Gangster reign of The Licensee brought to end by heart attack
CRAIG BROWN ()
TAM McGraw, the notorious gangster who built a multi-million-pound fortune from drug-dealing and extortion, died from a heart attack yesterday, opening up a potential power vacuum in the Glasgow underworld.
McGraw, 55, who went by the nickname The Licensee, was reportedly found dead in bed at his bungalow yesterday afternoon.
Despite being linked to a list of crimes and named as a key figure in the infamous Ice Cream Wars in Glasgow's East End in the 1980s, McGraw had not been convicted of an offence for more than two decades.
He was acquitted of the attempted murder of a police officer in 1978 and drug-smuggling charges were found not proven in 1998. Crime was estimated to have netted him £20 million.
Yesterday a Scottish Ambulance Service spokesman confirmed: "At 2pm, we received a call to assist a collapsed male at an address in Mount Vernon." McGraw was confirmed dead on arrival at Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
McGraw's death is surprising only in that it was from natural causes, for as one of the kingpins of Glasgow's underworld, his life was defined by violence and crime. Through threats and intimidation, he maintained an almost unassailable position from Glasgow's days of street gang notoriety in the Sixties through to its rebirth as a cosmopolitan tourist hotspot.
Known as one of the country's top five crime bosses, McGraw was brought up in the city's tough east end estates during the 1960s.
Like most gangland figures, he started out in petty crime and gang fights and spent time in approved schools and borstals, where he developed his contacts with the criminal underworld. It was only during the 1970s that McGraw took his first real step into serious organised crime when he was recruited into the Barlanark, or Bar-L, Team, which specialised in armed robberies across Scotland.
Despite being captured and arrested during a botched robbery at a nightclub that resulted in him being charged with attempted murder, McGraw evaded prison. He became known as untouchable - by criminal rivals and the police - fuelling speculation that he was an informant. The charge was always denied by Strathclyde Police.
He graduated from armed robbery to build a huge empire based on large-scale drug dealing and extortion, establishing bases in Tenerife and Ireland, and toppling old Arthur Thomson, the "Godfather" and Glasgow's previous crime lord.
It was suspected that even McGraw's legitimate interests in property, taxis and security firms were used to launder the proceeds of his drug deals.
In 1998, he walked free from court having been accused of masterminding a Europe-wide cannabis smuggling ring, following a 58-day trial. Three others were sentenced to a total of 24 years in prison.
His escape from justice led other gangland figures to label him a police informant and it was this - as well as ownership of many Glasgow pubs - that earned his nickname, as he was seen as being licensed to commit crimes anywhere and at any time.
Paul Ferris, a rival gangster who now insists he has gone straight, claimed in his autobiography that McGraw was backed by corrupt police officers, who passed on confiscated drugs which he then sold on the streets.
They were embroiled in a long- running feud and Ferris believed that his former partner in crime had tried to set him up on criminal charges on several occasions.
Mystery shrouds McGraw's role in the city's so-called Ice Cream Wars, which involved the murder of six members of the Doyle family, who died in a house fire in Ruchazie in 1984.
TC Campbell, who had his conviction for the killings quashed, said on his release from jail that McGraw was responsible for the deaths. But a fresh police investigation was never launched.
Though feared throughout the city, McGraw had a brush with death in 2002 when he was stabbed several times in daylight not far from his home. He escaped with minor wounds, it was claimed, because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest.
Following the attack, many believed McGraw had retired from the criminal life to his Spanish villa. Whether his death sparks a vicious new battle to adopt his crown has yet to be seen.
LINK TO 'ICE CREAM WARS'
TAM McGraw was linked to the infamous Ice Cream Wars in Glasgow's east end in the 1980s.
Ostensibly a battle between rival ice cream van operators for lucrative territories, it was, in reality, a bloody feud between gangs who used the vans to sell drugs.
Violence and intimidation saw the viciousness of the conflict escalate - with rival vendors raiding each other's vans and firing shotguns into rivals' windscreens.
At the time, the police force was lambasted by the public for failing to deal with the escalating trouble, earning them the nickname the "serious chime squad" from locals.
The conflict culminated in the revenge murder of six members of the Doyle family in a blaze on a housing estate.
Andrew Doyle, an 18-year-old ice cream van driver, had resisted attempts to force him to distribute drugs or give up his run.
The ensuing court case saw Thomas 'TC' Campbell and Joe Steele convicted of their murders and jailed for life.
In high-profile campaigns both men protested their innocence.
But it was not until 2004 , and their third appeal, that the convictions were quashed.
The ruling at the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh found the men were victims of a miscarriage of justice.
An inglorious end to the shadowy life of a feared gangland criminal
GERRY BRAIDEN July 31 2007
The ending of his life had no gory echoes of The Sopranos, Goodfellas, The Long Good Friday or popular culture gangsterism.
Like Arthur Thompson, the gangland godfather whose footsteps he followed in, Tam "The Licensee" McGraw died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 54.
For a man synonymous with violence and organised crime in Scotland over the past 30 years, it was the inglorious end suffered by so many middle-aged men in Glasgow's east end and elsewhere in Scotland - a dodgy heart.
One of the wealthiest "businessmen" in Glasgow, he owned numerous businesses, from security companies to taxi firms to pubs, as well as a property portfolio in Scotland, Ireland and Spain with an estimated worth of £10m.
The real money came through his extortion and drug trafficking activities, which some sources claim were worth around £15m.
Born in Glasgow's east end in 1953, he became involved in low-level criminal activity including shoplifting and housebreaking during the early-1960s.
After several spells in approved schools and borstals during his teenage years he was recruited into the "Bar-l gang", based around the Barlanark area of Glasgow and specialising in armed robbery.
A willing and eager participant in the gang's post office raids throughout Scotland, he eventually became one of the most wanted criminals in the country but managed to evade police for some time before eventual arrest in a failed robbery of a social club outside Glasgow, as he loaded several crates of alcohol into his van.
Although McGraw was arrested while trying to flee on foot after his vehicle overturned during a brief high-speed chase, charges were dropped and he was released the following morning.
It was the beginning of the rumour mill, fuelled by both rivals and gangland contemporaries, that McGraw may have been a police informant, supplying information on associates in exchange for police protection from his own illegal activities. His trial and subsequent acquittal for the attempted murder of a police officer in 1978 did little to quell the speculation.
He was involved in dealing heroin due to his connections to corrupt police
By the time the early- 1980s had arrived, McGraw's criminal empire had begun expanding into the burgeoning heroin trade, the profits concealed through the purchase of nightclubs and pubs.
He was also identified as a figure in one of the most notorious incidents in Scotland during the 1980s, Glasgow's "Ice Cream Wars" which resulted in the murders of six members of the Doyle family in Ruchazie in the east end in 1984.
Thomas "TC" Campbell, who was later acquitted of the crime, has claimed in the past that McGraw had started the blaze.
It was also during this time that McGraw acquired the nickname "The Licensee", explanations for which vary.
According to some, the nickname followed his entry into the pub business and because he could obtain licences for taxis and ice cream vans.
Rivals say it was because he could commit offences without fear, in return for informing on others.
Paul Ferris, a one-time close accomplice who became arguably his biggest rival in Glasgow's world of organised crime, claimed in his autobiography that McGraw became involved in dealing heroin due to his connections to corrupt police officers, receiving confiscated drugs which he sold on the streets.
One of McGraw's businesses at that time was the Caravel Bar in Hallhill Road, Barlanark, held in the name of his wife, Margaret.
Next door was Mac Cabs, another firm held in his wife's name.
The Caravel was suddenly bulldozed after underworld informers gave police intelligence that it had played a role in the deaths of Joe "Bananas" Hanlon and Bobby Glover, who were executed with shots to the head either as revenge for the murder of Arthur "Fat Boy" Thompson, son of Arthur Thompson Sr, or because they were the only witnesses to the murder.
The timely demolition, it was suggested, ruled out a planned forensic investigation.
Mr McGraw made the headlines when in 1998 he was arrested for drug smuggling. He was at the centre of a 55-day trial at the High Court in Edinburgh, one of Scotland's longest and costliest drugs trials, during which it was alleged he bankrolled a massive drug-running operation between Morocco and Scotland. He was acquitted on a majority "not proven" verdict but several associates, including his brother-in-law, received lengthy jail terms.
The judge, Lord Bonomy, said the trial had shown "a disturbing example of organised crime in the midst of needy Glasgow communities".
Mr McGraw's counsel, Donald Findlay, QC, described him as an Arthur Daley figure "ducking and diving" in the black economy, and that, coupled with his legitimate business activities, explained why he was in possession of huge sums of money.
Following his acquittal he became increasingly elusive, spending more and more time on Ireland and Tenerife.
In 2002, he was involved in an altercation with his adversary Ferris, who later went back to prison for the brawl, suffering wounds to his arms, wrists and buttocks.
Although protected by a bulletproof vest, he had received only minor injuries.
He later reportedly held a meeting with Ferris, with whom he had been feuding for some time over the allegations in his book, and agreed to pay him £2m in compensation for his losses following McGraw's takeover of his territory while imprisoned.
His right-hand man Billy McPhee was stabbed to death while watching football in a packed pub in Ballieston, in the east end.
McPhee had survived being shot in the face just four months earlier.
He also had a major fall-out with his lieutenant and brother-in-law John Healy. There was an attempt on his life in the Royal Oak pub in Nitshill, on Glasgow's southern boundary, in 2004, during which two men, John McCartney and Craig Devlin, were seriously wounded.
The pub mysteriously burnt down a month later.
In 2005 a bankruptcy case against McGraw was lifted after a hearing at the Court of Session, bringing to an end an investigation into his financial affairs during which he declared his assets as £116.
From The Sunday Times
May 15, 2005
Ecosse: My killer uncle
As a student at Fettes College, Wayne Thallon fell under the spell of his gangster relative. His new book shows it hasn’t broken yet, reports Kenny Farquharson
When classmates at Fettes College in Edinburgh chatted about their families, Wayne Thallon would listen but stay shtoom. The workaday tales of lawyers and captains of industry were far removed from the lives of Thallon’s family, especially the life of his Uncle Rod.
He can remember the moment he realised his uncle was out of the ordinary. “That was the time I saw him wrap a petrol pump hose around somebody’s neck. It was maybe a bit of a giveaway,” he recalls. “I was probably about four. I thought to myself — either the whole world is like that or he is a bit different to other grown-ups.”
Just how different would become clear as Thallon got older. He would learn that Rod “Popeye” McLean was a ruthless killer, a mercenary, an international drug baron, a gunrunner for South Africa’s apartheid regime and a lifelong informant for MI6, the foreign security service.
As a teenager, Thallon would try to match his uncle, rum for rum, in drinking sessions and listen to tales about his talent for violence. How his murder weapon of choice was a small axe; how someone’s eye could be “scooped out like a boiled egg”; how he once doused an African man in petrol and watched him burn alive “hypnotised by the flames and his dance within them”.
Thallon was under no illusions. In February 1997 he watched as a Scottish court found McLean guilty of drug smuggling and trying to evade justice after being captured off the Caithness coast in a ship, the Ocean Jubilee, carrying three tons of cannabis with a street value of £10m.
During attempts to board the ship, a much-decorated undercover customs officer, Alistair Soutar, 47, was crushed to death. In the High Court sitting in Dunfermline, Lord Dawson sentenced McLean to 28 years in jail, later reduced to 21 on appeal.
Despite all the bloodshed, criminality and cruelty, the Edinburgh public schoolboy incredibly never wavered in his respect and admiration for his uncle.
“To me he was a heroic figure,” Thallon said last week, speaking in Washington DC where, now aged 30, he is pursuing a career as a writer. “People can’t take away the fact that he was a remarkable man who led a remarkable life, love it or loathe it. He was caught up in struggle rather than outcome. To me he is epic, he is a hero.”
Proof positive of Thallon’s devotion to his uncle can be found in a book published last week. Cut-Throat: The Vicious World of Rod McLean is a grisly account of a life drenched in other people’s blood, dwelling in detail on crimes of sickening brutality committed by McLean, all written in a gunslinger style that does not try to hide the author’s admiration.
His uncle is not around to enjoy the moment. Despite starting his prison sentence as a high-risk Category A prisoner, he was soon transferred to Leyhill open prison in south Gloucestershire, where prisoners routinely absconded.
The oft-repeated conspiracy theory about McLean is that this move was conveniently arranged by MI5 and MI6, which were keen to get him out of jail. The story goes that they wanted to use him as an agent to gain intelligence on Dutch and Turkish drug gangs. It is, of course, impossible to confirm or refute. What is not in doubt is that McLean, on an unsupervised day out from prison, disappeared and resurfaced days later in a drug-smuggling operation in Ireland.
According to Thallon’s book, McLean was stringing along his MI6 handlers while negotiating an escape to northern Cyprus, which has no extradition treaty with the UK. He never made it.
In December 2003, a leak to the media led to McLean’s face being splashed across the front pages of British newspapers, naming him as an “MI6 grass”. On January 14, last year, his body was found in a seedy guesthouse in Streatham, southwest London.
No announcement was made by the authorities until 29 days after his death — not even to the Avon and Somerset police who were still searching for him following his jailbreak.
A postmortem concluded he had died of natural causes — a heart attack — and his body was released for a swift cremation, barring further investigation.
The accusation of links with MI6 did not come out of thin air. McLean was known to have had contacts with the security forces from his time as a mercenary and gunrunner and is thought to have passed on information to the government about what he knew of the South African special forces operating in Mozambique.
According to Thallon, McLean never saw this as a big deal. His uncle was never motivated by ideology in his overseas exploits, just by money. He nonetheless believed that if he could help Queen and country along the way, well and good.
Thallon had already decided to write a book about his uncle. Now it would be a memorial. The nephew had often visited McLean on remand during the run-up to the Ocean Jubilee trial, sometimes using a contact to smuggle himself in with his uncle’s legal team.
On unsupervised days out in Bristol they would rendezvous in a cafe and Thallon would tape their conversations and take notes. McLean was keen on the idea of a book and handed over diaries, ship’s logs and journals from his early escapades.
Thallon was an unusual Fettes old boy. He is the son of Rab Thallon, a colourful Edinburgh businessman who once ran a retail empire of 22 small fashion shops centred on the city’s grungy Cockburn Street. At its height in the 1980s, Thallon’s empire had a £3m turnover. But business feuds and questionable friends, coupled with a cocaine habit, brought him low and his business collapsed in 1992. He died of a brain haemorrhage in 1996.
“He was handy and he liked a brawl,” says Thallon of his father. “We used to call Drylaw police station the Thallon Country Club. I had to go and pick him up on Monday morning on quite a few occasions.”
When his father died, the money that had paid for full-time boarding at Fettes from the age of 10 also dried up, but a deal was done that would allow him to stay on as a day pupil. His father’s sister, Susan, and her husband, Rod, offered to give the boy a home.
So for more than a year Thallon lived at McLean’s mansion overlooking Granton harbour. Sitting drinking rum with his uncle and hearing his stories gave Thallon what he calls “an ulterior life”.
“Being at Fettes and coming from the background I had, I didn’t really fit in,” he says. “These kids do have quite sheltered lives. Boarding school can make a man out of you in some ways, but it blunts certain emotions.”
Thallon’s parents were divorced and his mother had remarried, this time to a diplomat working abroad. He saw her “twice a year for a short time over the holidays”; Rab, his father, had a new life with a new family. Thallon gravitated more and more to his uncle. “It was very difficult not to get caught up in that world. At 18 your head is up your arse anyway. It was easy to see his world as an attractive one — especially if you don’t live that life.”
He compares McLean’s tales of violence to a piece of meat, devoid of blood or sinew, attractively packed in Cellophane on a supermarket shelf. “I would come away from one of our sessions thinking, ‘That’s disgusting, and I won’t sleep tonight. But, wow, what a story!’ ”
Thallon’s CV after Fettes is an impressive one. After internships as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill in Washington DC he took a law degree then a master’s in criminology at the London School of Economics. He ended up in the government whip’s office in the House of Lords. After failing to get into the fast-track stream at the Foreign Office, he decided to pursue a full-time career as a writer.
Despite his respectable career path, Thallon was never wholly divorced from his uncle’s world. He admits he “saw the odd scuffle Rod was involved in” but insists he “was never privy to the dangerous stuff. I never got involved”.
He talks in apparently knowing terms about the animal magnetism of violence seen first hand, but declines to elaborate, perhaps aware that such nods and winks will help to sell his book.
“It’s one thing to read about it, but violence happening in front of your eyes leaves a taste in your mouth,” he says. “The whole thing is in slow motion.”
Thallon casually drops phrases such as “cognitive dissonance” in discussions of his uncle’s motives, but he shows no sign of wanting to distance himself from his violence. He admits McLean’s experiences still give him the buzz he felt as an 18-year-old — only now he claims a better appreciation of what made him tick.
Challenged on his moral attitude to his uncle’s violence, he is unrepentant. He is able to explain away his brutality — the lives McLean took when he was a mercenary in the Congo, the axeings of those who got in his way when he ran a brothel in Edinburgh’s Albert Place and the merciless slaying of African pirates while shipping arms to Mozambique, among others.
“That was kill or be killed,” claims Thallon.
“The anger and violence came out of necessity. That was the environment he had chosen to be in, and if you wanted to survive you had to be capable of a certain kind of violence. For him every fight was to the death. He talked about a sense of loneliness at those times. If you fight somebody you have got to be prepared to die.”
I suggest to Thallon that most people would see his uncle as a psychopath. He disagrees. “He was capable of doing it. But a psychopath can splatter someone’s brains then sit down to a cooked breakfast. There were times Rod was remorseful and it tainted his soul.
“He was aware that every time he did something like that it pushed him one step further away from being the kind of person he thought he was capable of being, who was someone who didn’t have to wield an axe all the time.”
Thallon is content to dismiss the fact that McLean kept on coming back for more as a simple demonstration of the paradoxes and inconsistencies in everybody’s lives. Attempting to show the humane side of his uncle’s personality, he describes how McLean dealt with a suspected paedophile who had threatened his family by leaving a milk bottle full of petrol and an unlit match on the doorstep.
McLean abducted the man then removed his teeth with a pair of pliers. Then he put his half-dead body in a tea chest and took it out to sea, along with a bag of cement. The idea was to dispose of him, alive. But McLean relented and put the man ashore on the Fife coast.
“It was one of the things he really went into when I was living with him. It was a defining moment in his life. He realised he’d done something out of pride. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to. He was almost ashamed of himself.”
Yes, quite the moral philosopher.
Even on the death of the customs man on the Ocean Jubilee, Thallon cuts his uncle some slack. The attempted boarding was unnecessary and the officers need not have risked themselves, he says. “Alistair Soutar lost his life in the middle of that unnecessary episode.”
So McLean was not responsible for his death?
“Do you hold the arsonist responsible when the house collapses on the firefighter? It’s a tricky one,” he says, seemingly unaware of the ease with which most people would answer the question.
“Morally speaking, sure, my uncle was regretful the man died. But he was also regretful the man died unnecessarily. He saw him as a brave man.”
One wonders what Soutar’s colleagues might say if given the chance to have a few words with Thallon. Or what they would say to the MI6 officers who allegedly arranged for McLean to escape a 21-year prison sentence so he could act as their operative.
No book has been written celebrating Soutar’s life, a man who devoted his skills to the battle against drugs and who died in the line of duty. Yet McLean is being immortalised in print.
Thallon has a curious notion of what makes a hero.
Cut-Throat: The Vicious World of Rod McLean, by Wayne Thallon is published by Mainstream Publishing, £9.99