It is almost exactly 21 years since black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in an unprovoked racist attack on Well Hall Road, Eltham, south east London.
Shock at the killing was intensified by the knowledge that Stephen was the latest victim in an spiralling string of stabbings and racist murders that had taken place in the area since the opening three years earlier of the fascist British National Party’s headquarters – a so-called “bookshop” – in nearby Welling.
To locals the racist thugs had become known as “the untouchables”, because whatever outrage they perpetrated they seemed to get away with it, spurring them on to greater savagery.
An individual who in the 1980s and 1990s was intimate with the racist and violent networks which Stephen’s killers were a part has talked to Dream Deferred. Although his evidence is uncorroborated, it fits into much of that already in the public domain.
Using this new intelligence Dream Deferred has re-examined the events surrounding the Lawrence murder, the backgrounds of the racist suspects, the gangs they belonged to and the links between them and an extensive criminal conspiracy involving major gangsters and corrupt police, and the destructive effect of this on the murder investigation.
This is Part 1 of a three-part investigation. The second part of our report, looking at the rival racist gangs in Eltham and Thamesmead, and the third, looking at the rise and fall of Clifford Norris, will follow soon.
The murder of Stephen Lawrence
The Macpherson report on the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence opens with a broad outline of the attack that “probably lasted no more than 15- 20 seconds”.
It was half past ten on the evening on 22 April 1993. Stephen and his best friend Duwayne Brooks were waiting on Well Hall Road for a bus to take them the short journey back home.
Mr Brooks… saw the group of five or six white youths…on the opposite side of the road. Mr Brooks called out to ask if Stephen saw the bus coming. One of the youths must have heard something said, since he called out “what, what nigger?” With that the group came quickly across the road and literally engulfed Stephen. During this time one or more of the group stabbed Stephen twice.
The group of white murderers then disappeared down Dickson Road… Stephen had been stabbed to a depth of about five inches on both sides of the front of his body to the chest and arm… The amount of blood which had been lost would have made it probable that Stephen died where he fell on the pavement, and probably within a short time of his fall.
We know from evidence given to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry that a local resident saw maybe four of the racist attackers run off down Dickson Road, the nearest side road off Well Hall Road. Police from the first Territorial Support Group (TSG) carrier arriving at the scene 17 minutes later already had this information. Yet when the officer in charge on the night, Inspector Steven Groves, arrived shortly after he inexplicably decided to go off in the opposite direction to the killers’ escape route. As the Macpherson Report recounts:
What happened then is extraordinary. Without any clear information as to what had occurred Mr Groves went off…to the Welcome Inn Public House, which is situated to the north of the scene. He knew that this public house was the nearest to the scene, and he resolved to go there to see if he could get any information about any violence that had taken place or any information as to possible witnesses of the incident…
If he had stayed to ask further questions of the police officers at the scene he must have been told that the white youths…had been seen going down Dickson Road and away from the Welcome Inn. However, that is what he decided to do, with absolutely no result, because nobody in the public house had heard or seen anything suspicious.
While Groves was off on his pointless trip to the sit-down steakhouse (an unlikely bolt-hole for a group of bloodied and tooled-up murderous youths) the officers under his command were milling around aimlessly, some not even aware that a murder had taken place, while others jumped to the wrong conclusion that the attack was “gang-related” between black and white youths.
The clock was already ticking on what crime scene investigators describe as “the golden hour” when any material that could be of value is preserved. However at this point the murder scene had yet to be even properly cordoned off to secure forensic evidence, some of which was then lost.
The key witness, crucial to a future successful prosecution of the killers, was already being mishandled by the police, leading ultimately to the credibility of his evidence in the witness box being shredded. From the outset the distraught Duwayne Brooks was treated as a suspect rather than a victim, as police officers’ racist attitudes kicked in when faced with what they perceived to be an “aggressive” young black man.
this chaotic and damaging scene was being played out a Red Vauxhall Astra car drove south down Well Hall Road from the direction of Shooters Hill. It slowed down at the murder scene and five white men hung out of the car openly laughing at the scene, then turned round to drive back for a second look.
The car was allowed to drive away – a colossal error that did not reveal itself until a week later when a policeman, by sheer chance, spotted the car, flagged it down and questioned the occupants. We will return to the significance of the Red Astra in the next part of our investigation.
The police didn’t seem overly keen to hunt for the suspects in the surrounding streets. One police TSG carrier did drive down Dickson Road, but then immediately looped back onto Well Hall Road before also stopping off at the Welcome Inn. We know that while this was happening the killers were still almost certainly in the immediate area, and if actively searched for, might have been caught out in the open, still wearing the same clothes and still carrying the murder weapon(s).
Yet those few police who were active were looking in entirely the wrong direction. Instead of going north up the hill towards the Welcome Inn, they should have been going south in the direction the gang had fled.
Information from our source reveals for the first time what happened next. The gang did escape down Dickson Road. However, the suspects fleeing the murder scene would have known better than to go directly to their family homes – first they had to cover their tracks. The disorganised state of the police at the scene gave them the breathing space they needed. From Dickson Road they made their way, possibly via darker back streets, to the other pub closest to the spot where they had carried out their murder.
The Yorkshire Grey
The Yorkshire Grey pub (now closed and turned into a McDonald’s) was a few minutes walking distance from Dickson Road and had a reputation to be a favoured haunt of hardcore fascists such as Combat 18. It was also a known for drug dealing and therefore under the control of local criminals.
How did the gang get to the Yorkshire Grey? They could have run on foot and been inside in a few minutes. Or some of them may have jumped into a car parked off Well Hall Road. A white car, of similar appearance to one known to belong to a friend of the suspects, was seen parked up on Well Hall Road in the minutes leading up to the attack. It then disappeared.
That they were heading in the direction of the Yorkshire Grey fits with a number of witnesses who reported they had heard or seen a group of white youths at locations indicating they were moving in that direction – albeit avoiding the main roads.
The gang knew that the pub would not only provide them a temporary hiding place but also “a friendly face” who could help them out. The gang were met at the door by a local hard-man and criminal associate of their families. This individual, whom some of the gang would have known, worked as a local “enforcer” and debt-collector who would “weigh in” those who fell foul of his bosses. He knew how to cover up involvement in a violent crime and get rid of anything that could link you to it.
This man led the killers into the pub and then most likely somewhere private where he took their weapons off them, including the knife used to stab Stephen Lawrence and any obviously blood-stained clothing.
The incriminating evidence was stashed in a cricket bag – a favoured receptacle because if its suitability to transport weapons such knives, shotguns and baseball bats and so on without attracting attention. The bag and its contents was then quickly disposed of, probably outside Eltham, which is why none of the many deadly weapons found at the suspects’ houses during subsequent police searches could be linked to Stephen’s murder.
We know that this individual didn’t strip the gang of all their clothes, because items in two of the suspects’ homes were found by forensic scientists to have near-invisible traces of Stephen’s blood and hair on them. But this microscopic evidence only came to light because of cutting-edge tests conducted for the cold case investigation that led in 2012 to David Norris and Gary Dobson being sent down for Stephen’s murder. In 1993 no tests existed that could analyse traces of DNA on a spot of blood 0.5mm by 0.25 mmm, or hair strands 1-2mm in length and have it stand up in court as evidence.
Four of the five young men who became known as the chief suspects lived very near the scene of the crime. In 1993, 17 year old Neil Acourt and his younger brother Jamie Acourt lived at Bournbrook Road, Eltham. Gary Dobson lived at Phineas Pett Road, Eltham. He was also 17 years old. Luke Knight, aged 16 lived at Well Hall Road, Eltham. David Norris, 16, lived some way away.
The “fixer” reckoned his young charges were probably not safe at the Yorkshire Grey because it was so close to the murder scene. He must have feared that at some point the police would come into the pub, maybe armed with a description of the suspects. (He was wrong of course – the police were at the Welcome Inn up the road and nowhere near the Yorkshire Grey).
So he made arrangements to get them out of the vicinity. A short car drive or walk away from the Yorkshire Grey would take the gang either to the safety of the pubs in Eltham High Street or their homes. They may have well split up at this point.
A witness later came forward to say he had visited the Acourts’ house maybe an hour or more after the murder and had seen Neil and Jamie Acourt and Gary Dobson. They seemed to be in the middle of washing themselves and in some panic.
Some of the group are said to have been spotted later that same night at a friendly pub in Eltham, maybe one of those owned (on the quiet) by local criminals. They probably wanted to establish a false alibi, which could be easily backed up by “witnesses” who would say they had been in the pub all night. (It is quite possible that they had been in Eltham earlier that night, and on their way back home when they spotted and followed Stephen and Duwayne).
The “golden hour” had slipped by, and the advantage was tipping in favour of the perpetrators of the crime and away from those whose job it was to catch them. As it transpired, they didn’t need a public alibi – it was a full two weeks before the five suspects were arrested, by which time they had decided to settle on the story that they had all been in their respective houses at the time Stephen was murdered, thereby only having to rely on their parents to provide alibis.
It was not until the morning after the murder that they would go to ground. No-one saw them for three days – they were holed up in their family homes, hyperactive on cocaine, busy gathering information, sending out threats to those they heard might link them to Stephen’s murder, and opening up lines of communications to the corrupt police in the area who were in the pockets of the big gangsters who ran the extremely profitable drugs trade in south east London.
The murder investigation was already in trouble, and worse was to follow. As the Lawrence inquiry report published six years later concluded:
There is no doubt but that there were fundamental errors. The investigation was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.
That damning judgement, combined with widespread outrage in British society at the injustice that saw Stephen become a victim of racism twice over – in life and death – brought London’s Metropolitan Police to its knees.
What the Lawrence inquiry team, Stephen’s family and supporters and the public did not know at the time was that the Met was holding back information about the large-scale police corruption that meant the chief suspects were effectively shielded from justice. Today at least four of Stephen’s murderers are walking free, as are all those who conspired to protect them.
In 1998 (while the Lawrence inquiry was holding public hearings) a south east London detective, Neil Putnam was arrested on corruption charges in a separate inquiry – and turned “supergrass”. Speaking under oath in 2011, he said he had told his 1998 interrogators that a lead detective on the original Lawrence murder investigation team was in a corrupt relationship with the gangster father of one of the suspects.
The supergrass said his evidence was “brushed under the table” and never passed to the Lawrence inquiry team because the allegation, if it had entered the public arena at that point would have “blown apart” the Met.
It would have – and rightly so.
• In Part 2, we will trace the origins of the suspects, the murderous gangs they formed and their place in 1990s south east London, blighted by racist violence, criminality and corruption. >> Read Part 2 now