Hoods: The Gangs of Nottingham, A Study in Organised Crime (2012)
he death of Lloyd Robinson failed to bring peace. Gang conflict, particularly between the St Ann’s and Radford Posses and the Meadows, continued unabated and firearms became a regular feature on the city’s streets. Previously their use had been largely confined to the occasional armed robbery crew hitting a security van. The Yardies changed all that, importing the capricious violence of the Jamaica slums. ‘Shoot or be shot’ became their motto. The homeboys from St Ann’s, Radford and the Meadows – known as the NG Triangle after the ‘NG’ postcode – embraced the Yardie gun culture and accompanying gangsta rap lyrics, and soon a firearm was a must-have fashion accessory. Using it was an even greater measure of street status. There was almost a mathematical equation to it: the juice of the firearm equalled the respect you received from fellow gang members, so some of them would arm themselves with rapid-firing Uzi or Ingram Mac 10 submachine guns. Gang members tried to justify it by saying that they needed the gun to protect themselves from rivals who would otherwise rob them; the truth was that many of them got a kick from carrying a gun.
Weapons were easy enough to get hold of but varied in quality. You could pay more than £1,000 for a smuggled, new Beretta handgun that had no ballistic history, but others favoured cheaper, older firearms that were supposedly decommissioned but had been reactivated by someone with basic engineering knowledge and tools. These sold for less than £100. There were other guns, such as the Brocock, that was essentially an air-pressured weapon which, with a bit of DIY engineering, was capable of firing live rounds. The ammunition was difficult to get hold of at first but soon manufacturing live rounds became a mini-cottage industry in the cellars of houses. In Derbyshire, a small family-run farm selling eggs developed a highly profitable sideline – it sold thousands of decommissioned guns throughout the 1990s, all quite legally, until its owners began telling customers how they could reactivate the weapons to working order, firing live rounds. This little shop of horrors, run by William Greenwood and his son Mitchell in Little Eaton, sold more than 4,000 deactivated guns, from Uzis and Kalashnikovs to Lugers and Berettas, and with a nod and wink they would tell purchasers how the weapon could be restored to full utility. They even sold the engineering kits needed to reactivate the weapons for as little as £45 and offered their own DIY advice.
UK restrictions on gun ownership had been tightened considerably after the massacres perpetrated by Michael Ryan in Hungerford in 1987 and Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane in 1996. And a working Uzi was a prohibited weapon in Britain by any criteria. But such weapons could be imported by registered dealers who pledged to ‘de-act’ them. This involves cutting away seventy-five per cent of the firing pin, welding up the chamber mechanism, then plugging the barrel with a steel ball to ensure it can’t be drilled out again. The gun would then be sent away to a proof house. There a certificate guaranteeing that it was useless could be acquired. However, the same ‘useless’ firearm could be reactivated using the basic engineering skills.
One drug dealer I met in the summer of 2001 bragged obsessively about his guns. He said he kept them in a secret compartment in the boot of his car, and knew all about reactivating weapons; he had bought an Uzi from a dealer in east London. He was paranoid about Nottingham criminals catching up with him and said he needed a firearm around him at all times to protect himself. He was known to police in both his home county of Lincolnshire and in Nottinghamshire and had passed over information about the gangsters he mixed with. His name was Jeremy Earls. Earls was a thin, wiry man in his thirties whose temperament could change like Dr Jekyll’s. One minute he seemed haunted, the next he was a wild-eyed paranoiac bursting with energy. He often used the word ‘suicided’ and said this was how gangsters made murders look like suicides in order to get away with them.
Shortly after I – and the two police forces – lost contact with him in August 2001, he shot dead two young men in Lincoln. They were half-brothers who had been living in Earls’ old home after a flat swap. One was a talented, twenty-six-year-old poet, Andrew Walker, the other a seventeen-year-old A-level student, Alexander Woodcraft, who had never even met his killer until his death. Earl, a paranoid schizophrenic, had become obsessed about the flat swap, feeling he had got the worst of the deal, and confided in friends that he wanted to move back to his old address because he didn’t like the place he was living at in Cambridge. He also believed that a major Nottingham gang boss, referred to later in this book as the Taxman, was trying to kill him. In his warped mental state, Earl shot the half-brothers through the head as one of them lay in the bath and the other slept, then drove to an isolated area of Lincolnshire, took a large number of tranquillizers and turned the gun on himself. He tried to make his suicide appear as a murder, positioning the gun to make it look like someone else had shot him, and left a tape recording with his solicitor predicting his own bloody end, saying the tape should be played only in the event of his violent death. It was a bizarre attempt to engineer a fake conspiracy around his death and those of the two innocent young men. The weapon which ended all three lives was a reactivated Uzi submachine pistol, probably bought for less than £400.
The police were aware of the reactivated gun problem as far back as 1994, when Sir Paul Condon, then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, raised the issue. Yet between 1990 and 1994 alone, the Greenwoods of Little Eaton sold thousands of guns to a former Sussex special constable, Anthony Mitchell, who in turn sold them to other middle men, who in turn sold them to criminals. Ballistics evidence of these weapons turned up at crime scenes across the UK and Ireland: often the evidence would be a body torn apart by bullets. William and Mitchell Greenwood, partly due to evidence from Anthony Mitchell, who was himself convicted at the Old Bailey and who gave evidence against the father and son, were sentenced in March 2004 at Derby Crown Court to seven years in prison. Derbyshire Police could account for only twenty per cent of the weapons they sold and by 2008 there were still 3,000 unaccounted for, though a huge investigation continues through the auspices of the National Ballistics Intelligence Service into their whereabouts. By 2008, these weapons had been positively linked to eight murders and numerous shootings. Current estimates as to the numbers of deactivated weapons range between 80,000 and 140,000 nationally.
In August 2002, police raided two houses in the Sneinton and Sherwood areas. The homes belonged to twenty-two-year-old Michael Westwood. Officers found equipment to manufacture home-made ammunition and conversion equipment to turn harmless replicas into lethal weapons, as well as empty boxes that contained a number of Brocock weapons, favoured by Yardie gunmen. Detective Chief Inspector Ian Waterfield said Westwood had used premises at Cedar Road, Sherwood, as a mini factory to manufacture bullets from blank rounds of ammunition and convert firearms deemed safe. ‘At the end of the day, we have no idea where those firearms have gone,’ he admitted. Often the converted firearms did not have proper rifling in the barrel, which would lead to a bullet tumbling from the barrel rather than coming out in a straight line. As firearms expert Mel Musson pointed out, converted firearms can lead to more indiscriminate damage and the potential for innocent bystanders being hit in a gun battle. ‘From a tumbling bullet, it is going to be a bigger area hitting you and it is going to cause a larger wound,’ he said. Westwood was later jailed for eight years for the gun offences.
The gunslingers, armed by people like the Greenwoods, would hide the weapons at the houses of their ‘baby mothers’ – down the back of cookers, buried in back gardens, in the toilet cisterns, anywhere with easy access – sometimes without the knowledge of the numerous women they were sleeping with. Dealers were regularly taking their firearms into nightclubs and were getting younger. On a number of occasions, clubgoers fled the dance floor when the gunmen decided to salute the DJ and fire off rounds into the ceiling, a ritual made customary by the Yardies. In November 1999, an eighteen-year-old from Birmingham was arrested after letting off his gun in Beatroot nightclub in Nottingham’s Lace Market during a fight. Having the firearm to hand while out on the town gave the gunmen a feeling of having the ‘juice’, or power, over their rivals. By the time someone had been shot and killed it was too late to see the damage that was being done by becoming a dedicated follower of this fashion.
Black, white and Asian youths were being corrupted by the gang mentality. It started at school, where children as young as five or six were becoming aware that there was rivalry between St Ann’s and Radford and the Meadows, the north and the south sides of the city. They even had their own shopping centres marked out as territory. The Victoria Centre was the domain of the St Ann’s and Radford crews while the Broadmarsh Centre was Meadows Posse territory. Young gang members had their postcode tattooed on their bodies to mark their affiliations. As one former gang member described it, ‘The older youths are always on the lookout for young talent that they can mould into their foot soldiers, the ones who start at the bottom of the ladder taking all the risks. They want youngsters who they can get to be runners for them or to do other work that does not put them in the police’s firing line. They start off by giving them a few quid and then that’s it, they are in the crew biking some wraps of heroin or coke to some address up the road for the older lads. They could see that in a few years they would be able to command their own lads to do the work they were doing and they would be the ones with the wads of cash and the respect.’
The early 1990s saw very young gangs running amok. One group from the St Ann’s estate was dubbed the Brat Pack and became infamous around the city, clocking up crimes and arrests like they had been born for it. The gang was fourteen-strong, ranged in age between twelve and sixteen, and was of mixed race. Between them, they were arrested more than 250 times. One fifteen-year-old leader managed to amass 500 convictions but was still out on the streets ready to ‘twoc’ (take without consent) his next car. These youngsters had a great deal in common: they had all come from single-parent backgrounds, they all lacked stable male role models in their families, and they all believed that it was their right to take from others what they did not have.
After the demolition of many of the terraced houses in St Ann’s and the redevelopment of the area, the city council began to allocate a large number of vacant properties to single-parent families. These parents, almost always mothers, were often living on benefits of around £75 a week and trying to bring up two or more children. It didn’t take a mathematician to work out that if the mothers couldn’t get the youngsters what they wanted, they would end up, through their own devices, getting it themselves. The Brat Pack was symptomatic of this problem. Members went around the estate taking what they wanted. They craved the best training shoes and the best clothes and saw nothing wrong in stealing. ‘It’s called taxing,’ said one. And it was; just as it had been depicted in the tales of Robin Hood. It was the taking from the haves by the have-nots, and morality did not come into it. The generation of children brought up through the Thatcher years were infected by the materialism of the age; at the same time as the community spirit was dying, the age of the individual was born. These children had quickly worked out that there was no room for any social responsibility towards anyone else: it was dog eat dog and only the strongest survived. More than that, having no conception at all of social discipline, they had within themselves a perverted sense of being society’s victims and so, they thought, were justified in doing whatever they liked. The gang would carry out the most audacious crimes, always carrying the business card of their solicitor and demanding the right to silence if they were caught. When they were arrested they were simply recycled back into the same world by the courts on supervision orders and went back to doing what they did best: breaking into houses.
On one weekend in May 1992, four of the Brat Pack, the youngest twelve and the eldest fifteen, set out to rob an old people’s home. They planned the job like veterans, cutting the telephone wires to Mellors Court to prevent anyone calling the police, then storming into the building armed with a sword and a plank with nails in it. As staff tried to close the door between them and the elderly residents, the group battered their way through and robbed the terrified staff and OAPs. They rifled residents’ handbags and a one-armed fruit machine and made off with a video recorder and television.
In the early hours of 30 November 1997, Shane Thompson, a nineteen-year-old who belonged to a gang from Radford and St Ann’s, was beaten to death outside a pub. The attack was sparked by a seemingly innocuous event. Some lads from the Meadows had been in the car park of the Tennyson Centre on Forest Road, where a dance had been taking place. A small number of St Ann’s and Radford youths saw one of the Meadows crew spit on their car. This was disrespect and, as far as they were concerned, someone would have to pay. After scouting for the Meadows Posse, the St Ann’s and Radford crew spotted them outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken takeaway on Alfreton Road. Wearing masks and carrying baseball bats, Thompson and his crew ran at the Meadows youths and struck an eighteen-year-old on the head. He produced a handgun and fired three shots into the air. The gun was only firing blanks but it caused terror among Thompson’s friends and they fled up Alfreton Road. A chase ensued, with around fifteen youths from the Meadows, some now with planks of wood and chains, targeting Thompson and three other youths. Thompson was cornered near a pub, the Two In The Bush. He was struck and careered into a telephone box, startling its occupant, but struggled on before he was felled by several blows. The group then launched into a sickening orgy of kicks and blows with a baseball bat and other implements. Thompson, on his own, could only cry out, ‘Stop it, stop it, you’re going to kill me.’ The youths eventually ran off and left him semi-conscious on the ground, where he was nursed by the pub manager, who had come out to investigate the commotion. He rang an ambulance, which arrived at about 2.20am. Shane was able to say a few words to ambulance staff but his condition deteriorated soon after he was taken for an x-ray. He died at the Queens Medical Centre eighteen hours later.
There were many witnesses to the attack and a large number of youths from both groups were arrested in the immediate aftermath. Predictably, some witnesses began to pull out from making statements after receiving threatening phone calls. Nevertheless, in October 1998, six of the Meadows crew and one of the St Ann’s Posse eventually faced a jury. It was a messy trial. It was clear not all the offenders were in the dock and at least one of the Meadows Posse had fled to Jamaica with the help of his influential gangster father. Even though the prosecution had the help of one of the Meadows gang, who was willing to give evidence about who delivered the fatal blows, the trial descended into chaos when he could not identify five of the six charged with murder and violent disorder. On 5 November, trial judge Mr Justice Poole directed that all seven defendants should be cleared.
With some degree of optimism, Mr Justice Poole wasted no time in telling the courtroom that the case should mark the end of the gang violence between the NG Triangle groups: ‘The decent people of St Ann’s, Radford, the Meadows and adjacent areas are long overdue a rest from the friction between these factions. It brings nothing but misery and unhappiness to all concerned and now would be as good a time as any for calm and common sense to prevail,’ he said. The communities involved did try to solve some of the deep-seated problems surrounding the gangs, but those who mourned another victim of the violence knew that justice had let them down once again. The Concerned Citizens Group, as they called themselves, set up a conference at Nottingham’s Albert Hall in an attempt to end the postcode division at the heart of the troubles and try to bring the communities together following Shane Thompson’s death. Hundreds of people attended the black youth summit in February 1999. But it didn’t stop the violence. It couldn’t. Graffiti started to appear on street signs in St Ann’s: ‘St Ann’s r pussies. 2-0’. This referred not to some innocuous football game but to the deaths of Lloyd Robinson and Shane Thompson, and was taunting of the cruellest kind. The prevailing view among many young people was that justice was nothing to do with the system any more; justice was what you meted out in your own way. If the courts could not punish people for wrongdoing then they would take matters into their own hands.
In the intervening period, a youth called Levi Walker, whose uncle Barrington Walker had been murdered in a machete attack outside the Marcus Garvey Centre in April 1996, was himself attacked by a gang wielding knives and a machete. They burst in as he slept at his girlfriend’s house in Radford on 21 January 1998. Walker was a regular visitor to Nottingham and claimed that he had been mistakenly identified as one of the killers of Shane Thompson. His attackers had shouted, ‘You killed our brethren Shane and you must die.’ Walker suffered multiple injuries and went into cardiac arrest. He was in a coma for three months. He later recovered enough to carry on his own violent criminal ventures. As part of the Raiders gang from the West Midlands, he would be jailed for life in 2006 for the murder of twenty-year-old Iraq war hero Narel Sharpe in Smethwick, Birmingham. Sharpe was shot dead by Walker as he strolled home after a night out, simply because Walker, who went by the street name ‘Creeper’, fancied the gold chain the soldier was wearing. Walker was also one of the gunmen who pumped five bullets, execution-style, into rival drug dealer and former Spurs youth footballer Kevin Nunes in 2002.
In March 2000, one of those cleared of involvement in Shane Thompson’s death was severely beaten up: Patrick Wilde suffered a fractured skull when he was set upon by a gang as he walked up Cinderhill Road, Bulwell. Another of those acquitted was soon back in court facing a charge of attempted robbery and malicious wounding after a machete-wielding incident inside a shop on the Meadows estate, while Nicholas Fogo, the St Ann’s gang member, later featured in a number of significant city crimes and was convicted and jailed for life with Ashley Graham for the 2001 murder of thirty-two-year-old Roy Henry. Roy Henry was stabbed through the heart as he tried to prevent a friend being robbed outside the Simply Delicious Café on Radford Road, just a few hundred yards from the police station. The police only turned up after four 999 calls had been made. And Makan Dayil, who had also been cleared in connection with the Thompson killing, went on to become a significant drugs dealer on the Meadows estate. In 2007 he was caught in his girlfriend’s Fiat Punto with a loaded revolver and five bullets during a police stop and search on Queens Drive. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.
In the aftermath of Shane Thompson’s death, firearms became a common tool among the gangs of the NG Triangle.