Thursday


A Loveable Rogue?



He was a self-confessed villain but everyone forgave him. He was married to a movie star, drove a Rolls-Royce, lived in Mayfair, owned three west end nightclubs and a Spanish villa, and was living proof that crime does pay — if you can keep a step ahead of the law... Snappy dresser and big spender — he boasted he had over a million stashed away in cash — 40-year-old Ronnie Knight, husband of Carry On film legend Barbara Windsor had a cheeky charisma which made him the darling of London 1970s swingers.

Princess Margaret and Peter Sellers came to his clubs, popstars and politicians enjoyed his company and his racy conversation.  Everyone knew that in the past Ronnie Knight had spent years in jail for a variety of violent crimes but now he was a reformed character. At least he said he was — and no one argued with Ronnie. A lad from the East End slums, Ronnie Knight had never forgotten his roots. He was still devoted to his family, particularly his sister Patsy and brother David. "David and I were always very close although we were so different," Ronnie said. "I was a tearaway, he was a hard-worker.  "He built up a scaffolding business, had a lovely wife and family, bought a nice house and never got into bother. The trouble was he was too easy-going. I told our mother I would always look out for him. And that's what I did."  

It was in the summer of 1972 that looking out for David took Ronnie Knight from the gossip columns back into the crime headlines. According to Knight his brother was having a quiet drink in a London pub with friends when he was set upon by villains who had a grudge against Ronnie and was injured so severely that he almost died. Ronnie would later remember: "I took the attack so personally it was eating my insides out and I couldn't sleep. I knew I had to find out who was involved in the attack and teach them a lesson...."

It was beginning of a month-long gang war which involved over 100 police as Ronnie Knight and his friends and family dealt out their own brand of justice on those who they felt had taken liberties. It was on a hot evening in August 1972 that violence erupted into murder. Ronnie and his brothers Johnny and David were drinking in the Latin Quarter nightclub in London's Leicester Square when a fight broke out and an Italian tearaway named Alfredo Zomparelli rushed at the Knights waving a razor-sharp carving knife.

As onlookers watched in horror, Zomparelli plunged the knife into David Knight's chest. He was rushed to nearby Charing Cross Hospital but died on the operating table. Zomparelli was arrested and to Ronnie Knight's fury was jailed for a mere four years for manslaughter at the Old Bailey. And when he was released on licence after three years Ronnie Knight told anyone who would listen that justice had not been done.  A week later, in September 1976, Alfredo Zomparelli was shot dead while playing a pinball machine in the Golden Goose amusement arcade just around the corner from one of Ronnie Knight's night-clubs. Barbara Windsor was starring at a west end theatre. Ronnie remembered: "When I picked her up after the show she was shaking like a leaf and the first thing she said was: 'Where were you?' I told her I had been in the club and 100 people could vouch for me. I had nothing to do with his death but I'm not sorry it happened." The news was an international sensation. Because of the gangland-style execution, the papers had a field day. One declared: "Chicago of the 1920s has come to the streets of London." The next day, Ronnie Knight was taken in for police questioning but allowed to go without charge. An inquest on Zomparelli's death returned a verdict that he had been unlawfully killed by persons unknown.

Believing that was the end of the matter, Ronnie Knight took Barbara on holiday to Spain. And so it was — for nearly four years. Then on a January dawn in 1980, armed police surrounded the Knights' London house and arrested Ronnie Knight on suspicion of murdering Alfredo Zomparelli. After a brief court appearance he was remanded in custody to appear at the Old Bailey. It was Ronnie Knight's 46th birthday. The prosecution's star witness was George Bradshaw a small-time crook who claimed that with an accomplice, Nicky Gerrard, they had entered the Golden Goose wearing dark glasses and false moustaches.

According to Bradshaw, Gerrard had walked up to the Italian who was playing a gaming machine, and shot him at arm's length in front of about 40 witnesses. They had then calmly walked out and melted into the crowd. Bradshaw then told the jury that the murder had been organised by Ronnie Knight, who had sent Nicky Gerrard to him to find out if he was willing to kill someone for money. Bradshaw alleged that Knight had later taken him to a coffee bar where he pointed out Zomparelli as the man he wanted killed. He then handed Bradshaw a package containing a .38 pistol.

The final witness for the prosecution was Gerald Knight — no relation — who claimed that he had overheard Ronnie Knight plotting the murder of Zomparelli. Gerald Knight claimed that when he had visited Ronnie's club with his father, Ronnie had said: "Forgive me — I have a murder to discuss!" "It was vital to discredit this witness," Ronnie Knight said later. "And I knew I could do it. Seven years earlier Gerald Knight had come to me with a deal which involved buying a piece of land for £14,000.  "I gave him my half in cash. When the deal failed, I asked for my money back and he gave me a cheque which bounced. I still had the cheque at home."

That night Barbara Windsor searched the family house — and found the  bounced £7,000 cheque, which was given next morning to defence lawyer Edward Wilson who asked Gerald Knight: Did  Ronnie Knight ever give you a sum of money to invest in land?" "Never," replied the witness. "I have never had any business dealings with the gentleman." Producing the cheque, Wilson remarked: "I think this not only proves that you have carried out business with my client but that you have a financial interest in seeing him in permanent custody."  In court, Ronnie Knight told the jury that he had no connection with the murder of his brother's killer, although he could not pretend he regretted  Zomparelli's death. The jury believed him. After a two hour deliberation they found Ronnie Knight not guilty of any implication in the murder.  Ronnie Knight recalled: "Barbara and I walked out of the Old Bailey like a fairytale prince and princess — at least that's what the papers called us. I just called it justice. At least I could enjoy living again."

Next day Nicky Gerrard received a similar verdict. But he only enjoyed a few months of freedom before being clubbed to death by a gang of masked men. The gangland war was by no means over.

Ronnie Knight divorced Barbara Windsor, remarried and went to live in luxury in Spain. Today at 77 and retired from crime and living in a suburban semi-detached in north London, he says that he had nothing to do with the killing of Alfredo Zomparelli.

And he insists that he was never a gangster. "A gangster is someone who walks about with a gun and demands money and gets away with it. I'm a loveable rogue, a rascal — and I never hit anybody for money..."

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