- Basildon Badlands
THE DARK flat wilderness behind Cooling churchyard, intersected
with dykes and mounds and gates, lies the Kentish marshes where
the convict Abel Magwitch seized Pip in the opening pages of Great
Expectations. Beyond the marshes where the young Dickens saw the
gibbets swing lies the Thames estuary. And beyond that, Essex
and the dark flat wilderness of the East Tilbury marshes. Today,
only pylons march across the northern rim of the estuary from
Tilbury power station to Basildon, Benfleet and Canvey Island,
parcelling off the sky like giants' barbed wire. Welcome to the
Essex Badlands, the county the Krays would have most likely moved
to had they kept out of the nick: gawd, bless you guv', the old
East End by the sea; the north Thames corridor down which the
drug dealers rat-run from Holland to Harwich to Southend-on-Sea
to Tilbury. No blagging from banks these days, nah; 1990s Essex
Man does/trades/rips off/wholesales drugs.
Here a drug overdose, there a stabbing; here one dead teenager,
there a Range Rover of dead dealers. Let's have a closer look
at this corner of south Essex bang opposite the Kent shore which
runs inland past Basildon to the south edge of the A12. Here,
if you care to look in the right places, you will find a species
of terror as nasty as, no, far nastier than anything in Great
Expectations. Our story of everyday life in the Essex Badlands
starts in Basildon New Town, a concrete crime against humanity
committed in the early 1960s as a Utopian act to free East Enders
from the filth and depravity of London. You can see what happened
to Basildon in microcosm by studying Maurice Lambert's Mother
And Child statue which adorns the town centre. The pondlet from
which the statuary nobly arises has become a communal litter bin
for crisp packets.
Basildon is not just a dystopic mistake, though. In the past three
elections, it has been the weathervane marginal constituency,
serving notice on the rest of the country of five more glorious
Conservative years. Next time, though, David Amess MP won't be
in his usual place. He's quit for another, less marginal constituency.
Unlike some of the other New Towns, though, Basildon has been
lucky to ride the south-east metropolitan tiger. Unemployment
is not too bad; prosperity (of sorts) evident from the Escort
XR3s ripping up the A127. It's boring to walk out of the door
in Vange, a suburb of Basildon to the south of the town centre.
You leave through the first-floor window and splinter your legs
when you land 17ft below.
At least that's how Reggie Nunn leaves 65 Holland Walk in Vange,
on a fine summer evening, 30 July 1993. He hobbles away and crawls
into the front door porch of a neighbour. A woman answers the
door and sees Nunn, whose face on a good day looks as though it
has been bashed in by a shovel 16 times. This is a bad day. Nunn's
face has been hot-cross-bunned by a narrow-bladed fencing sword,
an epee. His right ankle has been turned into a semolina pudding
of flesh and bone by the fall. He hollers in pain for help. She
leaves him in the porch and closes the door. This sequence, but
not the defenestration, was caught by a police closed-circuit
TV camera. The rest of the film shows the estate in Vange to be
quiet, boring, normal. A paper boy comes and goes. Some schoolchildren
The sudden eruption of a terrified, limping Nunn into the frame
is surreal. His ordeal eases when another neighbour, perhaps summoned
by the first one who closed the door, comes to his aid. Next,
the video shows a gang of maybe 10 toughs exiting right in their
fancy cars. Then a young woman, handsome even through the video-fuzz,
gets into another car. Finally, the occupier of number 65 leaves
his home, strolls over and gets into the same car and drives away.
Meet Jason Lee Vella, then just 22, psychopath, drug dealer, sadist,
depilation freak, bred in the bleak marshland of East Tilbury
but now renting in Vange. Behold the Demon Barber of Basildon.
NUNN HAD HIS REASONS to throw himself out of Vella's window. He
had been found guilty by a kangaroo court, with Vella - a creepily
handsome 5ft 8in control freak of Maltese extraction - judge,
jury and Lord High Executioner.
Nunn's crime arose from a dispute over his selling of 1,000 tabs
of Ecstasy, given to him in Essex, which were bound for the Scottish
market. The market price for E is between £10 and £15
a tab. Had Nunn done the business correctly he would have sold
the goods and paid Vella's gang £7,000 wholesale costs,
pocketing £8,000 profit for himself, less expenses. Instead,
Reggie being Reggie, he blew all the money on having a very, very
good time. Nunn's problem was that he was a drug dealer too. He
couldn't go to the law because he would have had to admit trading
in illegal substances. He wasn't a natural for a walk-in £7,000
overdraft. So Vella's law for the drug dealers was Essex law.
And it wasn't very nice. After the guilty verdict had buzzed round
the inside of Vella's head, he leaned behind his sofa and came
up with the epee. 'Why did you do it, Reggie?' Vella asked and
slashed Nunn across his left cheek. Nunn screamed. Vella then
became all punctilious about his furniture: 'There's blood on
my settee.' Vella's taste in home decor leaves something to be
desired. Fake chandeliers, floral sofas, ruched net curtains -
all speak of naff gangster chic. Vella returned to the attack:
'Stop whimpering like a little boy.'
Another of the gang punched and kicked Nunn several times in the
head. Vella slashed him with the epee again. Certain this was
the end, Nunn stood up and rocketed across the room. Someone tried
to grab his leg, but Nunn wriggled free and leapt through the
window. It was closed at the time. NUNN WASN'T the Demon Barber's
first victim by any means. One unfortunate was shot in the chest
at pointblank range with a handgun. When he recovered after hours
on a life-support machine, no complaint was made to the police.
A 21-year-old victim had his head shaved and the backs of his
hands burned with a hot iron. No complaint. Another was given
a Glasgow smile: he was sliced from ear to mouth on both sides
of his face with a Stanley knife. No complaint. And one victim
had a broomstick shoved up his backside before being forced into
a duckpond and ordered to swim out into the middle and catch a
Again, no complaint. No complaints from Vella about his lifestyle
either. He did rather well considering he left St Cedd's Catholic
school in South Ockenden at the age of 15 and never had a proper
job, other than helping out his dad, Charlie, on the market stalls.
As a boy, friends remember his trick of catching bees in his hand
and not minding the sting. His mum Janice, 49, had fonder memories:
'He was a loving son, no latch-key kid and I wouldn't swap him
for anyone.' As evidence of his sweet nature, she tells the story
of how Jason persuaded her to look after a nice doggie he had
originally bought his girlfriend. It was a cross-breed bull mastiff
called Terror. A working-class kid gone completely bad, by the
time he was 22 he drove a BMW and his girlfriend had the Golf.
He took holidays whenever he wanted - skiing, Tenerife, the States.
He grandstanded a gang of mates to see a Lennox Lewis fight in
Las Vegas, paying in cash at the airport for the seats to be upgraded
to Club Class. While out there, the lads hired a chopper so that
they could fly round the Grand Canyon. His gang adored him as
much as they were frightened by his sadism. One acolyte, 32-year-old
Anthony Barker, called his newborn son Bobby Jason Lee Vella Barker,
in obeisance to a man 10 years his junior. But the money was good.
One logbook kept by Vella's sidekick and the gang's accountant,
Simon Renoldi, showed they turned over £1.2 million in little
more than a year. The gang bought its Ecstasy from Dutch dealers
and wholesaled it on to a string of street dealers, who spread
out from Essex to London, the Home Counties, Bedford, Norwich,
Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland. Vella steeped himself in gangster
chic. He watched the video of the Krays' life story over and over,
even named two piglets which he bought Ronnie and Reggie.
His other favourite film was Scarface, Brian de Palma's bleak
homage to a Cuban exile gangster played by Al Pacino, a man with
only 'balls of steel and my word, and I don't break either for
anyone". Vella watched Scarface again and again till the
colour bled black-and-white. But, best of all, Vella loved to
humiliate his victims by snipping, cutting, slashing and trimming
people's hair. One wretch - let's call him 'Trevor' - was invited
around for a drink. (That's what the Krays used to do. Have a
meal with the target, then rough him up. Premeditated violence;
maximum control.) Vella and two friends took Trevor to the Lakeside
shopping complex at Thurrock, just next to the M25, where a Polaroid
camera was bought in Trevor's name. They smoked some cannabis
in the car, then took Trevor to a smart four-bedroomed house in
Corringham, east of East Tilbury and due north of Mucking Flats.
Trevor entered the house to find a reception committee of 10 or
11 others. Things started to get less chummy. He was handcuffed
and the front of his head scalped so he looked like Donald Sutherland
in Fellini's Casanova; his eyebrows were shaved and - perhaps
they were short of ashtrays - cigarette butts were stubbed out
on the soles of his feet. They then jabbed at him with knives,
forced him to snort several lines of cocaine and took his trousers
down. Trevor was then forced to lick a sheet of 500 LSD tabs in
a dog bowl. Then they gave him a bone, forced him to kneel like
a dog and took a snap of him with the Polaroid. They left him
one cold day in January at One Tree Hill Country Park, out of
his mind on the drugs that had been forced on him, shivering,
half-scalped and shoeless. He was found by a member of the public
in a dreadful state.
His crime? Trevor had sent a Christmas card to Vella's girlfriend.
There is a cartoon quality to Vella's violence which could almost
be funny, with dialogue lifted from Monty Python's Doug and Dinsdale
Piranha sketch. 'He nailed your head to the floor?' 'Well, yeah.
But I had broken the unwritten law...' Were it not so sick. The
fear the police had to deal with was not in the slightest bit
comic, but real and raw and omnipresent. After the Nunn incident,
Essex police brought Vella in for the first time. He was supremely
confident that no one would have the guts to testify against him
in court. Detective Superintendent David Bright led Operation
Max, a model of its kind, aimed at collecting evidence to get
Vella locked away. A very tall Walter Matthau lookalike with a
laid-back air, Bright pondered on Vella's technique: 'Fear is
a wonderful tool. He traded in fear as if it was a commodity.
Vella's trademark was that he would hack his victims' hair off,
causing physical pain and mental anguish, and also hallmarking
his victims and spreading the fear.' Vella was right about 22
of his 26 victims who had been hacked, chopped up or brutalised
by him and his gang. They wouldn't testify against him.
In two cases, victims actually had solicitors' letters sent to
the police expressing their absolute wish not to help with inquiries.
One of these two had been the subject of a competition between
two of Vella's friends, to see who could punch him in the face
the hardest. But four brave people, including Nunn, encouraged
by Det Con Paul Keable, had had enough and decided that Vella
needed a prison short back and sides like no one else in Essex.
All those four have been given new identities under a witness
protection scheme. One told police that he had been shaven, beaten
with wood and stabbed with a meat fork: 'He's like Jekyll and
Hyde. The bloke was a lunatic. Seemed a nice bloke at first but
he's just possessed, like he had the devil in him or something.
Basically now I'm living my whole life in fear.' At Vella's trial
at maximum security Woolwich Crown Court, Judge Alan Simpson told
him: 'You set yourself up as a criminal tsar of south east Essex.
You imposed your will on those who argued with you with a regime
of torture and terror. There is no doubt in my mind that many
people have breathed more easily since your arrest.' Vella got
17 years for a range of offences, including conspiracy to supply
drugs, false imprisonment, grievous and actual bodily harm.
The judge said that had he been 25, he would have got 30 years.
He is now a guest at Frankland maximum security prison in Durham.
Due to a time slip caused by a complex jigsaw of trials involving
other members of the gang, Vella was only sentenced in June last
year and news of the sentence could only be released earlier this
year, when Fleet Street was no longer interested. Nevertheless,
it speaks to the routine boringness of stories about drug gangsters
that only one paragraph about Vella's reign of terror - in the
Daily Mail - is recorded in the computer database of national
A month before the Vella story could be told, however, it was
gazumped by a triple killing of three drug dealers four miles
north of Basildon at Rettendon. On 6 December last year, three
Ecstasy dealers turned off a busy road and drove down a farm track
to make a deal. Instead, they were blown away by an expert hitman
before any of them had a chance to leave their Range Rover. None
of them would be sadly missed. Patrick Tate, 37, of Gordon Road,
Basildon, was a cocaine addict, bodybuilder and general purpose
thug who, the previous night, had pulverised the manager of a
takeaway pizzeria because he would not provide separate toppings
on the same pizza. Craig Rolfe, 26, of Calshot Avenue, Chafford
Hundred, Grays, was the driver and gopher. Anthony Tucker, 38,
of High Road, Fobbing, just across the estuary from Dickens's
Cooling Marshes, was the Mister Big. He ran 16 'doors' of nightclubs
from Southend to East London.
These days running doors is good business. Everyone has to go
through the pantomime of being searched by the bouncers on the
door for drugs and weapons - everyone, that is, except the unofficially
licensed drug dealers. The bouncers let them in on the nod. But
running doors is tricky, because other bouncers, drug dealers
and club owners become envious of the profits. If you can control
the supply of Ecstasy into a nightclub, you can make a fortune.
Tucker, according to the police, was doing good business with
the Triads, the Yardies and the Terrorists. The police are still
working on their inquiries as to who did the hit and who paid
for it. But the most likely explanation is that the killer(s)
were local and known to the three dead men.
CRIME HISTORY BOOKS are all the publishing rage these days. The
Essex Murder Casebook (Countryside Books, £5.95) by Stan
Jarvis is pretty standard fare, as you can tell from the chapter
heads - The Sober, Educated Philanderer; For The Love Of A Lady;
and The Corpse From The Sea. It retells long-forgotten murder
mysteries illustrated with sepia tints of Edwardian femme fatales
and Victorian villains moving into Essex from the East End. But
there is nothing in the book which remotely competes with the
level of violence in just one corner of contemporary Essex. The
police say that the Vella case is not connected with the Rettendon
killings, which makes sense because most of the Vella gang are
still in jail. So in the Basildon area in the past three years,
it is possible to identify three separate gangs: Vella's, Tucker's
and whoever wiped out the latter, all of them fuelled by the vast
profits to be made from distributing Ecstasy.
On the face of this evidence it looks as though we have not succeeded
in banishing drugs like E; nor have we succeeded in turning our
young people against drugs. We have merely handed a major distribution
trade lock, stock and barrel over to the modern day equivalents
of Al Capone. This is a hypocrisy which Dickens, were he alive
today, would recognise and attack. But, as the drug wars create
havoc beneath the pylons that march along the north bank of the
Thames estuary, it is a hypocrisy which our two major political
parties appear happy to live with.