When gangland veteran George Francis was shot dead outside the courier firm he ran in south London there was little surprise in the criminal underworld.
Francis, 63, had been a marked man for many years and survived a shooting in a Kent pub in 1985.
As word of his death spread on May 14, 2003, rumours quickly began circulating about who was behind the hit.
Names linked to the killing included some of the most notorious gangland bosses of the last 30 years.
Francis had been entrusted with part of the haul from the 1983 Brinks Mat raid at Heathrow airport when a gang of armed robbers escaped with £26million in gold bullion, cash and diamonds – most of which has never been recovered.
According to underworld legend, Francis still owed £5million in gold at the time of his death.
Seven people connected with the raid had already been killed. Had the ‘Curse of Brinks Mat’ struck again?
A close associate told police: ‘George Francis was murdered over an old debt.
‘Apparently after the Brinks Mat robbery Francis had been trusted to look after a large amount of gold by members of the robbery team.
LEFT TO LOOK AFTER THE LOOT
‘Francis was left to look after the finances while they were serving time in prison.
‘Upon their release Francis claimed there was nothing left for them.’
But Harold ‘Big H’ Richardson became the prime suspect for the murder after the victim’s widow, Irene claimed he was due to meet the him on the morning of his death.
She said Francis told her Richardson owed him £70,000 and was trying to avoid paying.
The couple did not live together during the week and Francis staying near his yard in Hampton Gardens, Southwark.
His wife was living in Beckenham, Kent, where he would join her at the weekends.
On the night before the killing, Francis called her and revealed he was in deep financial trouble.
Mrs Francis, who had to pay more than £10,000 in debts after her husband’s death, told the jury: ‘George never spoke much about his business but he was quite worried about a cheque.
‘He said he had given a cheque for £70,000 or £75,000 to Harry Richardson.
‘I MUST GET THE CHEQUE’
‘He kept trying to get Harry on the phone because he said he must get the cheque back but he couldn’t contact him.
‘I just thought he was going to get his cheque and it was going to be sorted out.’
Her husband went to open his firm ‘Signed, Sealed and Delivered’ in Bermondsey as normal but his wife would never see him alive again.
Francis was shot four times in the face, back, arm and finger as he leant into car to pick up a newspaper outside the yard.
He was found slumped in the green Rover 75 car, with his legs dangling out the door.
On the ground was an 9mm Luger round, fired from the vintage German pistol brandished by the hitman.
From Richardson, the trail led to cocaine-snorting career criminal John O’Flynn, who had met ‘Big H’ through car deals.
LONG TERM GIRLFRIEND
The 53-year-old confessed to carrying out the killing with Terry Conaghan to long-term girlfriend Gloria Bacon.
‘He was talking about a murder that had been on the news. I didn’t really want to listen,’ Miss Bacon said.
‘He mentioned that he had done it. He was whispering in the car, talking very slow.
‘He said the gentleman pulled up to open the yard up and they shot him. They killed him. He said his name – George Francis.
‘He didn’t really say a lot about the gentleman. He owed some money of something.
‘Mr O’Flynn said he got £30,000. He said he gave the Scotch Fella £9,000.’
But perhaps unfamiliar with modern policing, the middle-aged killers had made basic errors when they carried out the hit.
Miss Bacon revealed how Conaghan lost his spectacles in the yard as he tried to move a CCTV camera, telling jurors: ‘Stupid b*****d, dropped his glasses.’
The traces of DNA recovered from the glasses would prove the crucial evidence in the murder case.
MOBILE PHONE CLUE
O’Flynn used his mobile phone at least twice during a recce of the haulage yardin the weeks before the killing and the calls were easily traced by police.
And he smoked a cigarette in the street before the shooting, leaving his tell-tale DNA on the butt he ground into the pavement.
Miss Bacon took almost three years to pluck up the courage to break away from violent O’Flynn and go to the police.
When police raided Richardson’s home they recovered an address book which read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of south London crime, the court heard.
Among his close friends were members of the Arif family, once the most feared crime dynasty south of the Thames.
Ozer Arif gave evidence for O’Flynn and told how Richardson was a close associate of his drug baron brother Dogan Arif.
But Richardson denied owing money to Francis or arranging to meet him on the morning of his death for the hit to be carried out.
‘YOU’RE OFF YOUR TROLLEY.’
He told prosecutor Victor Temple: ‘You’re absolutely off your trolley.’
Richardson was cleared but the evidence against the two aging hitmen was too strong and they were both jailed for 20 years.
Judge Martin Stephens told them: ‘Quite what the motive was of the person or persons was who hired you was far from clear and I shall not speculate.’
He added: ‘I’m quite sure that you were both ruthless, determined criminals intent on the use of extreme violence as and when required.’
But if Richardson did not hire them who did? Is the ‘Curse of Brinks Mat’ really more than just underworld mythology?
THE BRINKS MAT BRIGADE: DEAD AND ALIVE
When six armed raiders burst in to the Brinks Mat depot at Heathrow airport on November 26 1983, haul of 6,800 gold ingots, diamonds and cash was the biggest in British criminal history.
But as they were rounded up the shootings began. Those that survive are some of the most legendary figures in British crime.
John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer is widely credited with being the brains behind the robbery but has never been convicted of an offence in connection with the raid.
He was caught smelting the gold – but claimed he had no idea where it had come from.
Dapper Palmer also paid back millions to the Brinks Mat insurers but invested his profits in a timeshare empire which would make a him £400 million fortune.
He was jailed for eight years for persuading timeshare owners to buy a new property by falsely claiming he would sell their old one.
Palmer travelled everywhere with armed guards after threats on his life were made over the Brinks Mat profits.
When he was gunned down in the garden of his Essex home, police thought he had suffered a heart attack.
They have no idea who was responsible.
Perry was sentenced to nine years in jail in 1992 for his part in melting down the gold bullion.
He was released on parole in 1994 and became a part owner in licensed minicab business Blue Cars in Lynton Road, Bermondsey, just a few hundred yards from the courier firm belonging to Francis.
Perry was shot dead by two gunmen as he walked away from his car towards his office in south London in 2001.
Joseph Pitkin, 31, and Bilal Akhtar, 22, were put on trial for Perry’s murder in March 2006 but walked free after the prosecution case against them collapsed.
No one else has ever been charged.
DC John Fordham was stabbed to death in the grounds of Kenneth Noye’s mansion in Kent during a flying squad operation in 1985.
While hiding in a tree during surveillance, the officer caught the attention of Noye’s guard dogs.
When he went outside to investigate he found Mr Fordham and stabbed with a pitchfork.
During his trial, also in 1985, Noye denied murder on the grounds of self-defence and was found not guilty.
Jewish Hatton Garden jeweller Solly Nahome, who emigrated from Burma in 1961, was shot dead outside his north London home on November 27, 1998.
Married father-of-one Nahome was hit four times as he walked to his house in Finchley by a gunman who then leapt on to a waiting motorbike.
At the time of his death he was working as a money-launderer for Terry Adams, head of the most feared crime family in London.
Using his London jewellery connections he is said to have smelted down some of the stolen Brinks Mat gold for the Adams family.
Gangland informers suggest both he was murdered by his employers and was gunned down by one of the family’s rivals.
Builder Keith Hedley had been a close friend of Noye’s since the 1970s.
The 57-year old was shot dead by three men as he holidayed on his yacht in Corfu in September 1996.
A suspected money launderer, his home was searched during the Brinks Mat investigation but nothing was found.
Wynter was an Adams enforcer at the time of Brinks Mat and is now believed to be part of the supporting foundations of the O2 Dome.
Underworld lore claims he double-crossed the Adams family, but no-one has ever been charged in connection with his murder.
An associate of Kenneth Noye, the car dealer went missing from his Kent showroom in 1990.
His body was found on Rainham Marshes, Essex.
No-one has ever been charged
An Essex drug-dealer who befriended Noye in prison during his Brinks Mat sentence, Tate was shot dead with two other men in a Range Rover in 1995.
Legendary armed robber McAvoy was jailed for 25 years for heading up the Brinks Mat robbers.
He was caught after security guard insider Anthony Black passed his name to investigating officers.
McAvoy was released in 2000 and is thought to have various homes in Kent and Spain.
He is believed to have been questioned over the death of Francis following claims from informants that the dead man owed him more than £5million worth of gold.
The robber had entrusted his share of the Brinks bullion with trusted allies, including Francis and Perry, while he served his sentence.
But when he left prison to claim his share he found millions were missing.
McAvoy named two Rottweiler guard dogs Brinks and Mat after swapping his council house for a luxury mansion.
Noye was released early from a 14 year sentence after being convicted in 1986 of handling the stolen gold.
Police found eleven gold bars at his Kent home during a surveillance operation triggered in the mid-1980s by a huge cash transfer at a Bristol bank.
During the same Flying Squad operation Noye repeatedly stabbed and killed DC John Fordham but he was cleared of murder after claiming he acted inself-defence when he found the officer in his garden.
Noye was flown out of the country by Brinks Mat colleague John Palmer after the ‘road rage’ killing of Stephen Cameron, 25, at an M25 interchange in1996. He was bought back to Britain and jailed life in 2000.
His application to appeal against his sentence for the murder has been rejected.
Well-known south London villain Robinson plotted the bullion job with McAvoy and was also given 25 years after his Old Bailey trial.
Both men faced legal action from the Brinks Mat insurers in 1995 to return the £26million and settled in a multi million pound deal.
Tony White was of London’s most prolific armed robbers of the 1970s and 1980s and stood trial along with McAvoy and Robinson but was cleared.
Insurers forced him to pay back almost £28m, plus more than £2m in compensation.
Police in the UK discovered he had spent millions on luxury homes in Britain and Spain had a huge stash of incredible gold jewellery.
In 1997 he was jailed for eleven years for his part in a £65m drug smuggling ring.
Inside man Black was a security guard at the Heathrow-based Brinks Mat depot who was living with Robinson’s sister.
He passed on vital information to the gang to help them disable the complex security system but later confessed and gave police the namesof McAvoy and Robinson.
A member of the notorious Islington crime family headed by his brother Terry, Adams was filmed with Noye handling the gold during the Brinks Mat investigation.
He was later convicted of cannabis smuggling and jailed for seven and half years in 1998.
The gang leader escaped prosecution until he was caught in an Al Capone style money laundering sting and jailed for seven years. He has since been released.
A friend of Noye’s who was at the Kent mansion when John Fordham was killed.
Reader was also convicted of handling stolen gold from the Brinks Mat raid and jailed for nine years.
Reader was jailed for six years in January 2016 for his role in the Hatton Garden raid
Solicitor Relton was jailed for 12 years for laundering £7.8m invested in Docklands property.