Games of shadows

The investigative journalist Michael Gillard tells how his stories about organised crime in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics put his life in danger

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If there were Olympic medals for avoiding justice, David Hunt would be at the top of the podium every time. Nor does he take kindly to press interviews. When one reporter asked him for a few words of insight into yet another lucky escape from conviction, he got a fractured eye socket for his trouble. Michael Gillard wasn’t quite so unlucky but when he was asked to be a witness in a trial against Hunt he needed the protection of five bodyguards.

“Urban regeneration always presents criminal opportunities for banksters and gangsters.”

But Gillard is not one to shy away from a challenge, however risky, and his latest book, Legacy: Gangsters, Corruption and the London Olympics, finds him in fearless mode, taking on the London mob that spirals out from David aka Davey Hunt – and also, due to his six foot five inch height, as the “Long Fella” – and exposing the criminal connections that tie him to the police, local and national governments and the mega-finance free-for-all that came out of the 2012 London Games.

For more than 20 years Gillard has been investigating the police and, in particular, the failures of self-regulation. His research, published in The Sunday Times and Private Eye, has led him to look closely at the ways in which the public purse and private development collide and collude.

His 2004 book Untouchables, co-written with Laurie Flynn, took in the murders of Stephen Lawrence, David Norris and Jill Dando and the phone hacking scandal, but its point of departure was the 1983 Brinks Mat robbery, when £26 million in gold bullion was seized by South East London villains and laundered through the dockland developments of Bermondsey and Southwark.

Gillard says connections between criminality, the docks and development go back a long way.

“Urban regeneration always presents criminal opportunities for banksters and gangsters. London’s East End has long been associated with organised crime. The East India Company was a marauding gangster corporation that pillaged across country lines.

“Lower down the food chain were the home-grown crime families incubated in port cities like London who made their living thieving off ships, then lorry hijacking, robbing banks and running protection rackets that terrorised their own communities.

“When the Royal Docks were closed down in the early eighties, land on both banks of the Thames inevitably became prime real estate for regeneration into a new financial hub, all of which coincided with the rise of organised drug crime.”

Much of Legacy unfolds along the Silvertown Strip, three miles east of Canary Wharf. It’s hard to imagine that a few decades ago, the area was abandoned and largely forgotten. Skyscrapers for banking HQs and a light railway transformed the area into London’s second financial hub – or in Gillard’s terms, “a citadel of greed and algorithmic thuggery”.

Beyond this US-style satellite city, there remained brownfield sites, dilapidated warehouses and industrial yards. When the Olympics rolled in to town, Canning Town and Silvertown, which lie north and south of the old Victoria Dock, were ripe for development.

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Gillard’s book takes us on a con’s tour of Newham borough, showing up the interface between investors, building firms, corrupt police and government on the one hand, and dodgy bookies, scrap metal thieves, drug dealers, boxing and football firms on the other. The latter include some of the biggest names in London’s criminal landscape: Billy Allen, Jimmy Holmes, Chic Matthews, the Bowers brothers, the Adams family – and the Hunts.

“I heard about the Hunt organised crime group in 1999,” says Gillard. “They were up and coming and the boss had just got off a nasty crime. Hunt became a one-to-watch story that turned into Legacy when I learned that a detective on his trail had been thrown under the bus by his bosses in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games.”

Hunt shadows the entire story, seeming almost to control the plot at times. A promising footballer, he had a trial at Millwall before taking up amateur boxing. He won every bout and then retired to apply his pugilistic skills as a bouncer for local pubs. He and Holmes toured Soho beating up “nonces” and began joint ventures, moving together in a world of nightclubs, robberies, drugs, prostitution and protection rackets.

Violent crimes began to take place in the Long Fella’s wider circles of acquaintance. Hunt fell under suspicion for involvement in the Epping Forest double murder of 1989. This was the occasion when he was approached by Daily Mirror crime reporter Peter Wilson. Hunt grabbed him, shook him “like a rag doll” – Wilson’s words – and then headbutted him with such force that it smashed his right eye socket.

The hero to Hunt’s villain is DCI David “Mac” McKelvey, an old-school copper who still believed in the beat and taking baddies off the streets. In 2006 Mac and his Newham crime squad made a go of cleaning up Canning Town. A raid on a scrap-metal yard – owned by associates of Hunt – found more than £1 million worth of stolen luxury goods. Then a tip-off by a whistle-blower led to the arrest of council contractor Danny McGuinness, whose day job was removing abandoned and untaxed vehicles, but who made his main living nicking high-end cars.

But when McGuinness was led away, he told the detectives: “This’ll never get to court.” He was right. Neither case was taken forward. As reward for the successful investigation and arrest, DCI McKelvey was told that he was under suspicion of corruption himself.

Mac’s undoing and Hunt’s extraordinary ability to avoid prison are the two sides of a coin in Legacy. The account is full of twists and turns, but the nub is that Scotland Yard, acting on behalf of business and local and national government, threw a good cop under the bus because they believed Hunt was too powerful to bring down – especially during the £10.5 billion Olympic Games build-up.

“The billboards went up to block out the ravaging effects of austerity on communities struggling in five East London boroughs, two of which, Newham and Tower Hamlets, are among the poorest in the UK,” says Gillard. “Meanwhile, politicians and businessmen who caused the global financial crisis and walked away scot-free get to earn voter credit and fill their boots once again.

“New Labour, the coalition government and Boris Johnson as London mayor were made aware of the corruption exposed in Legacy. But under the present system it is easy for politicians to refer complaints back to the police as an ‘operational matter’ or suggest going to the hopeless police watchdog who will only refer
it back to the very police force complained about.

“There are necessary secrets and there are different types of corruption that are kept secret simply to protect the reputation of the police. They see themselves as a ‘family’ and vindictively punish those officers who step out of line. Mac and his team of Newham detectives were off message in the pursuit of Hunt and embarrassing bosses in front of their ‘stakeholders’ – the government, council, business and Olympic organisers.”

Gillard worries that similar processes of gentrification and displacement seen across northern cities today are increasingly escaping scrutiny.

“Why would Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool be different? Only nowadays, the regional press is diminished and there is no dedicated, effective and independent unit looking at public sector corruption at a time when politicians are setting the worst example.”

Dismayed at the lack of support for investigative journalism, he is launching a newsletter called the Upsetter so that journalists who assume a lot of risk can “cheaply own the means of production and publish our work when the traditional media won’t, for whatever reason”.

Gillard says there’s still more to come out of his ongoing investigations, including “unsolved murders, unexplained corrupt payments, backhanders for planning permission [and] pork barrel politics with Asian community leaders”.

Today, Hunt manages a multi-million-pound property empire. When Gillard won the Journalist of the Year award in December 2013 – in recognition of 11 years of investigations into Hunt – he was unable to pick up his gong in person due to security concerns. Only in 2015 did Mac receive an official apology and damages, having left the force in 2010.

The Olympic Games of 2012 were a propaganda-fest, sold to the public as representing “British values” such as fair play, clean, drug-free sports, and the redistribution of wealth and health. Legacy explodes these myths. But East End cons are, Gillard says, relatively low in the hierarchy of corruption and Covid-19 is creating its own damning legacy.

“There is a lot to be angry about in the real world,” he says. “I am more offended by the sleaze around this government of Eton Rifles and the handing out of public contracts to mates of Boris and the Tories during a pandemic they failed to prepare for or manage. Isn’t that more morally repugnant?”

Legacy: Gangsters, Corruption and the London Olympics by Michael Gillard is published by Bloomsbury (£10.99)

Main image: Olympic ceremony 2012 (Mark J Terrill/Shutterstock)

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