Not many people get that, I tell ya,’ laughs Bernard O’Mahoney in a broad Midlands accent, as he serves me a coffee at Faces, the cafe he owns in Ferryhill, County Durham. Here, over the course of the next hour, we’ll discuss everything from Bernard’s troubled upbringing to the British public’s obsession with crime and his career writing about it.
Faces is every bit a classic British cafe, what sets it apart are the black and white photographs that adorn the walls – a series of striking images depicting some of the country’s most notorious villains. Bernard knows all of them personally and commissioned each shot himself. ‘We call it the wall of death,’ he explains, ‘there’s 22 photographs in total and since putting them up a year ago, five have died.’ The most recent loss was Bruce Reynolds, architect of The Great Train Robbery, whose funeral took place just days before my meeting with Bernard. Reynolds was one of a number of underworld figures Bernard met, along with co-author and former News of the World photographer, Brian Anderson, during the making of a book he wrote in 2011 called Faces: A Photographic Journey Through the Underworld. The book is a 360 page collection of black and white images that portray a host of active and non-active criminals. ‘It’s not just photographs, it tells a continuing story of murder, mayhem and how they’re all linked.’
While some of the names and faces are more recognisable than others: Biggs, Fraser, Foreman, Conroy, Doherty, the Krays and the Richarsons, some like Bernard, are reformed. Others however, remain very much at large, and the very nature of their ‘professions’ make it all the more remarkable they ever agreed to be photographed in the first place. Even more amazing is the fact that many agreed to be filmed for the making of a TV documentary Bernard put together based on the book. ‘I just know them and they trust me,’ he explains. It’s Bernard who put the questions directly to these notorious men, many of whom never appeared on camera until the documentary series aired on the Discovery Channel in Autumn 2013.
No doubt the fact Bernard has experienced the world of crime from both sides of the fence is a factor behind the level of access he was afforded. He’s served time in both the army and at Her Majesty’s pleasure, in what has been a nomadic life interspersed with extreme drama. He’s lived as a fugitive, been a member of the notorious Essex Boys’ Firm and experienced the loss of people close to him along the way. Bernard freely admits to having a chequered past of his own, something he attributes to an abusive father. ‘My father was a loose canon, he was born out of wedlock in 1930s Ireland, which these days is bad enough but then, he was treated like the son of Satan.’ Taken from his mother, Bernard’s father was brought up in one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene workhouses, before coming to England aged 16 and meeting Bernard’s mother. ‘He had lots of issues with the world and used extreme violence on my mother, myself and my brothers. That’s basically all he ever taught us.’
Growing up, Bernard and his brothers would use violence themselves to solve their problems, which led each to serve prison sentences at one time or another. ‘In about 1985, I’d just come out of prison for wounding somebody and within three months I’d wounded somebody else. I thought, “I’ve had enough of this, I’m not going back to prison.” So I went on the run.’ Living in Holland for a period, Bernard washed up in South Africa during the Apartheid years and picked up a job as a doorman on the notorious murder-mile in Johannesburg. Inevitably more trouble followed and an altercation with a Portuguese gang saw Bernard jailed in Pretoria. ‘Eventually I got bail on New Year’s Eve and fled the country using a false passport. I arrived in Dover after a couple of days, and was nicked for the original offence I’d committed before I went on the run.’
Bernard ended up in Stafford prison, where he was visited by a girl he’d met in South Africa, a hairdresser from Basildon of all places. ‘I needed a parole address and because I’d been abroad for a few years, she suggested I use her’s in Basildon. That’s how I came to be in Essex.’ When Bernard was released they began a relationship and had a child together as he tried to rebuild his life. Working long hours, seven days a week, Bernard found himself in the press, this time for the right reasons, after helping arrange a charity boxing match to raise funds for a severely injured boy from his native Wolverhampton. The publicity led to an unlikely meeting. ‘I got a call from Reggie Kray in Maidstone Prison, he said “We want to help you,” so I got involved with him and his brother.’ Visiting them regularly in prison, Reggie Kray put Bernard in touch with a contact at Raquel’s nightclub in Basildon with the promise of some door work to help his income.
‘This was the late 80s, it was all drink, stiletto heels and fornication. Raquel’s was described as the most violent nightclub in Europe by several national newspapers.’ To Bernard’s astonishment, local hardmen were committing violent offences inside the club and being readmitted the following night rather than barred. When the head doorman left, Bernard saw an opportunity to rid Raquel’s of violence, but knew he would need backup. ‘I’d met this guy called Tony Tucker who was a carpenter at the time, but ran quite a large door security firm, based in Romford. I thought if I bring him in, his doorman won’t have a clue who these hardmen are and they’ll be given no preference.’ Partnering up with Tucker, they cleansed the problem – ‘there were quite a lot of casualties, but we did do it!’ They were then met with a new headache, rave music and the drug culture that came with it.
Knowing that excluding drug-dealers would kill the club, Bernard and Tucker tried to control them instead. ‘People say “Oh you allowed it, you’re as bad as the drugdealers,” but people forget that, at this time, club managers were supplying free water in venues and had St John’s Ambulance men on site– why do you need them if no-one’s selling drugs? I think the authorities and everybody else were complicit in the conspiracy.’ Bizarrely, Bernard found himself operating almost like a trading standards officer, deciding which dealers could and couldn’t sell in Raquel’s. ‘Money comes into play, dealers would say, “We’ll give you £3 for every pill we sell,” when there’s 1500 people in there taking three and four a night, in the 80s it was good money, so it was hard to refuse. That’s how the Essex Boys Firm was created, but there was no firm as such, it was just me and Tucker and a couple of other guys.’
By October 1993 things were going well at Raquel’s, the popularity of rave culture ensured the club was packed, the violence had vanished and police visits had gone from being two or three visits a night, to just once a month. But cracks began to appear in Bernard’s partnership with Tucker when a new member, Patrick Tate, joined the firm having just been released from prison. ‘He had visions of grandeur,’ recalls Bernard, ‘he’d met a lot of people he’d deemed useful in prison and thought the money we were making was a pittance.’ Tate wanted to take the operation a step further: rather than just control the deals, he wanted the firm to import the drugs themselves. ‘At that point I washed my hands of it, I could see where it was going. Greed’s the downfall of many men.’
The next 18 months saw Bernard continue to look after the security of Raquel’s while the rest of the firm made moves to start importing. According to Bernard, the firm hired ‘a complete fool’ to buy £250,000 worth of cannabis from Holland. Two thirds of what he returned with was worthless. The same week, Essex teenager Leah Betts collapsed during her 18th birthday party at home, having taken an ecstasy pill obtained from Raquel’s. ‘It was really bad timing,’ explains Bernard, who didn’t deal the drugs himself but had good knowledge of the dealers.
A media circus descended on Raquel’s and the firm were not only exposed to unwanted attention for supplying the ecstasy that led to Leah’s death, they had a network of drug dealers as far as Birmingham demanding their money back for the bad shipment of cannabis they’d been supplied. ‘The police came to me and said “Look Bernie, we know the drugs came from the club, we want an identical pill from the same batch so we can analyse it and maybe help this girl.” She was in a coma, so I never even thought about it, I just went “No problem, I’ll get you one.”’ Tucker got wind of the arrangement and was enraged. Within days of Leah losing her battle for life, Bernard received a call from the police asking him to attend a local police station. ‘It’s called an Osman warning. They say there’s been a threat on your life and we’re taking it seriously. They said “Tucker’s going to shoot you.”'
However, within hours the threat had vanished. Tucker, Tate and a third member of the firm Craig Rolfe, were found dead in a Range Rover on an isolated farm track in the small Essex village of Rettendon. They’d been going to survey an area of land where a rival drug gang were expecting to receive a drop the following night. Their plan had been to arm themselves with machine guns and hijack it for themselves, but they were ambushed.
Bernard was naturally considered a suspect, having been told by police hours before the triple murder that Tucker had made a threat on his life. Two people have since been convicted but it’s widely believed they’re not responsible for the murders. Bernard tells me that while he was cleared of having any involvement, he has good idea who it was. ‘If you pointed your finger anywhere in the Essex phonebook, that person would probably have a reason to shoot those three guys. They were that well liked.’
The incident had a big impact on Bernard’s life. It threw him into the spotlight for the wrong reasons and he believes that the furore that followed blew the myth of the ‘Essex Boys’ Firm’ way out of proportion. ‘The media turned what really were a mediocre group of people into the modern-day Krays. The myth surrounding it, particularly around Leah Betts, was ridiculous. I think there’s been four films and something like 13 books written about the Essex Boys and very few of them even scratch the truth for me.’
The aftermath convinced Bernard to turn his back on crime and pick up the pen to set the misconceptions straight and allow people to make up their own minds on the Essex Boys Firm. ‘I was always writing letters to my mother and friends when I was in prison and living abroad. I’d always been able to express myself better in words than face to face, and I enjoyed it. Essex Boys did really well – not that I made money out of it, the publisher did – but I thought “I like this.” I’ve done about 18 books now I think.’
It was writing that initially led Bernard to the North East to pen the biography of notorious Newcastle gangster Paddy Conroy, a man Bernard befriended after seeing Donal MacIntyre’s documentary on Conroy. ‘Paddy’s probably the most well-known villain in the North East, I met him when we were doing the Faces book.’ However, Bernard’s policy on writing fact not fiction led to a fall out with Conroy and the final version of his book ‘Fog on the Tyne’ instead chronicles the gangland wars between the Conroy, Harrison and Sayers families rather than just Paddy’s life. ‘Paddy and I fell out because he wanted to call a certain family this, that and the other, and I said “I’m not doing it. You’ve got no proof other than your opinion, it’s got to be in the right context otherwise you sound bitter,” but he wouldn’t have it.’
Bernard insists he and Conroy still remain on good terms, despite the dispute. ‘Paddy’s of the opinion the police have been hard on him over the years, but I don’t share that opinion. If you do the things he’s done, there’s a price to pay.’ Either way, Fog on the Tyne is an engrossing account of Tyneside’s underworld, with the feuding family element leading some to liken it to a ‘British Soprano’s.’ Bernard reveals he has had several meetings with a television company over the possibility of producing a six-part series based on the book, with former Shameless and Eastenders actor Jody Latham visiting Bernard in the North East to discuss a potential role. ‘The TV companies get all excited, then go away, you hear nothing until one day they ring you up and say “Let’s do it.” So we’ve had quite a few meetings, but it’s all died down for the minute.’
One positive to have already come out of Fog on the Tyne is Bernard’s marriage to local girl Roshea, whom he met while in the North East researching. ‘I was married in July 2006, my wife was only 26 and 19 weeks later she died of flu. We were sitting watching TV, she fell ill and within an hour she was dead. It was really difficult. I threw myself into my work after that, and when I came up to the North East I wasn’t really interested in girls because of my wife, but I met Roshea doing what was, at the time, Conroy’s book. After eight hours spent listening to him rant and rave I used to go to back to this crappy hotel where I was staying and you just get bored, so I rang this girl up and started going out with her that way. We ended up together, married and I’m here now.’
As well as using his writing skills to publish books, Bernard has used the power of the pen to engage some of Britain’s most notorious criminals in chilling correspondence from their prison cells. In some cases Bernard has been able to obtain damning evidence used to convict these criminals. It’s a practice that started when a News of the World journalist approached him after hearing he visited Ronnie Kray in Broadmoor. ‘He said “Do you ever see the Yorkshire ripper when you’re there? We’re doing a big feature on the anniversary of his arrest. If you get any stories give me a ring.” So I said “Why don’t you just write to him?”’ The journalist doubted that would work but Bernard gave it some thought and began writing to the Ripper, posing as 32 year-old barmaid Belinda Cannon. He wrote back. ‘By the end of the year we knew everything from his favourite colour to why he murdered prostitutes.’
Bernard planned to sell his stories to the papers, but nothing came of it. He realised that he had stumbled upon a method that could be used to extract detailed information from prisoners and used it to implicate two North East child killers: Richard Blenky who murdered seven year-old Paul Pearson in 1991, and Shaun Armstrong who killed three year-old Rosie Palmer four years later. ‘I wrote to Blenky as myself, and he wrote back, denying it, denying it, denying it, and I went to visit him which was a horrendous
experience. He’d invented this third person in his letters, and he was saying they had committed the murder. Blenky was drawing me maps of where the children’s clothes were buried, describing what had happened, all these sort of things. Three weeks before the trial I wrote to him and said “Look, you’re a liar, tell me the truth.” He wrote back with a full confession. I gave it to the police and on the morning of the trial he was confronted with it and he pleaded guilty.’
Incredibly, after extracting a similar confession from Shaun Armstrong, Bernard was sued five years later for £15,000 by a lawyer representing the convicted child killer. ‘Armstrong wrote in his confession to me “You’re the only person who knows this, yes I did kill her, but please don’t tell.” A lawyer from Liverpool deemed it breach of confidence and I was sued in the High Court for damages.’ To add insult to injury, Armstrong was granted legal aid and Bernard wasn’t, but he did receive support from Labour MP Mo Mowlam who was outraged by the situation. The case went on for 13 months before Armstrong eventually dropped it.
The third case in which Bernard’s letters were used as evidence came during the 2000 trial of London nail-bomber David Copeland. Another Broadmoor love-story was concocted which saw Copeland become besotted with Bernard’s pseudonym Patsy, and he even received a proposal from the deranged bomber. ‘Throughout the trial they were showing crime scene photo’s. There were maimed victims in the public gallery and they reckon Copeland didn’t show a flicker of emotion until they revealed ‘Patsy’ wasn’t real. He put his head in his hands and slumped in the dock. That was a pleasing moment.’
Last year, Bernard released two decades worth of his correspondence with some of Britain’s most abhorrent killers, including Ian Huntley and Ian Brady, in a book called Flowers in God’s Garden. It makes for uncomfortable, yet engrossing reading, and reinforces Bernard’s theory that the British public are fascinated by crime and those who commit it. ‘Look at Eastenders, all the storylines are about crime. Coronation Street the same and Emmerdale: there’s more murders there than Moss Side. Crime sells. Look at the amount of police TV programmes: Frost, CSI, Crimewatch. I think watching it and reading it allows people to spend time in a dangerous and exciting place, without any risk to themselves.’
Bernard has made a career out of writing about crime and what strikes me about his work is the quest for truth that lies at the heart of it all. It was a desire to dispel the illusions surrounding the Essex Boys that inspired him to turn his back on crime and write about it instead. ‘The truth is quite incredible really. I don’t know why people write fiction, there’s so many fascinating people and stories. It takes a bit of time to go and find them, but they’re out there.’ After listening to Bernard tell me his, I couldn’t agree more.