In days gone by, what is now the Brixton McDonald’s – at the five corner junction overlooked by Lambeth Town Hall– used to be a branch of one of the ‘big five’ banks. A clearing house for money from all over south London, it sat packed with cash, a peach ready to be plucked by anyone with enough brains and bottle to try it.
In those days there were criminals whose sole object in life was to hunt out such targets, research them thoroughly, then get together a team of like-minded individuals and take them down. One such criminal was Daniel Butler – Danny to his friends, of whom there were few. One Thursday morning in June 1982, when the rush hour was at its height and the bank was stuffed with notes awaiting collection by armoured car, he put his plan into action.
Danny had been a mod in the 1960s. An ‘ace face’, as he liked to be called. He’d cruised the streets of London like a king in his souped-up Ford Anglia, making acquaintances as he went: little gangsters who wanted money for clothes, records and cars without doing too much work. And from these young men he recruited a fine collection of villains who would make their mark on the underworld of the capital in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Now in his early thirties, Jimmy Hunter was one of those young men. When Danny had called him up, a month or so earlier, Jimmy had been only too pleased to come in as top man on the bank raid.
It was a simple plan: straightforward blagging with little subtlety. A straight in-and-outer. Danny lined up the job, brought in the personnel, supplied transport and ordnance, a getaway route, took his cut off the top and dropped back into the shadows. When it worked, it was financially rewarding all round. When it didn’t… well, when it didn’t he wouldn’t be around to see it go bad. Danny made it his business to be in another country, if not another continent, when that happened. And on this job, the getaway was the problem. Danny didn’t like it, but there was little choice. He’d explained as much to the little firm when he’d first outlined the plan to them. Do it, or don’t do it, it was up to them. They’d all agreed to do it. On such decisions lives are changed – and lost.
The night before the job was due to go off, the summer warmth kept the streets of Brixton and the surrounding area busy until late in the evening. Stevie Little, known to his mates and most of the Metropolitan Police as Little Stevie Wonder, broke into Stockwell bus garage and had it away with a double-decker red Routemaster bus which he drove to a scrap yard in Clapham and parked up behind a pile of ’60s and ’70s motors waiting to be crushed into yard square blocks of metal and rubber. He spent the rest of the night in the office drinking tea, reading ancient copies of Penthouse and Playboy, and listening to his portable radio.
The next morning at nine sharp, four men roughly the same age as Jimmy Hunter met at a coffee stall next to Clapham South tube station. Two drove to the rendezvous in a stolen Ford Granada Ghia, the other two went by public transport. In the boot of the Ford were two pump action shotguns, sawn off fore and aft and loaded with five double-ought shells, plus two six-shot .38 revolvers, along with four large nylon sports bags with webbing straps. Enough, Danny figured, to carry away all the notes in the bank’s safe. Jimmy Hunter drove the car to the meet, the number two man, Dave Nicholls in the passenger seat beside him. Jack Dewhurst caught a bus from Balham and Paul Walker took the Northern Line from Stockwell. By eight-thirty they were all drinking tea and smoking. No-one ate. This was the biggie and none of them were hungry.
‘How much do you reckon?’ said Paul to Jimmy as he sipped his strong, sweet brew.
‘Half a million,’ said Jimmy, for the hundredth time since the gang had been recruited. ‘Minimum. Maybe more, Danny said.’
‘Jesus,’ said Jack. ‘Holiday in Spain.’
‘A long one,’ said Dave.
The men stood talking and smoking for fifteen minutes until Jimmy looked at his watch and said ‘Time’.
The men went to the car which was parked up in a side road a few hundred yards from the stall. They gathered around the boot and selected their weapons. Jack was to drive the car to the job and wait with the engine running as the other three went into the bank. Jack took a .38, as did Paul, the other two picked up the shotguns, wrapped in brown paper and slid them under their jackets before all four climbed aboard. As they settled in their seats, Paul, Jimmy and Dave each took a woollen cap from a pocket and pulled it on. Paul found the stopwatch that Danny had given him to time the raid, hanging it around his neck by its strap.
Danny had told them so many times it was engraved in their minds. ‘Two minutes from the off and you go, no more. Don’t piss about, just leave.’
Jimmy knew that the getaway was the big risk. But then, everything in his life had been a risk for as long as he could remember. That was why he and Danny had impressed upon the rest of them that two minutes from the moment they arrived was all the time they could afford in the bank. He knew that, no matter how heavily armed they were or how ready they were to use their guns, some jobsworth would press the panic button. And Brixton nick was less than half a mile down the road in the direction they had to go; and, at that time of day, the traffic would be heavy down the Brixton Road. But there was a turning next to the old Bon Marché building where Jimmy’s mum had taken him shopping so many times when he’d been a boy. And once in that turning, the narrow streets of Brixton twisted and turned away back to Clapham, where another stolen car was waiting.
If they could only get there, then they could vanish into south London without a trace. The cash would be delivered to Danny Butler’s accountant to be counted and neatly laundered. Only then would they be paid in clean money. It took a little longer than doling out the loot in the back of the motor like they were used to, but Danny was careful, and being careful had kept him out of jail. If any of the blaggers didn’t like the deal, then they could find employment elsewhere. Danny didn’t care. There were plenty more likely lads out there looking for work.
Jack started the Ford’s engine, and right on time, Stevie Little drove the Routemaster along Clapham High Street with the destination board showing: OUT OF SERVICE and a canvas strap looped across the rear entrance. At the sight of the bus, Jimmy turned to Jack and said, ‘Do it’.
Jack put the gear lever into ‘drive’ and slid the powerful car into the traffic, taking up a position directly in front of the empty Routemaster.
The bank opened at 9.30am. At 9.25 precisely, the convoy moved slowly down Acre Lane until they came to the traffic lights outside, the Ford third in the queue of traffic. The men sat quietly, but the tension in the car was palpable.
When the lights changed to green, Jack let the cars in front go, then turned sharp left and stopped just past the pedestrian crossing. Stevie pulled the bus across three lanes of traffic, stalled the engine, hopped out of the cab wearing a busman’s cap pulled low over his eyes, turned off the fuel cut-out lever by the driver’s door, and vanished into the crowd of pedestrians waiting to cross at the intersection towards the tube station. Immediately, a cacophony of horns began, and a young woman named Mavis Hampton opened the front doors of the bank ready for business.
Danny and Jimmy had been watching the doors for weeks from various points around the crossroads, individually or together, sometimes up close and sometimes on the far side of the street. They knew exactly what would happen next: Mavis would unlock the massive wooden doors with huge, round, brass handles – relics of the days when banks were strong and secure, the bastions of the establishment – fasten them back, greet any waiting customers and hold open one of the half glass doors for them, turn, stroll back to the security door at the side of the counter which led into the bank’s inner sanctum, turn her key, go behind the bullet-proof screen to do whatever she did to earn her crust, letting that door swing closed behind her.
That morning there were two early punters: a young Rastafarian in a woolly hat and a long overcoat, too warm for the weather, and an elderly woman with a shopping trolley. Mavis locked back the big, thick doors, smiled at the waiting pair and opened one of the inner doors for them to enter and do their financial business. But today something was different. Today, Mavis’s worst nightmares were about to come true. As the civilians stepped inside, the three robbers pulled their caps down over their faces leaving only gaps for eyes and mouth, and sprung from the car as one, Jimmy carrying the four nylon bags over his shoulder. Almost unnoticed by the commuters rushing to work, they freed their weapons and burst through the bank’s front entrance just as Mavis opened the security door. Jimmy leapt the few yards between them, pushed her through the doorway on to the floor, stuck the barrel of his shotgun into the back of her neck and screamed: ‘No one move or she’s dead.’
His two companions took up positions inside the foyer, Paul at the door with stop-watch and pistol, Dave inside, covering Jimmy and forcing the two customers to lie prone on the floor.
‘The safe,’ yelled Jimmy.
Barry Boswick, twenty-eight, under-manager of the bank, was just – as Jimmy knew he would be – opening the time-controlled lock of the main vault. He stood open-mouthed at the sight of the three bank robbers who, it seemed, had arrived from nowhere.
‘Keep going,’ ordered Jimmy.
Barry considered for one second slamming the vault shut. When he saw Mavis, who he’d always secretly fancied but had never plucked up enough courage to ask out, flat on her face with a vicious looking weapon drilling into the back of her pretty neck, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and did as he was told. He swung the huge, counter-balanced door open.
Jimmy saw the piles of cash inside and smiled as he sweated behind his mask. ‘Now!’ he yelled, tossing the four bags to Barry. ‘Fill ’em up.’
Barry did as he was told.
Paul remained at his position by the door, stopwatch in one hand, pistol in the other. ‘Come on, come on!’ he screamed. ‘One minute-thirty left.’ He turned his attention to the customers on the floor for a moment and saw the young black man peering up at him. ‘Face to the floor you nigger bastard,’ he spat. ‘Don’t look at me, or I’ll fucking kill you.’
The black man showed his teeth at the insult, but did as he was told.
Outside was chaos. Cars piled up on all three approach roads behind the abandoned bus, just as Jimmy knew they would, preventing the coppers from arriving from any but one point of the compass. The road away towards London was empty, except for the idling Ford.
Money crashed into the bags as Jimmy oversaw the loading and Dave covered the staff and the two customers.
‘Hang on,’ shouted Paul as another customer entered the bank. Paul grabbed him by the shoulder and forced him to join those on the floor.
There was more money in the vault than any of the men had ever seen and it seemed to be taking forever for Barry Boswick, shaking with fear, to load it into the bags.
‘Thirty seconds,’ screamed Paul. ‘Come on, quick.’
Finally, the job was done, the bags were full to overloading and the shelves of the vault were empty of everything except bagged change.
‘Time!’ Paul called out.
‘Go!’ shouted Jimmy who picked up the bags and threw one at Paul who caught it one handed, surprised at the weight. Dave hefted the other three and staggered into the foyer behind him.
Jimmy grabbed a bag, and all three ran from the bank out to the car, scattering pedestrians in their wake. Then it was inside the motor and away.
At least, that was the plan.
What three of the robbers in the car didn’t know was that some days previously the fourth had been pulled in by the police over another matter entirely. A very serious matter, which might have cost him his freedom for a lot of years. As he sat facing Detective Constable Billy Farrow in an interview room in Brixton Police Station, the criminal in question told the DC every detail of the bank raid.
So, unknown to his companions, a police operation was laid on for that day, and as the robbery took place they were being watched from vantage points all around the bank by heavily armed members of the Flying Squad, Special Patrol Group and local CID.
As the gang headed for the car, the young Rastafarian reached inside his overcoat for the radio concealed there. ‘Go, go, go!’ said Detective-Sergeant Winston Martin before helping the terrified customers to their feet and going to check on Mavis Hampton and the rest of the bank staff.
First to be picked up was Stevie Little as he ran down the stairs into Brixton Underground station. Two young constables, dressed in street clothes were waiting at the bottom and grabbed an arm each as he went to the ticket machine. ‘Hello Stevie,’ said the first one as he produced his handcuffs and cautioned the man. ‘You should’ve stayed on the bus.’
‘Shit,’ said Stevie under his breath as he allowed himself to be taken without a fight.
Out on the street, the four other gang members were all now in the car and Jack stuck it into gear, let off the footbrake, swung out into the empty road and took off. But as he did so, cars converged from the side streets off Brixton Road and suddenly his escape route was blocked. Heavy steel barriers running down the middle of the street prevented him from doing a U-turn, so he shot up on to the pavement, sending startled pedestrians diving for cover, but even that route was blocked when a police van emerged from a pedestrian alleyway and slid in front of them.
‘Bloody hell,’ yelled Jimmy from his seat. ‘Out. Take the money.’
Jack skidded the Ford to a halt on the wide pavement outside Morley’s department store and the four men did as Jimmy had ordered, guns at the ready. Suddenly the streets of Brixton were a free fire zone.
Each man took a different route away from the stalled Ford. Paul ran back in the direction of the bank, saw an armed SPG officer, and grabbed a middle-aged woman on her way to do some shopping in the market as a shield. He held his pistol to her head, but two more blue-clad police carrying automatic weapons moved from the doorway of an office where they had been observing the scene, and he realised that he was outgunned. On the orders of the first officer, he released his hostage, dropped his gun and bag of loot and assumed a prone position on the dirty pavement.
Jack ran towards the open door of Morley’s, but two coppers were waiting for him. When he saw his escape route blocked, he fired his gun twice at one of the huge plate glass windows of the store. It imploded in a cascade of broken glass. He jumped into the gap, kicking aside mannequins in scanty lingerie and, knocking aside anyone in his way, made for the back doors pursued by the two uniformed police officers. When he crashed out of the back entrance he was met by two more PCs, who had been alerted by radio. He raised his .38 and fired, hitting one of the uniforms in the side. Looking more surprised than hurt, the policeman leant up against a lamppost before sliding down into a sitting position. His oppo, who had expected to be well away from any shooting, drew and hurled his truncheon at the armed man, but missed. Jack turned on his heel and headed up a narrow alley between two high, brick walls. The two coppers from Morleys gave chase, whilst the officer who’d thrown his baton tried to staunch the blood from his mate’s wound and call an ambulance on his personal radio through transmissions that were threatening to overload the frequency. Jack kept running, the two coppers sweating in pursuit. He turned another corner only to come face to face with a handsome young plainclothes detective pointing an automatic pistol straight into his face. ‘Go on, son,’ said the officer, the line of his immaculate suit only spoiled by the radio in his jacket pocket that was quietly spewing out commands and counter-commands. ‘You like shooting at coppers don’t you? Try me.’
Jack thought for a second, then smiled and carefully placed his gun on the pavement as the two uniforms came round the corner behind him and pushed him headfirst into the wall, using their elbows and fists to constrain him as they cuffed him up and read him his rights. ‘You should’ve waited a minute,’ said the plainclothes policeman holstering his gun. ‘And I could’ve shot him in self defence.’
Jack looked at the man over his shoulder and saw that he was deadly serious and that he had come closer to being killed than he liked. ‘Bastard,’ he said.
‘Mr Bastard Sir, to you,’ said the detective, and he hit Jack in the face. Not with his fist. He didn’t want to break his delicate knuckles. So he used the heel of his hand as some grizzled old copper had taught him when he first joined the force. Jack’s nose broke, and blood poured from his nostrils.
‘I’ll remember you,’ Jack said through teeth gritted with pain, shaking claret from his face.
‘That’s nice,’ said the young copper. ‘Do that. My name’s Nick. What’s yours?’
When Jack said nothing in reply, the detective just grinned. ‘Take him away,’ he said.
Dave, meanwhile, made a run for it across Brixton Road. He jumped over the barrier, dodged between cars heading out of town and headed towards Electric Avenue, where he hoped to lose himself in Brixton Market. But luck wasn’t running his way that morning. From the direction of central London, his nemesis in the shape of an ancient white Ford Transit full of plumbing supplies and tools, was heading his way. At the wheel was a plumber named Phil Hardy. Not that his name matters. Phil was late for a job on Streatham Hill. And when he saw the lights at the junction start to change he put his foot down. The old Tranny wasn’t in the best of condition and slightly overloaded, with rather less meat on the tyres than the law demanded. So when Dave ran out in front of him, and Phil Hardy slammed on the brakes, instead of a gentle deceleration, the truck broadsided, hitting Dave hard enough to leave a body-shaped dent in the dirty metal of the van. And also hard enough to split open the bag he was carrying over his shoulder and send the cash inside flying into the air, where it gently floated to the ground in a flurry of five-, ten- and twenty-pound notes. This naturally caused the good citizens of Brixton – who knew a result when they saw one – to stampede in a rush for the money.
Dave Nicholls’s neck was broken by the impact, and he was dead before his body bounced on the tarmac. Jimmy Hunter had only been a few steps behind him, but he managed to avoid joining Dave as a Lambeth vehicle fatality statistic, as he body-swerved through the gentle rain of bank notes, dodging the vultures scrabbling for the money, and he was away. Jimmy hardly spared a glance at Dave’s body. He was out of the game. One down, three to go. No time for recriminations. Once the job was blown it was every man for himself. That was the code.
DC Farrow, who, despite his junior rank, had instigated the obbo on the bank, followed Jimmy closely across the empty northbound lane, over the barrier and through the traffic. He also avoided obstacles and injury. ‘James Hunter,’ he called to Jimmy’s retreating back. ‘Armed police! Stop or I’ll shoot.’ But, as so many folks were fighting for the cash in front of him, it was a vain threat.
Jimmy ignored him and ran down the pavement between the buildings and the stalls on the edge of the road. He shoved early shoppers and traders out of his way, jumping over sacks of fruit and vegetables and boxes of cheap cosmetics and clothes, the bag of money weighing him down on one side, his shotgun on the other, clasped in his fist like an overgrown handgun.
Billy Farrow followed closely, feeling the sweat beginning to form on him, half from the exertion of the chase, half from fear of what the desperate, armed man in front of him might do if he was cornered. He knew Jimmy, probably better than he should, and he was aware of what he was capable of.
Then Jimmy Hunter was trapped.
As he came out in Atlantic Road, a squad car skidded to a halt opposite the entrance to Brixton rail station, blocking his escape. Jimmy swore and turned back just as Billy Farrow came round the corner behind him. Jimmy lobbed the bag of money at Farrow which caught him on the chest and sent him tumbling into the gutter, dropping his weapon. Jimmy Hunter laughed and raised his shotgun to his shoulder. Suddenly he recognised the policeman and hesitated. ‘Christ. Billy Farrow, is that you?’
‘Yeah Jimmy, it’s me,’ replied Farrow.
‘Blue eyes, you fucking traitor. We trusted you.’
‘Give it up Jimmy,’ shouted Farrow from the ground. ‘We know everything. We’ve got the other car. There’s no way out.’
‘Like hell, copper,’ said Jimmy, feeling his finger on the trigger. He knew it was all up, but he was determined that he was never going to go back to prison, where he’d spent so much of his life. ‘Like hell I say.’ He thought of his wife and two children back at home and what they were doing at that moment and what they’d be doing for the rest of their lives. Lives he would never see. So many birthdays and Christmases and anniversaries and good and bad times that he almost smiled as he tightened his finger further.
He saw Farrow put up one hand as if by doing so he could prevent the inevitable, and as he looked down into the deep blue eyes that had got Billy Farrow his nickname, almost without meaning to, Jimmy pulled the trigger and the hammer on the gun started the short journey towards the rim of the cartridge. Just a centimetre or two in distance, and a split second in time, but a split second that would stretch for more than twenty years before its echoes and reverberations would finally end.