Tony Spencer as a young man
This 4-part series is about the life and crimes of one man, born Anthony SHIPLEY on 5th January 1949 in Coventry, he later changed his name to Tony Spencer.
It is thought his early years were uneventful and he and his siblings were brought up in the West Midlands, England, they lived a fairly unremarkable life.
This is Tony’s story but who was he?
Was he an upstanding citizen that just fell into crime to provide the funds to boost his legitimate businesses? Or was he a young man that turned to crime at an early age and liked the excitement, the thrill of the chase and therefore adopted crime as a way of life? Did that excitement and need to feel he’d outwitted those who sought to catch him just take over. A ‘normal’ or ‘real’ life would never be enough.
In December 1966 at the age of 17, Tony was arrested for the burglary of a local social club, the Spencer Club, and for handling stolen goods. The following month he was sent to Borstal. These institutions were run by Her Majesty’s Prison Service and their reason for being was to reform young offenders (initially offenders under the age of 21 years). The system of Borstal Training was abolished in 1982.
After his release he indulged his passion for motor cycles and worked as a mechanic between 1967 and 1970. Yet again his liberty was taken after he was found guilty of stealing copper. Upon his release in 1972 he built up a business of second-hand shops selling furniture and white goods to the cash strapped residents of Coventry.
Tony was an absolute enthusiast and enjoyed working on motorcycles and riding them. However, after a near fatal motorcycle accident he concentrated on his second-hand shop business building the business which had, by then, ten shops.
In May 1975 he was once again at the mercy of the courts and received an eighteen month suspended sentence for handling stolen goods. During 1975 and 1976 he went on the run and when the law caught up with him, he’s imprisoned for four and a half years having been convicted of handling stolen goods and firearms offences.
By the mid 1970’s he was married to his young bride and was blessed with three children. He wasn’t a hands-on Dad and spent almost every waking hour out of the house working.
Recent photo of the building that was once “Mainline Gas”
Tony was an entrepreneur and he wanted his businesses to succeed. He built up the Mainline Gas Company based in Far Gosford Street, Coventry. He would buy used cookers and refurbish them making them usable and saleable. This was very lucrative and he made a decent living and legitimate money.
Tony branched out into fitness centres, Body Care Fitness Centres, as they were called. He recognised that there was a market for ‘proper’ gymnasiums catering for the power lifting heavy weights in the area. But astutely, he identified a market for female establishments where customers could not only exercise but could have beauty treatments and hairdressing. The Fitness Centres aimed at the female population did very well as its customers would spend money using the services that were available under one roof. The male gyms were less profitable as their clientele came in, worked out and left, not spending on any of the incidental services available.
Whilst the businesses were doing reasonably well, the money was slow in filtering through. There was a fire at one of Tony’s warehouses on Lower Ford Street. He anticipated a pay out but the insurers were suspicious and the money never transpired. What was a cash tight situation became even more so. Tony had a solution, one he had turned to in the past, crime.
Formerly Midland Bank on Far Gosford St, Coventry
In September 1982 he robbed the Midland Bank on Far Gosford Street with an associate. At the end of the working day, they both walked into the branch, incidentally it was Tony’s own bank and branch, wearing motorcycle helmets and brandishing guns. The terrified staff gave into their demands for money and satisfied with their haul they left the bank.
But as they entered the street there was an eerie silence, they were surrounded by armed, plain clothed police officers, someone had tipped them off. They had no alternative, they gave themselves up and were duly arrested. As a result of that day’s activity, both men received a sentence of ten years imprisonment. The fact that Tony’s associate had a replica gun, rather than the real firearm that Tony carried, made no difference to the sentence, they were sentenced the same.
During Tony’s imprisonment in HMP Long Lartin, his young family visited him. But as time went on the visits became less and eventually his first wife, the mother of his three children divorced him. Surprisingly, Tony remarried in prison but less surprisingly that relationship was destined to be a short one.
Tony had seen his periods of incarceration as an occupational hazard and a time for reflection, education and devising a plan for the next ‘big’ thing.
In 1989, having served six and a half years, Tony was released from prison. However, following a series of Police raids on several properties, Tony went on the run again.
Tony had obtained engraved plates so that he could print counterfeit American dollars. And he did print and distribute, he would say thousands of dollars, the authorities would say millions. While avoiding the long arm of the law he met his third wife who was enchanted by his charisma and dashing good looks. When he finally got caught and was detained he told her of the accusation, he pleaded not guilty and stood trial. With a guilty conviction comes a sentence of eleven and a half years. He and his new love were married in prison. She supported him and agreed to wait for him.
As this lengthy sentence came to an end, Tony was allowed home leave, short periods, usually weekends, when he was allowed home to his wife in an effort to prepare for his full time release. But Tony is already planning his next move. During his home visits he entertained associates and talked about dealing and importing drugs. The thought that he is to become embroiled in such a murky, underworld immediately after being incarcerated for so long is too much for his third wife and she filed for divorce.
On his release he started to work the drugs scene. He progressed quickly from dealer to wholesaler of Class B and C drugs (amphetamine and cannabis). Once again, he was arrested during a series of Police raids. Tony is remanded in custody and maintained to his defence team, he was dealing in cigarettes, which was illegal, but not drugs.
At the end of a five month drug trial which concluded in January 2000 he was found not guilty. Tony thanked the jury for their deliberation and for coming to the not guilty verdict, he entertained them with food and drink. The police were suspicious and thinking the jury had been ‘nobbled’ they arrested members of the trial jury.
Later in 2000, Tony was arrested on other drug offences, conspiracy. He was remanded but shortly afterwards was granted bail and he took the opportunity to abscond, Tony was on the run again. By now his children were young adults and at varying times all three worked for him in various roles.
But in May 2001 Jason, Tony’s youngest son, received a telephone call and was summoned to Amsterdam as his father had been involved in ‘an accident’. When Jason arrived in Holland he went to the house where his father was being looked after. The truth was startling and much more shocking than the accident explanation. Not only had Tony been shot in the chest and seriously wounded but he in turn had shot and killed a drug rival. Tony was smuggled out of Holland and found sanctuary in Spain.
The situation was, Tony was now wanted by the UK police after he’d skipped his bail for the drugs offences and now he was also wanted by the Dutch police for murder. In 2003 the UK police launched a campaign to locate the errant Tony. He was branded as ‘Public Enemy Number 1’.
In 2003 Tony was arrested in Spain; he was living under one of his many aliases and was charged with drug offences. His real identity was then discovered. Regarding the murder in Amsterdam, Tony was extradited to the Netherlands and went on trial. He pleaded not guilty to the murder, his defence was one of self-defence. Tony still carried the physical evidence of that evening within his chest, he had bullet fragments embedded within him. This was sufficient for the court to believe he was not guilty and indeed acted in self-defence. Tony returned to Spain to complete the rest of his sentence imposed for the drug offences. He was released in May 2007 and he returned to the UK.
Jason was an animator and very talented artist. He published two animated story books, the first entitled ‘His and Her Smuggling Vacation’. This attracted media coverage and Tony’s role as a ‘Crime Consultant’ for the book was highlighted.
In September 2008 a UK police operation was launched, Operation Downpour. As a result of this police surveillance and involvement, Tony was arrested in a farmhouse in the Netherlands in possession of Class B and C drugs. He is once again extradited, this time to the UK. Ten others were arrested and put on trial in relation to the operation of which Tony was the main subject and kingpin.
On this occasion, to protect others, he pleaded guilty, the one and only time he did so, and received a sentence of five years imprisonment for drug related offences. Nine of his co accused were also convicted.
Tony’s one and only guilty plea report in The Telegraph, April 24, 2010
Thanks to Jason Wilson for helping create this series of podcasts
Whilst he served his sentence, Tony was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was released on compassionate grounds in 2011, the authorities believing he had only months to live.
Tony died on 13th June 2015.
This is an extraordinary story told by Tony’s son, Jason. This very brief summation is just an idea of the story of how Tony Spencer lived his life. The book written by his son Jason, is compelling. It’s not just the story of a ‘gangster’ as Jason describes his father, but it also tells the story of a son who came to terms with the person his father was. It’s compelling, it’s graphic, it’s brutal but it’s also kind, compassionate and understanding.
Recommended read: ‘The Old Man and Me’ by Jason Wilson published by Mirror Books.
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