As part of the Murder Mile Podcast - a true-crime podcast of the most infamous and often forgotten murders, all set within one square mile of London's West End - I shall also be uploading the full unedited transcript of the episode, which will contain all of the information, histories and backstories which I was unable to provide in the podcast episode owing to time-constraints.
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Full Transcript - Episode #1 The Denmark Place Fire
INTRO: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of London’s most notorious (and often forgotten) murder cases, all set within one square mile of the West End.Today’s episode is a guided walk of one of Britain’s deadliest mass-murders, it’s a crime so horrific, it’s shocking that the perpetrator himself isn’t uttered in the same breath as Shipman, Brady or The Wests, and yet, almost forty years on, the culprit, the victims and even the story itself is almost entirely forgotten. The question you have to ask yourself is “why?” Murder Mile contains vivid descriptions which may not be suitable for those of a sensitive disposition, as well as photos, videos and maps which accompany this series, so that no matter where you’re listening to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there. My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile. Episode 1: The Denmark Place Fire.
SCRIPT: Today, I am standing on Denmark Street, WC2; a stumpy little thoroughfare nestling in the borough of St Giles in the beating heart London’s bustling West End, just a stones-throw from Tottenham Court Road (to the north), Covent Garden (to the south) and Theatreland and Soho (to the west).
Looking tatty, tired and a little unloved, Denmark Street consists of a mishmash of three and four storey buildings, cobbled together over four centuries, and yet almost all feature a wealth of music shops on the ground floor with office space and apartments above. Some of the buildings are listed, other are not, and a few have been abandoned, leaving behind an empty shell full of rat’s turds, dust, debris and distant memories.
At just 270 feet long and 30 feet wide, Denmark Street is the type of street you could easily miss in a sprawling metropolis like London, situated (as it is) at the arse-end of the A40, with the grade 1 listed splendour of St Giles In Fields Church at one end, a simple set of traffic lights to Charring Cross Road at the other, under the looming menace of the Centre Point skyscraper and surrounded by the dull drone of demolition as the bulldozers and diggers of Crossrail level great swathes of the city.
Before this street and its seedy little sister – Denmark Place - became synonymous with murder, Denmark Street dubbed “Tin Pan Alley” was once a mecca for aspiring musicians, such as The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Small Faces and Jimi Hendrix, all who either lived, wrote or recorded here; the Sex Pistols lived above no6, Elton John wrote in Regent Sounds Studio at no4, and a young David Bowie slept in his camper van by night, as by day he soaked up the ambiance of London’s rock & roll utopia.
What Carnaby Street was to the London fashion scene of the sixties and seventies, Denmark Street was to music. But by 1980, with the streets strewn with litter, squatters having moved in and much of its sparkle gone, Denmark Street would become infamous for something unsavoury… a murder, a mass-murder, so cruel, so callous and so deadly, it’s shocking that such a heinous crime is barely known. The story of one of London’s deadliest mass-murders has been reduced a whisper, its memory almost entirely forgotten and the last hint that this street holds a dark history is about to be erased… forever.
In late 1970’s London, Cuban popular dance music known as Salsa was a little-known part of the underground music scene in Soho’s club land, made popular as South & Central American immigrants came to the city, on a one-to-three year visa, as part of the Department of Employment’s recruitment programme to fill British hotels with service staff on a minimum wage.
One such man was Hernan Vargas, a twenty-six year old Columbian of slim-stature, who by day slogged his guts out in a menial job just to make-ends-meet, but by night, he lived for the music, he lived to dance and he lived to salsa. Nicknamed “El Flaco” (which means “skinny”), Hernan Vargas was the resident DJ at El Escondite (alias “The Hiding Place”); an illegally run nightclub ran by Lubin Reyes, which was hidden-from-view in a disused attic on Hanway Street, an unlit seedy little side-street between Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, until they were shut-down by the Police and promptly re-opened just one street away at 18 Denmark Place and renamed El Hueco (which aptly translates as “The Hole”).
18 Denmark Place, a former 19th century three-story coach-house and home of El Hueco, was owned by Victor Gonzalez, a shady businessman from Spain with a passion for gambling but a greater thirst for profit, who - like many of London’s illegal club owners, bolstered his illicit income by a fleet of hardly hygienic hotdog carts which flooded the city streets – it was operated under the radar of the Police, Fire Brigade and the local Council, flouting licencing laws, ignored gaming regulations and was devoid of fire alarms, sprinklers, extinguishers and a fully working fire-escape.
But the dangers aside, for many El Hueco was a safe haven, a release; a chance to drink, chat and dance, and regardless of whether you were Columbian, Spanish, Jamaican, Irish or English; a waiter, a painter, dish-washer or a hotdog vendor, here you could be whoever you wanted to be. This was a private club for a very select group; with no sign on the walls and no bouncers on the door, if you wanted in, you rang the bell, you waited, and if your face, name and membership number fitted the bill, the key was tossed down, the door was opened and you were in.
The night of Saturday 16th August 1980 was no exception, as - after another tedious game of cat & mouse between the council and Victor Gonzalez - Lubin Reyes was informed that once again his club night would be shut-down by the Police on Monday morning, and so blessed with two days grace, El Hueco would host a farewell party. With the rulebook thrown out the window, the drinks flowed and the clubbers grooved as Hernan “Skinny” Vargas spun hot Salsa tunes from his decks, but safety was the last thing on everyone’s mind, as this night was going to be a night to remember.
By 2am, after a long hot summer where the temperatures had soared into the low 30’s, over one hundred and fifty drinkers, dancers and gamblers had crammed into the first and second floor of 18 Denmark Place; the air was thick with smoke, the walls were soaked with sweat and even the drinks were warm to the touch. Unfortunately, one man’s temperature was getting a little too hot.
John Thompson, a 42 year old resident of Morning Lane in Hackney was a semi-regular guest at the gambling club, with prior convictions for drug-dealing, arson and petty-theft, Thompson went by the nicknames of “The Gypsy” (having been born into a travelling community in Scotland) and “Punch” (owing to fiery temper, drunken rages and being a little too handy with his fists). By 3am, Thompson had drank himself into a drunken stupor, yet again having blown a sizeable chunk of money playing poker and ploughing coins into the slot-machine, and now he was looking for someone to blame.
As per usual, Jose Franco (the manager of the venue) bore the brunt of Thompson’s abuse, receiving both barrels in the form of fists, fury and racial slurs, and therefore (rightly) Thompson was forcibly ejected off the premises, thrown out into the dingy darkness of Denmark Place, as the fiery Scotsman’s temper was taken out on every wall, door and dustbin as he staggered out of the tiny alley, until finally… he was gone.
And so, with a cheer, a giggle and a round of applause, the farewell party continued. But twenty minutes later, Thompson returned and he wanted revenge.
Having taken a return trip to the nearest service-station in Camden, Thompson staggered out of a black cab on St Giles’ High Street, into the claustrophobic blackness of Denmark Place and drunkenly stumbled the final two-hundred feet to number 18. Thompson was witnessed moments later, crouching down in a doorway, but with no working street lamps, no neon signs and no lights on, this clandestine little cut-through (so cramped that even the moonlight couldn’t illuminate it) was the perfect spot for a murder. Dismissed as just another drunk, the witness failed to see the rage on Thompson’s face, failed to hear the anger in his voice and failed to spot the ominous bulge in his jacket, as above him, the music pumped, making his blood boil.
Inside, the party was in full swing; the night was hot, the air was thick and (to keep the party secret) the windows were shut; but Jose Franco kept the cool drinks flowing, Hernan “Skinny” Vargas kept Salsa tracks spinning (with a mix from his own personal collection that he kept in the attic) and Eduardo Trujillo toasted the last days of his best friend Elizabeth Mercado, having booked her airline tickets to take her back home to Columbia.
Outside, having blocked the only entrance or exit to both clubs, Thompson opened his jacket, pulled out a black metal can, and poured through the letterbox two gallons of petrol.
Inside the club, no-one noticed the temperature rise. No-one heard the crackle of fire as the flames licked up the wooden walls. And no-one smelled the chocking smoke above the thick aroma of tobacco and sweaty bodies.
At a little after 3:30am, Lubin Reyes heard a bang; not a big bang, but enough of a bang to be heard over the music, and asked “Did you hear that?” but no-one was sure so he went out to check. What greeted him was an inferno, the entire central stairwell was engulfed in flames as fire licked up the tinder-dry walls, making the security doors too hot to touch, let alone open.
Another bang shook the stairwell, then another, and another, as the ground-floor erupted with a series of explosions, as (having converted the concrete-floored space into a parking bay) it housed almost thirty hotdog vendor’s trolleys, each packing two 13kg bottles of highly flammable propane.
Seeing the flames fill the ground-floor and quickly envelop the two further floors, John Thompson fled. Not to call for the fire brigade, not to call for an ambulance, not to get any help at all, but to run. To run away from the fiery hell that he had created out of anger and petty spite, leaving over one hundred and fifty innocent people trapped inside a burning building, their screams still ringing in his ears as many were burned alive.
The Soho Fire Brigade based at 126 Shaftsbury Avenue (barely a 1/3 mile away) were alerted to the blaze just a few minutes later. Six fire-engines screamed down Charing Cross Road and turning right into Denmark Street, only to be confronted by a scene which shocked even seasoned professionals.
At first, with the street being so ominously quiet, the fire brigade thought that they’d been sent to the wrong address, and they had. They also thought that maybe this was a hoax, but at no 21 Denmark Street (the building which 18 Denmark Place backed onto) they could see smoke seeping through the shuttered windows… and beyond that, they could hear screaming.
When David Parre, a firefighter from the Soho Brigade’s Green Watch approached the ground floor of 21 Denmark Street (formerly home to Rhodes Music Store), he was greeted by a sight which has haunted him forever, as trapped inside the store was a frantic man, wielding an electric guitar like it was an axe, desperately trying to smash the security grille on the window to escape. It took the firefighters four minutes to break through the double-thickness, triple bolted, steal-lined security door at the front of Rhodes Music Store, but they were too late. As having escaped the horrifying inferno in El Hueco, the desperate man died of asphyxiation, just a few feet from safety.
But it wasn’t until the Soho Fire Brigade arrived on Denmark Place (the alley at the rear), that they saw the full horror of the scene. Divisional Fire Officer Roy Baldwin later stated “as we arrived on Denmark Place, the whole building was ablaze, people were ripping wooden shutters off the windows, they were smashing glass with their bare hands, people were throwing themselves from the second and third floor, out into the alley below, their clothes still on fire, smashing their bones”.
With the alley being barely 10 feet wide, and blocked by bollards, none of the six fire-engines could enter Denmark Place, so the fire-fighters had to tackle the blaze by hand, aiming heavy hoses at the inferno, as bodies rained down and a humid wind whipped up the alley, fanning the flames further.
With solid walls made from oak timbers, the floors of thick wooden beams and every side lined with plasterboard (even the wrought-iron fire-escape was covered in plywood), it took almost three hours to extinguish the fire, and a further six before the building was safe to enter, as the fire consumed a lethal mix of petrol, alcohol and propane.
Inside, everything was black, and dark, and wet. The air was thick with black acrid smoke, the smell of petrol stung your nostrils and hot melted plastic dripped from the ceiling. The ferocity of the fire was so intense that it bent floors and buckled doors, but the true horror of the inferno was yet to greet the fire-fighters, as they approached the bar where over one hundred and fifty terrified patrons had panicked, unable to escape the flames of El Hueco.
The layout of the bar was described in court as “a death-trap”; “lethal”; the room was long and narrow, tightly packed with long wooden benches, with just a single entrance or exit at one end of the bar, which – when crammed full of sweaty bodies to the point where you could hardly breathe (let alone move) under the best of circumstances – it was impossible to escape. And on this night, El Hueco’s farewell party, it was unusually busy.
Fire Officer Baldwin described the charred aftermath of the barroom: he said “I have never seen bodies packed together like that before. The fire must have spread too quickly. People were still sitting at tables, they were slumped at the bar, many still had drinks in their hands. Of the survivors, people talked of screaming, of skin peeling off faces, of trying to get out, but finding the doors locked. Inside, nobody stood a chance”.
Green Watch’s fire-brigade photographer Alan Freeman described the horror as “…it was as if the bodies were dominoes that had been pushed over…” and as panic enveloped the room, as the terrified punters rushed to escape, they were forced “to climb over bodies three deep". Some died where they sat, some died where they stood and others died huddled together in the corner, as amongst the indecipherable charred blackness of the bar, the only evidence of life… were skulls.
It took four pathologists and three dentists two months to identify the bodies.
Celebrating her final night in London before her return flight to Columbia, Elizabeth Mercado and her friend Eduardo Trujillo escaped the blaze, suffering broken bones and second degree burns as they leapt from a second-story window. They were two of the twenty-three people who were confirmed as wounded and escaped with their lives.
Thirty-seven people died in the Denmark Place fire; fourteen women, twenty-three men and one unborn baby. The rest of the party’s revellers simply vanished into the night; too traumatised by the horror to give witness testimony, too terrified by the blaze to seek medical help, and too scared of the repercussions by the authorities given their dubious immigration status.
Those who died in the Denmark Place fire were; Sylvia Aguire, Alvaro Barrios, Pamela Bough, Beiddredin Bulati, Archibald O'Donnell Campbell, Leonard Carroll, Diana Coward, Clancy Dcedaran, Maria Dick, Peter Alan Dolan, Paul Fiorilo, Jose Franco, Carol Gorey, Maria Gumiel, Theresa Gumiel, Denise Henaghan, Christina Isherwood, Luz Mary Londono, Avril McDermot, Diana McIlvaney, Gloria Munoz, Anita Murray, Antonio Navaro, Bridget Norton, Julian Ortegon-Garces, Segg Putahu, William Ramsey, Alexander Reid, Juan Antonio Sagasta-Juldain, Edgar Smith, Carlos Alberto Soto, Robert Sirton, Eustace Ralph Taylor-Harding, Plutarco Alejandro Vargas Bernett, Hernan Vargas, Beatrice Vargas-Corrales and Frederick Yule.
Of those who died; Harnan “Skinny” Vargas, the resident DJ at El Hueco died trying to save his prized collection of vinyl records which he’d stored in the attic; Jose Franco, the bar manager who’d escorted John Thompson off the premises died trying to escort people to safety, and (one of the youngest victims) 17 year old Alex Reid died, having heroically re-entered the burning building to rescue a pregnant woman. Neither survived.
Victor Gonzalez (the owner of 18 Denmark Place) and Lubin Reyes (the club promoter for El Hueco) both survived the fire, neither men were charged, and shortly afterward both men disappeared
With the exception of the Times, the Observer and the Glasgow Herald, very few newspapers followed the story, choosing instead to focus on the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, where-as those who did, wrongly assumed it was a dispute between drug dealers, a grudge attack involving South American politics, or it was part of a gangland feud between two rival groups of hotdog vendors.
Having been identified by the service-station manager and the black-cab driver, John “The Gypsy” Thompson was arrested just two days later. He appeared at Bow Street Magistrates Court on 29th August 1980 where he pleaded “not guilty” to the charge of murder.
At his trial, Thompson’s defence was that he was “drunk”, and then proceeded to blame Jose Franco, the deceased bar manager at El Hueco, for “over-charging” his for “a drink”.
Thompson was found guilty of a specimen charge (multiple acts of varying levels of criminality) on 7th May 1981 with one charge of 1st degree arson, one (unrelated) charge of 2nd degree arson, one charge of manslaughter (having mistakenly caused the death of his friend who was inside club and died in the fire) and thirty-six counts of murder. But after the abolition of the Death Penalty in 1965, Thompson was given the harshest sentence the British legal system could give him – life imprisonment. That’s thirty years. Not even one year for each of his victims.
The Denmark Place fire is widely regarded “one of the deadliest blazes in London since the Blitz of World War Two”, and yet – unlike the King’s Cross fire (with 31 people dead) and the Great Fire of London (just 6 people dead) – those who died at 18 Denmark Place have almost been forgotten. There is no plaque on the wall, no memorial above the door, and (as of today) the building is now entirely demolished.
John “The Gypsy” Thompson, the 42 year old petty thief, convicted drug-dealer and (now) widely considered “one of Britain’s worst mass-murderers” was eligible for parole in May 2011… but following a long-battle with lung cancer, he died alone, in a prison hospital, on the 16th August 2008 – coincidentally on the 28th anniversary of the Denmark Place Fire.
#1 - Salsa For People Who Probably Shouldn't by Matt Rendall - link
#2 - London Fire Brigade Press Release - link
#3 - London's Disasters by John Whittington - link
#4 - London's Forgotten Disasters in Londonist - link
#5 - Wikipedia page on Denmark Place Fire - link
#6 - News report - www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBQkfnd6JgYlink
As well as National Newspaper Archive and the British Library, Old Bailey online, Westminster Coroner's Court, National Archives at Kew, Freda Bright, Damian Gallagher and other sources who which to remain nameless.
Under the Creative Commons Agreement via Freesound.Org, the following sounds were used:
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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