Bombs and a hit on Big Frank: excerpt from Matthew Vella’s crime history of the Maltese in Soho

MaltaToday editor Matthew Vella’s three-year research of Maltese and British national archives, and over 1,000 newspaper stories pieces together the history of a particular criminal class: ‘Il-Maltin ta’ Soho’. In this excerpt from Passport To Vice, published by Horizons, a firebomb attack on a Soho club owned by ‘Big Frank’ Mifsud shows the scale of violence meted out between the Maltese denizens of London’s red-light district

Boxing royalty:  ‘Big Frank’ Mifsud (right) hosts boxing legend Rocky Marciano at a London nightclub with his long-time partner, and gangster, Bernie Silver (left). Silver and Mifsud were focused on occupying as much real estate they could get their hands on in Soho, to house their clubs, clip-joints, and ‘business flats’ for prostitutes
Boxing royalty: ‘Big Frank’ Mifsud (right) hosts boxing legend Rocky Marciano at a London nightclub with his long-time partner, and gangster, Bernie Silver (left). Silver and Mifsud were focused on occupying as much real estate they could get their hands on in Soho, to house their clubs, clip-joints, and ‘business flats’ for prostitutes

Passport To Vice (Horizons) can be acquired online and in bookshops – follow updates on Facebook - The book is supported by a grant from the National Book Fund

Big Frank’s ways created enemies.

Despite having countless men to do his bidding for the kind of cash he had on offer, the enmity with Caruana and other associates of his would breed a culture of vengeance that was to reach fever pitch inside Soho.

The first attack came on 5 November, 1966: an explosion at the Gigi Club on 62, Frith Street, in the early hours at 4am, by a bomb left in a plastic bag by the doorway, of sufficient violence that could have killed anyone in the vicinity of the explosion. Weeks later on 25 November at 2:35am, a second one at the Keyhole Club, on 55, Old Compton Street – both properties owned by Big Frank Mifsud and Bernie Silver. Mifsud dismissed the Gigi incident as the work of a lunatic. But after the Keyhole explosion, he offered a reward of £500 to the West End fraternity for information that could lead to the culprits, raising it to £1,000, with no success. Gang warfare this was, but generally even Soho’s gangsters were aware that such actions could not touch innocent passers-by or other criminal gangs. “Firebombs like these were an overt act of putting the frighteners on each other: warning shots,” Howard Raymond recalls. “The Maltese fought amongst themselves. It never crossed over. For us, it wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t Chicago.”

But the worst attack would happen just three months later.

It was 1am on Greek Street on Thursday, 2 February, 1967. The Americano Club, a three-storey gambling house and striptease club on Greek Street, was in full swing – a typical scene where gamblers and punters congregated in a gaming room set on the top floor above a porn bookstore, run by Maltese bouncers and croupiers. Suddenly, it was mayhem: flames roared up a funnel- like stairway, engulfing the entire house. The strong smell of petrol filled the air. Strippers and their male audience rushed out. Greek Street was filled with shouting and screaming, but the gamblers, mostly Cypriots and Maltese, were trapped in the rooms above. One man jumped 40 feet from a window, rolling into the path of a passing car. Another two leapt from second- floor windows, while others – Joseph Farrugia, Victor Zampa, and John Fenech – went out through the fire exit and scrambled onto adjoining buildings. Leli Vella smashed a window to get out and slide down the drainpipes to the ground. Alfred Fenech, a doorman from the Phoenix Club, saw Joseph Medina smashing the windows with a chair to get out. It was a scene to behold as over 30 firemen fought the blaze. Two men were snatched from the flames with the help of a 100-foot turntable ladder after the fire escape door would not open.

One of these was 29-year-old croupier Valletta man Ray Renda, who had just started work there just two weeks earlier. He suffered injuries to his face and hands. 24-year-old kitchen hand John Fenech suffered serious 30% burns, flesh burns of the face and head, both hands, and both legs. He was rushed over to Charing Cross Hospital. In all, sixteen people were taken to hospital suffering superficial burns injuries, five taken to Middlesex Hospital to be treated for shock. Scotland Yard lifted evidence from site, finding a crude plastic container thought to have been filled with petrol.

The Greek Street bombing took front-page prominence on The Daily Mirror – uncannily side by side with a similar incident happening in Valletta, where the R.A.F’s recruiting headquarters had been set on fire with lighted bundles of newspapers, as Malta’s relations with the UK grew uneasy due to the run-down of the British defence services stationed in Malta.

Big Frank put out a reward for £3,000 for information leading to the culprits behind the Americano. Some men in the Syndicate years later would claim Mifsud simply wanted to pin the Greek Street bombing on Tony Cauchi. But, it was Tony ‘Derek’ Galea, a 27-year-old doorman at Cauchi’s Carnival Club, who came forward to tell Mifsud all.

Like many of his generation, Galea had come to the UK in the early 1960s to run away from the law and the restrictions of small-island life, taking up a job in an East End café. He had spent almost three years in Malta in jail between 1960 and 1962 for various charges of aggravated theft and assault. He later moved to the Syndicate’s clubs, like the Taboo, and in 1965 started working for Tony Cauchi as the doorman of the Carnival Club on Old Compton Street. It was at this time that Big Frank and Bernie Silver had turned against Cauchi. “They were always arguing with Cauchi. I don’t know what about, but Tony said it went back a long time,” Galea told police.

Mifsud himself was forthcoming enough with the police on the feud with Cauchi, believing he had apparently goaded his rival after a business deal gone wrong: “Cauchi hates me because of business... the trouble started when he had a club called the Carnival in Greene’s Court. This club closed down and I took another over, which was opposite, which we also called the Carnival. This annoyed Cauchi. Six months ago he came in with me and three others as partners of the Taboo Club – eventually he sold his share and he was under the mistaken impression that I had done something underhanded. He blames me that he was not the sole owner.”

Galea, easily the weaker party of the Americano conspiracy, admitted to Mifsud that he had actually been present when Cauchi was making the explosive at his house, and took him to the bridge by the Euston station railway, where he pinpointed a piece of bomb-fuse wire he had discarded. Galea retrieved the fuse, and gave it to Mifsud.

Galea even claimed with Mifsud that Cauchi was planning to have him shot for £3,000, and that he would even consider planting a bomb under his car. “Derek told me Cauchi wants to destroy me and that he had thrown the bombs so that I would blame some well-known people in the West End,” Big Frank told investigators – a reference to the Krays or the Nash brothers, suggesting Cauchi hoped the Syndicate would suspect some extortion racket and fall foul of these crime organisations. The police agreed that Cauchi appeared to have sufficient motive, and advised Mifsud to make himself scarce. Big Frank fled to Ireland, where he lived with wife Margaret in Dublin.

Mifsud suggested to police that they use Galea to entrap Cauchi when the next bomb was planted, but the objections to this were obvious due to the danger of such a plan. Wanting to test the quality of information Galea would give them, the police arrested him.

Galea protested, at first claiming he did not even know Mifsud; later as his confidence grew, he admitted to having been present in the storeroom at Cauchi’s home where they prepared the bomb used at both the Keyhole Club and the Americano on Greek Street. He said Cauchi would soon be on his way back to Malta to bring back more explosives. He further admitted having cleared out all the incriminating evidence, and being present when a piece of fuse was thrown off the bridge in Hampstead Road onto the Euston railway line below. To give credence to his story, he took Frank Mifsud himself to recover it, and Mifsud handed the fuse to the police.

Galea was questioned on 17 February at 10pm. DCI Nipper Read, present for the interrogation, made a note of how terrified Galea was of Cauchi.

Galea first claimed the real perpetrators of the bombs were two heavies, one Scottish – James Kemp – another from Liverpool – Michael Power – whom Cauchi would have paid £500. But Read was unconvinced, insisting with prosecutors that it was inconceivable for someone like Cauchi to employ ‘outsiders’ to the Maltese fraternity for an operation of this sort: “Amongst the touts in this locality are many who are good informants to officers at this station, and such knowledge would quickly percolate to those officers.”

Detective Superintendent Arthur Butler instantly produced a length of safety fuse. “Didn’t you tell Frank where to find this?”.

Galea replied: “Listen, guv’nor. This thing is dead or alive innit? You know what I mean. I don’t want to get killed. This man is mad, mad... and you don’t know what he can do,” he said. He was referring to Cauchi. “Cauchi, that man is raving mad. If he knew I come here I be dead tomorrow. You know that, don’t you? He’d kill me as soon as... look at me guv’nor, I promise you... If anybody gets to know I come here, I’m dead. You know that don’t you?”

Then Galea admitted having been by Cauchi’s side when he made the bomb. “I was there when he mixed the stuff and made the bomb. It was dynamite... it was brown stuff and he made it up... It was terrible this stuff, it gave me a headache. He taped it all together.”

Frank Mifsud returned from his Dublin hideout the same day Galea was arrested, and presented himself at West End Central together with Bernie Silver, with Galea speaking even more freely with Mifsud near him. But by this time, he had said enough to satisfy the investigators that he was far more deeply involved than he had suggested.

As Mifsud entered the interrogation room, Galea protested: “Frank, what you do this to me for? I got friends, you know... It’s a bad thing you do to me Frank, what I want to come in a place like this for? You know my position, don’t you? I can’t go to court. I don’t care if I go away for 30 years. I never stand up in court and say anything against these people. You know that. I can’t give no evidence, Frank.”

Mifsud calmed Galea down. Galea now volunteered even more information about Cauchi having planned to bomb the Taboo club. “Three days before I went along with Frank, Cauchi was scared and he threw it all away after the fire.”

He also said Cauchi had threatened him the day before. “Last night he pulled a knife and threatened me and my woman. She’s scared of him as well. He said, ‘if you say anything, I burn you up. I burn up the mattress and everything and turn on the gas and it look like all right’.”

“He said he wants to plant a load in Big Frank’s van,” Cauchi told police, and that he had planned to leave a signal on the car for Mifsud to know when the bomb was planted. “I told Frank ‘if he’s going to do it, I put a cross on the door’ so Big Frank know.”

Police retrieved crucial evidence found in Cauchi’s home of bomb-making ingredients that matched the debris from the Americano bombing. But in one startling development, police investigators were suddenly regaled with an eyeball witness. It was none other than one of the witnesses previously questioned by the police, who had first vowed having seen nothing suspicious outside the Americano. Hot-dog seller Harold Dennison Stocker had been explicit in his first statement to police when he said he saw no-one enter or leave the premises at 27, Greek Street. Suddenly, he had had a change of heart. On 8 March 1967, Stocker insisted that just prior to the fire starting, he saw Tony Galea running out of the club, allegedly warning him: “Don’t forget you didn’t see me on the night of the fire, did you?”

Stocker accounted for this apparent paradox by saying that he did not realise that Galea was one of the persons charged, and when he did so, he came forward with fresh evidence. During the committal proceedings, his version of events – incredulous as they were – were seriously challenged by Galea’s defence counsel, suspecting Stocker had been enticed with some kind of reward to change his version of events: indeed, Mifsud had been present at West End Central when Stocker made his second statement.

On 13 March 1967, Galea and Cauchi were committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court. A month later, yet another development: Bernard Silver informed police that Cauchi’s brother Emanuel, and another man, as it happens his own associate Jack Shankerman, were making arrangements to pick up some explosive materials.

A police stakeout on the two saw them making their way on 18 April to HM Prison Brixton, where they visited Tony Cauchi. When police took in ‘Shankey’, he alleged that Cauchi had told him a bomb had been hidden near the handbrake panel of his car. Nipper Read appeared to discount Shankerman’s evidence, suggesting Silver was actually using his own man to use subterfuge on Cauchi. “Shankey is a well-known and notorious West End character,” Read wrote in his memorandum on the investigation. “He has been a friend and associate of Silver’s for many years. This tends to place the whole of his evidence in question but there can be no doubt of the result of the information he supplied.”

Cauchi’s car had already been seized by police back in February, and released on 29 March – but the police did not bother to carry out a full inspection of the car. When two days after questioning Shankerman, police retrieved the car from a mechanic Cauchi had entrusted it to, they found a cavity at the back of the parcel tray’s panelling, containing a newspaper parcel and a roll of cellotape. Inside the parcel were two lengths of fuse, each of which had ‘live’ detonators partly crimped onto to the ends, and a piece of dark brown substance. Had Cauchi been careless, or was this an overt act of incrimination by the Syndicate?

Back at Woolwich Arsenal, forensics revealed the fuses were identical to those found at Cauchi’s address and the Keyhole explosion; the explosive – a mixture of nitroglycerine, nitrocellulose, T.N.T, and another substance of foreign nature – were all similar to the residue found amongst the debris of the Gigi and Keyhole explosions. The description of the substances and their effects were identical to Galea’s statements to the police.

Tony Cauchi, 47, was charged in March 1967 with having caused the fires at the Americano, the firebombing of the Gigi Club on Frith Street in 1966 (the bombing took place at 4:30am when the club was closed and nobody was inside) and the Keyhole Club on Old Compton Street. The charge sheet’s details included the claim that they had conspired “with others to cause these offences because of their enmity towards the owners of the premises, a rival Maltese faction.”

Big Frank returned from his Dublin hideout to give evidence against Cauchi, telling the court he feared for his life. Both men were found guilty in a retrial in November 1967: Cauchi got five years, guilty of having explosives in his possession, conspiracy to cause malicious damage to property, and placing an explosive substance. The jury were unable to agree on a charge against Galea of causing malicious damage at the club, as well as on a charge against both men of placing another petrol bomb at another Soho club. Galea got two years for placing the explosive at the Americano.

Stocker, the hot-dog seller who had changed his version of events by saying he saw Galea running out of the club, gave evidence at both trials and stuck by his story. The night of Galea’s and Cauchi’s imprisonment, Big Frank held a party at the Soho Prince club on Frith Street.

Passport To Vice (Horizons) can be acquired online and in bookshops – follow updates on Facebook