I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Glasgow has always had a reputation as a tough city, at one time wearing the title of “Murder Capital of Western Europe.” It has been cleaned up quite a bit since the 1980s when rival gangs fought over ice cream truck routes. However, in 2016 Glasgow Live reported the city is still rated as the ninth most dangerous place in Europe.
Glasgow's Organized Crime
It does not spring readily to the mind that criminal gangs would start fighting over raspberry ripples or chocolate vanilla dips. But, ice cream vendor’s trucks became a sign of danger in Glasgow’s grittier neighbourhoods in the 1980s.
Of course, there was more to it that frozen sweet treats. The ice cream trucks were being used by gangs as fronts for selling drugs and stolen goods. In the early 1980s, other gangs could see the lucrative nature of such a scheme and started to elbow their way into the market. That’s how the turf war started.
The crooks running the ice cream trucks took a dim view of having someone else sharing their wealth and decided it was necessary to discourage the newcomers. The windshields of trucks were blown out by shotgun blasts and tires were slashed. Vendors were beaten up and robbed.
Police seemed incapable of bringing an end to the war, so the serious crimes squad became known locally as the Serious Chimes Squad.
The Ice Cream War Turned Very Ugly
Andrew Doyle, known as Fat Boy, was an ice cream vendor working for the Marchetti family.
The odious Tam McGraw, one of the most feared underworld criminals in Glasgow, tried to persuade the 18-year-old Doyle to peddle drugs for him. He refused to allow his truck to be used as a mobile drug distributor for organized crime.
Of course, the crooks didn’t want that sentiment to spread among the other drivers. Having his windshield shot out to persuade him to fall in line didn't intimidate Doyle. Stronger measures were needed.
On April 16, 1984, someone put bed linen soaked in gasoline against the front door of the apartment where Doyle lived with his parents and siblings and set it alight. The fire spread quickly and Doyle and his family were trapped inside. Six people, including Doyle’s 18-month-old nephew, died in the blaze.
The murders shocked the city and provoked the hapless police force into action.
Arrests Were Made
The cops interviewed hundreds of suspects and eventually settled on Thomas Campbell and Joe Steele as the culprits. Both men owned ice cream vans and police alleged they were protecting their patch. Campbell had a considerable criminal past and Steele was his sidekick.
At trial, a witness, William Love, claimed he had overheard the two men plotting to teach “Fat Boy” Doyle a lesson. Four police officers testified they heard Campbell say “The fire at ‘Fat Boy’s’ was only meant to be a frightener which went too far.” Police also said a map of Glasgow with the Doyle apartment marked with an X was found in Campbell’s flat.
The accused claimed complete innocence, that Love and the police were lying, and the map had been planted by the cops. The jury unanimously agreed with the prosecution and Campbell and Steele were given a life sentence with no chance of release for 20 years.
A Long Legal Battle
The two men continued a legal battle to prove their innocence from behind bars. Campbell went on hunger strikes that brought him close to death. Steele managed to escape a few times but always just to draw attention to their case. On one occasion he famously super-glued himself to the gates of Buckingham Palace.
Their first appeal in 1985 was denied. Eleven years later, they were given leave to appeal again and were released on bail. But, a panel of judges ruled their case fell outside the standard needed to hear new evidence and they were sent back to prison.
In 1999, a newly formed criminal case review commission ordered the court of appeal to take another look. This time, evidence emerged about collusion among police officers to manufacture evidence against Campbell and Steele. William Love was exposed as a jail house snitch. After giving police incriminating evidence against the two men, a charge of armed robbery against him was dropped and he was released from prison.
Mr. Justice Lord Gill quashed the conviction and the two men walked free. But, it was a hollow victory as they had both spent almost 20 years in prison, the minimum of their initial sentence.
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Who Was the Arsonist?
Thomas Campbell points the finger of blame at Tam “The Licensee” McGraw. For three decades he was one of the most feared criminals in Glasgow’s underworld. He ran protection rackets and drug sales. He had a particular expertise in armed robberies.
However, strangely, while many of his accomplices and rival bad guys were prosecuted and jailed, McGraw never found the police breathing down his neck.
Campbell has said McGraw started the blaze that killed the Doyle family. Accusing someone like Tam McGraw of murder was bound to lead to trouble, and it did. In April 2002, McGraw and one of his thugs, Billy McPhee, spotted Campbell in a park when he was out on bail.
McPhee stabbed Campbell a couple of times in the buttocks and McGraw weighed in with a seven-iron golf club. Campbell escaped with his life.
Tam McGraw’s criminal empire started to fall apart with several of his close associates being bumped off. He fled to his fortified properties in Spain where he died of a heart attack in 2007 at the age of 55.
The police never re-opened the murder investigation and this caused more than a few suspicious eyebrows to be raised. There were many in the underworld who believed Tam McGraw was a police informant. The cops let him carry on with his criminal enterprises in exchange for him squealing on lesser villains. There have even been claims that officers gave him drugs they had confiscated in raids so he could sell them on the street.
Some say that’s how he got his nickname; he was licensed to commit crimes by police.
- In August 2013, police in Brooklyn, New York arrested 20-year-old Mina Gatas for selling cocaine to an undercover officer from his ice cream vending truck.
- Glasgow has a long history of violent street gangs. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the working-class areas of the city were dominated territorially by what came to be called Razor Gangs, after their favoured choice of weapon.
- In 1984, Bill Forsyth wrote and directed the movie Comfort and Joy, described as a black comedy. It starred Bill Patterson as a radio host who tries to broker peace between two warring ice cream vending families in Glasgow.
- “Glasgow ‘One of the Top 10 Most Dangerous Cities in Europe’, According to Report.” Glasgow Live, January 7, 2017.
- “The Long Road to Liberation.” BBC News, March 17, 2004.
- “Falsely Held for 20 Years, Ice Cream War Pair Free at Last.” Kirsty Scott, The Guardian, March 18, 2004.
- “An Inglorious End to the Shadowy Life of a Feared Gangland Criminal.” The Sunday Herald, July 30, 2007.
- “Glasgow’s Gangsters, Tam ‘The Licensee’ McGraw.” Ron McKay, Glasgow Live, June 1, 2017.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 08, 2017:
Thanks S Maree. I'll keep it in mind then. :)
S Maree on November 08, 2017:
Perhaps this is the reason Hollywood likes to use the ice cream trucks in so many crime shows. Even now, when we see the ice cream trucks in our neighborhood, we avoid them. Likely they're clean operations, but the radar is up & running!
An aside to Kari Poulsen; Glasgow has a wonderful history, great museums & nice B&B's. Don't let this color your perceptions of a great city! Been there & want to return!
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 07, 2017:
What a silly name for such an awful thing. I'll be sure to stay away from Glasgow!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 07, 2017:
Louise, you almost always the first to comment on my articles. Sadly, there are no prizes for this accomplishment. I always enjoy writing about obscure topics.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on November 07, 2017:
I've never heard of the Ice Cream Wars, so this was really interesting to read.