One summer morning, six years ago, I met the journalist and author Michael Gillard at the start of an extraordinary libel trial that he and The Sunday Times were defending against a gangland crime boss. Over coffee in the Royal Courts of Justice cafe, Gillard pointed out four tall burly men dotted around the room who had been hired to protect the witnesses giving evidence on his behalf.
The next day, those bodyguards didn’t turn up to take Gillard to court. It was reported that they had been warned off the night before by a menacing stranger in the pub and attempts to replace them with an internationally famous security firm proved futile. The security firm, which operates in the world’s worst trouble spots, did its due diligence and concluded it was too dangerous.
It says a lot about Gillard’s immense strength of character and his fearless commitment to evidence-based journalism that not only did he win the case and write about it extensively in The Sunday Times, but he has also now produced Legacy: Gangsters, Corruption and the London Olympics in which he gives an unflinching account of the “psychopath” gang boss those security companies so feared.
The security firm did its due diligence and concluded it was too dangerous to escort the author to court.
Legacy is a truly original and only-too-real story of ganglands, crime and corruption in a run-down corner of east London that had suddenly become hot property as the site for the 2012 Olympics. It is a book packed with a long cast of colourful, if unsavoury characters and a host of jaw-dropping stories. At times, it reads like a script from an American television series such as The Wire or The Sopranos — only this is Britain in modern times and the events Gillard relates actually happened.
Among the rogues, criminals and fraudsters around Canning Town, one domineering character looms large: David Hunt, the man whose piercing dark eyes attempted to outstare the author during the trial. The book presents Hunt as a clever and ruthless villain with a sadistic streak who appeared to relish the fear he engendered. It charts his rise in an area riven with gangland feuds, where crime mixed with the far-right politics of the National Front and others.
The hardest and canniest of all the villains, as a young man Hunt had been the kingpin of a gang of hoodlums, nicknamed the Snipers, who terrorised the area with protection rackets and threats of violence. Hunt’s emerging syndicate was later identified by a police intelligence report as a “feared criminal force” thought to be behind a range of offences.
But, as Gillard points out, intelligence wasn’t evidence and it could not be used to convict the crime boss whose only criminal conviction to date is a suspended nine-month sentence for conspiring to handle stolen goods in 1987. The author recounts the allegations of police corruption, witness intimidation and even jury nobbling that have surrounded members of the gang over the years but never led to anyone being charged or convicted.
The bodyguards who deserted their post during the trial had good reason to fear the crime boss, as Hunt and his heavies had carried out a particularly vicious attack in the precincts of a London court a few years before. A former amateur boxer, Hunt was accustomed to extreme violence, smashing the bone in a reporter’s eye socket with a head butt and slashing an associate from chin to ear with a knife.
Today, Hunt is a wealthy man who lives with his family in an Essex mansion. When the police raided it a few years ago, his wife requested that the detectives take off their shoes to avoid ruining the white carpet. He has continued to frustrate them at every turn.
A former amateur boxer, Hunt was accustomed to violence, slashing an associate from chin to ear with a knife.
Gillard tells the story of one detective who bravely attempted to take on the “untouchable” gangster, but was thwarted when he himself was wrongly investigated for corruption by his police colleagues. The tentacles of crime and corruption reached into the police and local politics.
In the end, it was Gillard’s robust journalism that managed to prove what the police had failed to do in 30 years. After listening to dozens of allegations and counterclaims, the judge in the libel trial, Mr Justice Simon, declared Hunt to be “the head of an organised crime network, implicated in extreme violence and fraud”. It was a form of vindication for his victims.