Guardian (London), Apr. 17
Safural Blake took a long sip of her drink and decided it would definitely be her last. It was just after 4am on 2 January 2003 and the New Year’s party she had been enjoying for the past few hours at the Uniseven hair salon in Aston, Birmingham, was beginning to turn sour.
It had started out as a small, private event organised by the salon owner, but details of the venue had been broadcast on a pirate radio station. Since then, a large group of young black males had begun congregating in the back room and as the night wore on they were becoming increasingly rowdy.
Safural tried to make her way to the exit, but found her route blocked. ‘There was a surge of people coming towards me. I assumed there was a fight. I finally got outside and I saw three girls in fur coats lying on the floor. I thought they were playing around. Two were lying sideways and one was lying at the bottom of them. The first two were still, but the third girl was moving. And then she started screaming.’
Terrified, and desperate to get away, Safural ran off in search of her car, only to find the windows smashed and the seats covered in broken glass. The car was riddled with bullet holes. Behind her, back where the girls lay on the ground, she heard someone shout: ‘They are dead, they are dead.’
Last month, four men were convicted of taking part in the drive-by shooting that claimed the lives of 18-year-old Charlene Ellis and her 17-year-old cousin Letisha Shakespeare. Charlene’s twin sister, Sophie, and her other cousin Cheryl Shaw were also hit, but survived. Marcus Ellis, 24, Michael Gregory, 23, and Nathan Martin, 26, will each serve at least 35 years. Rodrigo Simms, 20, who played a lesser role in the attack, will not be eligible for parole until he has served at least 27 years.
The double murder brought the issue of gun crime and gang violence into sharp focus across the country. Until then, the majority of incidents had involved gang members killing one another. That four innocent girls could find themselves falling victim to the worst kind of random violence was a wake-up call no one could ignore.
The truth, however, is a little more complex. Although the girls were indeed innocents, they were not shot entirely by accident. That night, a fundamental shift had taken place in the Birmingham underworld — women had become legitimate targets in the on-going turf war between its two main rival gangs.
The inner-city Birmingham of the early Eighties was a tough place for a young black man to grow up. Racial tension exploded in vicious race riots in 1981 and again in 1985. The West Midlands police were regularly accused of over-zealous and heavy-handed behaviour, particularly when it came to the random stop-searching of black youths. There was also an ever-present threat from the far right.
It was in this climate that some of the city’s young men began to band together for self-protection. Meeting up in a fast-food restaurant in the Lozells district, the loose-knit group planned to carry out vigilante patrols to protect the community and fight the injustices being overlooked.
One of the founders of this fledgling organisation was fork-lift truck driver Arthur ‘Super D’ Ellis. A good-looking man with the gift of the gab, he had fathered two sons — Nathaniel and Marcus — by the age of 19. His relationship with their mother had ended and by the time Arthur began hanging around with what had been dubbed the Johnson Crew he had moved on to pastures new. His relationship with a pretty girl named Beverley Thomas would also come to an end, but not before she had given him three more children — twins, Charlene and Sophie, and a son, Michael.
As the Johnson Crew grew, so the threat from the far right began to recede. And with unemployment in inner-city Birmingham running at 20 per cent, moving into crime became a way to make a living.
The gang members were very close-knit, often having lived on the same street for years and attended the same school. Over the years, as many members found themselves being excluded from school, they turned to petty street crime before progressing into fully fledged gangsters with a growing interest and influence in the city’s burgeoning drugs market. By the late Eighties, the Johnson Crew controlled most of the city’s drug supply and were prominent in nightclub security. They were making tens of thousands of pounds a week.
Disagreements over how to spend this money led to some members leaving to set up a rival firm. Basing themselves in a cafe, the Burger Bar Boys, as they became known, were bitter rivals to the Johnson Crew from day one. As crack cocaine swept through the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, money poured into the gangs. The rivalry escalated, and so did the violence.
‘It’s a way of life now,’ says one Burger Bar Boy who will only give his name as TC. ‘Your gang is your family and people are willing to die for their families. It’s not something you can just walk away from — you become a liability. If you’re not in, then you’re an outsider. Everyone I know has been to the funeral of someone they knew. I understand death in a way that even my parents don’t.’
In 1994, Arthur ‘Super D’ Ellis was jailed for six years for manslaughter after stabbing a love rival to death. While he was inside, two of his sons became involved in the gangs. Marcus joined the Burger Bar Boys, quickly rising to a senior position, while Nathaniel, now a convicted armed robber, joined the Johnson Crew. Michael joined neither, but would soon become friends with several members of the Johnson Crew.
As the power of the gangs spread, so did their influence on the local community. When a leading figure in the Burger Boys was charged with the murder of Corey Wayne Allen, another leading Burger Boy who had fallen out with the gang, key witnesses retracted statements at the last minute for fear of reprisals. One was jailed for five days after appearing in the witness box but refusing to testify. The charges were dropped and the suspect walked free. Other members of the gang have pulled the same trick, walking free from court on charges of wounding with intent.
In 1997, police arrested several high-ranking members of the Johnson Crew after a DJ, Jason Wharton, was shot dead in his car in Handsworth. This time police took no chances. Witnesses gave evidence from behind bullet-proof screens and were allowed to wear disguises. The trial at Leicester Crown Court led to several convictions.
The police believed they had broken the back of the street gangs, but the case only raised the profile of both firms. Of the two, the Johnson Crew was slightly larger, partly because it had a number of female members, many of whom took an active part in a range of criminal activity.
By the end of the Nineties, the turf war between the Johnson Crew and the Burger Bar Boys had cost dozens of lives. West Midlands Police, the fourth largest in the country, had the second-highest number of armed call-outs in the UK. Staff at Birmingham’s City Hospital became so adept at treating gunshot wounds that when several doctors were seconded for front-line medical duty during the Iraq war, they found they already possessed all the battlefield skills they needed.
Meanwhile, in Birmingham, the bloodshed continued. On 6 December 2002, brothers Nathan and Yohanne Martin hired a Mercedes SLK to help with their promotional business, Dynamite Entertainment, which booked music and comedy acts in the Birmingham area. Both brothers were long-standing members of the Burger Bar Boys.
No strangers to the world of violence, Yohanne, a father-of-one, had previously been accused of murdering 22-year-old Christopher Clarke, who was set upon by a gang of 20 men in March 2000, stabbed, punched and kicked to death. The murder charge, along with counts of wounding with intent and violent disorder, was dropped in April 2001, when the Crown Prosecution Service offered no evidence at Birmingham Crown Court. However, Martin was sent to prison after admitting possessing a pistol and ammunition. In the meantime, Nathan had amassed six convictions of his own, including an escape from custody and attempted robbery.
On the evening of 6 December, Yohanne took the hire car to see friends in West Bromwich. As he sat, parked by the side of the road, a car pulled up alongside. Two of the bullets hit Yohanne in the head, killing him instantly.
Nathan was devastated by the loss of his brother and determined to avenge his death. It was an open secret on the streets of Aston that a gang allied to the Johnson Crew had been responsible and it was only a matter of weeks before Nathan got the evidence he needed.
A few days before Christmas 2002, West Midlands Police arrested two women and charged them with Yohanne’s murder. Charges against one would later be dropped, but the other, Chantella Falcon, was found to be instrumental in Yohanne’s death. Just 18 years old, Chantella was a hard-core member of a gang called the Raiders, which was strongly aligned to the Johnson Crew.
‘The shooting of Yohanne Martin changed everything,’ says journalist Amardeep Bassey, whose soon-to-be-published book, Homeboys, chronicles the rise of Birmingham’s street gangs. ‘From that moment on women in gangs were seen as fair game. I don’t think anyone deliberately went out looking for girls, but there was a sense that if they were in the way and got hurt, it wouldn’t matter the way it might have done before.’
Nathan was determined to get revenge, and the New Year’s Day party at Uniseven, which was due to be attended by several members of the Johnson Crew, seemed to provide the perfect opportunity. The plan was hatched over Christmas. Nathan recruited his best friend, Michael Gregory. His sister had been Yohanne’s partner and was the mother of his child.
Nathan also called on Marcus Ellis, by then number two in command of the Burger Bar Boys. Ellis, the half-brother of Charlene Ellis and cousin of Letisha Shakespeare, would be in charge of collecting weapons for the hit. Ellis had four previous convictions, including one for violent disorder in connection with a murder that had taken place in 2001. Only Gregory had no convictions. He had applied for a Prince’s Trust loan of £5,000 to start a car-washing business.
Gregory bought a new mobile phone to co-ordinate the operation and Martin asked two friends who have never been identified to help him obtain a reliable car with which to carry out the hit.
On New Year’s Eve 2002 two men, one Asian, one West Indian, travelled down to Northampton car dealer Anthony Hill to buy a red, high-performance P-registration Ford Mondeo. Interviewed by the police months later, Hill remembered the meeting for a number of reasons. First, the men told him they had come down from Birmingham, but seemed to have no car. In fact, their vehicle had been parked well out of sight. Unusually, they declined the offer of a test drive and instead handed over the agreed price of £1,850.
The dealer also remembered that their phones kept ringing throughout the short meeting. ‘You’re a busy chap,’ Hill said to one. ‘What do you do for a living?’ There was no reply. The buyers were in a hurry and in no mood for small talk. It was only when they handed over the cash that they realised they did not have enough money left for petrol. After a little negotiation, Mr Hill handed back £10. The men climbed into the Mondeo and sped away.
CCTV cameras would later pick up the Mondeo making its way from Northampton to Birmingham along the M1, followed closely by a silver Vauxhall Vectra. Analysis of the number plate soon identified the second car’s owner: Nathan Martin.
Charlene Ellis, her twin sister Sophie, their cousin Cheryl Shaw and friend Letisha Shakespeare were virtually inseparable. The four college friends, all churchgoers, shared a love of R&B and fashion.
A few weeks earlier, Charlene, Sophie and Cheryl had performed at a talent show. Under the name the Bombshell Ladies, they sang their own brand of gritty urban rap. Although Letisha wasn’t part of the group she was a big fan, and attended all their gigs. The year before, they had performed on the Midlands pirate radio station Serious FM and had hopes that one day they might cut a CD.
Although none of the girls had criminal records or was involved in violence, their lyrics reflected the reality of the inner-city life they saw around them. ‘If you want to fight me look at the door,’ ran the lyrics to one track. ‘Left your daughter lying on the floor with a broken jaw, you can’t get with mini mini me, bash you out the window, kick you in the crutches then butt you in the face.’
On the night of the party at Uniseven, the four girls had been dropped off at Rosie O’Brien’s nightclub in Solihull by Cheryl’s mother, Sandra Thomas, and her mother’s boyfriend, Paul Nixon. It was he who got them to line up and pose for the now infamous picture next to a Christmas tree. They were, he noted, ‘happy, laughing and joking, and looking forward to the night out’.
The party had turned Rosie O’Brien’s into something of a Johnson Crew stronghold that night. During the evening, one alleged supporter of the gang, Jermaine Carty, aka MC Wooly, took to the stage and started rapping, ‘bigging up’ the Johnson Crew. In the early hours of the morning the party moved on to the Uniseven Salon.
According to Cheryl Shaw, there was something odd about the party from the moment she and her friends arrived. ‘The atmosphere was not like I thought it would be. There were a lot of old men there. It was quite strange.’
The four friends spent most of their time inside, but as the numbers at the party rose from 50 to more than 100, the rooms became unbearably hot and they moved outside for a breath of fresh air.
In the meantime, the fourth member of the Burger Bar Boy hit team, Rodrigo Simms, was hard at work. He had gone along to the party at Uniseven to act as ‘spotter’ and had been receiving regular phone calls from Gregory and the others in the Mondeo, asking whether any members of the Johnson Crew were there. Although he was associated with the Burgers and the salon was within Johnson territory, Simms was safe, as the salon was owned by a member of his family. Each time Gregory called, Simms confirmed that members of the Johnson Crew, including Jermaine Carty, were present. The hit could go ahead.
In the Mondeo, Marcus Ellis, sitting in the front passenger seat, finished cleaning the Mac 10 machine gun that was the pride of the Burger Bar Boy arsenal. He handed the weapon over his shoulder to Nathan Martin and loaded a 9mm pistol for his own use. Sitting beside him in the driver’s seat, Michael Gregory eased the car into gear and moved off. It was payback time.
The four girls had gone back inside the salon, but once again it became too hot for them and they moved back outside. They had been there only a few minutes when Cheryl noticed a red Ford Mondeo travelling slowly towards them.
‘I saw a gun outside the passenger-side window and someone with a balaclava on. The gun was black and square shaped at the front.’
While Ellis focused his attention on shooting at a Johnson Crew man, Martin, mad with rage over the death of his brother, targeted the small group in front of him. The fact that the group was mainly women made no difference. The party had been invaded by members of the Johnson Crew and the crew had plenty of female members. Women from the crew had also been linked to his brother’s death. As far as he was concerned, anyone at the party was a legitimate target.
Martin steadied his aim and squeezed the trigger of the Mac 10. Capable of firing 1,200 rounds per minute, the Mac 10 is notoriously difficult to control, even for trained marksmen. In gangland circles it is often referred to as the ‘spray and pray’.
Within a split second, 23 empty cartridge cases had fallen from the side of the weapon. Charlene was the first to die. A bullet smashed into her left arm and the second hit her shoulder. The third hit her face and lodged in her brain, fracturing her skull and causing a massive haemorrhage. Letisha was shot four times. The fatal bullet pierced her heart and lungs and came out of her back. She was also shot in the right arm, left arm and pelvis. All four bullets travelled straight through her body.
Sophie was hit in the chest and arm, causing serious injuries, while Cheryl was hit in the hand. ‘It happened quickly,’ she later told the police.
‘I saw the gun then I heard gunshots. I just stared at the gun in shock. I raised my hands to my face. I fell to the ground. I had a pain in my hand. I got up and started running to my right.’
In all, 37 cartridge cases were found at the scene, fired from three weapons — the Mac 10 machine gun, a Spanish Llama pistol and another weapon which has never been identified.
A few minutes later Michael Ellis, brother to twins Sophie and Charlene, was woken by a telephone call from Jermaine Carty. ‘Your sisters are on the ground. It was the Burgers.’ Michael raced to the scene, then followed his surviving sister to hospital, where she was rushed into theatre for life-saving surgery. As the doctors began to operate, Michael Ellis picked up a phone and called the only member of the Burger Bar Boys he knew — his half- brother, Marcus.
‘Your lot shot my sister,’ said Michael.
‘What do you mean?’ answered Marcus.
‘Your friends shot my sister.’
‘Is she dead?’
‘I don’t know.’
Michael fired a stream of questions at his half-brother, but the line was already dead.
Michael called Marcus again later that morning to report that Charlene was dead. Marcus said nothing; he simply hung up. He went on the run immediately afterwards and would remain out of touch with family and friends for weeks.
The inquiry into the New Year’s Day party shootings was one of the biggest West Midlands Police had ever launched. Officers collected 1,300 statements, recovered 40 vehicles for forensic analysis and spent tens of thousands of man-hours trying to put together a case. ‘What shocked us most,’ said one officer close to the inquiry, ‘is that if you drew a line linking the names of the people murdered and those involved in the case, you would end up with something resembling a family tree.’
It didn’t take long before the investigating officers ran into the familiar wall of silence. Although many of those at the salon had clearly seen what had happened, almost all refused to comment.
Desperate to secure convictions, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service realised they could only persuade people to come forward by providing them with a level of protection never seen before in an English courtroom, including voice distortion, screens to prevent witnesses being seen and the widespread use of pseudonyms.
One of these witnesses — ‘Mark Brown’ — was to play a key part in the trial. He was the only one to come forward and say he saw the killers at the scene of the crime. Brown claimed to have seen Nathan Martin and Marcus Ellis in a red Ford moments before the shootings. He claimed he saw Ellis cleaning a gun and that he then ran back to the party. But he did not see the shooting, as he had his back to the car. Rodrigo Simms was talking on a mobile phone in an alleyway, he added.
The defence tried to make much of his past: ‘Brown’ admitted under cross-examination that he had convictions for robbery, affray and assaulting a police officer. It later emerged that he had been paid ‘thousands’ by the police to help protect him after he agreed to testify. Despite these concerns — some of which may be used as grounds for a forthcoming appeal — the four men were convicted.
Despite the convictions, West Midlands Police say the case is far from over. They believe many others were involved in the plot to attack the Johnson Crew that night and they plan a number of arrests and conspiracy charges in the coming weeks. These arrests are expected to lead to a number of high-profile murder trials.
Although gun crime in Birmingham has fallen slightly in recent months, no one is optimistic that this is anything other than temporary. ‘Although members of these gangs are invariably linked with armed criminality, the problem is not just one of law and order,’ says Amardeep Bassey. ‘Gang culture is a social phenomenon that is reaching near-epidemic levels on the streets of inner-city Birmingham. It is only now that the gangs are finally being recognised, and classed as urban terrorists who pose a real and serious threat to the safety of our cities.’