Explosive evidence never heard in court over man stabbed 19 times

An astonishing set of witness statements not shared with defence lawyers may offer a sinister alternative theory to the murder of a betting shop manager that saw two men locked up for decades.

John Suffield’s violent death at his place of work was one of the most disturbing cases detectives in 1980s Liverpool had worked on.

John, who managed the Coral’s betting shop on Lodge Lane, Toxteth, was opening up for the day on the morning of Friday, March 13, 1981, when he was ambushed.

The popular 23-year-old was tied up and stabbed 19 times in what appeared to have been a horribly botched robbery.

Detectives theorised at the time that a speech impediment may have prevented the terrified victim from explaining that he could not open a time-locked inner safe, angering his attackers and sealing his fate.

Merseyside Police began a major investigation to drag his killers off the streets.

That investigation destroyed the lives of John Kamara and Ray Gilbert, the two men detectives said were responsible.

Get a Liverpool Echo newsletter today

The Liverpool Echo sends newsletters on a wide range of topics – including our daily news bulletin, now going out three times a day.

There are others on what’s on, politics, court news, Knowsley, Wirral, and arts & culture, as well as both Liverpool FC and Everton FC.

Signing up is free and it only takes a minute for you to get the biggest stories, sent straight to your inbox.

How to sign up for an Echo Email Update

1) Go to our dedicated newsletter page at this link.

2) Put your email in the box where indicated

3) Tick as many boxes as you like, for each newsletter you want.

4) Press Save changes and that’s it!

Despite the savage nature of the killing, the busy location and the close knit community of Toxteth in 1981, no physical or forensic evidence was ever uncovered linking either man to the scene.

In fact the only witness evidence came against John Kamara, who was picked out by a 30-year-old woman from an identity parade.

But the ECHO can reveal detectives grilled two alternate suspects, with a grievance against Mr Suffield, early in the investigation, before seemingly switching their focus to Mr Gilbert and Mr Kamara.

Mr Kamara was acquitted by the Court of Appeal in 2000, who said the jury had not been given sufficient instructions about treating notoriously unreliable identification evidence with caution.

John Suffield was murdered in a betting shop raid in Toxteth, Liverpool, in 1981
John Suffield was murdered in a betting shop raid in Toxteth, Liverpool, in 1981

That witness evidence was one of a range of issues that concerned the appeal court, along with the pages and pages of undisclosed witness statements.

Mr Kamara, who had denied his guilt from the moment he was arrested, was set free after 19 years in prison – but the case against Mr Gilbert was more complicated.

Mr Gilbert, whose legal team say he was psychologically vulnerable at the time, was subjected to a 48 hour interrogation, without legal representation, at Admiral Street police station.

Without solid evidence, detectives needed something dramatic from his interviews to shore up their case.

That is exactly what they got.

How the ECHO reported the murder of betting shop manager John Suffield on Friday March 13, 1981
How the ECHO reported the murder of betting shop manager John Suffield on Friday March 13, 1981
(Image: Liverpool ECHO)

Told that his girlfriend June Bannan, then aged 18, had withdrawn a statement which provided him with an alibi, Mr Gilbert crumbled and confessed to the sickening crime, also falsely implicating Mr Kamara.

Mr Gilbert’s statements to police proved to be contradictory, with one suggesting he and his accomplice burst into the shop and attacked John shortly after he opened up, while another stated they ambushed him as he arrived and forced him inside.

This distinction was crucial to the case, as a bottle of milk and the morning newspapers were found neatly placed on a small table where colleagues said John usually left them – an unlikely scenario if a violent struggle had begun before he entered the shop.

As soon as he had access to legal representation, Mr Gilbert withdrew the confession, but the prosecution pressed ahead and the two men went to trial.

Mr Gilbert claims that while he was on remand in Risley prison awaiting trial, he was subjected to threats by feared local criminals, furious that he had dragged an innocent man into the picture.

John Kamara, left, meets John Suffield, father of the murdered bookmaker John Suffield jnr
John Kamara, left, meets John Suffield, father of the murdered bookmaker John Suffield jnr

Mr Gilbert told the ECHO: “I was basically told by well known hardened criminals in the Toxteth area that if I didn’t admit it I would get it.

“My thought at the time was by admitting it I would get John off.

“I don’t know if I was functioning properly as a person at the time, that is for a psychiatrist to determine.

“But there were traumatic things in my life and I don’t know how it affected me. I tended to just go along with what other people wanted.”

In a dramatic twist, after the prosecution had finished presenting their case, Mr Gilbert asked for a note to be passed to the judge indicating he wanted to put an end to the saga and plead guilty.

If it was an attempt to reverse his mistake in implicating Mr Kamara, it failed and both men were sent down for life.

What Mr Gilbert and Mr Kamara, their lawyers, or the jury did not know at the time of the trial was the contents of 201 witness statements which the prosecution had failed to disclose to the defence.

Some of those statements have been shared with the ECHO, and they tell a shocking story.

Raymond Gilbert, 63, with the results of a type of lie detector test called Eye Detect which he says shows he did not murder a betting shop manager in 1981
Raymond Gilbert, 63, with the results of a type of lie detector test called Eye Detect which he says shows he did not murder a betting shop manager in 1981
(Image: Ray Gilbert)

On Thursday March 12, the day before John Suffield was left dying in his betting shop, he was threatened by two men after a row over an unpaid bet – a row that became so heated police were called by a shop assistant to calm things down.

The two involved, both local men, left him so scared he talked about wanting to be moved to another branch.

Their identities are known to the ECHO, although one died in the late 1980s of a drug overdose according to an inquest report from the time.

One statement, from a fellow Coral betting shop manager called Joseph Flaherty, described a disturbing conversation with John the evening before his death after the pair bumped into each other in Old Swan.

Mr Flaherty told police: “We stopped and talked and he told me that he had some trouble in the shop that day over late bets with a gang of lads.

“Because I am the shop steward for the Transport and General Workers Union, he asked me if I could do anything for him to get him out of the shop.

Raymond Gilbert, now 62, years of age. Was convicted of the murder of John Suffield in 1981, when he was 22 years old. He has protested his innocence ever since. Ray spent 36 years in prison.
Raymond Gilbert, now 62, years of age. Was convicted of the murder of John Suffield in 1981, when he was 22 years old. He has protested his innocence ever since. Ray spent 36 years in prison.

“He also asked me to contact Ivor Porter who is the Area Manager for Corals to ask him if he could move from the shop.

“He told me he was terrified of working in the shop in Lodge Lane and that even his girl who works with him, Margaret Harrison, was shaking like a leaf.”

Another woman who was present during that conversation, called Jacqueline Hedderick, told officers: “John mentioned that he had some trouble with some lads that day when he refused to pay them out.

“He said they were trying to fiddle the bets.

“He said they had threatened to come back and get him. He appeared to me to be worried about it, but not so worried he was scared.”

Both men involved in the argument were interviewed by police.

The investigation revealed how one of the suspects made a successful bet on a greyhound race, but the shop refused to pay out £20 winnings due to suspicion over the time on the betting slip.

A statement from one of the officers who attended the shop, PC Ian Colquhoun, described the man as “very agitated and in an argumentative mood”.

Ray Gilbert in Durham prison for murdering John Suffield in 1981
Ray Gilbert in Durham prison for murdering John Suffield in 1981

He describes John Suffield promising to contact his area manager and see whether they could pay out the bet, and agreeing to meet the furious punter again in the morning to discuss what could be done.

PC Colquhoun described how the man said: “I’ll tell you this, there’s no way I’m going to let this drop. Twenty quid is twenty quid.”

He then added: “Listen, if you’re going to ring (the area manager) in the morning, I’ll be back here first thing to sort it out one way or the other.”

The other potential suspect, who was present and also had a grievance over an unpaid bet, was overheard by a woman working at the Mecca Bingo hall on Lodge Lane describing the incident later that evening.

She told detectives: “He was saying something about an argument which he had earlier on that day with someone at a betting shop.

“He then said that the person who he had the argument with was going to find themselves in a lot of trouble.”

Both men were interviewed by police and claimed they were with friends preparing to go to a funeral at the time of the killing.

Join the Liverpool ECHO Investigations Facebook community

We have launched a new Facebook group where you can get all the latest hard-hitting, informative public interest journalism from the ECHO’s team of award-winning reporters.

Join discussions about ongoing stories and investigations, share ideas and let us know what you feel we should be covering more.

To join the group click here.

You can also follow Public Interest Reporter Jonathan Humphries here.

The statements also contain an account of an alleged conversation between a witness and the mum of a girl who was a flatmate of the first suspect and his girlfriend.

The witness claimed that the mum said her daughter had overheard the man expressing fears about the second suspect “changing his statement” about the murder which would leave him with “no chance”.

However the flatmate also gave a statement in which she denied hearing that conversation and claimed her mum had been influenced by local “hear say”.

Mr Gilbert says he does not feel detectives probed those initial suspects hard enough and that the statements would have offered a compelling area for any competent defence lawyer to explore.

The now 63-year-old served 36 years in prison before his eventual release in 2016, but says he could have been set free as long ago as 1995 if he had confessed his guilt to the Parole Board.

The ECHO reported recently how Mr Gilbert passed a new type of lie detector test called Eye Detect, which uses a computer algorithm to measure imperceptible movements in the eyes when subjects answer questions they read from a screen.

Mr Gilbert says he is working on a new application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which has the power to refer cases back to the Court of Appeal if it deems there is a reasonable chance of an acquittal.

Responding to the ECHO for a previous story, a Merseyside Police spokesperson said: “Merseyside Police still holds case files in relation to the murder of John Suffield and subsequent conviction of Mr Gilbert.

“The Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC) has previously reviewed the case and grounds for appeal were dismissed and the conviction deemed safe.

“If the CCRC were to seek a further review of the papers, Merseyside Police would co operate with them.”

Liverpool Echo – Liverpool News