John Hatton meets notorious gangland criminal Dennis Stafford to talk about his fight to quash a 45-year-old murder conviction.

VIEW Stanhope Castle from Stanhope’s tiny market place and you see a tower, a gatehouse and a grimly- castellated wall. Although built in the late 18th Century, it is eerily reminiscent of a Victorian prison.

Home from home, then, for a man who has spent more than a third of his adult life in some of Britain’s top security prisons, who has failed to achieve anonymity by changing his name to Dennis Scott, because he is known throughout the village and to the world in general as Dennis Stafford, jail-breaker and murderer in one of the 20th Century’s most controversial cases.

He was given a life sentence after his conviction at Newcastle Assizes for the Sixties killing of business associate Angus Sibbett, in what became known as the “one-armed bandit murder”.

Mr Sibbett’s bullet-ridden body was found in the back of his E-Type Jaguar under Pesspool Bridge, in South Hetton, County Durham, on January 5, 1967.

Stafford and co-defendent Michael Luvaglio served 12 years of their sentence before being released on licence, and both continue to deny their guilt.

Stafford occupies a palatial four-bedroomed apartment in the castle. Although he is now 78, he believes in keeping fit, so other amenities include a gymnasium and a sauna which will seat 12.

His day starts with a brisk two-mile walk along the banks of the River Wear with his 12- year-old dog, Sam, who has clearly not weathered as well as his owner, who could pass for 15 years younger.

Stanhope’s limited opportunities do not extend Stafford, who besides jail breaks and time on the run as a playboy in the West Indies, a career as a country house burglar and negotiator for British businessmen with the Sri Lankan government, had a respectable and affluent lifestyle in South Africa as a mechanical engineer in the diamond mines.

Last month, he was freed from regular reporting to the probation service, which he has had to do since 1980, and seeking permission for foreign travel.

A new life beckons. “I want to move where it’s warm,” he says. “Property in Thailand is cheap, and the people are Buddhists and friendly and welcoming. They would do anything for you.”

But first there is some unfinished business.

The fight to quash his 45-year-old conviction for the shooting of Mr Sibbett in what went on to be the inspiration of the iconic film Get Carter is by no means over.

Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights summarily turned down his application to overturn a refusal by the High Court for judicial review of a decision by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) not to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal for the third time.

A single judge of the court ruled that the last relevant legal proceedings on the matter were in 1968, and so way outside their six-month time limit for review.

In fact, there was a further appeal in 1973, ordered by the then Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, and the judicial review application was heard in 2008. The European Court application was lodged shortly after that.

His co-accused, Luvaglio, now 74, and in poor health, is also determined “not to die a convicted murderer”.

He has set up a website about the case, which has had 51,000 hits, but few of them have signed the accompanying online petition calling for a public inquiry into the conviction, although Luvaglio blames faults on the site and hints at “interference” with it.

STAFFORD has no doubt that the murder was inspired by Luvaglio’s brother, Vince Landa, owner of the one-armed bandit business which Luvaglio ran, and for which Sibbet collected the proceeds.

He says Landa, who died a few months ago, hired a Glasgow hit man, Arthur Thomson, to carry out the murder. Thomson, a leading figure in the so-called Glasgow ice-cream wars, met a violent death himself some years ago.

Stafford asserts that once the murder had taken place, police were determined to “fit him up,” as the man who ran rings round local North- East police while on the run, setting up a Newcastle clothing business, selling to the then chief constable’s wife, and even attending functions with police.

They did so by discarding a total of 164 statements from witnesses which tended to assert Stafford and Luvaglio’s innocence and suppressing fingerprint and blood evidence which showed that neither had any contact with the mark ten Jaguar in which Sibbet’s bullet-ridden body was found.

Police pressure was put on Luvaglio to say that Stafford had left him for a time that night, so that he would lose his alibi. Luvaglio was offered immunity from prosecution if he gave that evidence, he says, and that is not only confirmed by Luvaglio, but by Luvaglio’s solicitor, Harry Mincoff, in a BBC documentary.

He talks of action against the Durham police officer in charge of the case, Chief Superintendent Ronald Kell, who is still alive. He talks of a new application to the CCRC – he believes the police theory of a collision between the E type Jaguar he was driving and the mark ten that formed a key part of the prosecution case can be discounted by modern forensic techniques.

But Stafford is strapped for cash. The legal advice to carry on the campaign does not come cheap, and everything depends on a new legal aid application which is now being considered.

One thing is for sure. Stafford has no intention of throwing in the towel. He is now preparing the paperback edition of his autobiography, Fun Loving Criminal, for publication.

As more of the protagonists in the case die, and can no longer mount libel actions, Stafford’s revelations are likely to become even more frank.

Stafford himself is fighting fit. Not just as a result of his gymnasium, but the sense of injustice that has fuelled him for the past 45 years.