Hoods: The Gangs of Nottingham, A Study in Organised Crime (2012)
ommy Lau is philosophical, considering he knows he will never walk again. His life was wrecked one November evening in 2001 as a friend helped him out with some Spanish translation. Tommy was at a house in the quiet hamlet of East Stoke, near Newark, and was on the phone to his wife of just eight weeks, who was preparing to make her way over to England from South America. Halfway through their conversation, he heard the sharp crack of glass shattering and felt a sensation like a burning poker in his back. As he turned to look over his shoulder, he could see small wisps of smoke, as if his back was on fire. Guy Fawkes Night had been just a few days earlier, and he thought he had been hit by a firework.
‘It was all a dream in slow motion,’ Tommy recalled. ‘When I fell to the ground I could see my friends coming up to me and saying stuff but I didn’t know what was going on. At first I thought someone had thrown a firework through the window, especially when I saw the smoke coming out of my back. But then it dawned on me what it was and I was apparently screaming, though I don’t remember too much of that. The gunman had fired through the living room window. I don’t know whether he was aiming for me thinking I was Laurie, or whether the bullet ricocheted.’ As he writhed in pain he found that he couldn’t feel various parts of his body and finally realised he had been shot. He was paralysed from the waist down from that moment on.
Tommy had nothing to do with gangs, drug dealing or crime; he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was just twenty-three when he became a mistaken assassination target, at 5.20pm on 8 November. He was nearing the end of a degree course in fashion at Nottingham Trent University and had a new wife he was head over heels in love with. Police, who ruled out Tommy as the target early in their investigation, had some obvious leads straight away. The woman in whose home he had been shot was a mistress of a local drug baron. She was having an affair with a young man, who I shall call Laurie, who according to police was the intended target. There was clearly a motive if one accepts that the drug baron, at that time on remand in Strangeways Prison in Manchester awaiting trial for cigarette smuggling and a heroin conspiracy, had sent the gunman, and from the outset the police certainly felt that he was their prime suspect. However, as time has moved on the less likely it seems to most of those who know anything about the case that he had anything to do with it.
Laurie had done a lot of work for the Gunn brothers at one time and it is possible that Colin may have become upset about something he had done or owed them. The gunman, who made his getaway on a motor cross bike, has never been caught and the people who hired him have never been identified. That, more than anything else, occupies Tommy’s thoughts every day. He mulls it all over in his mind, trying to make connections, trying to make some sense of why he ended up in a wheelchair. The police say they are still working diligently to identify the shooter, but as each year passes it looks increasingly unlikely that Tommy will get closure. In all probability he will never get to see anyone in the dock for the shooting, though he remains optimistic that someone will tell him what it was all about. There has been very little information from the public to give a clue to the mystery and Tommy’s case, which followed an explosion of gun crime in the city, has been left on a shelf gathering dust. It is often the way that if a case has not been solved relatively quickly any leads start to peter out into nothing.
Tommy feels let down by the police – and with good reason. He has had to badger them on a regular basis just to try and put out an appeal about the case. It was left to him to organise an appeal on BBC’s Crimewatch programme in 2005 and even then the programme almost disguised where the shooting had taken place, such was Nottinghamshire Police’s paranoia about encouraging another gun crime tag to the city’s reputation. ‘I have been told lots of different names for the gunman but the trail just goes cold every time I follow it,’ he said. ‘There were rumours that the Bestwood lot might have had something to do with it, but no one seems to want to know. I just want to know why it happened and who was behind it, that’s all, and the police really have done nothing to help in that respect. I know they are under pressure but if they can’t help somebody like me, what is the point in them being there?’ Tommy is getting on with his life as best he can. He had to give up his college course after spending six months in a hospital bed, and cannot work, but he goes to the gym regularly for weight-training and to burn off the steam that builds up from the frustration of being in this situation. He does still try to live life to the full. He just wishes he could put the nightmares to bed.
It is hard to believe today that in 1990 Nottingham was voted the most desirable place in the UK to live after a Gallup poll carried out for Moneywise magazine. That same year, the Independent dispatched writer William Leith to find out about the city. The comments prove interesting when read with the passage of time. Leith asked a number of new residents what they liked most. ‘It is a great place to live,’ said Phil, a well-dressed engineer. ‘You want for nothing, things are not expensive, there’s plenty of work and it is a nice size too – quite big, but not too big.’ Helen, a young housewife recently moved from London, was bowled over too: ‘There’s no need to worry about bringing up children here. It’s so much safer.’ Leith himself wrote, ‘The nightclubs are friendly and fight-free because each one has a rigorous door policy – you can only go in if you are dressed exactly like everyone else in the nightclub. At 2am, punters from Rock City (short hair, flares) stand chatting in a group, ignoring the heavy metal tribe streaming out of New York, New York (long hair, drain-pipes). Policemen wander about grinning. It doesn’t seem quite real.’
It seemed a very different place nearly two decades later. I have lived in Nottingham since 1995 and no matter what the crime figures say, there has been a palpable change in the atmosphere of the city. In the darkness of night it has become colder, more cynical and more unfriendly in the city centre. There is a brooding, menacing air outside bars late on a Friday night, where once there was just exuberance. You certainly don’t see many policemen wandering about grinning anymore. New ‘community support officers’ are now stationed in the centre, ostensibly to make people feel safer, but as the public and criminals alike are well aware, they have no powers of arrest. The Home Office has effectively placed these volunteers in potentially hazardous situations without the powers or authority of regular police officers, but had the audacity to place them in police style uniforms.
In 1990, the city was still seen as a quaint yet vibrant capital of middle England. If there were three legends outsiders connected to Nottingham they were Robin Hood, Brian Clough and three women to every man. Only one of the legends was true. Now the city has a fourth legend which has almost strangled it: crime. The city has been desperately trying to shrug off the label of crime capital of the UK, or more often than not, Shottingham – gun crime capital of the UK – since 2002. It is very difficult to get away from the label. The impact that the gun crime tag has had on the city’s image cannot be overstated. It has affected all walks of life, from employers struggling to get credible candidates to job interviews to the two universities: in 2002 alone, Nottingham and Trent suffered a fourteen per cent drop in applications from students. At the height of what became the troubles, in 2002-03, investors stayed away, tourists stayed away, revellers stayed away, even a crown green bowls team which had toured from Kent to Nottingham every year for more than a decade stayed away, fearing it might be caught in the firing line.
A few week earlier, the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia made a reference to the city’s crime problems at a function which landed on the front page of The Times newspaper. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles told an audience of several hundred people in the eastern Saudi city of Al-Khobar an anecdote about a British expatriate worker visiting Nottingham. ‘The businessman was saying he felt completely ridiculous having to give British businessmen from Nottingham assurances about the security here in Saudi Arabia when Nottingham is the murder capital of the UK at the moment,’ he said. ‘It is far more dangerous, statistically, to be in Nottingham than to be in Al-Khobar, Dammam or Riyadh.’
The first indications of a massively negative media portrayal of Nottingham came in 2002 when the headline writers in London began their assault on the city, although the headline which probably did the most harm was ‘Assassination City’. That came from the Daily Star in 2004, but well before then the writing was on the wall – not least because of the high-profile murders of jewellery shop owner and grandmother Marian Bates and schoolgirl Danielle Beccan (see Chapters Eight and Eleven). But it was 2002 when things really got out of control. In that year alone there were more shootings than the previous seven years put together – and many of them were connected to the Bestwood Cartel.
When the number of shootings first began to rise dramatically in late 1999, Nottinghamshire Police unveiled their response: Operation Real Estate. It began in earnest in February 2000, after a spate of gang-related shootings in St Ann’s and the Meadows, and led to armed officers routinely patrolling the streets of a UK mainland city for the first time. This, in turn, led to a national debate about whether the police should be routinely armed. The then Assistant Chief Constable, Sean Price, who was in charge of the operation, was keen to play down any conclusions that the police’s response was an exaggerated one: ‘There is nothing exceptional in what we are doing,’ he said. ‘This is not a Genghis Khan approach. We’re only doing what the police have always done: deploying the level of force appropriate to the threat. With the shootings that took place in February I knew at the time this was the thin end of the wedge. If we hadn’t got a grip quickly, it would have got out of control.’ He admitted that the violence involving the gangs in the NG Triangle had prompted the move. ‘It’s fair to say that it was the escalation of that rivalry that led to Operation Real Estate. We had a situation where, because of disputes between these rival groups of criminals, shootings were happening. In that one week in February we had five incidents alone. We had to protect the public.’
For two years, six armed officers carrying Walther P990 pistols on their hips worked in pairs between dusk and midnight around the St Ann’s and Meadows estates. The patrols had a major impact during their first year. In the first six months, six shootings were recorded on the estates, compared with six in a fortnight just before Real Estate was launched. Police also made some 150 arrests connected to the gang violence and recovered fifteen firearms in the first year. But some community leaders felt the use of armed officers stigmatised their areas and encouraged the gangs to go underground. ‘We are being used as a laboratory for a bigger experiment,’ said Delroy Brown, community leader of the Afro-Caribbean National Artistic Centre in St Ann’s. ‘This marks the paramilitarisation of the police.’
By November 2001, Operation Real Estate had made 400 arrests and thwarted a number of assassination attempts. More than 100 firearms had been recovered and forty-seven Jamaican nationals were among those arrested for attempted murder, firearms and drug offences. Of those, the Jamaican authorities wanted to speak to forty-one in connection with serious criminal offences. Nevertheless, gun crime overall continued to escalate. In 2001, police in Nottinghamshire dealt with 685 firearms incidents; back in 1990, the year it was voted the most desirable city in the UK to live in, the figure had been just 282. By the beginning of 2002, police had decided a new approach was needed and in July 2002 set up a project which would be intelligence-led and tackle gun crime across the city. Operation Stealth would be more proactive than Real Estate. Its remit was to stamp out the black-on-black shootings by arresting offenders with firearms before they committed serious offences. But before the Stealth team had got stuck into their task, there was another brutal shooting.
At about 7pm on 19 February 2002, a young black teenager, Brendon Lawrence, was waiting in a friend’s Ford Fiesta XR2 near his home in Watkins Street on the St Ann’s estate. It had been pouring with rain and Brendon had accepted the offer of a lift from his friend, who had nipped inside a house on Watkins Street. Minutes later, a man in a dark blue, hooded Donnay top, wearing Nike Bohemian trainers, approached the car, pulled out a gun and told Brendon to get out. Then he shot him twice in the leg, pulled him out of the car and shot him again in the chest. The sixteen-year-old died on the street.
His mother, Janice Collins, would become a tireless campaigner for Mothers Against Guns, a group set up to try to stamp out gun crime. ‘We buried him in black jeans and a black polo-neck he had just bought from Next that week,’ she later told reporters. ‘His friends were pallbearers, and they looked so young, so little. They were only kids. When Brendon died they kept him eight weeks in the mortuary. I couldn’t bear to think of him so cold like that. I hated it that we couldn’t bury him. Every week, Calvin, his twin brother, would take me down there to see him, and they would pull him out, cold, so I could see him, see he was all right. No mother should have to go through that. Someone must know something.’
Brendon was not known to be involved in criminality but intelligence came through to the police that half a kilo of cocaine had been stashed under one of the car seats, which indicated a robbery motive, as the drugs were missing. The killers, who clearly had information that there was a substantial amount of drugs in the car, had driven off in the Ford Fiesta XR2 which was later found burnt out in Westville Gardens, St Ann’s. Some DNA was extracted from the partially burnt wreckage but little headway was made by the police in terms of getting witnesses to come forward. And so it dragged on year after year, despite there being a £20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction. Every February, Brendon’s distraught parents, Janice Collins and Roy Lawrence, have made an annual appeal for information which they hope will lead to the identification of the killer. In the years that passed since Brendon’s death, police arrested more than twenty suspects but without a breakthrough. In January 2009, two defendants went on trial for his murder and a third for assisting an offender. The jury acquitted one defendant of murder but failed to reach a verdict on the other two. A retrial was rescheduled.
A list of some of the incidents police were called out to in July 2002 showed how indiscriminate the use of firearms was becoming:
July 1: Ten-year-old Lorrell Akim Warner is shot and wounded at his grandmother’s home in Wilford Crescent West, the Meadows. A seventeen-year-old youth was later arrested.
July 5: A would-be robber walks into a newsagent in Old Basford, asks for cigarettes and then fires a shot from a handgun, narrowly missing the fifty-seven-year-old store owner behind the counter.
July 9: A taxi driver who picks up two men outside the Commodore pub in Nuthall Road at 6.20am is robbed with a handgun to his head and is forced to drive the men to Brockhurst Gardens, St Ann’s. The taxi driver later tells the local paper, ‘I served in the Gulf War but left the Army for a quieter life. It’s not really turned out how I imagined.’
July 16: A two-year-old boy is shot in the right arm with an airgun pellet as he plays in Cotmanhay Park, off Beauvale Drive, Cotmanhay, at 6pm. Surgeons remove the pellet.
July 17: Two robbers enter an unlocked house in Noel Street, Forest Fields, and hold a thirty-seven-year-old woman and her young children at gunpoint in their own living room.
July 18: A seventeen-year-old boy is shot in the leg in Fenton Road, Old Basford, as he and two friends drive down the road. A gun is pulled out among a group of youths as the car passes and three shots are fired.
July 22: Thirty-six-year-old Mohammed Yousaf Hussain is shot in the chest by a masked gunman in Berridge Road, Forest Fields.
July 22: An armed robber shoves a handgun into the faces of two staff in a raid on the Mansfield Road Spa in Sherwood at 12.20am. Witnesses then report hearing a gunshot as the raider runs from the store with the takings.
July 26: A thirty-three-year-old man is shot and wounded outside the Drum nightclub, off Ilkeston Road, Lenton.
July 26: Courtney Graham, twenty-three, is shot in the groin and stomach as he cycles along Alfreton Road, Radford, after becoming involved in an argument with the occupants of a passing white saloon car.
July 27: A man is seen brandishing a handgun and a shot is reported to have been fired in George Street, Hockley, in the city centre.
July 29: A young couple in Long Eaton are attacked by three men wielding a gun and a knife after they spot them acting suspiciously. The man, a twenty-three-year-old sales manager, has a gun pressed to his forehead and his teeth smashed in with the butt of the pistol. He is told, ‘That’s what you get for interfering.’
July 30: A wounded, twenty-year-old man is dumped in Wolsey Avenue, Radford, from a white van. Police say he has been shot in the thigh with a handgun. The van is soon found burned out in Johnstone’s Paints car park in St Ann’s.
July 31: Three masked robbers, one brandishing a gun, beat a Securicor guard to the floor and steal two cash boxes outside a Barclays Bank in Old Basford at midday.
Analysis by Operation Stealth in the central city area revealed the following: around seventy-three per cent of the shooters were black and British-born; educationally they were almost always underachievers, living in areas where there were limited employment opportunities; the majority were from single-parent families; their family, or brethren, were the gangs to which they belonged; they were territorially protective and their role models were drawn from gangsta rap, with lots of ‘bling’ or jewellery, designer labels on clothes, cash in pocket, firearm in one hand, doll on the other. Their career paths were firmly rooted in criminality and particularly drug dealing, progressing from street runner at the age of twelve, eleven or sometimes younger. Their job would be to deliver small amounts of drugs, sometimes on a pushbike, sometimes on foot between people or addresses. For this they would be given a few pounds, or perhaps a rock of crack or wrap of heroin to sell themselves. By the time they were thirteen or fourteen they might be babysitting a firearm for one of the brethren or a larger amount of drugs at their home, and by the time they arrived in their late teens they might be street dealing themselves or have a pack of runners working for them, just as they had done themselves.
Other black-on-black shootings demonstrated the cheapness with which life was perceived by those living in the ghetto. Two resulted in murders and both had the fingerprints of Yardie gunmen on them, though both failed to result in convictions. On 9 November 2002, thirty-three-year-old Theresa Jacobs, a female crack cocaine dealer, was shot in the back of the head outside the Drum nightclub, off Ilkeston Road. Jamaican national Aston Bola faced trial over her murder but the case collapsed when the CPS offered no evidence, though Bola was deported. Almost a year later, at 1pm on 7 November 2003, twenty-four-year-old father-of-two Omar Watson walked into his local barber shop to have his hair cut, but almost as soon as he sat in his chair a gunman walked in and shot him dead. It was believed his killers had lookouts who had phoned to say he was on his way to the hairdressers shortly before the murder. Two Jamaicans were subsequently cleared of his murder.
ON A COLD February morning, a young man waits in a telephone box on St Matthias Road on the St Ann’s estate to hear from his dealer. It is a phone box well used for the purpose. The man, though, is disturbed by a youth banging on the glass partition. He is saying something. Gradually the man can make out his words.
‘Hey mate, mate. What do you want, rock or brown? I can do you anything,’ the youth says, nodding knowingly.
The man has not seen the youth before and is intrigued enough to abandon the wait for his dealer’s call. He steps out of the kiosk to talk to the thirteen-year-old. Soon he learns what he can buy from the youngster: heroin, crack cocaine, weed. The teenager gives his street name, pointing to an emblem sewn into his jacket: ‘Yeah that’s me, just ask for ABC.’ He gives the man a mobile phone number to call and within a few days a drug deal is arranged.
The next time the man sees the youth is to arrest him: he is an undercover police officer. When the youth is searched he has almost £1,000 of drugs on him, including ninety-four wraps of heroin, and crack cocaine. ABC’s tale is a familiar one. He has been smoking cannabis from the age of twelve, buying it on his way home from school as he walked through the St Ann’s estate. Pretty soon he started buying it on tick or credit. He built up a debt he could not pay off and the dealers began to threaten him. Then they told him he could settle it by selling some of their drugs. Within a few months, he was pushing crack and heroin. The courts do a deal with ABC: he is given an anti-social behaviour order which bans him from the St Ann’s area. But for every ABC there are now thousands of others doing the same on the built-up estates of the UK’s cities.
OPERATION STEALTH PROVED to be hugely successful in its first two years, particularly given its limited resources. It was set up in much the same way that the better-known Operation Trident had been set up by the Metropolitan Police four years earlier to tackle black-on-black gun crime. Nottinghamshire officers had a good working understanding of Trident because by the early part of the millennium they were getting regular visits from the Trident team, looking at drugs networks that had connections with Nottingham and safe houses in the city. Stealth had a team of just thirty officers compared with around 300 at Trident, yet between July 2002 and October 2004 the Stealth team seized 306 firearms compared to 333 by Trident, and 6,100 rounds of ammunition compared to 1,200 by Trident. The Stealth team also secured 263 convictions over a two-year period compared with fewer than 200 by Trident. While the success rates were something to be proud of, the intelligence coming through was worrying. There seemed to be easy access to firearms, particularly replicas which could be bought across the counter. These replicas could, with a bit of engineering know-how, easily be converted to fire live ammunition. The team was also discovering that these firearms were going into the hands of younger and younger offenders – they were becoming fashion accessories for wannabe gangstas as young as thirteen. The Stealth team could have been helped further if the Government had been braver with new legislation. A minimum five-year prison sentence for possession of a firearm was brought in during January 2003. It would do little to curb the youngsters’ taste for firearms, even after some of those close to the victims saw the impact that guns were having on lives. A minimum ten-year sentence would have been a far better deterrent, in the eyes of many police officers.
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2003, one of Colin Gunn’s enforcers was involved in a reckless shooting incident which almost claimed three people’s lives. He turned up at a party being held at a house in Jedburgh Walk, St Ann’s, and within a short space of time had been ‘dissed’ by some of the partygoers, who took the mickey out of him over something. The man was known to have a short fuse but no one could have predicted what he did next. He pulled out a handgun and fired five times at a number of the party guests, leaving two writhing on the floor with injuries to their legs and groin. The man fled.
Nine days later, Darren Hayden, aged thirty-eight, was picked up by officers from Operation Stealth as he drove down Vernon Road, Highbury Vale, Basford, at 1pm on 10 January in his red Ford Mondeo. Hayden, who lived near the Gunns’ mother on Raymede Drive, had convictions for armed robbery and burglary and had recently returned from Tenerife. Police searched his car and found a two-ounce bag of crack cocaine and one ounce of heroin worth £4,000, along with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun and ammunition. Hayden was charged with three counts of attempted murder at the party – a third person had been shot at but not hit – along with possession of a firearm, ammunition and controlled Class A drugs.
But as police attempted to get witness statements from those shot at the party, the message came back: ‘No one wants to talk about it anymore. We just want to get on with our lives.’ By June 2003, the CPS had dropped the attempted murder charges against Hayden. He then changed his plea to guilty on the firearms and drugs offences and was jailed for seven years in October 2003. An aggrieved Kate Carty, Chief Crown Prosecutor in Nottinghamshire, said, ‘The CPS decided that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with the three counts of attempted murder. The matter then progressed as far as it could in the Crown Court until notification was received that key prosecution witnesses had changed their minds about giving evidence in court. Disappointingly, other witnesses gave further statements that were at odds with previously stated positions. We reviewed the case and concluded that its success was dependent on the willingness of witnesses to attend court. In these circumstances it was agreed that no further progress could be made on the three counts of attempted murder. We believe that, unless victims and witnesses are prepared to report crimes and give evidence confidently and effectively in court, the public cannot be properly protected.’
Despite this disappointment, in June 2004 the Operation Stealth team was celebrating success when nine St Ann’s gang-bangers were taken off the streets for life after killing a man in Sheffield. The victim was another tragic case of mistaken identity. Some of the gang were in Sheffield’s Meadowhall Shopping Centre when they were ambushed outside a takeaway and robbed of their mobile phones. On 18 December 2002, the gang returned for revenge in a convoy of four cars. They pulled up outside an Afro-Caribbean Club in the Steel City’s Pitsmoor area, believing that the people who had robbed them earlier were there, and fired two shots from the lead car. An innocent bystander, Gerald Smith, aged forty-two, was fatally wounded in the head and leg.
Ezra Taylor, twenty-six, of Collison Street, Radford; Craig Brooks, twenty-six, of Lorne Walk, St Ann’s; Roger Gordon, twenty-eight, of Hungerhill Road, St Ann’s; Gareth Lindsey, twenty, of Perlethorpe Drive, Carlton; Richard Powell, twenty-six, of Amesbury Circus, Cinderhill; Leon Bryan, twenty, of Limmer Gardens, St Ann’s; Gordon McPherson, twenty-six, of Curzon Gardens, St Ann’s; Dean Pinnock, twenty, of Melville Gardens, St Ann’s; and Christopher McKenzie, twenty, of Melville Gardens, St Ann’s, all received life sentences at Sheffield Crown Court in July 2004. It was the first time a group had been convicted of murder where no one except the killers knew who had fired the fatal shots. They were all, said trial judge Mr Justice Wakerley, as culpable as whoever pulled the trigger. ‘This conviction gets right to the heart of all the violent drug and gun crime in St Ann’s,’ said Superintendent Nick Holmes, deputy commander of Nottinghamshire Police City Division. ‘It smashes its infrastructure. The gang caused misery to all the people of Nottingham and have been well known to us for years. We have put a massive effort into tackling drug and gun crime in St Ann’s and all over the city and are starting to see the results.’
The level of urban terrorism being visited upon the community was becoming shocking, and while Stealth concentrated on the black-on-black gun crime in the city centre, another touch paper was about to be lit. All eyes would soon be turning to the north of the city, where a ferocious white gang held sway.