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

CHAPTER 15

ERNARD Langton and Reece Staples had much in common. Though not friends, they had crossed paths amicably in their home city. Both shared a passion for football, both were fathers of two young children and, according to those close to them, both were rarely without a smile. On 25 May 2009, these two young men from Nottingham were 5,300 miles apart, but both were about to make fateful decisions that would lead to the same tragic destination.

Twenty-seven-year-old Langton, known as ‘Nard’, was a cheeky, outgoing young man who made his money as a medium level drug dealer, mainly running a string of houses producing hydroponically-grown cannabis. Originally from Liverpool, he had made his way to Nottingham, living in the Lenton and Bulwell areas of the city. He had a partner, Nadine, and two young children. He had been in trouble with the law in July 2004, serving four months in prison after running down and killing fifty-nine-year-old pedestrian Kevin Kent on his Yamaha motorbike and fleeing the scene. He eventually handed himself when his conscience got the better of him. Langton enjoyed clubland to the full and it was no surprise that in the early hours of that hot Bank Holiday weekend, he decided to visit a newly opened venue in the city’s Lace Market called Paris, formerly Geisha, to finish off what had been a ‘banging’ night out.

It was about 1.45am in Nottingham and the neon lit streets still held an abundance of promise for young clubgoers who knew there was no work to get up for that Monday morning. Some of Langton’s companions mentioned that Paris might be full of people that they had had an ongoing beef with. ‘Nard’ shrugged. He was up for a good night, not trouble – but he had his knife on him just in case. He walked in, nodding to the doormen. They didn’t search him.

On the other side of the world, in the quiet Costa Rican coastal town of Talamanca, it was 6.45pm. Nineteen-year-old Reece Staples, nicknamed ‘Dubbler’, had ditched a promising football career in Nottingham. Now he was thousands of miles from home and planning to make a purchase of high-grade crack cocaine. He had told friends he was taking his girlfriend, Kylee, on a Caribbean holiday, but he was here to make a deal. He would buy enough crack that, once it was cut for sale, could bring in around £27,000. It still had to be transported back to the UK, but Reece knew what had to be done. It had all been planned before he had set foot in Costa Rica. Although he would not be the primary recipient of any profits – others who had bought the plane tickets for him would see to that – it would keep the wolves from the door. Sure, trepidation pulsated through his body and his heart beat faster when he thought about what he was doing. But that was all part of the game. Besides, he chuckled to himself, when it was done he could dine out for weeks telling friends about his smuggling vacation adventures.

Back at the Paris nightclub, Nards was clocked by a number of people as he walked in. Many ‘hollered’ to him, but there were others lurking who had history with Langton and his friends. It went back to an incident several years earlier, when a friend of Langton’s had been shot in the back near the city’s Showcase cinema. One of those who had a beef with him, Alex James, now pushed his way through the teeming club. Without warning, James struck Langton over the head with a champagne bottle. Langton reacted instinctively, pulling out his knife and stabbing James in the leg. Someone close by the group then whipped out a handgun and fired off two shots. People screamed, ‘Get down, someone’s got a gun.’ Friends of James, seeing the blood running from his leg wound and hearing the gun discharge, thought he had been shot. Even as people began running from the upstairs bar down the stairs and onto the street, a police armed response unit was being sent to the scene.

Among the crowd was thirty-four-year-old Dion Griffin, a braggart who had saturated himself in gangsta life for two decades. Griffin was another mid-level drug dealer, always looking to step up and leave his mark. He had been convicted previously in Operation Opal, which had focused on dealers being used by the Bestwood Cartel, and had also been suspected of ordering a number of shootings in the past. In one case, a twenty-seven-year-old man from the Aspley area who had displeased Griffin was kidnapped outside the Lord Nelson pub. The victim was beaten and tortured for three hours and then, while pleading for his life, was shot several times and left for dead on Moor Road. The man, who police said was ‘very, very lucky’ to be alive, managed to crawl to a phone box and dial 999. When medics arrived, they were kept back for several minutes while armed officers quizzed the victim about who had carried out the shooting, such was their belief that he would not survive. Whilst there was little doubt that Griffin had ordered the kidnap and shooting, he had distanced himself enough to avoid being charged.

Now, in the early hours of May 25, Griffin cemented his notoriety. He summoned Anthony ‘Tony’ Tirado, his personal enforcer. Tirado was armed with a handgun and pulled on a pair of black gloves. Together they went searching for Bernard Langton, working their way through the Paris club as people spilled out onto the street. Griffin, Tirado and an associate from Birmingham went outside and spotted Langton, with blood streaming from his head wound, walking, then trotting, down the street. Still thinking Langton might be armed, Tirado hid behind a pillar, then walked out onto the street again as Griffin ordered him to ‘take him down’ from twenty metres. The sound of four gunshots erupted, and Langton was hit twice in the back as he fled down Pilcher Gate. He staggered before tumbling down a set of stairs near the Pitcher and Piano pub and Living Room restaurant. Griffin and his cohorts fled.

Armed police and ambulances, already summoned to Paris, arrived to find that stabbing victim Alex James had been put into a car by friends, arriving at the Queen’s Medical Centre at 2.18am. Griffin, Tirado and others, in another car, made their way to the hospital to check on the condition of James, arriving at 2.22am. But in the city centre, paramedics arriving in the Lace Market were not given immediate access to Langton because the incident was still considered ‘live’ and no-one knew if gunmen were still around. By 2.35am, Langton was finally on his way to the QMC, already unconscious. His ambulance drove into the Accident and Emergency bay of the hospital at 2.45am, followed by a police van, only to be met by a distinctly unwelcoming crew led by Griffin. They were intent on preventing the young man getting into the hospital for treatment. Even as Langton was taking his last breaths, Griffin stood at the centre of the group screaming at the paramedics and security staff at the hospital.

‘Hope you’re dead.’

‘If he comes out, we’ll finish him off.’

‘He is going to die.’

‘He’s not coming in here.’

Eight minutes elapsed before staff could get Langton into the hospital. By then it was too late. He was officially declared dead just before 3am.

IN COSTA RICA, Reece Staples was having problems confirming his flight to the UK. He was also trying to judge the right time to swallow the crack cocaine he and Kylee had bought. When the couple eventually arrived back at Luton airport on June 5, they were greeted at the airport by the man who had sent them on their mission, Stanley Leach, a Jamaican national living on the Broxtowe estate. Leach was married, but was having an affair with Kylee and clearly had some kind of hold over her to demand that the pair become drug mules for him. Reece insisted that he take the risks and swallow all the drugs himself. The twenty-two pellets of crack had been secured inside the cut-off fingers of latex gloves which were then sealed with wax and wrapped in cling film. The disrupted stages of the flights back to the UK meant that Reece had had to re-swallow some of the packages he had first swallowed twenty-five hours earlier, but nevertheless he and Kylee walked unhindered through customs at Luton airport. Reece was able to give Leach three of the cocaine packets he had excreted, but the constipating agents he had taken to make sure the drugs did not pass through his body too quickly meant a further nineteen packets remained inside him.

The day after arriving back, Reece was on the streets around Radford and Basford, his home turf. He didn’t feel well. He told Kylee he suspected some of the drugs were now leaking into his body and said he thought he might be dying. Desperation began to boil over in him and in the early hours of June 7, he was picked up by a routine police patrol in the Basford area on suspicion of causing criminal damage to a car. At 1.15am he was arrested and taken to Oxclose Lane Police station where he was placed in a cell. What took place during the next three hours is still not clear but at 5am, officers in the custody suite area were alerted to their prisoner suffering some sort of seizure in his cell. Like Bernard Langton, Reece Staples died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.

Nottinghamshire Police, in line with policy on deaths in custody, immediately called in the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate whether any officers had failed in their duties. The outpouring of grief among those who had known Reece was overwhelming. More than 4,000 people signed up to a Facebook page in tribute to him and hundreds attended his funeral, many wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with his smiling face. Few could understand what had led a nineteen-year-old away from a path as a talented promising footballer to become a drug mule. Unfortunately part of the answer was there in the double lives being led by many young people in the deprived inner-city areas. The aspirations these youngsters had set themselves were often so unrealistically high – a lucrative career in football, music, modelling – that when those dreams were dashed they saw few other options but drug dealing and gang life.

Reece Staples had first come to prominence in 2004 when, as a fifteen-year-old from the city’s Trinity School, he played for Nottingham Forest Under-16s, then signed for their rivals Notts County. It wasn’t long before Premiership clubs lined up at Meadow Lane to secure the signature of the surging, goal-scoring midfielder. He was potentially the best thing to come out of the club since Jermaine Pennant, who went on to play for Arsenal, Leeds United and Liverpool. Manchester United, who had been on the receiving end of Reece’s talents when he was with Forest, won the race to sign him, ahead of Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers, after he impressed on a trial. But things did not work out at Old Trafford and less than a year later Reece was on his way back to Nottingham. He returned to Forest’s youth academy and was given the number thirty-four shirt of the full squad. By 2006, he seemed back on track with the Forest youth team, regularly turning in key performances which helped take them through to the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup and, during the 2007/8 season, to a fifteen-match unbeaten run.

But it appeared he had two personalities. There was Reece, the promising young footballer. And then there was Dubbler, the Radford gang member, wearing his black bandana and drinking brandy. In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2007, as Dubbler, he was involved in mass fight at private party at the Variety Club in Radford. Three people, including Reece, suffered serious stab wounds. He was rushed to the QMC by friends who acted quickly enough to save his life. The violence he suffered that night seemed to sap his self-confidence. He continued with Nottingham Forest throughout 2007/8 but his head was somewhere else. In October 2008, he was released by them and snapped up by town league team Carlton FC. Away from the pressure of professional football, Reece’s confidence and passion for the game returned, but he could not stop Dubbler dragging him back into the gully life that crackled in the streets around him.

It was no different for Bernard Langton. Both were victims of a lifestyle which, had they the strength of mind, they would surely have wished to escape. Instead they were lured to their end by the intoxicating draw of another life, gambling on the promise of street credibility and financial security. Both men would be remembered by those closest for the smiles and brightness they beamed into others in their short lives. But there was also the terrible legacy of sadness they left; that of unfulfilled hopes and, not least, the tragedy that two sets of children would now have to face growing up without knowing their dads.

In May 2010, the individuals identified by the police as playing a part in pulling Reece Staples back into the ghetto were jailed at Nottingham Crown Court. Stanley Leach, thirty-eight, was sentenced to five years and three months for conspiring to import and supply cocaine. Kylee Hodgson, twenty-four, who had a child by Reece, was sentenced to three years after admitting importing the drug, which police estimated would be worth up to £27,000. The 135 grammes of high-grade coke that made up the shipment was not a large amount and may have been a test run in preparation for regular excursions. The authorities seemed as perplexed as anyone about why Staples chose drugs over football. Judge Milmo, QC, said, ‘It’s impossible to work out why a lad of nineteen, who spent time with Nottingham Forest Academy, got involved, to put it bluntly, in drug smuggling.’

BERNARD LANGTON’S DEATH was the first gun fatality in ‘Shottingham’ in three years, since the killing of seventeen-year-old Nathan Williams in September 2006. Drug dealer Courtney Hunt, aged twenty-one, was later jailed for life for shooting Williams through the heart in the Meadows Bridgeway shopping precinct after the teenager had taunted him for being fat. The introduction of airport-style scanners at the entrance to some city centre clubs offered reassurance to some, but there was criticism from owners that it put people off coming into their clubs. The fact was that gang members were increasingly treating clubs as their own offices and extended cribs. Questions were rightly being asked about how two people had managed to enter the clubs that night carrying firearms. One club plagued by gun problems on the outskirts of the city had its licensed revoked after testimony from police that the licensee had been ‘cleaning up’ evidence after one particular clash in which a car was shot up.

It did not take police long to arrest those responsible for Bernard Langton’s death. Thanks largely to CCTV footage from outside the Queen’s Medical Centre and around the Lace Market, which had caught the flashes of the gun being fired, eight people, including Dion Griffin and Anthony Tirado, were arrested. Their trial got underway at Birmingham Crown Court in May 2010, with experienced QC Peter Joyce leading the prosecution. The full scale of the terror visited upon Nottingham that evening emerged in what was described by the judge as something akin to ‘the Wild West’. One of the four shots fired by Tirado had gone through the window of a pub, hitting the optics behind the bar. It was only luck that no passing revellers were gunned down that night. The court heard how Griffin had a hold over Tirado, appealing to the younger man’s perverse ambitions to become a fully fledged gangster. Griffin’s word was law to Tirado, who was more than happy to carry out the demands of his ego-fuelled boss.

The evening after the shooting, the two of them had fled to Skegness, where Griffin, like Colin Gunn, kept a caravan for holing up in. After a couple of days, Tirado was feeling the heat, not least because Skegness was full of people from Nottingham. He sent Griffin a text saying, ‘Ask what time I’m getting off it’s flaming here. T.’ Griffin replied with the calculated coldness of a man who had been there before. ‘No drama,’ he texted Tirado. ‘Just chill. No more texs.’ Shortly after, a third man, Andrew Pleasance, aged thirty-three, organised £100 for a taxi for Tirado to disappear down to Gloucester, where he intended to hide out. Despite dumping more than ten mobile phones they had used before and after the murder, the three were convicted on the basis of the CCTV footage and the ability of police to forensically map signal movements through mobile phone masts and calls made between the missing phones. After a trial lasting more than six weeks, the jury found Griffin and Tirado, who both lived in the Top Valley area, guilty of murder. Pleasance was found guilty of assisting an offender and was sentenced to four years. The jury failed to reach a verdict on a third man, from Birmingham, accused of murder. Sentencing Griffin and Tirado to life with a minimum twenty-eight years each, Mrs Justice Sharp said the scenes at the hospital were ‘utterly disgraceful’. She added, ‘This was nothing less than a cold-blooded execution motivated by revenge. Innocent passers-by could easily have been struck by a stray bullet and the public could have been caught up by something that resembled something from the Wild West.’

After the case, Langton’s mother, Christina, recalled her son’s good nature. ‘I really miss his cheeky smile,’ she said. ‘He was always laughing and had a very bubbly character. He liked to make us all laugh and was a brilliant dad. His daughter was only one when he died. He would always be spending time with his son, going to the park and taking him to the cinema. It is hard to believe he is gone and they have to grow up without him. The people who did this have taken my son from me and ruined my life. Everyone needs to wake up and know what is going on around them and to understand gun crime devastates families.’