A Birmingham gangster was jailed for life today after being found guilty of murdering an innocent bystander who was shot during an armed robbery at a Nationwide Building Society.
Lynton Fletcher, 27, bowed and shook his head at Birmingham Crown Court as he was convicted of killing Joseph Nwabuko during a raid on the building society in February 2004.
Fletcher, of Little Francis Grove, Nechells, was convicted yesterday of conspiracy to rob in relation to a string of armed raids in which seven other people were shot.
The killer was convicted of murder by a 10-2 majority verdict following a six-week trial which heard how Mr Nwabuko was blasted in the lungs at close range outside the Nationwide Building Society in High Street, near the Bull Ring.
The trial was told that the 28-year-old victim, originally from Walsall, was killed after Fletcher returned from a getaway vehicle to open fire on a walkway near New Street station.
Passing sentence on Fletcher, Mr Justice Ouseley said: "This was a cold and brutal killing of a witness in the furtherance of an armed robbery."
Fletcher, who used vehicle-tracking devices to target cash delivery vans, will be sentenced on the conspiracy charge and told the minimum period he must serve in jail at a hearing in December.
Mr Justice Ouseley also praised the bravery of two members of the public who attempted to tackle members of Fletcher’s gang during a string of at least 19 offences across the Midlands in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Describing Fletcher as a "prominent" part of the gang, the judge added that the police should be praised for the way in which they had carried through a "technical and difficult" case.
"I wish to express the sympathy of the court for the family of Joseph Nwabuko and also for those whose lives have been so severely disrupted by the activities of the gang of armed robbers," the judge said.
Prosecuting QC Timothy Spencer told the jury that the ruthless and unnecessary use of firearms - which were discharged even after cash had been handed over - was a hallmark of the gang.
Describing Mr Nwabuko’s murder as cold and cruel, the QC suggested that Mr Nwabuko might have been trying to foil the raiders when he was murdered.
Fletcher shot the student despite having an opportunity to escape after taking £7,000 from the Nationwide branch, the court heard.
Captured by CCTV, Fletcher’s decision to "peel off" from his two accomplices and commit murder was described by Mr Spencer as deliberate and calculated.
The CCTV images, which were played to the jury, showed Fletcher coming within inches of getting into a stolen Volkswagen Golf parked near the end of the walkway before turning to target Mr Nwabuko.
Witnesses to the murder heard one of Fletcher’s henchmen - who has never been identified - telling him: "Put one in him, he’s grassed."
After the killing, Fletcher evaded arrest by using a false passport to flee to both Jamaica and the United States.
He was linked to the robbery gang and the murder after officers studied mobile phone evidence and conducted painstaking analysis of records relating to the trackers used to tail cash-in-transit vehicles.
Speaking outside court after the life sentence was passed, Mr Nwabuko’s brother Johnson Nwabuko told reporters that his family was relieved to see justice done.
"It’s an emotional time," he said. "The verdicts cannot bring Joseph back but he can now rest in peace."
Another victim of Lynton Fletcher’s gang almost shared the fate of Joseph Nwabuko - but managed to survive after spending two months in a coma.
Retired policeman Paul Weston was shot in the thigh, severing an artery, after grappling with a gunman outside the Lloyds TSB bank in Great Barr, on August 1 2005.
The 63-year-old have-a-go hero, who was praised for his bravery by the judge during Fletcher’s trial, decided to confront an armed raider after a security guard was shot in the foot.
It is not known if Fletcher was the gunman who shot the grandfather, although evidence linked the raid to the 27-year-old’s gang.
Recalling the day which nearly cost him his life, Mr Weston said: "I was taking money out of the bank and the security van was there when I heard a lot of shouts of ’call the police’ and a lot of kerfuffle.
"Outside there was a security guard and a man with a bandanna holding a gun to the back of his neck."
Describing the terrifying events in a modest and matter-of-fact manner, Mr Weston added: "I went outside and grabbed hold of the gun.
"We struggled a little bit, had a little tussle over the gun and I lost. He pulled away from me and moved back about four or five feet and fired a few shots into the ground and the air.
"I didn’t think it seemed loud enough to be a real gun, but then he proved me wrong.
"He shot me and it was clear I was in serious trouble."
Thanking staff at Birmingham’s City Hospital, Mr Weston added: "I spent about three months there in total - the first seven or eight weeks in the critical care unit.
"I had kidney problems and some heart attacks and my family were told to come quickly on three or four occasions, but I got better, beat the odds and I’m here today.
"The hospital staff made my stay enjoyable - they were fantastic."
Mr Weston now has cardiac damage, having suffered three heart attacks during his coma, and also experiences problems related to his leg wound.
Asked why he chose to have a go at the raider, Mr Weston, who spent more than 30 years in the police service, said of his actions: "I just thought it wasn’t right and I should try and stop it.
"I like to think that anybody would have done it - it was just something I felt was necessary to do.
"People put up with so much these days."
Lynton Fletcher boasted many of the trappings of the modern day gangster - a startlingly expensive array of heavy-duty bling and his associates’ phone numbers written on scraps of paper hidden between his buttocks.
Often seen sporting a Paul Smith suit - and with a £30,000 watch strap taking pride of place in his jewellery collection - the self-confessed petrol-head had a taste for Prada, Gucci and high-performance cars.
His trial heard that when he was arrested in Derby on November 25, 2005, he was wearing a Breitling timepiece and had three phone numbers stored between his buttocks.
Fletcher insisted there was "nothing sinister" about his decision not to keep the untraceable numbers in the memory of his mobile phone - and that he had stored them in an unusual place because he did not have a diary, rather than to prevent police analysing them should his handset be seized.
The gunman, who also had a false passport, assured the jury he was not an armed robber and had in fact acquired large sums of money - including £12,000 found stuffed inside a Prada toiletries bag at his flat - by buying and selling cars.
But his interest in vehicles and tracking devices was to prove his undoing, allowing him to follow Securicor vans but later enabling prosecutors to build a case against him.
He did admit to the jury that he bought a tracking device shortly before Joseph Nwabuko was killed, but said he had tested it for innocent purposes on the day of the murder.
Describing himself as a hustler who often received expensive gifts from lady friends, Fletcher, who cut a bookish figure in the dock, was insistent that he was not a gang member.
Asked why he gave a false name when he purchased his tracker, Fletcher said it was "off the cuff".