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The British hitman: A brief introduction

Updated Monday, 13th April 2015

David Wilson explains why the reality of killers for hire doesn't match the image suggested by the media.

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Laurie Taylor:
Now I don’t want to incite any murderous thoughts but is there anyone alive who hasn’t at one time or other thought they could use the confidential services of a hitman – a contract killer? I mean if only there’d been an entry for hitmen in the Yellow Pages I could have hired someone to finish off the yob in the flat next to mine in York who played back to back Metallica. And I could have paid someone to assassinate the psychopath who pushed her Tesco trolley into my back last weekend as I hesitated at the cheese counter.

But, of course, I’d want it done perfectly. I wouldn’t want an apprentice hitman, someone on work experience, I’d want professional and cold-blooded. You know the sort – someone with those special eyes…

Reading from The Jackal:
The eyes of the Englishman were open and starred back with frank candour, except for the irises which were flecked grey, so that they seemed smoky like the hoar mist on a winter’s morning. It took Rodin a few seconds to realise that they had no expression at all. Whatever thoughts did go on behind the smokescreen nothing came through.

The inscrutable Jackal being introduced to us by Frederick Forsyth of course.

But how typical is The Jackal? Well that’s a good question for David Wilson, because David is the co-author of a new research paper published in The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice called The British Hitman: 1974-2013. Well David, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, is with me now.

David, why settle on this particular area, why did you set out to produce a typology of hitmen - it seems a sort of pretty minority pursuit in the world of criminology?

Police at a crime scene Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Piero Cruciatti |

David Wilson:
Well firstly let me say how sorry I am that you were hit in the back by a psychopath in Tesco’s.

Well you introduced this particular segment by playing something from the 1960s that Frederick Forsyth had written about – The Day of the Jackal – and it just so happened that of late I had been passing images of hitmen, as it were, every single day. There was the new game – Hitman – with Agent 42, the very stylised hitman of the [...] the game; there was a new film called The Iceman, that had just been released and so I was simply interested initially about how these images of hitmen, which seem to appear everywhere in a variety of formats, related to the reality of contract killing in Britain.

And of course when I started to try and find a more scholarly way into understanding that phenomenon, we, as you know, we start by looking at all the research that’s been done previously about this subject, lo and behold I discover that there were only a handful of academic papers worldwide.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean there’s one man, isn’t there, called Schlesinger – I think we go back to 2001; he divided them up into amateur, semi-professionals and professionals - but you reckon he wasn’t much help to you.

David Wilson:
Well he wasn’t much help, although I do have to pay respect to Schlesinger, I mean Schlesinger was attempting to do something, it seemed to me, to be far more scholarly than had previously been done. But what Schlesinger had done was interview one particular hitman who had been caught in the United States, who had committed over a hundred hits.

And so his typology - the typology that Schlesinger developed – was a very unique kind of hitman that he had managed to gain access to and increasingly, as I started to research in this field with my co-authors, it became clear that that type of typology did not fit what was happening in British circumstances.

Laurie Taylor:
Now you’ve already said there aren’t all that many around, I mean how did you go finding them – how did you dig them out?

David Wilson:
Well of course this is genuinely a very secret world, as opposed to the mediated world of the hitman that we see at the movies, and therefore initially what we had to do was simply do a Nexus search.

Nexus is an online electronic resource of all English language newspapers, and initially we just put in a number of fields – Britain, contract killer, hit, hitman – and that came up with a number – just under 200 – articles which we could then bore down into to look for basic sociological, criminological data that we could then think about.

Laurie Taylor:
And you end up with a pool, I think, of 27 cases of contract killing, which had been carried out, I think, by 36 hitmen in all. I suppose one of my questions – a rather obvious one: how much do people get paid for this, since it’s a professional job, you go along, you say 'I want to have somebody dealt with, how much does it cost'?

David Wilson:
Well the range of the 36 hitmen in our sample of what they got paid went from £200 with which the young hitman Santre Sanchez Gayle bought a fake Gucci hat, so you could contract someone to kill for you from £200 all the way up to £100,000 but that £100,000 is alleged to have been paid to Kevin Lane, who is a famous miscarriage of justice case, and therefore that figure might not necessarily be accurate. And therefore when we look at the average costs in our sample we’re down to £15,000 which might be an overestimate and frankly I think you can contract a hit in this country for about as little as £3,000.

Laurie Taylor:
A few of the other variables – what about the age? [W]ith violent crime you often find there’s a symmetry between the age of the person being attacked and the attacker, is that the same here?

David Wilson:
No, not particularly. There was some – when we look at average ages – that might be the pattern but our age range went from 15 – the youngest contract killer – to 63 – the oldest contract killer who was only convicted a matter of a few months ago; a man called David Harrison who committed a hit in Staffordshire and is suspected of having committed many more hits.

Laurie Taylor:
And at least in one respect it fits the television stereotype: it’s a gun which is the favoured weapon in nearly all cases.

David Wilson:
And that’s quite interesting, isn’t it, because our gun laws are so tight in this country that to be able to gain access to firearms was one of the hurdles that the contract killer had to overcome before being able to commit the hit.

And of course one of the other variables, which we haven’t mentioned, is that 35 of the 36 hitmen were men and there was only one woman, there was only one female hit woman in the sample.

And what became clear to me was that those hitmen who were not going to be successful – these are people who ultimately are caught but if they couldn’t get access to a firearm they tried to commit the hit by using knives, by strangulation, by beating people to death.

Laurie Taylor:
The other way you run against the stereotypes, a lot of these it was hardly a shadowy business because most of the hits are carried out in the open, pavements, people shopping, walking by, that’s where most of the hits were carried out?

David Wilson:
Look, the media likes to pretend that hits take place in some kind of smoky casino or bar in the underworld. British hits were taking place in the suburban streets as people went shopping, as people were returning from the gym, as they were out walking their dog – it was a very different picture that was developed than the picture that we’re told of when we look at Agent 42 or the latest Jason Statham movie, it’s a very different type of characteristic.

Laurie Taylor:
Now when you looked at all these you do divide them up into various categories – you divide them up into novice, dilettante, journeyman and masters – there aren’t many of these masters. Most of them seem to be novices or dilettantes, they’re people doing it for the first time or trying it out and often making a mess of it.

David Wilson:
And those two people – those two different groups doing it for the first time – the novices and the dilettantes – were two very different kinds because clearly the dilettante was much older usually than the novice and had kind of almost fallen into committing these kinds of hits because they had some kind of financial crisis in their lives.

And often therefore they didn’t come from any kind of offending background but just happened to be talking to somebody who said down the pub well look I’ll give you three grand if you take out my business partner or if you take out my wife…

Laurie Taylor:
So it’s certainly not a career job in any way at all.

David Wilson:
Well these guys weren’t very good at it. The dilettante, frankly, couldn’t get access to firearms, if they did get access to firearms the firearms didn’t work and on one incredible occasion the two man hitman team in Manchester in 2006 – Austin and Alveranga – walked into the pub, their guns jammed, the people that they were supposed to commit the hit against took the guns from them and then shot and killed them. So the dilettante was not the kind of person that you wanted to give your money to.

Laurie Taylor:
Well as you’ve established this isn’t a particularly common phenomenon, [or] common crime, in this country. Just a last question really just going back to this , why do you think the character of the hitman has then become quite so pervasive in different media? ?day>

David Wilson:
Well it’s the media stereotype of the hitman that’s become popular because if you look at these images, if you think about the Agent 42, if you think about Jason Statham, these are very fetishized, sexualised, proficient and effective men who will do a job for you. And even if you look at the kinds of clothes they wear – the fact they wear gloves – the kinds of rifles that they use it’s a very, very particular image and it’s that image that I think people are responding to, as opposed to the reality of who is actually committing the hits.

Laurie Taylor:
Good bit of reality. Thank you very much David Wilson

I suppose every – every teacher must suffer a little bit from the anxiety that there might be somebody in the room who knows rather more about the subject they’re talking about than they do.

I remember I was pontificating – you remind me actually David – I was pontificating on the causes of murder once in a class I was giving in the maximum security of Durham prison and a hand went up and this guy said, ‘I don’t think you’ve got it quite right there, professor’, he said, ‘I mean, there are three murderers in this class and what you say doesn’t fit any of them.’

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 2nd April, 2014. You can listen to the whole episode online.





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