Essexboys - Articles

19/05/96 - Basildon Badlands
Observer life

BEYOND 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 return home.

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 duck.

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 newspapers.

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.

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