Ice Cream Wars

Though it has made a lot of progress since then, the 1970’s and 80’s were a rough time for Glasgow, Scotland. At the time, it had the reputation as the “murder capital of Western Europe,” a rather unbecoming nickname. The city was obviously concerned with shedding this epithet as soon as possible, and one of their main strategies included redoing the tenement housing (what we see referred to as “projects” housing in the US) that had become decrepit. To do so, they built “schemes,” which were meant to be an updated version of the dilapidated tenement housing. These schemes were pretty unsuccessful in their aim of reducing crime — the hastily-built, poorly-planned structures became hotbeds for illicit activity, unlike anything seen before in Glasgow.

One particularly poor planning aspect of these shoddy structures was that the schemes had no facilities or room for shops to be built in. So as the free market rushed to sell various goods and services to this population newly relocated to the schemes, one particular method of delivery was most agile and successful — ice cream vans. These vans would claim an area or street corner near by the schemes, and would peddle ice cream and other groceries/household items. This was a pretty good gig for the ice cream trucks, and they started getting pretty feisty about protecting their turf from new merchants looking to break into the scene.

Local gangs also took notice of these trucks and their unique market opportunity. The trucks were basically unregulated and had unparalleled access to a particularly enticing market of Glasgow consumers. So the gangs approached the truck owners and began negotiating deals to place their “products” in the vans to be sold alongside ice cream, toilet paper, toothpaste, and other bland household goods. Various stolen goods, cigarettes, firearms, and heroin quickly became best-sellers at the trucks that had affiliations with gangs.

With this infusion of gang-activity, the aforementioned feistiness around a truck protecting its turf escalated rapidly. Stern warnings to new, encroaching trucks turned into a “frightenings,” a classic motif of the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars. If a new van was “pushing on you” (s/o Aziz), a truck would dispatch their affiliated gang members to the scene. These guys would roll up (playing their ice cream truck music on the loudspeaker to announce their arrival), smash the windshield in, puncture the tires, steal all their inventory, and beat the driver. As one informant put it later, a new van could make a quick buck taking over some new territory, but “at what cost? A new windshield and tires every time?”

This was starting to become a public nuisance (of course) and people in the schemes and surrounding residential areas were fed up with it. The Glasgow police tried to put a stop to it, assigning the entire top-division of their police force, called the Serious Crimes Squad, to handle the ice cream violence. The dishearteningly small progress they made over the next few years earned that department the nickname of the “Serious Chimes Squad.”

All the while, a few ice cream truck operators were becoming fearful of the ever-increasing violence. Some began turning down the gangs’ offers to stock their shelves with myriad illegal items, even though that meant losing some $$$ and local ice cream truck market share. One of these operators, an 18-year old named Andrew “Fat Boy” Doyle, a driver for the Marchetti trucks, had resisted the gangs’ advances for his entire tenure as a driver. By 1984, the whitespace in the market had dried up, and gangs looking to grow their ice cream-based business had few stones left to turn over. So, they got a bit more serious about convincing Doyle to change his mind. They staged a “frightening,” and shot a sawed-off shotgun through his windshield. Doyle didn’t budge at all, so another “frightening” was called for. This became much more heinous.

In April 1984, a few gang members showed up at Doyle’s family’s flat in the schemes around midnight with a canister full of kerosene. They doused the hallway and door of the Doyle’s apartment with the gas, and set it aflame. What was likely meant to be an intimidation ploy quickly got out of hand — the fire spread rapidly through the flat, and of the nine Doyle family members that were staying over that night, 5 passed away immediately.

Andrew Doyle, being led to the hospital immediately after the incident

Andrew Doyle survived the night, but passed away in the hospital the following morning. This ice cream war public nuisance had suddenly become a massacre that killed Doyle, his father, sister, two brothers, and 18-month-old nephew — the city was fucking furious.

The Glasgow police, already reeling from the public’s scrutiny around the “Serious Chimes Squad,” had to act quickly. They found a man named William Love, a notorious petty criminal in Glasgow who was rumored to have been in touch with the ice cream gangs. He was in jail at the time for armed robbery, but the police offered him a great deal — roll over on those responsible for the arson, and Love could go free. I’m no expert, but that seems like a dangerous incentive scheme to offer…

Love told police that the puppeteer for the Doyle “frightenings” was a man named Thomas Campbell, who had been paying various gang mercenaries to pester Doyle and his family. He also told the police that he heard Doyle and an associate named Joe Steele drunkenly discussing their arson plans at a pub recently.

The police also found a man named Joseph Grainger, in jail for some other petty crime he had recently committed, who was willing to testify that he was there at the scene of the crime, but didn’t light the match. He also was willing to put Campbell and Steele there as the perpetrators of the arson. To the Serious Chimes Squad, this was a done deal.

Campbell and Steele were arrested, and upon search of Campbell’s apartment, the police produced a map of the schemes with markings denoting the Doyle family flat.

The two were brought to trial in one of the most famous legal proceedings in Scotland’s history. It brought together all of the major mob contingents in Glasgow, and was the culmination of 15 years of ice cream-based violence. Grainger was called to the stand as the prosecution’s key witness who could place the two defendants at the scene… and he crumbled. He immediately admitted to the court that the had made up his whole confession and had nothing to do with the crime, and was hoping that he may be able to get out of jail because of his cooperation.

Now, all the police/prosecution had was the map of the schemes from Campbell’s home, and Love’s testimony that he heard Campbell and Steele talking about the proposed arson at a pub. Somehow, this was enough and the jury came back with a unanimous declaration of the pair’s guilt — sentencing them to a life in prison each.

Upon hearing their sentences, Campbell and Steele vociferously defended themselves, claiming complete innocence and accusing the court and police of scapegoating them in pursuit of efficiency rather than truth. No one believed them.

Campbell stayed committed to this, and staged various hunger strikes while in prison to try and draw attention to his plight. He was given extensive solitary confinement and several vicious beatings.

Steele had a slightly different approach. Over his sentence, he successfully plotted and executed three separate prison breaks. However, each time he escaped, instead of slinking away to a foreign country to live in peace, he orchestrated some massive spectacle to plead for his and Campbell’s exoneration. During one escape, he went up to the rooftop of his mother’s house and shouted his legal defense out to a gathered group of citizens for hours. In another, he traveled to London and superglued himself to the gates of Buckingham Palace, hoping to convince the Crown to order a review of his case.

They tried to appeal the case in 1989, but were summarily turned down. Finally, in 1992, a breakthrough came their way. A remorseful Love, in an interview with two journalists, confessed to having made up the entire story about the pub conversation. In his words:

I did so because it suited my own selfish purposes. The explanation as to why I gave evidence is this: The police pressurized me to give evidence against Campbell, who they clearly believed was guilty of arranging to set fire to Doyle’s house.

Finally, in 1997, five years after Love’s admission, the Scotland Secretary of State granted interim freedom to the pair while they awaited the outcome of their second appeal. It reached as high as the Scotland Court of Criminal Appeal, and in 2004, they were set free.

Campbell and Steele, upon release

Alas, this story does not have much of a happy ending. To this day, the case is still cold, leaving the 6 deaths in the Doyle family unanswered for. Sadly, much like Making a Murderer, there were several real leads at the time of the incident in 1984 that went untouched because the police zealously zeroed in on, and likely framed, Campbell and Steele. A youth in the area had reportedly asked for a canister of petrol to be filled at a nearby gas station just an hour before the fire, and a witness claimed she saw a group of guys running away from a crashed car with an empty petrol container in the back seat a few hours after the blaze. Neither of these were investigated in any real way, sadly.

Because of the chaos, violence, and injustice that followed ice cream trucks for most of 80s, 90s, and 00s, they are now banned in Glasgow and surrounding areas. So if you ever wondered why you can’t get an ice cream sandwich from a brightly-painted, jingle-blaring van in Western Scotland, you now know why.