Rivalry between two racist criminal gangs was the backdrop to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, we can reveal in the second part of our three-part exclusive investigation.
The Thamesmead estate was built on drained marshland on the south bank of the River Thames in the 1960s and 70s. Straddling the London boroughs of Bexley and Greenwich, the estate is remote and suffers from being isolated by poor public transport links, with parts even today lacking decent basic amenities, particularly for young people.
Early on the estate became home for working class families from south of the river Thames, rehoused as a result of slum clearance along the corridor of the Old Kent Road stretching from Tower Bridge all the way to Deptford. Families who might have previously earned a living in trades such as the docks, haulage, the wholesale markets and the print industry found themselves decanted into Thamesmead and council estates in Bexley such as Welling, Bexleyheath and Eltham.
Thamesmead became a predominantly white estate, although a Vietnamese community (originally “boat people” refugees) and a few black families were also settled there. It contrasted with neighbouring Greenwich, particularly the Woolwich area, where black and Asian families were being housed.
From the Old Kent Road to Thamesmead
This post war resettlement coincided with the break-up of the crime families that had controlled Soho, east London and parts of south London, notably the Krays and the Richardsons. Ronnie and Reggie Kray were sent down for murder in 1969, with the Richardson gang broken up by the end of the decade.
The vacuum left by the demise of the Krays and Richardsons was filled by other local career criminals on the way up, such as the Hayward brothers, Billy and Harry, who, reckoning that the centre was “too hot” marked out new territory in south east London and the outer London boroughs bordering Kent, including areas of Greenwich, Lewisham and Bexley.
The criminal gangs were typically organised around particular families and blood relations and made their money out of armed robbery, hijacking lorries, protection rackets and other schemes such as forcing pubs to install their fruit-machines and collecting the proceeds. Some of the more successful crime families would plough their proceeds into “legit” businesses such as garages, scrap yards, pubs and nightclubs. These would be fronted by a “clean” name, but behind the scenes they would be places where the gangs would do business.
These new “firms” still enforced their activities the old fashioned way – through beatings, stabbings and shootings. This culture would often include hardened racist ideas that made the gangs naturally sympathetic to the politics of Moseley’s fascists and later the National Front.
Some of these “faces” and families ended up on Thamesmead and the council estates in surrounding areas. Although they were a minority amongst the working class residents, their influence was soon felt. They brought with them the old criminal networks, and were still to be found drinking and doing business in their old haunts along the Old Kent Road. Although the most determined would still carry out armed robberies, increased security and police cultivation of informants meant that many ended up being grassed up, serving long prison sentences or being shot.
By the end of the 1980s they found themselves challenged by a new and more ruthless cohort of criminals involved in heroin importation, such as the Turkish Cypriot Arif family. In 1990, led by brothers Denis, Mehmet and Dogan, the Arifs went to war with the Brindle family, themselves at war with another local firm – the Daley brothers – at the end of which eight murders had taken place.
In a notorious incident that set off a huge round of blood-letting, one of the Daley brothers, John, a publican in Walworth, had a gun stuck in his mouth in an extortion attempt by the Brindles. John Daley later went on to run the Chequers pub on Eltham High Street, possibly the pub Stephen Lawrence’s killers were seen in on the night of the murder (see part one).
The Norris family
The factor that gave a new lease of life to the south east London criminal families was the rise of rave culture in Britain from the mid-1980s. The recreational drug of choice was MDMA, known as ecstasy, began to be illegally imported into the UK from illegal factories in Holland, along with cannabis (and later cocaine smuggled from the US). Typically it would be smuggled in from the continent in boats landing on the Kent and Essex coast or light aircraft heading for private landing-strips in remote country areas.
The families moved into the ecstasy trade and began to rake in the profits. At the time an ecstasy tablet could be bought in Holland for £1 and then sold in a club or rave in London for £15 or more – a massive mark-up. One estimate puts the value of the Ecstasy trade at more than £500m a year by the mid-1990s. The fortunes, reputation and influence of the south east London criminal fraternity rocketed.
The rapid rise of small-time crooks such as Clifford Norris, the father of David Norris, one of the gang who murdered Stephen Lawrence, is a good example. Norris’s criminal history is well documented in Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn’s excellent exposé Untouchables, Dirty cops, bent justice and racism in Scotland Yard.
In short, Clifford Norris, brought up in Deptford in the 1950s, and his older brother Alexander graduated from being teenage hoodlums to violent criminals. In a notorious incident in 1989 Clifford shot a woman in the throat who he believed to have spread rumours about the state of his marriage. The victim refused to testify against him.
By the mid-1980s Clifford Norris was involved in major drug importation allowing him to buy – in his wife Tracey’s name – a £600,000 mock Tudor house in leafy Chislehurst, near Sidcup in Kent. Police raiding the house in search of evidence linking David Norris to the Lawrence murder tip-toed around because it was so posh.
David, following in the footsteps of his father, displayed violent tendencies as a boy and was permanently excluded from school at the age of 13. This seems to have been a pattern in many – although of course, not all – of the younger generation of boys raised within this family and criminal network. Unsurprisingly, the boys began to mimic the social organisation of their fathers, uncles and associates as they entered their teenage years.
Killings with a pattern
One of the arguments put by the police at the time was that the attacks in areas like Thamesmead and Eltham were being carried out by different individuals in different places and could not be connected. They also consistently denied the common racist element that many other people, including the families of the victims and their supporters were arguing was present, and therefore refused to accept that an alarming pattern was emerging that demanded a joined-up and urgent response.
Information from our source, who was close to the violent networks in south east London in the 1980s and 90s, reveals for the first time the relations between the gangs that were the backdrop to the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
In fact there was not just one extended racist gang operating across the Eltham and Thamesmead area – there were two. By the end of the 1980s rival, or rather competing, gangs had emerged in this one small area of south east London. “The Krays” were based in Eltham and “The Firm” on Thamesmead. Allegiance to football teams (and football violence) was another dividing line. The Eltham gang tended to support Millwall while the Thamesmead gang were “Gooners” who followed Arsenal.
Both gangs shared values inherited through the crime families, including sexist, homophobic and racist attitudes and the irrational mental garbage that goes with such prejudices. They were into drinking and drug-taking, and regularly carried concealed weapons – “solving” problems and enhancing their reputations through casual violence, a distorted sense of honour and contempt for the police coupled with streetwise knowledge of how to cover their tracks and intimidate witnesses to avoid arrest. They were sucked into the base of the rapidly expanding drugs trade as dealers, runners (known as “joeys”) and drug debt collectors.
They differed somewhat from the older generation in their general recklessness and unpredictability (fuelled by drug-taking), their indiscriminate use of knives against anyone they didn’t like or had caused them some slight – real or imagined – and most of all their immersion in football-related violence, something for which they would travel the country.
They made sure their exploits reached the other gang, throwing down a challenge to their rivals to match it or go one better.
Rivals drawn together by racism
But these two gangs – the Thamesmead Firm and Eltham’s Krays – would come together if threatened by an outside force, particularly the multiracial gangs based in nearby Woolwich, which were headed by tough figures such as heavyweight boxing champion Julius Francis, who has since reformed and left gang life behind.
The antagonism between the white youth of the Thamesmead and Eltham gangs on the one side, and the multiracial Woolwich gangs on the other, inevitably took on a racist dimension. The Thamesmead and Eltham boys widened this out to encompass any black person they came across, regardless of whether they had any involvement in gangs.
There were occasional exceptions to the generally white make-up of the Thamesmead heavies. For example one of those who knocked around with the Firm was a young man named Orville Blair from one of few black families on Thamesmead. He was made an exception as he had grown up with and was intimately known to the other gang members.
His is not a happy example however. Orville was stabbed to death in May 1991 on his mother’s doorstep on the Thamesmead estate by one of his friends in the Firm, a young man called Paul Snell. Although not racist in intent, this was a horrific crime that demonstrated how out of control the gangs had become.
The gangs were also proliferating. Under the Firm were a number of junior gangs that served as proving grounds for youngsters keen to make their names. These groups had names like The Goldfish Gang, the Nutty (or Nazi) Turnouts known as the NTOs, the Rudds and the Tenches. Their membership included descendants of well-known names – for example those related to veteran gangster “Mad” Frankie Fraser.
Although young David Norris lived out in Chislehurst he knocked around in Eltham with his peers, who formed themselves into the Krays. At the centre of the gang were sons of other criminals involved in the burgeoning drug trade. One of Clifford Norris’s drug importation partners was Terry Stuart. His sister Pat married the father of brothers Jamie and Neil Acourt. Others in the group included Pat’s twin sons from a previous marriage, Scott and Bradley Lamb (both “named as suspects on 4 May 1993″, the Macpherson report noted), and hangers-on Luke Knight and Gary Dobson.
Neil Acourt and David Norris became seen as the leaders of the group because of their sadistic tendencies. That does not mean that the other group members were any less violent.
We can reveal that another Eltham Krays member was Peter Thompson. In July 1992 Thompson stabbed to death a young Asian lad, Rohit Duggal, outside a kebab shop in Tudor Parade, Well Hall Road, close to where Stephen Lawrence was later killed. It was clearly a racially motivated attack, a fact the police chose to ignore.
Alongside a long list of victims – black, Asian and white – knifed by the gangs during the peak of their activities in the early 1990s are the names of two young men killed purely for being black and “in the wrong place”. These were Rolan Adams, murdered by members of the Thamesmead gang in February 1991, and Stephen Lawrence, murdered by the Eltham gang two years later.
Fifteen year old Rolan Adams and his brother Nathan lived in Abbey Wood, the nearest residential area to Thamesmead. On 21 February 1991 they were walking back through Thamesmead, returning home after visiting a schoolmate on the estate. They had no inkling that thugs from the Thamesmead gang were holed up in the Wildfowler pub on the look-out for a rumoured incursion onto the estate by members of the Woolwich gangs, with whom the Thamesmead crew were in the middle of a violent tit-for-tat dispute.
The Wildfowler pub (now closed down and converted into a black church), was the exact equivalent of the Yorkshire Grey, a nasty place with the reputation for racism, the haunt of drug dealers and a meeting place for gang members and other criminals. The landlord most likely ran the pub on behalf of the local criminal families, who used it as a place where they could distribute hard drugs to people on the estate.
Near the Wildfowler was a municipal flower bed, and hidden in the undergrowth was a cache of weapons stashed by the Firm. There was no way at all that schoolboys Rolan and Nathan could be confused with members of the Woolwich gang, but the sight of them as they passed the pub was enough to trigger a horrible racist reaction from the gang, a dozen or more whom poured out of the pub shouting “get the nigger”.
Our source explains how, recovering their concealed weapons from the flowerbed, the Thamesmead gang members gave chase to the two black boys fleeing towards Abbey Wood. They caught and surrounded Rolan, and one of the gang – Mark Thornburrow – knifed him, catching him in the throat, severing his jugular vein and leaving him bleeding to death on the pavement. The police, true to form, threw aside the clear racist motive for the attack, disgracefully smearing the Adams brothers by falsely implicating them in gang rivalry.
Thornburrow, perhaps shocked by his own brutality, confessed to knifing Rolan and was convicted of murder. His confession was seen as unusual given that the gang members had been brought up never to incriminate themselves or others. The judge, in contrast to the police, recognised the racist motive in his summing up.
Thornburrow, a relatively junior member of the Firm, was left to take the rap. The older members who instigated and led the attack, and who were equally as guilty of Rolan’s murder, were never caught and still live in the area today. Some of the attacking group were rounded up, but none talked. They were jubilant to find they would only be charged with lesser offences and all escaped jail.
The Thamesmead Firm and the Lawrence murder scene
In part one we highlighted the appearance of a Red Vauxhall Astra car carrying five jeering white youths, which drove up and down past the Lawrence murder scene within an hour of the crime taking place.
The police failed to stop the car on the night, a blatant error given they were told that a gang of white youths had killed Stephen. A week later, purely by accident, a police officer spotted the car and questioned the three occupants. They gave their names as Daniel Copley, Jason Goatley and Keiran Hyland. They admitted that they had driven past the murder scene but refused to name the other two occupants of the car on the night. They offered an alibi that the officer noted down. The police left it at that, not bothering to even research the three names they had. This encounter took place at the height of the Lawrence murder investigation.
If the police had inquired they would have found out that Daniel Copley and Jason Goatley and Keiran Hyland were all members of the Firm. Hyland also had a reputation for being a hard racist. Copley and Goatley had been found guilty of being in the attacking group that chased Rolan and Nathan Adams and had been given community sentences. Therefore their presence at the murder scene would have been of great importance.
Their alibi the three offered was that they had all been drinking in the Wildfowler at the time of Stephen’s murder and were merely driving down Well Hall Road on the way to visit a girlfriend who lived nearby. An amazing coincidence if it is to be believed.
It has been suggested that they had been told about the murder minutes after the attack and had driven off Thamesmead to Well Hall Road to check it out for themselves. This is entirely possible. If so, they probably wanted to see for themselves whether their Eltham rivals had “evened the score” by carrying out their own brazen racist murder.
The two rival gangs from Thamesmead and Eltham were upping the stakes against each other.
Copley is another well-known family name. We can reveal that Daniel’s father is George Copley, a prominent armed robber who in 1977 was charged with ambushing a Securicor van outside a City of London bank transferring half a million pounds in wages. Others in the gang included two members of the Fraser family and a career criminal named Tony White, who was later named as being involved but not convicted over the Brink’s Mat robbery (which we will look at in Part 3).
The Securicor robbery trial collapsed after George Copley, while he was on remand, secretly taped a policeman making him an improper offer. It transpired that Flying Squad detectives were taking a cut of the proceeds from a series of armed robberies, including the one Copley had been involved in. This led directly to the multi-million pound Operation Countryman anti-corruption inquiry (1978-82) that ended in total failure after the Met, almost to a man, closed ranks to protect their guilty colleagues.
Protestors under attack
The murder of Rolan Adams, the failure of the police to admit the racial element or to bring all of those responsible to justice rang alarm bells for many people. They warned there needed to be a concerted operation to break up the gangs, or it would not be a matter of if, but when, the next murder would take place. The BNP headquarters – at the very least – legitimised race hatred in the area and campaigners raised the need to close it down.
After Rolan Adam’s murder anti-racist groups called a demonstration on Thamesmead. This attracted a heavy police presence who clearly regarded the protestors as “the problem” coming onto Thamesmead to cause trouble. In fact “the problem” was already on the estate.
Information from our source describes what happened next. As marchers approached the Wildfowler a stand-off developed. Members of the Firm were on guard inside the pub. A holdall full of weapons was dumped on the pub counter. Those inside were told to choose their weapon and defend the pub and “the manor”.
Members of the Firm exited the pub by a side door and attacked the back of the demonstration, picking off individuals at will. They were surprised to find the police effectively turning a blind eye to their actions and none was arrested.
The stance of the police on Thamesmead that day was repeated, albeit on a much larger scale, two years later when the police attacked the Unity march against the BNP “bookshop” called in the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. On that day fascists drinking in pubs nearby were also allowed to pick off lone protestors.
The reluctance of the police to admit one of the key drivers of the violence was shown, through the Lawrence inquiry, to be a manifestation of the institutional racism of the police. Not only did it show that individual officers carried their own racial prejudices reinforced through their “canteen culture”, but as an organisation they regarded young black men as a group as guilty and “up to no good”. No wonder that the families of Rolan Adams and later Stephen Lawrence drew the bitter conclusion that the lives of their sons were somehow of lesser value than other people’s.
However, this on its own only partially explains why prominent gang members, particularly those connected to powerful criminal figures, were getting away with involvement in serious crimes, including murder.
Norris, Acourt, Stuart, Copley – all these names were well known to the Metropolitan police in south east London. Yet all the officers involved in the Lawrence case denied at the public inquiry that they had any knowledge of the criminal connections of those young men who were named as the killers by multiple sources in the hours and days following the murder, or of their associates.
We now know that the top brass of the Metropolitan Police withheld from the Macpherson inquiry any inkling of the vast extent of the corruption that was thriving throughout the Met in south east London. The Lawrence family legal team must have been fed little bits of information that they tried to run with during the inquiry, but it was not enough to convince Macpherson and his advisors.
The full picture is only now coming together as campaigners and journalists pursue all the different leads and try to fit them together.
The hidden backdrop to the failure of the police to catch Stephen’s killers was a conspiracy between detectives and criminals to mutually profit from the millions generated from drug importation and sales. The definitive account has been provided by Laurie Flynn and Michael Gillard. It links corrupt detectives connected with the South East Regional Crime Squad, the £26m Brink’s Mat robbery in 1983, axe murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan in 1987 – and the identification of detective John Davidson as a corrupt policeman. Davidson was central to the Lawrence murder team.
We will expose for the first time how longtime criminal Clifford Norris arranged an easy ride from the police for young David Norris and the other Lawrence suspects, in Part 3 of our investigation.