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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Wrath: The History of the Gunn Gang, the Violent Criminals Who Made Nottingham a “Pariah for Crime”

13 November 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Leosaysays

They were the brothers that put Nottingham at the centre of a nationwide crisis about gun crime, leaving a wake of broken lives, drug addiction and murders – some still unsolved – in their wake. From their home in Bestwood, the Gunn Gang, led by Colin Gunn, ran the UK’s biggest drug trafficking racket, creating a crime syndicate that by 2002 was the cause of one shooting per week. As the bodies piled up, the brothers continued to evade capture, leading to MI5 and the National Crime Squad launching an enormous undercover investigation to bring down the men who had cast such a dark shadow of fear, extortion and violence over Nottingham. Talking to Carl Fellstrom, author of Hoods, the book that explored the rise and fall of the Gunns, and Neil Woods, one of the officers that went undercover during the investigation, we look at how two working-class men from Bestwood Estate managed to create one of the biggest crime networks in British history….

There was nothing particularly unusual about Colin Gunn’s upbringing. Born in March 1967, two years after his brother David, Colin’s mother moved the family from Eastwood to Bestwood, the former mining village upon which Colin would leave an unimaginable mark. Ironically, the first of a lifetime of press attention came when a local church magazine heaped praise on Colin and David for apprehending a street robber in their teens. Quickly developing a reputation as the school bully, the intimidating young Colin learnt how to control and intimidate people from an early age. Mixing with older, experienced criminals ensured that Colin gained far more of an education outside of school than he did inside it, and it wasn’t long before he gained a reputation around Bestwood for his criminal activity. By the early nineties, when both brothers were in their mid-twenties, David and Colin could already boast of an impressive conviction sheet that included theft, burglary and handling stolen goods.  

It soon became clear to both brothers that a network of trust was essential if they were going to continue to expand their criminal repertoire. They were growing up in a rapidly changing country, where the connection between people and their police force was quickly dissipating. “There came a point where police officers were moving out of their class and out of the estates they patrolled and into more affluent areas. That disconnection began then,” explains Carl Fellstrom, author of Hoods, the definitive exploration of the Gunn gang. “That was one of the factors that led to people like Colin becoming so influential on their estates. They were seen to be doing the job that police used to do - keeping the peace, settling disputes, offering protection - albeit in a perverted way.” And so their Bestwood Cartel was born.

By offering financial help, solving local problems and putting on community events, Colin Gunn nurtured the Robin Hood effect that saw him become a beloved figure within Bestwood. By placing himself within the vacuum left by the absence of traditional policing methods, he became the go-to man to help if you were in need. In return, he gained the respect, adoration and, most importantly, silence of an entire community. And it was within that safety network that he was able to develop a multi-million pound crime syndicate spanning money lending, burglary, extortion, robbery, violence and, most financially rewarding, wholesale drug importation, the likes of which Nottingham has never seen before or since. 

But Colin Gunn, a man already cursed with a short temper and penchant for violence, began to increasingly rely on cocaine and steroids, a combination that caused him to become unstable and erratic. Anyone he suspected as being disloyal or a potential source of information for the police was a target, despite the fact that Colin Gunn had previously been a police informant himself, trading details of rival gangs with law enforcement. Stories of his exploits began to swirl around the streets of Nottingham, detailing how he would nail people’s hands to tables, or smash knuckles with a hammer. As Fellstrom writes:

“His psychotic alter-ego was beginning to surface more frequently than his community-spirited, Robin Hood persona, and he was starting to believe in his own myth as a type of real-life Tony Montana in Scarface – an all-seeing, all-powerful man who could control the lives of anybody around him.”

 

The fact that there are still unsolved crimes in Nottingham linked to Colin Gunn says a lot. No one has been able to find James Brodie yet

On one occasion in 1998, outside of what is now Ocean nightclub, he beat a man almost to death. His victim pressed charges, but the CCTV surveillance tapes mysteriously disappeared, meaning that he was only sentenced to community service, which he paid an imposter to complete on his behalf. But the cracks were starting to appear, and his name was becoming more and more synonymous with the rise of violence in Nottingham. “The people who are successful are the ones you don't hear about,” Fellstrom explains. “Once you start getting attention, be it media or police, you've got the monkey on your back.” The next month, David Gunn received a four year and nine month prison sentence for another incident of GBH. 

As the Bestwood Cartel’s activities grew, so did the violence. At the height of their influence, it’s said that they were averaging one shooting per week, and Nottingham found itself the subject of a whirlwind of unwanted press attention about rising gun crime, with national newspapers starting to call the city “Shottingham” and “Assasination City”. “Nottingham became a pariah for crime nationally around that period,” Fellstrom recalls. “If you go back to the national headlines, they were saying that gun crime had peaked, and they attributed a lot of those shootings to issues going on within the Bestwood Cartel.” 

The violence extended beyond gang members when Marian Bates was shot dead during the attempted robbery of her jewellery store in Arnold. Known Bestwood Cartel associates James Brodie and Peter Williams were involved in the botched job, with Williams later being sentenced to 22 years in prison. Brodie was never seen again, although informants have suggested that, fearing he might break under police pressure, Colin Gunn had him executed, had his hands, feet and head cut off, and fed his body to pigs. His remains have never been found. 

In a relatively brief period of time, Nottingham garnered the undesirable tag of being the crime capital of the UK, and the impact was devastating. Employers in the city struggled to get credible candidates for jobs, both universities suffered a 14% drop in applications, and investors and tourists alike were staying clear. In 2002, there were more shootings than in the previous seven years combined, and Nottinghamshire Police were struggling to cope. 

It was partly due to leadership mistakes, partly because of errors in policy and partly owing to the climate of fear the Gunns had created, as Fellstrom details in Hoods, explaining how Colin had the means to find out where police officers lived and, on one occasion, shot out the windows of a house belonging to an officer who had irritated him by being too good at his job. 

“There were discussions over the space of around nine months saying that Nottinghamshire police should be under control of the Government, which would have been unprecedented,” Neil Woods explains. “Although I saw the hard work that was being done, and thought the accusations were an insult.” The former police officer had spent a career specialising in undercover work, and had been sent to infiltrate elements of the Gunn Gang, eventually playing a role in their downfall. “I'd done plenty of undercover work before that, but this one had a real edge to how people were talking about it,” he remembers. “At the time I was doing that job it felt like there were daily shootings. The level of violence was extraordinary, and the tension going into it was really different.”

At the time I was doing that job it felt like there were daily shootings. The level of violence was extraordinary

Woods’ starting point was to pose as a heroin addict in order to gain access to anyone close to the Gunns and their drug distribution network. “I looked for vulnerable people that I could manipulate,” he explains. “I wanted to weaponise the weakest links in order to be introduced to the actual dealers.” An opportunity eventually presented itself when an addict Woods had worked introduced him to one of Gunn’s dealers, whose name we can’t print for legal reasons. “He was horribly violent, and developed a reputation for enjoying cutting people,” Woods recalls. “I heard on the grapevine that Gunn had him taken into the middle of a field, stripped naked and a shotgun shoved into his mouth to tell him to calm down.” The intended lesson didn’t have its effect, however, as the very next day when meeting Woods for the first time, he held a knife to the undercover officer’s groin and interrogated him. “Colin Gunn was telling people that if an undercover cop was found, he'd be snatched off the streets and tortured to death,” Woods says, recollecting the level of danger he found himself in. “There was no depravity or violence he wasn't capable of, and I completely believe he would have done it just to get one over on the police.”

The unwanted press attention and ineffective police approach were exacerbated by a series of Gunn-related incidents. Firstly, a young man named Marvyn Bradshaw was shot dead in his car outside the Sporting Chance pub in Bulwell in August 2003. The intended target was Bradshaw’s best friend Colin and David’s nephew Jamie Gunn, who was in the back seat. Jamie sank into an inconsolable, drug-fuelled depression from which he never recovered, eventually succumbing to pneumonia and leaving Colin inconsolable. In between the deaths of Bradshaw and Jamie Gunn, Bradshaw’s killer Michael O’Brien was jailed for the murder, and threw insults at both Bradshaw’s family and Colin Gunn, who was sitting in the gallery, as he was sentenced. Neither men knew it at the time, but the event would be the catalyst for tragedy in both of their lives. 

Meanwhile, the various police operations to bring down the Bestwood Cartel continued to be unsuccessful. Every time they got close, evidence would go missing, or Colin would somehow find himself in possession of intel detailing what the police knew, ensuring he could always stay one step ahead. Woods had been undercover for almost five months when, just a day after his brutal interrogation, he got introduced to two police officers who were standing in for members of his support team that were off sick. “One of them was fine, but the second guy – instantly my instincts started screaming that this guy was wrong. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up,” he says. “It was the way he shook my hand, like he was aware of my scrutiny. When you work undercover for months your senses are so fine-tuned, and I was already aware of the potential for corruption. I'd come across it before.”

Woods was right to be suspicious. The officer was Charles Fletcher, a man who had been personally recruited by Colin Gunn and placed into the Nottinghamshire Police Force, where he had been feeding back information for seven years. Gunn paid Fletcher £2,000 a month, with additional bonuses for good information, and he had helped his boss avoid capture on more than one occasion. “From conversations I've had with other criminals, he was one of a number, and there was evidence that suggested they also had people in the Crown Prosecution Service,” Carl Fellstrom explains. “Criminals that are high up can't function without having some help from corrupt people within institutions like the police.”

But Fletcher’s true motives weren’t to be known to the police until after the Bestwood Cartel fell, which was drawing closer. Always on the brink of rash, violent action, Colin Gunn had become enraged at the loss of his nephew and the insults he had suffered at the hands of his killer, Michael O’Brien. Unable to get to O’Brien in prison, he instead set about trying to get his revenge on the person closest to him: his mother. 

Joan Stirland and her husband John knew that they were in danger after her son was sent to prison. Moving into police protection, they relocated to Yorkshire, then back to Nottingham, before coming to the difficult realisation that the police weren’t doing enough to protect them from the threat Gunn posed. Leaving protection, they relocated to Trusthorpe, a quiet town on the Lincolnshire coast where, on Sunday 8 August, Joan Stirland called the police to report a prowler outside their bungalow. Unfortunately for Joan and John, the call wasn’t treated as serious, and the next day they were both shot dead. Having learnt of their address from a telecommunications employee, Gunn had arranged the murder. That deplorable act of revenge would be his eventual downfall. 

“The Stirland murders represented the turning point from which he couldn't really escape,” Fellstrom explains. “That particular incident shocked everybody. Even the criminals. That's where he overestimated his invincibility.” No one was ever convicted of the murders, but Colin Gunn and his associates Michael McNee and John Russell were all given 35-year sentences for conspiracy to murder John and Joan Stirland. 

Nottingham became a pariah for crime nationally around that period... they attributed a lot of those shootings to issues going on within the Bestwood Cartel

The murder of two ‘civilians’ had destroyed Colin Gunn’s Robin Hood image, meaning that the network of silence that had kept him safe for years was starting to dissipate. “You can see from the letters Colin sent from prison that he realised he'd gone too far, and that ‘rats’ were informing on him. He knew that particular crime had shocked a lot of people and turned their heads away from the way he wanted them to perceive him,” Fellstrom describes. “They realised that he wasn't this friendly, rough and ready guy who wanted to help his community. He was a brazen criminal.”

But the riots in Bestwood that followed Colin Gunn’s downfall showed that not all had turned their back on their one-time community leader. “There were still plenty of people he'd helped over the years that will always be loyal to him,” Fellstrom says. “The fact that there are still unsolved crimes in Nottingham linked to Colin Gunn says a lot. No one has been able to find James Brodie yet.”

David Gunn was later imprisoned for Amphetamine possession and supply charges in 2006, and sentenced to another three years for conspiracy to supply Class B drugs in September of this year. Charles Fletcher, the police officer who helped the Gunn Gang avoid capture for so long, was jailed for seven years for corruption. Following his release from prison he was part of the team that started Four Four DJ Academy, an organisation that provides DJ courses from their facilities in Nottingham. Author Carl Fellstrom is currently working on his follow-up book, despite incurring the wrath of Colin Gunn for Hoods. As for Neil Woods, he retired from a life in the police after coming to the realisation that he was doing more harm than good. “I was diagnosed with chronic PTSD due to near death experiences, months of living on the edge and the moral injury from the harm I know caused to others.” Woods now dedicates his life to trying to reform drug policy, and is a member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a growing international organisation that advocates an evidence based drug policy and related criminal justice reforms.

“The crunch came when I was working on a case in Northampton. It took seven months, 96 people were arrested, including six major gangsters, I almost got killed twice. Five counties’ worth of police were utilised during it,” Woods explains. “A week after that, the intel guy told me that we'd interrupted the flow of drugs for just two hours. It brought it sharply into focus just how much of a farce it all is. I had to review my entire career. Every single year that I did that type of work, the streets got more violent.”

He draws comparisons between the current drug policies and Prohibition in America during the 1920s, which gave rise to organised crime. “People say that they're worried about crime, so ban the drugs. But they've created the crime by doing so. It really is that simple. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he clarifies. “If you arrest a burglar, burglaries go down because it’s a relatively niche field. When you arrest a drug dealer, violence goes up, because it creates a vacuum that inevitably leads to violent power struggle. 

“If you're under eighteen, it's easier to get cocaine than it is alcohol,” Woods concludes. “Drugs have never been more readily available, the quality has never been so pure and the drug deaths have never been higher.”

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