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The Untouchables: How Britain’s top gangsters got rich off armed robberies and smuggling tons of drugs

By Peter Walsh

At the start of the 1990s, Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise noted the domination of the cannabis trade by established organized crime. The freewheeling yachtsman who had previously been so important in trafficking hashish from Morocco had been superseded by a close-knit group of hardened men considered to be the doyens of underworld, many of them aged in their fifties. One internal report described them as ‘the Untouchables’. The Customs Investigation Division now set about targeting them.

Investigator George Atkinson returned from working as the drug liaison officer in Jamaica to take over as one of the two senior officers leading Drugs B and C, the longstanding Customs target teams, in 1989. It was a plum posting for the experienced Lancastrian, one he had been working towards since joining the Investigation Division (ID) fifteen years earlier. “That was the best job on the firm as far as I was concerned, because you were doing long-term surveillance operations on major operators,” he says. “There were twenty-six of us in the two teams. Predominantly we were looking at cannabis. It had moved on a long way from the yachties. It was becoming chaotic, more and more people having a go. Everybody was at it.”

Top fifty villains

Atkinson adopted an approach that had served well in the past. He had seen the Metropolitan Police draw up studies of major criminals while working alongside them at the National Drugs Intelligence Unit some years earlier. “They had a couple of operations where they listed the top fifty villains in north and south London,” he says. So he sat down with an experienced colleague from a Customs intelligence team to make his own inventory of ‘first division’ suspects. “We were playing around with the idea of the top twenty drug players. My criterion was that the fellow had to be a quality villain, the quantity didn’t matter.”

The names they came up with included a number of London mobsters who would also have been high on the police lists: Ronnie Everett and John Mason, two of the so-called Security Express Five domiciled in southern Spain; the hulking Tony White, acquitted of the sensational Brink’s-Mat robbery; Joey Pyle and his friend Brian Emmett, law enforcement targets for almost a decade; the elusive Micky Green, another former armed robber. These and around a dozen others were regarded as the British underworld’s top tier. Many had known each other for years – some had been to school together – and would often collaborate on various schemes. Most of them lived or spent much of their time in Spain, from where they were thought to control a large segment of the cannabis trade in particular.

The hunt

Atkinson’s policy of scoping specific individuals was not universally shared in the ID. Other senior officers believed it was more fruitful to target the commodity rather than the criminal; to follow the intelligence gleaned from a random drug seizure to see where it led, possibly to someone unknown, rather than to focus on those already known. For that reason, the ID did not maintain a regularly updated list of targets, or what the police called core nominals. “The trouble is, if you look at the core nominals you forget about the people you don’t know about,” says Jim Jarvie, who also worked for the B and C teams. ‘We built up intelligence so that people we didn’t know could come out from the woodwork.” Many had been identified after a chance discovery by anti-smuggling staff. “We’d find the goods and then start pulling on that bit of string and if there’s a crime group at the end of it, it comes with it,” says another officer. “The leaders in taking out what people might call serious organized crime groups in the eighties and nineties were Customs and Excise, not the police.”

“Fine” cannabis and “dirty” heroin

However, Atkinson’s was an idea whose time had come. Among the tens of thousands of people engaged in selling drugs at one level or another – some of them highly proficient, some hopeless, most a mixture of the two – certain ‘faces’ cropped up repeatedly. The upper level of the cannabis trade in particular appeared to be dominated by small, established networks of experienced, middle-aged men, many of whom had cut their teeth on violent acquisitive crime twenty years earlier. As one younger smuggler put it, “These guys were bank robbers when all you needed was a Ford Zephyr and a shotgun.” Some of them were also starting to shift to cocaine importation, although most continued to shun heroin, with the notable exception of certain Merseyside gangs. “Cannabis was fine, and coke came through the eighties when your yuppies were into it, but they considered heroin dirty,” says an ex-investigator. These men might once have been territorial gangsters, running distribution on their patch; now they were directly involved in importation. The distinction between smuggler and distributor began to collapse.

One such recidivist was Malcolm ‘Micky’ Gooch, who lived in a palatial Essex home, owned by a foundation in Liechtenstein that banked in Switzerland. His elevation had owed much to a chance meeting, a decade earlier, with a high-profile remand inmate in Brixton Prison called Howard Marks, then facing trial for the UK’s biggest seizure of grass. Their jail-cell conversation turned to the possibility of a lucrative collaboration at a future date and Marks subsequently supplied Gooch with Thai grass, helping to establish him in the London market. It was an endorsement of Atkinson’s approach, then, when in 1991 Gooch was arrested in a B and C operation after a series of cannabis seizures totaling thirteen tons. Said in court to have made £4.7 million, Gooch was ultimately convicted of a single count, of importing three tons of marijuana, and was jailed for eleven years (he later escaped and went on the run).

The Untouchables

Many of Atkinson’s primary targets lived in southern Spain, with its well-developed criminal ecology concentrated along the sixty-mile strip of the Costa del Sol. The biggest of them had interests in clubs, bars, restaurants, property and other businesses. They were drawn to the exclusive port area of Puerto Banus, where a favorite den was the Navy Club, just off the harbor. “They all used to hang out there, Irish criminals, French criminals, English criminals, it was a sort of melting pot, and they’d all be discussing possible deals or gossiping about people,” an informant later told the police. An internal HMCE report compiled in the mid-nineties would refer to these men as ‘untouchables’. It was a deliberate misnomer, intended to suggest self-perception rather than reality, but conveyed a realistic sense of their importance and the difficulties of catching them. Refuge in Spain was no longer a guarantee of safety, as Fred ‘Mean Machine’ Foreman found when he was brought back in handcuffs to face the courts for handling cash from the Security Express raid, and no-one was truly untouchable; nevertheless many of these men had operated for a number of years with relative impunity, amassing a level of wealth and connections that made them powerful arbiters of the UK’s drug supply.

Meet Tony White

Tony White was a burly ex-blagger with an impeccable gangland pedigree. Known variously as ‘Chalky’, the ‘King of Catford’ and ‘the Bull’, he had emerged in April 1983 from a twelve-year prison term for conspiracy to rob. Shortly afterwards a large gang perpetrated the massive Brink’s-Mat warehouse robbery at Heathrow. White was acquitted at trial but many of his associates were convicted. In the same period, he seemed to have come into a considerable sum of money. “He lived in a council house on the Old Kent Road before Brink’s-Mat,” says one investigator. “Two years later he’s in a five-bedroom house, driving a Bentley.” White was subsequently pursued in civil proceedings by the Brink’s-Mat insurers for £26 million, the full value of the bullion and jewels stolen. He decided to move to a townhouse in Marbella, where he sent his children to an exclusive international college and cruised around in a midnight blue BMW convertible. He also spent a lot of time with his friend John Short, another heavyweight who had first bought a bar in Spain twenty years earlier. In October 1989 White was arrested for a currency offence while carrying around £125,000 in cash. He subsequently returned to London, although he kept property in Spain. He went to the top of the B and C target list.

Gang war

White sat at the head of a nexus of villains, based in the Catford–Lewisham area of south-east London, who imported drugs from wherever they could get them. Steeped in criminality and deeply suspicious of outsiders, they were hard to infiltrate: one wealthy boss held meetings in his bathing trunks in the middle of a Lewisham swimming pool, to avoid eavesdroppers. Some of the group were even inter-related by matrimony: White was married to a sister of fellow crook Stephen Dalligan, while his close friend John Zanelli was related by marriage to the powerful Arif family, doyens of the Old Kent Road.

But this hermetic world was also riven by factions and jealousies, and in 1990 south London effectively moved to a war footing. A feud between the Daley, Arif and Brindle families, which began when a Brindle threatened a Daley in a pub, would claim at least eight lives over a five-year period. Among the casualties was Dalligan, a pal of the Brindles, who was shot seven times but famously refused to let the police have the bullet fragments still inside him for evidence. The man who shot him, apparently on behalf of the Arifs, was gunned down in a betting shop six months later. The unconnected murder of Charlie Wilson in Spain, and the assassination of Roy Adkins in Amsterdam soon after that, further reverberated through this hair-trigger environment, as did the arrival from Northern Ireland of a team of loyalist gunmen to carry out hits on behalf of a drug gang friendly with White. North London saw its own street shootout between the rival Adams and Reilly families, while someone tried to blast gangland elder ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser in the head outside a club in August 1991. The capital’s underworld had not seen a bloodletting like it.

Tony White kept above the fray. He described himself as a self-employed car dealer, and owned Biancos, a wine bar in Rushey Green, but his main investment was in illegal drugs, for which his firm had enlisted the services of one of the pioneers of large-scale importation: the diminutive Bobby Mills (right), jailed ten years earlier for running the premier syndicate of the seventies. Mills had absconded before the end of his sentence, hiding out in Estepona and picking up where he had left off. In June 1990 his name was mentioned to the authorities by an informant, Marc Fievet, who worked for a loose cartel of French, German, Italian and Moroccan smugglers while at the same time informing to French Customs. George Atkinson began to gather information on Mills and his associates, and Fievet proved his worth by helping to arrange a sting against Mills: he supplied a boat, the Indigo, which the ID were able to crew with undercover officers. They collected more than a tonne of Moroccan cannabis, which was sailed to Devon in south-west England and unloaded into a van. The van was stopped at a roadside service station and a number of men were arrested. A separate but linked operation led to more arrests in May 1991, and the Spanish apprehended Mills on the UK’s behalf. The evidence was insufficient to charge him but he was returned to England to complete his original sentence.

Meanwhile a surveillance team on White and Zanelli kept watch on a haulage yard in Kent, where lorry trailers were being converted to hide drugs. When a large refrigerated trailer arrived from the Continent in October 1991 with more than a ton of cannabis, Customs launched a series of coordinated raids, arresting White and his cohorts. Their triumph was short-lived. The case against White was undermined when his co-defendant Zanelli was abducted at gunpoint from an Italian restaurant while on bail; two masked men fired a shot into the ceiling, put a hood over his head, bundled him into a car and drove off. The kidnap was in fact a sham: Zanelli was later found with a girlfriend in Amsterdam, from where he was extradited, but his absence from the proceedings had weakened the case against White, who was acquitted at Croydon Crown Court. Zanelli, however, was jailed for ten years, and White’s brother David was among others convicted. The investigators were disappointed but developed a grudging respect for White, who conducted himself during the trial with imperious calm, greeting Jim Jarvie outside court with a cordial ‘Morning, Mr Jarvie’ and stopping his hangers-on from verbally abusing another officer with the words, “Leave it out boys, he’s only doing his job.”

Black humor

White moved back to Spain, where his friend John Short was picking up the pieces after the loss of Mills, their chief smuggler. Short was an equally imposing figure, a massive, stone-faced, gravel-voiced Londoner with an overbearing manner. He was looking for a skipper to move vast amounts of cannabis from Afghanistan and coke from Colombia, and was prepared to buy a boat for that purpose. He had links with an Irish outfit who claimed to represent the IRA, and other international criminals. The informant Fievet passed the information back to his French handler, who told the ID.

One way of verifying Fievet’s claims was through a covert intelligence cell operating from Gibraltar, set up by the ID and the police to intercept the phone calls of British criminals. About a dozen officers, working in rotation, conducted ‘off-the-air’ interception of analogue cellphones, either targeting known numbers or scanning for ‘dirty’ ones via a large mast pointed along the Spanish coast, according to a source familiar with the unit. They had eight or nine of the most significant phones monitored constantly, and could monitor more than thirty at a time, although they did not have the facility to track their locations. “Often you didn’t know who you were listening to,” says the source. “Your job was to work out who they were. Basically it was Cockneys and Scousers. They were funny guys, black humor. They always had a bit of work on but they were causing chaos all the time, fighting and drinking.” Eventually analogue phones gave way to digital, which were less susceptible to eavesdropping, and the operation dwindled away.

“An absolute gent” of a villain

Bobby Mills was able to obtain day release from prison before completing his original sentence in the summer of 1993, and immediately returned to business. He organized a merchant ship, Poseidon, to sail a whopping 6.5 tons of Moroccan hashish to international waters off the south-west coast of England, from where a smaller vessel would fetch it into a marina at Littlehampton, in Sussex. A fleet of bogus fish delivery vans would then distribute the drugs across England. However the syndicate was now so compromised that undercover police and Customs officers were again able to crew the pick-up boat, the Delvan, in a meticulously planned operation backed up by the Special Boat Squadron, while Poseidon was tracked from over the horizon by two Royal Navy warships and a fisheries protection vessel. About half of its load had been coopered when the two vessels collided in stormy winter weather. The Delvan began to take on water and was forced to limp back to shore, while Poseidon aborted the rest of the handover and left the area, only to be pursued and boarded a hundred miles off the west coast of Ireland by a combined SBS and ID team. More than three tons was still on board.

Mills was arrested in a Chinese restaurant in London. He took the prospect of another decade in jail on the chin, refusing to cooperate but with his usual politeness. “Mills was an absolute gent to deal with, one of the old school of villains,” wrote Peter Bleksley, a detective who tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to confess. “He could have told us a lot. He was in his mid-fifties, his criminal career was over and he was looking at prison walls for many years to come. But he retained that old underworld code you rarely see now and we had a grudging respect for his values.” Mills admitted conspiracy to import and was jailed for eleven-and-a-half years.

The Untouchables were proving to be fallible.

This is an edited extract from Drug War: The Secret History, by author Peter Walsh, published by Milo Books. Walsh is an expert on organized crime. After a degree in politics and modern history at Manchester University, he worked as a newspaper and radio journalist for fifteen years and has appeared in a number of television documentaries. His investigative books have sold more than half a million copies and include several best-sellers, and he has twice been shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger award.

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