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


he Bestwood cartel now exercised control over a number of pubs in the Bestwood and Bulwell area, extorting protection money and laundering cash through its books. Colin and David Gunn were now masters at creating fear to suit their ends. Both played football for their favourite pub, the Scots Grey, and during one Sunday league match in March 2003, at Bulwell Hall Farm, the visiting team received a reminder of the Gunn brothers’ intimidation skills. The Jolly Farmers football team walked into their dressing room ahead of the match to find a severed pig’s head in a plastic bag with a message scrawled in blood: ‘Welcome to Hell.’ Someone had acquired it from a local butcher. The opposition team lost their spark, suffering a 3-2 defeat after extra time. Jolly Farmers team secretary Geoff Best was urged to make an official complaint to the FA but was less than enthusiastic. ‘We have got nothing to say,’ was his only comment after the match.

The Scots Grey pub had been frequently used by the Gunn brothers. Any trouble which flared up on the premises was rarely dealt with by the police. In February 1999, a thirty-five-year-old man was stabbed several times outside the pub in a Friday night fracas. When police went to see him, he told them from his hospital bed that he had no idea who his attacker was and he did not want them to take it any further. He was, as he pointed out, already in poor shape and talking would be bad for his health.

The rundown pubs they operated, which would otherwise have been boarded up and shut down, were given at least some lease of life with the Bestwood Cartel behind them. The Cartel was also branching out. Colin had renewed his association with a family-run gang in north Nottinghamshire who were equally brutal in their methods, and with Jonathan Quinn, another Nottingham criminal from the Bilborough area, who had branched out significantly from cigarette and cannabis smuggling into Class A drugs importation and firearms to service the north of England.

John and Rob Dawes were the generals of the Dawes Cartel, based in the Mansfield and Sutton-in-Ashfield areas of Nottinghamshire. By 2001, they had come under investigation by law enforcement agencies, who were surprised by the magnitude of their operation. They ran a multi-million-pound drugs empire from a small house in Tudor Street, Sutton-in-Ashfield. Their modus operandi was almost a blueprint of the Bestwood Cartel, with whom they enjoyed extensive links, not least through John Dawes, who had worked with Colin Gunn some years earlier. The Dawes Cartel would recruit young street dealers, who usually had addictions of their own, to act as runners for them and enforce their rule of law. Their number one rule was that fear brought great loyalty: if you could grab them by the balls, their hearts and minds would follow.

Like his pal Colin Gunn, John Dawes eschewed life within the legitimate working world and preferred the black economy where no taxes were paid, other than to those higher up the drugs business ladder who could ‘tax’ you. From 1991 until his arrest in 2005, there is no evidence that John Dawes did a single day’s legitimate work. He lived almost exclusively, according to his own accounts, as a jobless man claiming benefits. His hot-headed brother Rob, who had a penchant for ordering the shootings of anyone who displeased him, was operating from Spain from 2002 onwards, organising shipments of cannabis resin and cocaine, while the rest of the gang organised wholesale deliveries of amphetamines and heroin, mainly from Liverpool and Runcorn. Until 2001, they operated almost undetected by any meaningful probe by law enforcement.

Police in Nottinghamshire launched Operation Normality in 2001 with the help of the National Crime Squad and customs investigators. By 2003, it would receive additional resources with the sanctioning of Operation Starburst by law enforcement agencies in London. It found that the Dawes Cartel was made up of three generals: John and Rob Dawes and Gary Hardy, another Mansfield man whose father had been the high up the command chain of a Midlands Hell’s Angels chapter. These three leaders would take a three-way split on each shipment, with Rob organising the smuggling of cocaine and cannabis from Spain and John organising its distribution across the Midlands, as well as the wholesale importation of amphetamines from Holland and heroin from within Britain. In addition, the Dawes Cartel was operating with Anthony Handley and Keith Harrison over cannabis shipments into the UK; these were handled by John and Rob’s father, Arthur. By 2001, this close-knit group was importing so many drugs into Nottinghamshire that they had a backlog, so they began to bury large amounts underground in coded locations in woodland in Sutton-in-Ashfield, at Sutton Lawn, Mapplewells Recreation Park and in woodland near Pleasley. Police would eventually find £500,000 buried in woodland hides near Sutton Parkway train station, together with a sawn-off shotgun and ammunition. Other burial grounds for the drugs remain hidden to this day.

On 1 June 2001, investigators made their first major inroad into the gang. Officers lay in wait as two Dawes Cartel lieutenants drove to Colwick industrial estate, on the outskirts of Nottingham. Police were staggered by the scale of drug-running they discovered. Inside the industrial unit was around 100 kilos of amphetamine, six kilos of cannabis resin and eleven kilos of paracetamol cutting agents – enough to make thirty kilos of heroin ready for sale on the street. Jonathan Guest, Ian Butler and Martin Smith were all taken out by police within a few days. All were linked to the production unit at Colwick, which was used to cut cocaine, heroin and amphetamines as well as manufacture ecstasy pills and store cannabis.

John Dawes decided it was time for a holiday. A break on the Costa del Crime would enable him to rethink strategies as well as link up with his brother Rob, who spent regular breaks in Spain and was laundering their money in two bars and a restaurant supply business near Fuengirola. He would be able to decide whether new recruits were needed and whether to put a scare into those arrested. Fear was needed to ensure that those who had been lifted by the police did not lead to his door. John and Rob Dawes flew out to Malaga with some haste in June 2001. John rented a villa for nine months, hoping the police interest would eventually dissipate. He flew back to the UK in September 2001 to test the water. Police just kept watching, knowing that if they bided their time more would be revealed. They had taken out a middle tier of the Dawes pyramid and the gang’s generals were running scared. Now John Dawes was relying on a twenty-three-year-old to be one of his lieutenants. Ryan Smith would take on the role. On the legal front, the arrested Guest, Butler and Martin Smith were all beyond help, thought John Dawes. He just hoped the fear that he and Rob instilled in them would be enough to prevent them grassing for favourable sentences.

When their case eventually reached Nottingham Crown Court, in January 2002, Guest admitted conspiracy to supply amphetamines and cannabis and possessing £150,000 of heroin, and was imprisoned for fourteen years. Butler, who admitted possession of heroin with intent to supply, received eight years. Smith, whose fingerprints were all over the Colwick industrial unit and who was caught with a carrier bag stained with heroin and with £22,000 hidden in his pantry, received a four years.

At the same time as National Crime Squad officers were tackling this lower end of the Dawes Cartel, they had come across links with another gang smuggling large amounts of cannabis from Holland and Belgium via the North Sea. Keith ‘Red’ Harrison and Anthony ‘Nottingham Tone’ Handley, had come to the attention of Dutch police investigating the perplexing murder of a middle-aged schoolteacher. On 24 November 2002, fifty-two-year-old Gerard Meesters answered his front door in a quiet area of Groningen. He was surprised to find five men outside. One handed him a phone number on a torn-off packet of red Rizla cigarette papers. They spoke with English accents and the message was this: ‘You are Gerard Meesters. Your sister Janet [sic] has done something bad, she has stolen something from us. You must ring this number in Spain and tell the man who answers the phone where your sister is. Be aware that if you do not do this we will come back and if we have to come back it will not be for a chat.’

Gerard was shaking with fear. He had never been involved in crime. He knew his sister had gone off the rails but he had no more idea where she was than the hoods who had visited him. Gerard contacted the Dutch Police and told them what had happened. They told him he should take the threat seriously and consider moving out of his home temporarily. Overnight Gerard moved himself, his wife and their two children. Police kept watch on the property for a couple of days, but were not there when, four days later, Gerard decided he needed to use his computer and returned home alone to Uransstraat, a sleepy suburban street. As he opened his front door to leave at 7.22pm on 28 November 2002, he was approached by a man who pulled out a handgun and shot him eight times.

Dutch investigators were baffled by the murder. Here was a man who had no criminal background and who had been living a quiet life. But as their attentions turned towards his sister, Janette, they slowly began to unravel a criminal network which centred on the Dawes Cartel. They placed telephone intercepts on the phones of certain Dutch criminals which soon threw up the names of Nottingham Tony and Red Harrison, as well as Rob and John Dawes. Through a massive total of 20,000 phone calls analysed, ninety-five per cent of which were in basic drugs code, they had stumbled upon another huge syndicate sending drugs from Holland and Belgium to the UK. What they learned from the bugs was that Janette Meesters had become embroiled in the criminal network while living in Spain and had been working as a courier for the Dawes Cartel.

In autumn 2002, Janette and her friend, Madeline Brussen, had been given the job of driving a van from Spain to Holland carrying a large amount of cannabis. The couple were pulled over by Dutch police on suspicion of drink-driving after they were alerted to the erratic behaviour of the van. Inside police discovered more than 350 kilos of cannabis. When Rob Dawes found out about the drug bust, he exploded with rage; it was a shipment intended for Nottingham Tony and was supposed to be around 1.5 tonnes of cannabis. According to evidence later given in court, Dawes made the assumption that the rest of the drugs must have been stolen by the two women. He set about trying to locate them and sent a message to Daniel Sowerby, a forty-seven-year-old heroin addict who had been working for the gang since absconding from open prison in 2000. The message was clear: ‘Put the frighteners on relatives and family of these two and we will smoke them out. If the women don’t do anything, we’ll take it to the next stage.’

Sowerby recruited a man called Steven Barnes as his driver and the two of them started to trace relatives of Meesters and Brussen. First they paid a visit to Meesters’ older brother, Gerard. Sowerby and Barnes returned to Groningen on 28 November. Barnes later said he was not told the reason for the visit to the city, and claimed he thought it was for a drugs run. At around 7.15pm that night, Sowerby, who was living under an assumed name with a false passport in Breda, a city in southern Holland, took a handgun from a bag and left the car, while Barnes waited for him. A few minutes later Sowerby returned and shouted at Barnes, ‘Go go go, let’s get out of here.’

‘What the fuck’s going on?’ Barnes asked.

Sowerby replied: ‘I’ve been told to kill somebody, which I have, and that is all you need to know.’

The duo stopped on the way back to their safe house in Breda and Sowerby dumped the murder weapon. Their victim was Gerard Meesters.

A week later, Madeleine Brussen’s mother, ex-husband and boyfriend received a note telling them to contact the same Spanish phone number given to Gerard Meesters. Along with the note were cuttings from a newspaper which detailed Meesters’ murder. The implications for the family should they not call the phone number were clear. Dutch police set up surveillance on the family’s properties. In the summer of 2003, the relatives received another note warning them to tell them where Madeline was or their lives would be in danger. Police set about forensically testing the material which had been sent in the post. Incredibly Sowerby had failed to check the material he posted to the Brussen family was clean and Barnes, who was known to Dutch police, had left his fingerprint on one of the newspaper clippings.

Investigations revealed that Barnes had since been arrested and was serving a sixteen-month prison term for a fatal road accident in Rotterdam after driving while drunk and high on cocaine. Sowerby had also been locked up for drug offences. Police visited Barnes first and he confessed to driving Sowerby to the scene of the assassination. Barnes said he had initially been sent to Amsterdam by the Dawes Cartel because he had stolen forty-two grams of heroin from them. He was told he would have to pay off his drug debt by doing errands for them in Holland and was ordered to become a runaround for Sowerby. After he ferried Sowerby to the scene of Gerard Meesters’ murder, he fled to Spain, where Rob Dawes had ordered him for a ‘debriefing’. The debriefing session ended with him being severely beaten with an iron bar; he suffered several broken limbs. Barnes was told he would be killed if he ever mentioned the murder.

A Dutch court gave Barnes, described as a ‘victim of a criminal organisation’, an eight-year sentence for his involvement in Meesters’ murder. He had known the Dawes brothers from school and made a number of visits to Amsterdam with Rob Dawes, acting as a drugs tester before being ‘exiled’ to Holland to repay his heroin debts. His lawyer pointed out that once he became a soldier for the gang he could not just leave. His life and the lives of his family would be in grave danger. If he was arrested or tried to flee, the gang would assume he was a risk and could compromise their operation. Sowerby, who was described by the Dutch judge as a ‘very dangerous man’, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He had already spent much of his life behind bars, having previously been serving a life sentence in the UK for the brutal murder of sixty-six-year-old Harold Burdall, who was beaten to death during a burglary in Lincolnshire in December 1977. Sowerby had fled North Sea Camp open prison in 2001 before initially going on the run in France and then Holland, where he was recruited by the Dawes Cartel. Both men refused to give any details of the people they were working for.

‘I have to think of my family and relatives,’ said Sowerby. ‘If I confess the murder, I have no life any more. Then I fear for the lives of my brothers, nephews and nieces. I will never confess.’

Barnes said, ‘What happened to Gerard Meesters is not unusual. These people know how to deliver pain in your life.’

Throughout the investigation, Dutch police were only able to speak to Janette Meesters once, while she was in Spain, before they lost contact. ‘We have no idea where the two women are,’ one investigator said. ‘The trail ended in Spain. We don’t know whether they are alive or dead.’

The spin-off for National Crime Squad investigators in the UK was that, as a result of the Dutch phone taps, they now knew that the Dawes Cartel was a ruthless, calculating gang willing to murder on the same scale as the Bestwood Cartel, and they were dealing in much larger quantities and with wider networks than had previously been thought. The telephone taps had also thrown up a link between large-scale drugs shipments flowing from Spain, Holland and Belgium and the cartels runs by the Dawes family, Keith Harrison and Anthony Handley, and the Bestwood Cartel. All roads were leading back to Nottinghamshire and southern Spain, where Rob Dawes was still holed up near the town of Fuengirola.

OPERATION NORMALITY, THE probe into the Dawes Cartel, was in full swing. After bringing down some of the Dawes lieutenants and realising that the Cartel was bigger than they thought, officers began to take a closer look at the financial transactions of the gang. They found more than £8.5 million going through their hands between November 2002 and June 2003. In addition, members of the gang were logged on more than forty flights coming in and out of Malaga and Amsterdam over a two-and-a-half year period. In the midst of Operation Normality, Nottinghamshire Police had to deal with the murder of David Draycott, shot dead outside his home in Sutton-in-Ashfield in October 2002 over a £30,000 debt to the Bestwood and Dawes gangs. John Dawes was given a police liaison officer on the basis that he might be at risk because people believed he was linked to the murder. Dawes even had the cheek to offer the detective constable a job. In October 2002, he telephoned the officer.

‘When are you due to hang up your truncheon?’ he said. ‘You know we are always on the lookout for lads like yourself – you know, due for retirements. With the kind of stuff you could help us with, you would shoot up the promotional ladder in our organisation.’

As officers listened in to calls between the group, they heard the coded names of mystery figures the Cartel was dealing with: The Fisherman, High Tower, Special Bill and Carlos. As arrests began to take place in 2003, police also managed to turn some of the Cartel’s drug runners, despite the threats of violence which were being levelled against them. Crucially it led to four runners – Richard Carrington, Marc Simpson, Lee Blackmore and Kristian Barsby – giving detailed accounts of how the Cartel operated. Marc Simpson told police how he had been recruited by John Dawes after coming out of prison in January 2002. Two months later, he and a friend agreed to sell heroin for John Dawes. Anything they made above £750 per ounce would be profit. A meeting took place at which Dawes and Gary Hardy were present and outlined the areas where the runners could sell. Dawes told Simpson he would let him sell heroin in Sutton and that another man would handle Kirkby-in-Ashfield. Simpson always took the money to Dawes, usually at his house in Tudor Street but once at a public house. On two occasions he picked up ten kilos of amphetamine and Dawes told him where to drop them, but some of the speed went missing and Dawes exploded with rage. ‘Ten minutes later John Dawes came round and battered me round the head with a cosh, then they got my hands and smashed them,’ said Simpson. ‘I was absolutely terrified, I soiled myself.’ He said Dawes had beaten him senseless with a baseball bat on another two occasions. ‘If you lied to John, he hit you. He was an absolute psychopath.’

Richard Carrington told police how he worked as a courier for Rob Dawes from 2000 until early 2002. Carrington was also involved with John Dawes and saw him operating an electric money-counting machine at his house, putting notes into bundles of £1,000. In 2001, Carrington went to the Colwick unit, used for making ecstasy tablets and cutting cocaine and amphetamine, to pick up some drugs. He told police how he would usually pack the drugs under a spare wheel on John Dawes’s Shogun 4x4. Among the other tasks carried out by Carrington were shipping drugs to Rugby and Manchester and moving money to Holland and Spain for Rob. Carrington would fly from Heathrow, East Midlands and Gatwick airports to Amsterdam and Malaga with wads of cash secreted in shoes or the false lining of suitcases.

Lee Blackmore was released from prison in June 2000 and began selling heroin for himself before John Dawes told him he would have to work for the Cartel ‘or suffer the consequences’. Blackmore told police how Dawes used a myriad of burial sites, safe houses and runners to keep his own fingerprints off the drug shipments. Marc Simpson would collect heroin from Matlock and bring Blackmore seven ounces a week, which he divided into half-gram bags. He paid Simpson. After a while Barsby replaced Simpson and supplied Blackmore. Both Barsby and Blackmore became stressed after a load of heroin went missing and first Barsby went on the run, eventually walking into a police station to confess all, closely followed by Blackmore. Barsby’s role was to take heroin to Blackmore and then divide it into ounces. They were supplying two or three people every day with an ounce of heroin, selling it at £900 a time. It would be collected from a Tesco car park in Nottingham once a month. Barsby would make a profit of £75 per ounce. He also collected amphetamines from the same place in Nottingham, the smallest quantity being two to four kilos and the largest twenty kilos. Like Marc Simpson, he suffered from the gang leader’s uncontrollable rages: Barsby told police how John Dawes beat him up badly because he did not like the girl that Barsby was going out with.

The Dawes brothers’ fifty-nine-year-old father, Arthur ‘Eddie’ Dawes, posed as an antiques dealer, even allowing another Essex-based cocaine gang with close links to the Dawes Cartel to use his addresses for bogus businesses. Between 1997 and his arrest in 2003, Arthur claimed thousands of pounds in disability benefit, but appeared to be quite capable of helping his son transport drugs from place to place. He lived in Ingoldmells, on the Lincolnshire coast, in a modest house in Central Avenue with his partner, Rebecca Bridge. When police eventually raided the property they found £10,000 in cash, two bank note counting machines and a Dutch mobile phone in a bedside cabinet. In another room was a holdall with two maps, one of Barcelona and one of Santander, with hotels marked in rings. In a sideboard cupboard in the living room was a 2003 diary with the entries ‘in’ and ‘out’ for the period from February to 12 June and references to names, places and flights. Also in the lounge were a large number of receipts for mobile phone cards, ten phone chargers and a number of other items. Among the items in Bridge’s handbag was a book containing a number of phone numbers in a mixture of her and Arthur’s handwriting and the names of middle-tier suppliers, which had come from Anthony Handley. Arthur Dawes had also been observed at Newport Pagnell service station on the M1 motorway handing over a Tesco coolbag to the driver of a black London cab. The cab was pulled over as it left the service station and police found £100,000 in the bag. Dawes said the money was for Anthony Handley.

By late spring, with a number of arrests having already broken the gang down, the Dawes Cartel began to unravel, first as a result of an accident. On 29 April 2003, one its couriers crashed his car containing two kilos of heroin. Analysis of a mobile phone in the car showed a link with the major drugs dealer Donny Quinn. Then John Dawes himself was arrested. Having lost many of his troops, he had been forced to get hands-on. On 23 May 2003, the police saw his fellow boss Gary Hardy driving a black Porsche near Sutton-in-Ashfield. It paused at a junction long enough to give the impression that it was waiting there, before pulling round the corner. The police then saw John Dawes at the passenger door. He got into the vehicle. Police saw body movement in the Porsche, as if something was being handed over, and moved in as Dawes stood on the pavement with a carrier bag and the Porsche drove off, arresting Dawes as he got into his car. The carrier bag contained £14,000. Other members of the gang were also rounded up, including Arthur Dawes, Rebecca Bridge and Ryan Smith, who had been acting as one of John Dawes’s lieutenants.

TONY HANDLEY AND Red Harrison were the next to trip up. Thirty-three-year-old Handley, who was also known as ‘Spunky’, worked with Harrison as the kingpin in charge of distributing drugs, including ecstasy, amphetamines, cocaine and cannabis, to the west of the UK after they had been imported from Holland and Belgium. When their Dutch counterparts informed them that Handley and Harrison’s names had turned up on bugs connected with the murder of Gerard Meesters, National Crime Squad officers from the Midlands launched Operation Shearson against them in March 2003.

Handley and Harrison had got to know one another while serving time in HMP North Sea Camp in Lincolnshire, Handley for an armed robbery and Harrison for manslaughter. Handley was an unlikely villain. His father was heavily involved with a Hucknall church and Handley had been trained as an accountant. When he partnered the opening of a sport shop in March 1995, there was little sign of him becoming heavily involved in organised crime – he even gave away its first £100 to help Glaisdale School in Bilborough help replace sports equipment destroyed in a fire. But the business went under, leaving Handley to consider crime as an option to attain the wealth he sought. His first major brush with the law came in February 2000 when he was convicted of armed robbery along with two others: Dale Wright, who he would later recruit for the drug business, and Keith Staniland, a thirty-year-old, from Huthwaite. The trio jumped Robert Bolam in his Ford Transit and relieved him at gunpoint of 160,000 cigarettes on the A610 near Giltbrook on 2 November 1999. It was while serving some of his sentence at HMP North Sea Camp that Handley hooked up with Harrison.

After absconding from the open prison, Harrison, using the false identity of ‘Graham Harley’, managed to get a fake passport and driving licence and disappear into obscurity in Amsterdam. He had been involved with ecstasy shipments before and clearly felt he could make even greater profits by being in Holland. His name first cropped up in Dutch investigations into Franciscus Peiter Beikmans, a wholesale supplier of drugs in Holland. When the name of an Englishmen called ‘Red’ turned upon the tapes, they discovered Harrison’s real identity and a link was subsequently made to the Gerard Meesters murder.

Harrison was shipping drugs to Handley after buying them from Beikmans, who was based in the city of Tilburg. Harrison had looked up other friends from HMP North Sea Camp to assist in the UK distribution and these included a number from Nottinghamshire. Handley would arrange for the drugs to be transported by lorry. Harrison only had to secure a space in a lorry driven by someone who innocently thought they were carrying a legitimate load. Millions of pounds worth of drugs would be shipped over to Felixstowe on a ferry from Rotterdam in taped-up cardboard boxes. Harrison was also shipping drugs for other gangs, including the Bestwood Cartel and Jonathan ‘Donny’ Quinn. It was easy to then use Handley for some of that distribution. He would meet the loads and arrange distribution throughout the East Midlands, West Midlands and London. The pair soon enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. Harrison had swanky apartments in Amsterdam and Breda and both men drove around in Mercedes and Audi TTs.

Handley would talk on his mobile while sipping a latte in an Internet café in Hucknall on the edge of Nottingham, listening to Harrison complain how bored he was in Holland and reveal how he spent up to £11,000 a time on raucous nights in the red light districts, picking up expensive hookers while his wife was back home in the UK. Much of their talk – monitored by the National Crime Squad – was drug shipments. The duo used basic code words in their phone conversations. Cannabis was referred to as ‘a bit of green’, speed or amphetamines were ‘them fast things’, ecstasy tablets were ‘the little ones’ and cocaine ‘the expensive stuff’. However, Harrison, who became rash when things went wrong, would sometimes fail to stick to the agreement on code words, particularly when a shipment was intercepted, and would talk explicitly about ‘coke’ and ‘speed’.

One officer said, ‘Harrison was a Billy no-mates who only got friends by paying for high-class hookers. His phone became his best friend. That was his undoing. Even when he couldn’t get through he left a trail, he just couldn’t resist ringing up people who we could then link the trade to through the mapping of the phones. When he did get through he was often saying things that played right into our hands.’ Handley sensed danger and halted calls with Harrison. With his main contact suddenly unobtainable, Harrison turned for help to his old friend Donald James, an associate from his West Midlands days of petty crime and now an underworld figure in Birmingham. He agreed to arrange the next shipment and approached Michael Saward, a boat skipper with two previous convictions for drug importation. James paid around £5,000 towards the hire of Saward’s twenty-one-foot speedboat, Sundancer, which set off from Ramsgate in Kent in August 2003 to make a pick-up at the Military Yacht Club in Nieuwpoort, on the Belgian coast. Also on board was Steven Bower, an old acquaintance of Harrison, whose job was to keep an eye on the skipper and the drugs.

At the same time, Harrison drove from his home in Breda with a Ford Focus filled with drugs, accompanied by his Dutch supplier Beikmans, Beikmans’ brother-in-law and another unnamed Dutchman in a separate vehicle. He met Saward and Bowers with Sundancer, while the three Dutchmen headed back to Holland. The National Crime Squad and their Dutch and Belgian colleagues knew all about it: not only did they have phone taps in place but they had infiltrated the gang. Belgian police arrested Harrison and his English accomplices, who were later extradited to the UK, while the Dutchmen were arrested back in Holland. In England, the National Crime Squad picked up Donald James. Beikmans, known as ‘the Tillerman’, would later receive a six-and-a-half year sentence and his brother-in-law three years for his involvement.

After being spooked, a feeling which was proved correct by the arrest of his pal in Belgium, Handley went on the run, holing up in a £30,000 caravan in on a remote park in Scarborough, Yorkshire. For six months he watched and waited, with the National Crime Squad having little idea where he was. On phone taps, they then heard that Handley was about to get married, so detectives began ringing round register offices across the country. Nothing turned up locally so one officer joked that he was probably going to get married in Gretna Green, the Scottish border town famous for its quickie marriages. As Detective Inspector John Cudlipp, who led the investigation, recalled, ‘We had tried more obvious locations in Sutton-in-Ashfield and Nottingham. It was a process of elimination. Then someone had the inspiration of checking the most obvious location, Gretna Green, and lo and behold, they were right.’

On the morning of 1 December 2003, at the Mill Hotel on the outskirts of Gretna Green, a party of eight gathered ready for a noon wedding ceremony in a chapel on the grounds. A few minutes before the start Handley, still nursing a bruiser of a hangover and feeling uncomfortably paranoid, was getting ready with his best man, who joked about any last requests. His bride was in another room alone, looking forward to a future with a man she felt could keep her in the material manner to which she had become accustomed over the past few years. But when officers moved in to make the arrest, it was all over within the space of minutes. Handley did not resist. The thirty-three-year-old later told police, ‘I knew the game was up when I looked out through the window and saw a broad-shouldered man go past.’

A delighted DI Cuddlip said, ‘He was surprised to see us. He didn’t say very much. He was trying to keep his dad at bay.’

The gang was dealt with at Birmingham Crown Court in April 2005. Keith Winston Eugene Harrison, originally from Coventry, was sentenced to eight years in prison, while Handley was jailed for five-and-a-half years. Other members of the Hucknall trafficking ring were jailed for a combined total of more than twenty years. These foot soldiers, all employed by Handley, included Mark Ford, a thirty-two-year-old from Bulwell, who was known as ‘Joe 90’ or ‘Goggles’ because he wore spectacles. Ford was jailed for three years. He had been arrested with two other defendants in July 2003 with a consignment of drugs on the M1 near Northampton. Ford also received an extra six months for producing cannabis at a property he owned in Nottingham. Alan ‘Ostrich Man’ Walker, a sixty-two-year-old from Cotgrave, near Nottingham, received an eighteen-month sentence. He had been involved in a huge ostrich farm fraud in Nottinghamshire which had made more than £20 million in less than seventeen months by duping people into buying shares. He became involved in the gang as a result of his time at North Sea Camp prison and agreed to fly over to Britain from his home in Nice, France, in 2003 to transport drugs for Handley. He was arrested in Newmarket driving a van containing eighty-five kilos of cannabis.

Adrian Haywood, a thirty-six-year-old from Underwood, got six years for supplying mobile phones and transport for the traffickers. He was a motor trader with a workshop in Somercotes, Derbyshire. Officers found 37,500 ecstasy tablets in a search of the premises. Dale Wright, thirty-one, of Skegby, who was the security man for batches of drugs held in various locations, received three years, while Michael ‘The Geezer’ Saward, fifty-seven, who lived on a houseboat in Kent, got six years after being hired to take his speedboat to Belgium to collect drugs from Harrison. Steven ‘Little Baz’ Bower, thirty-five, of Grantham, received four years. He acted as a runner and a security man, holding drugs and going on trips to Belgium with Bower and, after becoming seasick, had unwittingly ensured the entire group decided to prolong their stay at Nieuwpoort until he recovered. They were there when police swooped the next morning. Subsequent drug seizures included £1.9 million of cannabis in Felixstowe and 1.2 million ecstasy tablets, worth £4.8 million, in Holland.

By the end of the Operation Shearson, police had dealt another big blow to the drug shipments being managed from Nottinghamshire. Large amounts of Class A drugs were seized in Holland, Germany, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp and Birmingham. With the help of Customs and Excise, the operation seized 870 kilos of cannabis, worth over £1.9 million, and sixteen kilos of cocaine with a street value of £848,000. Officers were ecstatic with the results. ‘Dismantling this well-established network is a major achievement and is down to the hard work and dedication of all the officers involved,’ said DI John Cudlipp afterwards. ‘Harrison and his cohorts have paid the heavy price of their freedom for thinking they could make easy money through drugs-trafficking and we hope this sends out a strong message to others who are tempted to do the same.’

ANOTHER OF THE Gunns’ associates, Donny Quinn, had been building up a massive drugs operation of his own. Quinn was no stranger to police and customs, having been lifted several times in large-scale cigarette and cannabis smuggling busts, but nothing had stuck. He had based himself in the Bilborough area of Nottingham, where in Cockington Road he had a large house which had been pimped up to make him the laird of the council estate. Such was the cheek of the man that he even had several former police officers from Nottinghamshire, who had branched out into gardening services on their retirement, willing to tend his expansive garden for him. He had already managed to wriggle out of a major bust in October 1999, when 120 kilos of cannabis was found in a lorry in Huthwaite. One of the gang’s main men was a thirty-one-year-old tetraplegic called Nathan Graham who had suffered his massive disability as a result of a diving accident. Graham would later die of a fatal asthma attack six days after being remanded to Nottingham Prison; an inquest into his death recommended health care for disabled prisoners be improved. The cannabis case had been dealt with by National Crime Squad officers from Derby and Nottingham, some of whom were later embroiled in the cocaine-snorting scandal of 2001 (see Chapter Six). When it came to court in September 2000, legal submissions were heard in chambers by the judge and the trial was abandoned, though no reason was given publicly.

Quinn still faced a trial over a spectacular bust by Customs and Excise at a warehouse on the banks of the River Trent in August 1999. Investigators kept watch on the disused warehouse for several months as cigarettes were shipped in in their millions. Then, as a consignment worth more than £2 million came in, they swooped, some in high-powered rubber dinghy boats. By the end of a four-week trial at Nottingham Crown Court in March 2001, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. A retrial was sought but never materialised.

Quinn, perhaps becoming over-confident, launched himself into large-scale Class A drug shipments and firearms. Using connections he had built up over the years, he began assembling a formidable gang with some twenty trusted lieutenants spanning Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire. Operation Myope was started in response by the National Crime Squad’s Rugby branch in October 2003 and focused initially on the drug-trafficking activities of Quinn, two of his lieutenants – Michael McDonald, then aged thirty-five, from Aspley, and Jason Wesley, thirty-five, from Beeston – and the network of couriers working in Nottinghamshire. It soon became apparent that the gang was involved in the supply and distribution of drugs between London, Nottingham and West Yorkshire and had international links, with Quinn regularly visiting Malaga in Spain. Initial surveillance showed that Quinn was in regular contact over supplies with the Dawes Cartel as well as the Gunns. He also had strong links with underworld armourers across the country and had access to large caches of firearms, something he would later attempt to use to his advantage.

Among his gang was a real-life Robin Hood. Actor Mark Dickinson, who played the famous outlaw at the city’s Tales of Robin Hood attraction during the early 1990s and would later appear in a film version of Macbeth with Jason Connery and Brian Blessed, had fallen on hard times. After getting to know Quinn – Dickinson also lived in Bilborough – he was offered a job doing runs for him and soon became one of his most trusted cocaine couriers. The thirty-nine-year-old was one of the first to be arrested during the three-year operation. Officers swooped on Dickinson after watching him drive into the Broad Oak pub in the village of Strelley on 2 July 2004, where he met a lorry driver. As he left, they pulled him over and discovered a kilo of cocaine in his car. He would later be jailed for three years and nine months. Another gang member was a Gulf War veteran from the Meadows who had served with the First Battalion Grenadier Guards in 1991. Dean Cumberpatch, thirty-four, was arrested after being caught driving a lorry with 150 kilos of cannabis resin for Quinn, and would later receive a two-year sentence.

By May 2004, Quinn had also become adept at money laundering. He entered into a deal with a group of Liverpool businessmen who ripped off the NatWest bank to the tune of £15 million in an elaborate fraud. Quinn became their banker. The idea for the sophisticated get-rich-quick scheme came from a genuine letter sent to all customers in the wake of NatWest’s takeover of the Royal Bank of Scotland. It was a warning that while cheque funds would be shown as cleared on the third working day after being paid in, they could still end up bouncing if the cheque was bad. This was a signpost to the Merseyside villains that it was possible to take money that didn’t actually exist from accounts. On the Wednesday before the May Bank Holiday, one of the Merseyside group went into a St Helens branch of the NatWest and placed £20 million in bogus cheques into an account. On the surface it was a legitimate deal for 38,000 Nokia mobile phones. By the Friday, well before the cheques would show up as having bounced, the funds were weaving their way through a number of other companies to disguise the origins and make it look like a legitimate financial transaction, before arriving in a bank account in Riga, Latvia. It was an account Quinn had opened in the name of Alverton Finance Ltd. Fortunately for NatWest, Latvia had just joined the European Union and been warned to be on the lookout for money laundering activities. Realising what was going on, the banking authorities in Latvia informed the City of London Police. The account was then frozen, preventing the conspirators transferring much of the cash to Dubai, though altogether £14 million of funds were cleared in Latvia before the game was up. Quinn would later receive a three-year prison sentence at Southwark Crown Court for fraud, to be added to his drug crimes.

Meanwhile his drug smuggling operations were being dealt a severe blow as police took out the middle tier of his gang, leaving Quinn exposed. Although the gang was surveillance savvy, regularly changing phones and using phone boxes, it did not bank on the National Crime Squad bugging its hire cars when they went in for a valet service. Every order Quinn gave was picked up by the surveillance team. Throughout 2004 the main players in his gang were relentlessly targeted until Quinn himself was eventually arrested. Once he was presented with all the bugged material, he threw in the towel and pleaded guilty. Altogether twenty-one members of the gang received combined prison sentences totalling 117 years. In 2006, Quinn himself received an eighteen-year stretch for conspiracy to supply cocaine, cannabis and amphetamines and a twelve-and-a-half year sentence, to run concurrently, for supply of ecstasy. More than £2 million of drugs had been discovered during Operation Myope, including six kilos of cocaine, six kilos of ecstasy, 160 kilos of cannabis and twenty-five kilos of amphetamines.

Quinn was not happy about his sentence, particularly as he had given National Crime Squad officers information about three arms caches he had knowledge of. He appealed on that basis but the judges pointed out that although the arms and ammunition had been discovered, and they had been important finds in the battle against organised crime, no one had been arrested. ‘It is significant that having been in custody for eighteen months, the defendant still retained the ability to locate these weapons,’ the Appeal Court judges said. The implication was clear: they were either his firearms or he was involved in their movement. Quinn was stuck with his eighteen-year sentence.

With Donny Quinn locked up and the Dawes Cartel taken down, Colin and David Gunn were running out of friends.