was himself arrested in connection with Patrick Marshall’s murder. The young man would later commit suicide while still under suspicion for a murder he did not commit.

Charles Marshall, Patrick’s brother, said on behalf of the family: “The last three years has been very hard for all our family. Today means we can start to rebuild our lives. We all still miss Patrick and only time will heal the wounds that we have from his death. Our dad was diagnosed with cancer about a year and a half ago and told that he had a limited time to live. At least he has survived to see justice done today. As it says on the plaque at our brother’s grave – “Justice is thine.”’

IN THE SUMMER of 2007, Colin Gunn, now more than a year into his life sentence, went back on trial for the corrupting of police officers. In an unusual move, the Crown Prosecution Service applied for evidence of his bad character – chiefly his conviction for conspiracy to murder – to be revealed in court, arguing that the jury needed to know about the deaths of the Stirlands to understand this case and his motivation for seeking police intelligence. At the start of the trial, Gunn sacked his legal team and refused to take part. He failed to appear in court for most of the case.

Not surprisingly, Gunn was convicted. ‘The Crown’s case was that using go-betweens, he asked for, and received, confidential information from Nottinghamshire police officers,’ said reviewing lawyer Stuart Laidlaw, of the CPS Special Crime Division. ‘Thankfully, the information he received had limited consequences, in part at least because the main police contact was under surveillance and the police were managing the risks that arose. Colin Gunn wanted to know what the police knew about various investigations which were of interest to him, such as the murder of the Stirlands, the shooting of jeweller Marion Bates in Nottingham and intelligence checks – or “MOTs” as they were referred to – on suspects. With this knowledge he hoped to keep one step ahead of the police.’

In August 2007, Gunn was jailed for a further nine years, the sentence to run concurrently with his life term. Only then could he finally be named in the media after previous legal restrictions, and the floodgates broke. ‘Nottingham’s “godfather of crime”,’ declared the BBC. ‘Brutal ganglord who fell victim to his own drugs,’ headlined the Guardian. ‘Gangster No 1 finally unmasked,’ blazed The Sun. The Nottingham Evening Post, which had been waiting for five years to expose the extent of Gunn’s evil empire, produced a special thirty-two-page pullout which flew off the news-stands.

As the CPS lawyer Mr Laidlaw said, ‘For a long time Colin Gunn stayed one step ahead of the law. The law has now caught up with him.’