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Once upon a time in the East End … Tommy Hole

Tommy Hole was a hard man who thought his reputation for violence would carry him through to a peaceful retirement. But then he was gunned down in a pub in broad daylight. Was it the result of a 20-year turf war or a misjudged drugs heist? Nick Paton Walsh investigates

The Beckton Arms is a small, boozy doldrums in London’s East End. On one side it is flanked by Barking Road, on the other the A13. Each night the road heaves under the weight of traffic trying to get out of the capital, but the Beckton’s side road remains still. Here, on a lethargic Sunday afternoon on 5 December of last year, one of Canning Town’s most notorious faces, 57-year-old Tommy Hole, met his lifelong friend, Joe ‘The Crow’ Evans, for an afternoon’s drinking. Hole had run into Geoff Humphries, Evans’s son-in-law, earlier that afternoon and the three sat at the bar. At 3pm, someone came in, scouted around and quickly left. Surrounded by regulars, Hole, Evans and Humphries carried on drinking, unperturbed.

Fifteen minutes later, two men entered the Beckton by the front door. The half-light of midwinter filtered through the fake spray-on snow of the windows, but the incongruity between the pub’s festive decorations and the newcomers’ scarved faces stirred few. The televised crowd ripples from Football Italia occasionally eclipsed the muttering at the bar. The men walked up behind Evans and fired two shots with a handgun, the first entering the base of his skull at point-blank range. Hole’s reflexes took him from his bar stool towards the back door. The two gunmen fired a further nine shots, four hitting Hole’s upper body and one his head. The gunmen turned and left the pub, unflustered, walking with practised calm through the A13’s underpass and disappearing into a labyrinth of cul-de-sacs. Humphries was left standing unscathed next to the landlady’s children and a mother-to-be, and, despite a pub full of witnesses, the killers are still free.Advertisement

In a 35-year criminal career, Tommy Hole was a convicted armed robber, car thief, drug manufacturer and dealer, attempted murderer and probable killer, who had spent half this time in jail.

Hole had left his wife Christina at 1.40pm that day, casually saying, ‘Right, sweetheart, I’m off now, catch you later.’ Christina and Tommy had married on 17 March 1995, while Hole was a voluntary resident of Rampton High Security Hospital, having completed a six-year sentence he began at Parkhurst Prison. He had been jailed in 1989 for armed robbery and for running a £400,000 amphetamine factory with his son Kevin. Father and son had adjacent cells, united in prison counterculture. They had practised a warped form of symbiosis for years, and were now inseparable. During their sentence, Kevin became ensnared in a drug deal with other inmates, and became depressed. One night in 1991 he seemed abnormally cheerful at lights out. But when Tommy walked between the neighbouring cells with his routine cup of tea the following morning, he found his son hanging dead from his cell door. The coroner’s verdict was suicide. Hole suffered a nervous breakdown and was moved to Rampton.

Tommy Hole’s prison career began in June 1963, aged 21, when he was sentenced to three months for forging banknotes. During this time, he escaped from the Hammersmith Hospital ward where he was being treated. Barely six months passed before he was in the dock again, receiving five years for robbery with violence after a payroll snatch had backfired. There is a maxim which says that criminals who spend too many of their days in jail should look for different work, or a better firm, but the frequency of Hole’s court appearances is more testament to his profligacy as a criminal than his ineptitude. This was the London of the Krays and Richardsons, where the organisation of protection, heists and racketeering meant that young gangsters such as Hole considered jail part of the lifestyle. And as the amount of time Tommy did grew, so did his status. In 1973, Hole and George Davis – otherwise known as ‘Darkie’ George – were in Chelmsford Crown Court, with three other men, charged with a £47,000 whisky raid in Stratford, east London. The case leant on the evidence of supergrasses Charles Lowe and Kieran McCormack, both of whom said they were on the same raid. But Hole and Davis were seamless enough in their alibis to be found not guilty. By the time of his next conviction, Hole had increased in confidence.Advertisement

It was 1975. A local man, James Venton, fell foul of Hole. Newspaper reports neglect to mention Venton’s offence, but what followed was not about exacting retribution, but building reputation. Hole and a local boxer, Billy Williams, went to Venton’s home. The two men dragged him into the street, where Williams held Venton down while Hole ran over him three times with a car. The brutality of the case made the headlines and Venton agreed to act as chief witness for the prosecution. Hole was jailed for seven years for attempted murder. Forty-eight hours later, three men went to the home of Venton’s family and smashed four windows. Hole had begun to amass a loyal following.

While still serving time for attempted murder, Hole was charged with a £7,000 armed robbery at the London Electricity Board in Ilford, during which a policeman was shot. Hole was cleared, but George Davis was sentenced to 20 years. On his release, Hole campaigned for Davis’s conviction to be quashed. His campaign led to several unorthodox publicity stunts, including digging up the Headingley test wicket and crashing a car into the gates of Buckingham Palace. Davis was subsequently released, but never pardoned.

It was the early 80s, however, that sealed Hole’s reputation as a hard man when he was cleared of the murder of another gangster named Nicky Gerard. The sequence of events had begun with a 1970 turf war between Ronnie Knight – associate of the Krays, erstwhile husband of Barbara Windsor and a culprit in the £7 million Security Express robbery in 1983 – and ‘Italian Albert Dimes’, who the FBI considered the US Mafia’s man in London. That year, Dimes’s top enforcer, Alfredo ‘Eyetie Tony’ Zomparelli, came to blows with Ronnie Knight in the Latin Quarter nightclub in London’s Leicester Square. Knight arrived with his two brothers, Johnny and David, and Billy Hickson, whom Knight describes as a ‘headcase’.

In his biography, Living Dangerously, Knight maintains he was passive until the last, suggesting that Hickson attacked Zomparelli. In the ‘war zone’ that ensued, David Knight was stabbed twice in the chest by Zomparelli. Knight buried his brother in the spring of that year and swore he would see Zomparelli murdered, ‘for with him alive, the hate in me would eventually kill me as well’. Knight did not, after all, have to carry out this act of supposed self-defence, as Nicky Gerard, the son of gangland boss Alfie Gerard, killer of Frank ‘Mad Axe Man’ Mitchell and Ginger Marks, came into Knight’s Soho club with a proposition.

Gerard offered to keep Knight’s hands clean of Zomparelli’s death and to do the job for him. On 4 September 1974, Zomparelli was shot dead in the Golden Goose on Old Compton Street. A couple of days later, Gerard received a thick envelope from Knight, a bonus for what doubled as a warped crime of passion – Gerard was seeing a former stripper called Rozanna, who was Zomparelli’s wife. Gerard and Knight were subsequently arrested, though neither was convicted.Advertisement

In the 1980s, Nicky Gerard crossed Tommy Hole in a fight for influence in the East End underworld. On a Friday night in June 1982, in Canning Town, Gerard kissed his daughter Vicky goodnight, and left her on her 11th birthday to go to the pub for a drink. At 9.12pm he turned the ignition in his Oldsmobile and looked up to see two men a few feet from the car. They said a few words to him before opening fire with two shotguns and an automatic pistol. Gerard climbed from his car and crawled towards his house. Fifty yards from his home he was brought to a halt. One of the masked men broke the butt of a shotgun on his skull, then a final three shotgun blasts were delivered at close range. The two men left no evidence bar a Ford Cortina parked three roads away.

Hole and his son Kevin were arrested a few days later. They had in their possession passports and visas for a trip to Florida. Gangland execution aside, another, seedier motive for the killing was mooted. Like Gerard and Zomparelli’s wife before him, Gerard was seeing Kevin’s wife. That Tommy Hole was involved with Nicky’s wife, Linda, lent the episode some symmetry.

Gerard had been overstepping the mark for years. A wreath had been laid on his doorstep earlier. Even Knight refers to the killing as testament that Gerard had ‘got it wrong’. Hole and his son were cleared of the murder when an ID parade proved inconclusive. Linda Gerard moved to another area.

Tommy Hole was now a major criminal player. During his sentence, punk and emergent dance cultures had made speed the drug of choice, and Hole became involved in the large-scale production of amphetamine sulphate. As time passed, his dealings diversified, encompassing anything from forged MOTs to selling firearms and armed robbery. He owned a hotel in Benidorm, and was one of the wealthiest criminals in the East End. But his true nature – recidivistic, opportunistic – led to Hole stealing a car in broad daylight, on 8 September 1984. For this petty crime, comically minor compared to the gangland status he put at risk, he was fined £200 and £150 costs.

Four years later, Tommy Hole was brought to book on his more lucrative activities, and found himself in Snaresbrook Crown Court on charges of conspiracy to manufacture and supply amphetamine sulphate between 3 November 1987 and 18 January 1988. He received an eight-year sentence, which he served concurrently with a term for armed robbery. At the same time, Kevin was also given eight years, for conspiracy to supply amphetamines. This conviction was later overturned owing to irregularities in the police surveillance log. Two of Kevin’s co-defendants were released with compensation of up to £160,000. But Kevin had already taken his own life.

Christina Hole recalls seeing Tommy in 1995, for the first time in 15 years, when she took his mother to visit him in Rampton. ‘The light had gone from his eyes,’ she tells me, as she begins their gentle story in the newly decorated flat they shared in Canning Town. She continued to visit him in hospital, returning to the man she had first courted when she was a barmaid at his local pub, the Salisbury Arms. ‘Once his sentence finished, Tommy started coming home at weekends. He stayed here longer each time, until he was finally discharged,’ she says. From then on, he continued to attend the East Ham Memorial Psychiatric Hospital for regular check-ups. More pedestrian was Hole’s attendance at Newham College of Further Education, where he studied motorvehicle diagnosis to NVQ level. The college says he was ‘a model student’.Advertisement

Christina now lives alone in their flat, the entrance to which Tommy never managed to finish carpeting. She speaks delicately of the man who was broken by his son’s death and who hated his past. ‘Tommy was trying to avoid old places and people he knew,’ she recalls. ‘It all hurt him. We bumped into an old friend one afternoon. He simply said: “Hello, how are you, Tommy?” As we walked away, I could see he was drenched in sweat.’

Christina says Tommy never told her about his past. ‘He never really mixed with anyone,’ she continues. She wants me to know she loved a quiet, frail man who smoked too much. She still has no idea why her husband was shot. She insists his past never returned to haunt the life they shared, and that the elaborate kitchen and bathroom fittings the couple had installed were paid for from Hole’s mother’s estate and were ex-showroom stock. To her, Tommy was a man appalled by scenes of violence on Crimewatch, and by the behaviour of today’s drivers.

Hole’s murder is one of six that DCI Mick O’Keefe has to solve. ‘Since December we have done everything within our power to solve this crime,’ he says. ‘Our inquiries are impeded considerably by the close-knit machinations of the community and the fact that this murder has all the hallmarks of a professional gangland killing.’

Countless theories have circulated as to why Hole was murdered. The local Newham Recorder carried a story, based on a usually reliable source, that Hole had recently been seen at the funeral of Nicky Gerard’s uncle, James, bragging about how he had yet to be taken to account for the murder of Nicky. Christina maintains that Tommy was with her putting up blinds during the funeral, and that he would have had no reason to go. The Recorder was flooded with calls refuting the theory, and quickly published a correction. ‘The idea that he went to the funeral and said those silly things is nonsense,’ says Ronnie Knight. ‘He couldn’t say that, because Nicky Gerard had plenty of lovely people around him, and they’d have had to do something. Tommy was a man of the world and he looked after himself. If somebody wanted a fight with him, he had a fight with them. He was brought up like myself – the hard way – and respected by his own, for sure.’ But the likeliest motive for Hole’s murder does not lean so heavily on the faux-romance of his criminal past; it is comparatively prosaic.

Hole’s penchant for an easy deal was not exorcised by his ordeal in prison. He continued running favours for London’s heavyweights, together with minor scams. But informed sources suggest that Tommy was tired of the small time. He arranged a major deal to buy cocaine. As the deal was struck, Hole’s crew drew guns and made off with £100,000 of the other firm’s property.

Criminal robbery has one advantage: no one turns to the police. This was an easy deal – one where the risk of reprisal was countered by the magnitude of the payoff. Hole had chosen to make a statement of force that would make him a big enough face to leave Canning Town.

John McVicar, the bank robber turned journalist, recognises the hallmarks of a contract killing. ‘If it wasn’t connected with the score that had to be settled after Gerard, then it must be connected with drugs. It’s unusual for two people to be killed like that for a purely personal vendetta.’

Hole’s rivals answered his call for recognition with one of their own. They chose to gun him down in a public place.

The Beckton Arms has re-opened now, a shiny new veneer masking its immediate past. Canning Town kept Hole alive when prison could not and, when he tried to leave its shelter, he miscalculated the weight his reputation would carry. However sure Hole felt of his standing, in the dense smoke and languor of that pub, the world around him didn’t stop.