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1983 RONNIE & JOHN KNIGHT & THE SECURITY EXPRESS ROBBERY
Wednesday, 2 March 1983 was a fresh spring day with the occasional shower of light rain. A group of police officers from Scotland Yard’s Drugs Squad were searching a large scrapyard in Dalston, a poor inner-city district of East London.
The officers were looking for pills. It was a daunting task. The yard, which was sandwiched between railway viaducts, covered some three acres of ground. It was littered with stacks of steel pipes and girders, piles of scaffolding, and the wrecks of motor vehicles. Small fires were lit here and there, filling the air with an acrid stench.
The yard was a hive of activity. Radios played from the workshops and lock-up garages clad with corrugated iron that were huddled under the Victorian brick arches of the railway. Nearby, there was a weighbridge for lorries, stores piled high with bales of scrap paper, and lean-to sheds full of unidentifiable pieces of heavy machinery.
The officers, led by Detective Inspector Ian Malone, gingerly picked their way between the oily puddles and rusted metal towards the yard’s prefab two-storey offices.
The owner of the yard was a man named Jimmy Knight, who they knew to be a very wealthy man. He had made a fortune out of the scrap metal business and had put the money into a leisure complex in Stanmore, North London. The officers thought, wrongly as it later turned out, that Jimmy’s scrapyard was being used to manufacture and hide drugs destined for the club scene.
They knew that Jimmy Knight had two younger brothers, John and Ronnie. Two other brothers had died some years beforehand: one murdered in a vicious Soho brawl; the other was struck down by a tumour on the brain.
John was quiet and kept himself to himself, seemingly a respectable businessman. Among other things, he ran a garage in North London. Ronnie, by contrast, was a very public figure. He was married to an actress, Barbara Windsor, from the Carry On films, and owned a nightclub in the West End.
The officers strode into Jimmy Knight’s large untidy office, where they found six chairs roughly arranged to form a semicircle around his desk. It was as if a meeting had been in progress and had been quickly broken up, possibly when the officers had been clocked at the yard gates. Plastic cups half-full of warm tea littered the desk. To the officers’ minds, whoever had been there, had left in rather a hurry.
Jimmy had nothing to say, but the officers’ suspicions were heightened when they found five smartly dressed men lurking in a room nearby, behind a locked door. The men, all in their forties, had an air of self-confidence about them that, to the experienced officers, spoke volumes. They’d seen it all before.
The five were highly evasive, reluctant to tell the police what they were doing, meeting at the yard like that. So the officers took down their details. One man turned out to be a wealthy north London property dealer called Terry Perkins. Another man, John Mason, ran a nearby laundrette. He was there with his mate, Ronnie Everett, the landlord of a pub in the Grays Inn Road.
Another man tried to give the police a false name and address, but he was quickly recognised by one of the officers, as Billy Hickson. His real identity was confirmed after further questioning at a local police station. Hickson had done time for armed robbery.
The fifth man was Jimmy Knight’s younger brother, John.
To the officers it was all very intriguing. They knew that the Knight family had some heavy connections, but they were surprised at the set of people they had found hiding in that room. All of the men had form in one way or another.
During the thorough search of the yard a box was found containing some specialist glassware, the kind one might use for the chemical synthesis of drugs – or so the officers thought. Jimmy Knight was charged but later acquitted. He told the magistrates that the glassware belonged to someone else in the yard. Jimmy said he knew nothing about it. ‘How should I know what goes on. All I do is rent out the lock-ups. What the men do inside them is their own business.’
Despite the police’s suspicions, the five men meeting at the yard that day had done nothing wrong. But still, the meeting was duly logged by the officers. The men’s names were added to the Drugs Squad’s intelligence database, purely for its own internal use.
And no more was thought of it. That was until Easter Monday 1983.
The Main Course
John and Ronnie Knight grew up during and after the Second World War in Dalston, a poor area of East London.
John began thieving at the tender age of ten, and by his early twenties, he had his own ‘firm’, which specialized in stealing goods from parked-up lorries.
Ronnie married Barbara Windsor, a rising star of the stage, whom he had met through Reggie Kray. He set up clubs and businesses, some legal, most not, in London’s West End.
Their elder brother Jimmy went into the scrap metal business, as did two other brothers, Billy and David.
In 1969 Billy died of a brain tumor, and, the following year, tragedy again struck the family when David was stabbed to death in a vicious clubland brawl.
Ronnie was later accused of arranging the murder of the man who had killed David.
By the end of the 1970s, John, Ronnie, and Jimmy, were wealthy men. John owned a pub, a large repair garage, a beautiful house in the Herefordshire countryside and, with Ronnie, a sumptuous Spanish villa.
Mingling with villains and stars alike, Ronnie was by now earning a fortune from his illicit businesses.
Although John and Jimmy kept well away from the limelight, Ronnie, through his turbulent relationship with Barbara Windsor, had become something of a celebrity himself.
Despite John Knight’s apparent success in business, he had one burning ambition – to pull off the perfect crime.
Watching a Security Express van unload one day in his local high street, he hatched the idea of carrying out an audacious raid on the van’s depot in Curtain Road, London EC1.
The raid needed careful planning, so John found a secret vantage point, from which he and other members of his hand-picked team of professional armed robbers could observe the comings and goings at the depot without being seen.
Through a mixture of observation and inside information, John worked out the daily routines of the guards, and, over the course of more than a year, identified the depot’s security flaws.
He discovered that the depot was most vulnerable early in the morning, when the sole guard on duty would routinely leave the depot by the back door and walk across the yard to get a pint of milk left outside the gate, meaning he had to open the gate!
John laid plans to carry out his raid on Easter Monday, 1983.
In the small hours the gang silently moved into position, hiding behind large industrial bins. They lay in wait for the lone guard on duty to come out and open the gate to get the milk. When he did, they pounced, bundling him back inside and into the depot building.
The gang made the guard sit at his control desk as normal. They got him to explain how the controls worked. Two armed robbers crouched underneath the desk to make sure he co-operated.
That morning the guard let the rest of the staff into the depot as usual. But as they walked through the security doors, one by one, they were taken hostage at gun-point, frog-marched downstairs to the guards’ locker room, and tied up.
Detective Inspector Peter Wilton had worked his way up through the ranks of the police, and, in 1980, had been placed in charge of a Flying Squad team based in East London. Because of the size of the Security Express robbery, Peter’s team was called in to investigate.
Peter’s officers arrived on the scene to find not a single clue left behind. Some £6 million pounds in cash was missing from the vaults.
Lengthy interviews with the shaken guards provided little to go on. The gang had spoken with fake Irish accents and had worn masks and helmets throughout.
For months the Flying Squad’s investigation foundered. That summer, acting on tip-offs from underworld sources, the Flying Squad started surveillance operations on men thought likely to have committed the robbery.
The Flying Squad’s big breakthrough came the following year, in January 1984, when they arrested a man named John Horsley who had been observed meeting several suspected robbers.
Horsley confessed that he had helped the robbers hide sacks of money in his garage. He also told the Flying Squad that he had built a cupboard with a false back at his father-in-law’s flat, so that he could hide £270,000 in cash on behalf of one of the robbers, Billy Hickson.
Horsley’s statement was dynamite and he agreed to turn Queens Evidence. However, he soon retracted his statement, pleading guilty to robbery. Police believe someone threatened his family. This left the Flying Squad almost back where they started. At the trial Horsley was described by the Judge as the gang’s ‘banker’ and jailed for eight years.
Alan and Linda Opiola were close to John Knight. In fact they were so close that they would often come around for dinner at the Knight’s grand house in the Hertfordshire countryside.
Alan ran a garage in North London and John trusted him implicitly. But in that, John made a fatal error of judgment. The Opiolas would turn out to be his achilles heel.
In February 1984 the Flying Squad hauled Alan in over some suspicious van hire documents they had uncovered. After some tough questioning Alan sought a deal if he told what he knew about John Knight. A deal was offered and he and Linda both agreed to become Supergrasses. It was the big breakthrough the Flying Squad had long been waiting for.
The Opiolas told the Flying Squad how they had helped John Knight sort out robbery cash in their master bedroom. They were immediately taken into protective custody, and, after Knight’s conviction, given new identities under a witness protection programme.
In December 1984, Flying Squad officers broke through a false wall at Knight’s East London pub The Fox and discovered a secret compartment, which they suspected had been used to store robbery cash.
The secret compartment smelt of old beer and mildew and this later became significant ‘evidence’ at the trial of the gang. It was claimed that some of the notes that police had recovered smelt the same, and therefore must have been stored at the Fox.
The pub had previously been managed by Clifford Saxe, on behalf of John Knight. In 1983 Saxe gave up the tenancy of the pub and retired to the Costa del Sol, where he remained until his death in March 2002. In December 2000 police had questioned him again over the Security Express robbery but he was by then considered too ill to be extradited.
His brother Jimmy was jailed for eight years. The convictions were secured largely on the basis of the evidence from Alan Opiola.
Ronnie Knight fled to Spain the evening of his brother’s arrest and was to stay out of reach of the arms of the Law for the next eight years, protected by the extradition arrangements then in force between Britain and Spain. Ronnie was dubbed by the Press ‘Britain’s most wanted man’. The Flying Squad continued to gather evidence against him and other suspected robbers living on the Costa del Sol.
In Spain he married his new love, Sue Haylock, and together they ran an Indian restaurant named Mumtaz and an eponymous nightclub, RKnights, the scene of violent crimes including a physical attack upon Knight, but by the mid-1990s, he was in financial difficulties and in 1993 Ronnie decided that enough was enough and made arrangements to come home. He arrived at Luton airport, to be greeted on the tarmac by the Flying Squad. He was jailed for seven years. in January 1995 for handling £300,000 in stolen money from the £6m armed robbery at a Security Express depot. He said he was not involved in the robbery, and the prosecution counsel Michael Worsley QC agreed the charge should remain on file, but Knight did plead guilty to handling the stolen bank notes. Judge Gerald Gordon said when sentencing Knight: “Clearly, I do not know what precise role you played. But professional robbers such as those involved are not going to hand over the sort of sums you got unless the person to whom they give it is very deeply involved himself”.
REVENGE FOR BROTHER DAVID’S MURDER
David, John Knight’s brother, was fatally stabbed by Alfredo Zomparelli, who himself was murdered in 1974 after being released following a prison sentence for manslaughter. Zomparelli had pleaded self-defence. After hit-man George Bradshaw confessed to his involvement, and alleged Knight had paid him £1,000 for the task, Knight was arrested for the murder of Zomparelli and tried at the Old Bailey in 1980; Knight was acquitted. In his later Memoirs and Confessions (1998), Knight said he had hired a hit-man, Nicky Gerard, to carry out the killing in payback for the murder of his brother. Under the double jeopardy rules in force at the time, it meant he could not be tried a second time, although Knight again denied responsibility in 2002. Gerard, later also murdered, was acquitted at the same trial as Knight.