Michael Luvaglio and Dennis Stafford – the one-armed bandit murder

The murder of Angus Sibbert was known as the ‘one-armed bandit murder’. It was a notorious crime and was said to have inspired the Michael Caine film ‘Get Carter’. Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler even wrote a song about it and the effect that it had on the murder, called “5:15am”. Below are a collection of articles about the review process undertaken by Michael Luvaglio and Dennis Stafford, the men convicted of killing Sibbert.

Final decision by CCRC, by John Hatton, 9 July 2007

THE Criminal Cases Review Commission has confirmed that the two men convicted of the 1967 murder of one armed bandit collector Angus Sibbett will not be able to challenge their murder convictions in the Appeal Court for a third time.

But the men, 70 year old Michael Luvaglio, and 73 year old Dennis Stafford said today that they would seek to have the CCRC’s decision overturned in the European Court.

Yesterday, the CCRC announced that it had found no grounds to change its provisional decision, made six months ago that it had found no new grounds for a third hearing in the Appeal Court. Both men urged them to reconsider their provisional decisionThe men have protested their innocence since they were arrested hours after Mr Sibbett’s body was found with three bullet wounds on the back seat of his Mark Ten Jaguar car under Pesspool Bridge at South Hetton at 5.15 on the morning of January 5 1967.

All three men worked for a company principally owned by Luvaglio’s brother, Vince Landa, Social Club Services, which supplied gaming machines to over 400 clubs throughout the north of England. Luvaglio had no previous convictions, but Stafford, who was going under an alias, had served a seven year sentence for possession of a firearm, and had notoriously escaped from Dartmoor and Wandsworth prisons, fleeing to Newcastle, where he set up a fraudulent company.

Medical evidence said that Mr Sibbett had died at some point between midnight and four am on the night in question, with the likelihood that it was earier in that period. Both Luvaglio and Stafford claimed that at that time they had actually been in the Birdcage Club in Newcastle at that time waiting to see Sibbett, who never arrived.

The case is often thought to have been the basis for Michael Caine’s iconic film “Get Carter.” But from the beginning, it has excited controversy, and in 1972, the then Conservative Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling ordered the Court of Appeal to carry out a rare second review of the conviction. It failed, and the men took the case to the House of Lords, where once again the conviction was upheld.

Mr Maudling remained unhappy about the conviction, writing personally to Luvaglio who was in wakefield prison with his good wishes. But he quit as Home secretary because of his involvement with the corrupt architect, John Poulson, whose activities also impacted on the North East.

Stafford, speaking from his home at Stanhope Castle confirmed that he was taking the case to Europe, but added that he had been advised by his Newcastle solicitor, Michael Purdon, not to comment to the press.

Luvaglio now lives in retirement in Chelsea, and clearly distraught said that besides asking for the case to be reviewed by the European Court, he would be seeking to have a judicial review of the case in the High Court. “The CCRC has ignored the inconsistencies in the forensic evidence and has refused to nvestigate the possible involvement of the Kray twins in the killing,” he said.
Luvaglio has maintained throughout that Sibbett and he were friends, and therefore he could not have killed him. He famously broke down in tears when taken to see Sibbett’s Newcastle grave in a television documentary on the case.

The same TV documentary showed a Scottish petty criminal, John Tumblety, saying on camera that he in fact had driven the real  murderer back from Pesspool bridge to the Birdcage club and that man was neither Luvaglio nor Stafford.

But in a lengthy report on the case, the CCRC, who have spent almost three years considering the case, say that they interviewed Tumblety, now a businessman, and he had retracted key parts of the evidence given on camera. he also maintained that he signed a statement whilst in Leeds prison talking of his role in the matter without reading it.

Both men have had the support of a number of MPs and peers during their campaign to establish their innocence. Stafford believes that he was charged because of his previous activities whilst on the run in Newcastle, and added: “If it had not been for me, Michael would never have been charged.”

Luvaglio said: “When I was arrested, the police told me that I only had to say that Stafford had left me for a while that night and I would go free.” In a TV documentary, his then solicitor confirmed that this conversation had taken place.

Since his 1979 release, Luvaglio has not been in trouble with the police, and worked for 23 years as a charity worker with severely disabled people in South London, winning the Wandsworth Civic Award for his work on his retirement in 2001. He is in poor health with severe heart problems.

Satfford, by contrast has lived a colourful life and in 1992 was sentenced to a further six years for fraud. He came to legal prominence again when he successfully challenged Home Secretary Jack Straw’s deision not to grant him parole in the European Court. This led to a change in the law which meant that prisoners could not be kept in jail by politicians and bureaucrats, parole decisions have to be made by legal tribunals.

Whilst in prison, he plotted an escape from Parkhurst prison with the murderer of three policemen, Harry Roberts. It was foiled at the last minute, when another prisoner informed on them.

Until recently, he ran a company selling perfumes from vending machines in ladies’ lavatories in clubs, but has now retired.


Stafford to take case to European Court of Human Rights, by John Hatton, 21 February 2007

NORTH-East man Dennis Stafford, who has already made legal history by going to the European Court and changing the rules under which prisoners are paroled, is set to go to Europe again – to challenge his murder conviction.

Mr Stafford, now 74, who lives at Stanhope Castle in Weardale, was convicted almost 40 years ago with Michael Luvaglio, now 69, of the murder of work-colleague Angis Sibbett, whose bullet-riddled body was found under Pesspool Bridge, South Hetton in the early hours of January 5 1967.

Mr Sibbett and the men worked for a company called Social Cub Services Limited which supplied gaming machines to over 400 North East workingmen’s clubs. The killing entered fok history as “The One-armed Bandit murder,” and has inspired a number of television documentaries.

The pair were found guilty of the murder at Northumberland Assizes two months later. They have always denied the murder, claiming an alibi, but despite two appeals to the Court of Appeal and one to the House of Lords, they have failed to overturn the conviction. They were released from prison in 1979, having served 12 years.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission is now set to refuse their application for a further appeal. In December last year the CCRC said that the pair had failed to reveal any new evidence on which to challenge the convictions. Mr Stafford and Mr Luvaglio have been given a deadline of next Tursday (Mar 1) to make final submissions, but Mr Luvaglio admitted that he was “pessimistic” about the outcome.

Prosecution forensic evidence which the men say could be subject to modern techniques of DNA testing was destroyed when the men’s appeal to the House of Lords failed in 1973. The CCRC has proved unwilling to speculate on what the outcome of further tesing would be.

Mr Luvaglio said: “For many years now, forensic evidence has been retained, even when a supposedly final appeal has failed. The Birmingham Six would not have been finally cleared had it not been for the retention of evidence in their case.”

Mr Luvaglio believes that traces of blood found in the Mark Ten Jaguar car in which Mr Sibbett’s body was foiund, and in a nearby phone box could give clues to the real murderer under modern analysis.

The blood found in the phone box did not correspnd to blood groups of any of the three men, and blood belonging to none of them was also found in the Mark Ten. The trial judge, Mr Justice O’Connor told the jury that this might be because others, in addition to Stafford and Luvaglio were involved in the murder.

Besides the fact that the prosecution failed to reveal 164 unused statements taken by police to the defence before the original trial, the pair claim that the judge’s summing up was unfairly biased against them, and would not be allowed in a court today.

Mr Justice O’Connor commented on the fact that the pair lived with girlfriends not their wives, described the gaming machine industry as unsavoury, and dismissed Mr Luvaglio’s plea that Angus Sibbett was his friend by saying that Judas betrayed Christ, and Brutus was Caesar’s friend. Fortuitously, his summing up took place on March 15, 1967, the Ides of March.

The CCRC say that the unused statements were considered at the second appeal, and the judge’s summing up made no difference to the jury’s verdict. A spokesman said that the CCRC would be willing to reopen the case if new evidence emerged.

“The law about retention of exhibits has not changed. It never was the case that the police were entitled to destroy exhitibts as soon as the House of Lords dismissed an appeal, nor was it the case that the police were obliged to keep exhibits until after the House of Lords reached a deision. The retention of exhibits is almost entirely a matter of practice,” not law, he added. Exhibits are now kept at least as long is someone is servin a sentence for the crime.

As Luvaglio and Stafford are currently on licence from their life sentences, it could be argued they are still serving them.

Mr Luvaglio, who is in poor health with a heart condition, said:  “The rules on retaining prosecution evidence have been changed since our case was last before the courts, but we have not been allowed to benefit from it.

“The judge’s summing up would not be acceptable nowadays, and the Court of Appeal has ruled that it should apply present day standards to these matters, but again we are not allowed to profit by it. I shall take the matter to the European court. I do not want to die a convicted murderer.”

“They really can’t be allowed to get away with this,” said Mr Stafford. “It will have to go to the European Court of Human Rights., The law has actually been changed to allow cases like urs to be properly dealt with.”

Mr Stafford changed the rules relating to eligibility for parole for prisoners in a landmark European Court judgment. In 1994, he was convicted of cheque fraud offences, and sentenced to a further six years’ imprisonment.

Although recommended for parole by a parole board, his release was blocked by the then Home Secretary Jack Straw. In a landmark ruling, the ECHC declared that parole should be a matter left in judicial hands, rather than those of a politician, and Mr Stafford was awarded £10,000 damages and his costs.

Now the 40 year old conviction is set to go to Strasbourg. Stafford has recently sold his business sellling perfumes to be vended in machines in ladies’ lavatories in pubs and clubs, and lives in retirement.

Luvaglio retired in 2002 after more than 20 years working for a charity, SHARE, which deals with the severly handicapped. In 2001, he was given the Wandsworth civic award for his work. he found the job through striking up a friendship with the late Lord Longford whilst in prison.

Longford was one of the people who believed in his innocence. He also has parliamentary support from Labour peer Lord Dubs, the Conservative MP Peter Luff, and former Conservative MP Michael Portillo.

CCRC ignore blatant bias in summing up and destruction of evidence

Stafford & Luvaglio case not referred by John Hatton, 18 December 2006

If the Criminal Cases Review Commission declares itself to be unable to deal with a judge’s biased summing up, or to query why vital evidence in a case has been destroyed, then many people would ask what is the point of it.

This month, the CCRC turned down an application from Michael Luvaglio and Dennis Stafford for a referral of their 1967 conviction for the murder of Angus Sibbett, declaring that a further appeal would stand “no reasonable chance of success.”

Sibbet was found dead with three gunshot wounds under Pesspool Bridge, South Hetton, Co.Durham early on January 5 1967, and within 18 hours, Luvaglio and Stafford had been arrested for the murder, despite the fact that they had an alibi.

All three men worked for a company principally owned by Luvaglio’s brother, Vince Landa, Social Club Services which supplied one armed bandits to working men’s clubs throughout the north of England.

Initially, they were refused leave to appeal against their conviction at Northumberland Assizes, but the conviction caused so much controversy among MPs, that the then Conservative Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling (see Eyes passim) referred the case to the Court of Appeal in 1972, to hear evidence from 164 witnesses who were not called at the trial.

Some of the 164 men were interviewed by Mr Justice Croom-Johnson, who was to be a judge at the full appeal. However, when that took place, he was ill, and so the only judge who had heard from the witnesses to the defence case was not on the Bench.

The Court, headed by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, ruled that the new evidence would not have made any difference to the jury’s verdict.

In 1973, the case went to the House of Lords, who eventually ruled that the conviction should stand. Both men were eventually released on licence from their life sentences in 1979, having served only 12 years. Luvaglio said: “We were an embarrassment to the Home Office.”

In 2004, both men made submissions to the CCRC, set up in 1994 to replace the old system of reopening cases by petition to the Home Secretary.

The cornerstone of Luvaglio’s submission was that the evidence of the 164 witnesses was never properly considered because of the illness of Mr Justice Croom-Johnson.

But he also claimed that modern DNA testing techniques could prove the key to who actually killed Angus Sibbet. Fingerprints were found in the Mark 10 in which Sibbet’s body was discovered which matched neither Sibbet, tafford or Luvaglio and were consistent with two other men being involved in the killing and dragging Sibbet’s body on to the back seat of the car where it was found.

At the trial, it was claimed that these fingerprints were so smudged as to be unidentifiable, but among the unused evidence, Luvaglio discovered a statement from a fingerprint expert, Chief Insp Sams saying that some of the fingerprints were indeed clear enough for identification purposes. It was Luvaglio’s belief that DNA would be obtainable from traces of sweat on the fingerprints.

But last week, it became clear that all this evidence, formerly held at the Northern Forensic Science Laboratory, had been destroyed following the failure of the House of Lords appeal in 1973 on the instructions of Chief Insp Ronald Kell, the officer in charge of the case.

Stafford’s superficially much shorter application concentrated on the conduct of the trial Judge, Mr Justice O’Connor at Northumberland Assizes. But it also incorporates a book written about the case “Most Unnatural,” by David Lewis and Peter Hughman.

They wrote: “On the afternoon of Tuesday 14 March, Mr Justice O’Connor turned to face the jury on his left and begin his summing up of a trial which had lasted five and a half days, and heard evidence from 64 witnesses. During the lunch adjournment that day, the general feeling among those involved and amongst onlookers who had crowded the public galleries throughout the trial was that an acquittal seemed virtually certain. In nearby pubs the case was the chief topic of conversation, bets were being laid on the result, with odds heavily in favour of a not guilty verdict. But by the time the jury retired at 2.17 the following afternoon, both public opinion and the odds had completely reversed.

“Rightly or wrongly, the change of mood can only have been occasioned by the judge’s summing up.”

In his summing up, Mr Justice O’Connor said that the gaming machine trade was distasteful, and Stafford and Luvaglio were living immoral lives by co habiting with their girl friends. The fact that the blood in the Mark X did not match theirs’ was indicative of the fact that a third person was involved in the murder.

Then, dealing with the point that Luvaglio said that Sibbet was a close friend, the judge seized on the fact that he was speaking on the Ides of March. He told the jurors that that was when Brutus had stabbed his friend Caesar. Judas had also betrayed his friend, Christ, he added.

Stafford’s barrister, Julian Knowles, says such a summing up would not be allowed today, and the Court of Appeal has\ ruled that when considering historical cases, the safety of verdicts should be judged by today’s standards and not those applying at the time of the original trial.

It might be thought that these considerations alone would justify a further look at the safety of the conviction by the Court of Appeal. Michael Purdon, Stafford’s solicitor, said that the refusal of the CCRC to consider this was “ungenerous to a fault.”

I asked a spokesman for the CCRC why the destruction of evidence, and the misgivings over the fairness of O’Connor’s summing up did not justify a referral to the Court of Appeal. In his memoirs, the late Sir David Napley, who acted for Luvaglio said that there was at the very least “a lurking doubt” over the safety of the conviction.

The reply from them was: “The simple fact is that we didn’t find any new evidence which gave rise to the ‘real possibility’ of the convictions being quashed.

“This has been a comprehensive review encompassing a wide range of issues. We have reached the conclusion that there is not a real possibility in this case.”

The men have six weeks in which to make further submissions. Thanks to the vigorous independence of the CCRC, Parliamentary intervention is not an option, despite all-party support for Stafford and Luvaglio.

When Michael Meacher MP moved an adjournment debate on the case of Susan May (see Eyes passim) last year, the Chairman of the CCRC Prof Graham Zellick angrily reacted that Parliament had no business trying to interfere in the workings of this autonomous and unaccountable body.

About INNOCENT (138 Articles)
Challenging miscarriages of justice since 1993.

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