On Thursday August 15th 2019, at the end of a trial which had lasted nine weeks, Scott Gocoul was convicted of the murder by shooting of Tom Bell, the young and talented boxer from Wheatley, Doncaster. Later that same day, the trial judge, Hon. Mr. Justice Lavender, sentenced him to life imprisonment, with a minimum custodial term to be served of 33 years. He had been in custody since his arrest two days after the shooting in January and the Judge ordered that the time that he had already served should be counted against that sentence; nevertheless, he will be at least 62 years old before his release can even be considered by the Parole Board. His co-defendant, Joey Bennia, was convicted of manslaughter and given a determinate sentence of 17 years imprisonment, less time served. Both defendants were prosecuted by Nicholas Campbell QC who led Michael Smith of the Crown Prosecution Service.
It was on Thursday night, 17th January, that the gunman was driven to the Maple Tree public house in Balby where Tom Bell was enjoying a night out with friends. It was quiz night and the pub was busy. The group had gathered around a table in an alcove at the rear of the pub; there they had eaten together and there they continued to socialise. Bell had his back to the curtainless bay window.
It was dark outside, but some of those sitting opposite glimpsed through the window a masked figure dressed in black. One of them spotted the shotgun and shouted out a warning. It was too late. Two shots were fired through two different panes of glass; at least one of those struck Mr. Bell in his left side and penetrated into his heart. The force of the other struck the back of the chair on which he had been sitting. Some of the pellets from the discharged cartridges struck others in the group, fortunately not causing serious injury.
The motive for the shooting lay in the past. In sentencing Scott Gocoul, the Judge addressed him thus: “You had a long standing desire for revenge against Tom Bell arising out of things he had done, or which you believed he had done, in 2016.” Gocoul had spent much of the intervening years in prison, but on this particular night, it was “Tom Bell’s bad luck” that Mr. Gocoul had also been in the Maple Tree when he had walked in, fresh from training. This was the first time that the two had been under the same roof since the events of 2016.
Scott Gocoul had been at the Maple Tree with his co-accused Joey Bennia. When Mr. Goucoul was not in prison, the pair had been engaged in dealing class A drugs (heroin and crack cocaine), and they were so engaged on that Thursday. They had taken time off from their labours to enjoy a meal together.
Within less than ten minutes of Tom Bell’s arrival, the pair had finished their pizzas and left the pub. The time was 6.35pm. Using a black BMW X3, registered in the name of Scott Gocoul’s girlfriend but used by him on a daily basis for his drugs business, they headed to a lock up on the other side of Doncaster. Earlier in the afternoon they had been there to collect their drugs, but on this occasion Joey Bennia went in to fetch the shotgun which was to be used to kill Tom Bell. They then continued with the plan by deploying a white BMW 1 series to effect the getaway. Like the shotgun, this car had been stolen and had come to be under their control for some chosen, unlawful purpose. Whilst being careful to distance themselves from their ‘phones, and to establish thereby a false alibi at Joey Bennia’s home on Burton Avenue, the two accused drove in convoy to an isolated country lane where the X3 was parked up.
From that country lane, the 1 series set off for the Maple Tree. It contained at least the driver and the gunman. The Judge told Scott Gocoul that he was satisfied to the criminal standard that he was “both the ringleader and the gunman”. The driver may or may not have been Joey Bennia. The evidence suggested that the pair had recruited another member to the team – perhaps two. If so, they have hitherto escaped justice.
The car was parked on the road nearest to the alcove where Tom Bell was sitting. Gocoul got out and made his way down the bank to where he had a good view of his victim, sitting as he was with his back to the window. The time was 8.44pm. He brought the muzzle to within a meter and a half of that window and fired. Having fired once more, he made his way to the 1 series, which was seen to pull away at speed. Distressing CCTV footage inside the pub caught Tom Bell’s last movements. As he slipped into unconsciousness, he uttered his last words, “Is it bad?”.
Whilst the emergency services were making their way to the Maple Tree, the stolen car was being driven back to the isolated lane. Once there, it was set on fire, effectively destroying evidence. The team then headed off in the X3. On its journey back to Joey Bennia’s home, the gun was concealed within Warmsworth cemetery; this was only a temporary resting place. Once back on Burton Avenue, the ‘phones were recovered. Scott Gocoul then made his way east, towards his home near Hull. Joey Bennia, driven by his girlfriend, headed west to Sheffield. She had been at work that evening; when he had requested her urgent assistance, she had secured permission to leave early. She was entirely unaware of the shooting, at least at that stage. They were still on the road together, heading for Sheffield, at 10.36pm when Tom Bell was pronounced dead. By that time, Scott Gocoul was already at home, apparently asleep in his own bed.
Although the two accused were now apart geographically, their conduct was remarkably similar. Whilst Joey Bennia ensured that the ‘phone that they used for their drugs business (to which he referred as “the graft ‘phone”) remained active, each got rid of his personal ‘phone and bought a new one. They remained closely in touch over the next 48 hours, up to the time of Mr. Gocoul’s arrest. They called each other repeatedly on their new lines, speaking for a total of over 90 minutes. Early on that Friday morning, but still under cover of darkness, Mr. Bennia returned briefly to Doncaster to conceal the gun in a better location. Later that day, Scott Gocoul had the tyres on the X3 changed. As the police sought them both, they took refuge in hotels, using various identities. Both received money from others who were prepared to help them. There was some evidence that they had considered flitting abroad. Staying put, they indulged their various appetites; the gunman with a sex worker whose services he had employed shortly before his arrest late on the Saturday night; and his accomplice who, while his girlfriend went back to work, spent the rest of that night and the early hours of the next morning with friends, drinking alcohol, snorting cocaine and visiting a nightclub.
In his police interviews that Sunday, Scott Gocoul gave details of the planned false alibi. It was at lunchtime on the Monday that Joey Bennia called a taxi to take him to the police station, where he had set up a meeting with his solicitor. There he was arrested. In his interviews, he maintained his own alibi but was to refrain from supporting that of Mr. Gocoul. The separation of ways had thus begun. By the time of the trial, each was maintaining his own innocence, but sought, either directly or indirectly, to blame the murder on the other. The jury rejected the accounts of both defendants.
The trial at Sheffield Crown Court lasted twice as long as anyone had anticipated. One of the reasons for this was Joey Bennia’s decision to reveal the whereabouts of the murder weapon, which he did on the third day. That same evening it was found, together with some ammunition, well concealed on some waste land between Warmsworth cemetery and the River Don. On examination, traces of DNA which had clearly come from Scott Gocoul were found on the trigger area.
Joey Bennia’s girlfriend had been the first to tell the police where she believed the gun had been hidden. She had never known its precise hiding place, but her account had been the key to the unraveling of his own defence. She was an important witness, giving evidence over four days. Scott Gocoul’s own girlfriend was also called by the prosecution, to prove the motive; she spoke of the part that she said the teenage Tom Bell had played in an attempt to rob her in her home in July 2016, while her partner was in prison. These two women showed a great deal more courage than Tom Bell’s male friends, including most of those who had been with him when he was shot. The investigating team of police officers was hampered by this lack of cooperation. It is to be hoped that outcomes such as this trial will encourage greater openness in the future.
The jury had to sift through evidence from experts instructed by the prosecution from a number of fields; medical, scientific and technical. They included: the consultant forensic pathologist instructed by Her Majesty’s Coroner to examine the body of Tom Bell; experts in both ballistics and gunshot residue; those accustomed to analysing images and interpreting DNA findings; a surveyor of radio frequencies who assisted with identifying cell sites utilised by the various mobile ‘phones; as well as those who had garnered and analysed evidence emanating from telecoms, the national scheme of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras on our system of roads and CCTV cameras placed more generally, in both the public and private sectors.
Both the guilty verdicts were unanimous and were delivered within seconds of each other. At his trial, Joey Bennia had given evidence to the jury that, as the pair had left the Maple Tree for the first time that evening, Scott Gocoul had told him he was going to “blast” Tom Bell. (He went on to say how Mr. Gocoul had later admitted the shooting to him, but that he had denied having had the intention to kill.) Bennia claimed that he had refused to help Mr. Gocoul. He denied fetching the shotgun. He asserted that he had distanced himself from the plan. In rejecting his account, the jury showed that they were sure that he knew about the gun, but they were not sure that he had known that Scott Gocoul intended to cause at least really serious harm. This was therefore a generous verdict, but it may cast some light on the very different personalities in the dock, which the jury had been able to observe as the weeks had gone by.
Whereas the pair had both been shown to have lied to the police and to the Court, and Joey Bennia had revealed himself to have been a hypocrite, he lacked Scott Gocoul’s cold, even ruthless manner. Before passing sentence, the Judge heard from members of Tom Bell’s family and his own girlfriend as each described, as best they could, the effect that his sudden death had had, was still having and would continue to have on those who had been close to him. His parents and his siblings had attended the trial on a daily basis. The Judge had commented on their dignified conduct. Having given her own account to the Court, Mr. Bell’s mother left the witness box to take her seat alongside her daughter and the officer in the case. Those able to observe the dock at that time saw Scott Gocoul blow her a kiss.
The jurors would have seen this. They had chosen to remain for the sentencing. No one was surprised by this choice. Their concern to see justice done had been evidenced throughout the trial. They had continued to ask the most pertinent of questions. The fact that the trial had lasted so much longer than anyone had predicted, and that, in spite of the summer holidays, eleven of the original twelve had chosen to stick with the task in hand, was just as eloquent a testimony of their tenacity. Those at the bar are rarely aware of the sacrifices that jurors make to carry out their duties. It is surely concern for justice such as this that continues to motivate all of us working within our system of criminal justice.
For further information about the case, click here.