When the gunman first walked into the Carlton Casino brandishing a gun on each hip, people’s first reaction was that he was ‘some sort of clown’ in fancy dress with toy pistols. It was the night of the annual Holly Ball at the nearby five star Imperial Hotel and people were in a jolly mood.
What nobody in the casino knew was that Fenton had already shot and killed a brave policeman PC Dennis Smith who was out on a routine patrol in his panda car when he saw Fenton’s bronze Ford Granada driving erratically, and gave chase through the Warberries before cornering him in a cul-de-sac at the top of Ellacombe.
Even now, 45 years later, what happened next on the night of December 21, 1973 casts a long shadow, with some of the witnesses and key players still alive.
PC Smith first saw the Ford zig-zagging dangerously and the high-speed chase began. Several parked cars were rammed by the Granada before the officer cornered Fenton off Rosehill Road.
PC Smith radioed that he was getting out of his Panda car.
A struggle followed as he confronted Fenton, who then fired two bullets into the policeman at point-blank range before fleeing the scene in the Panda car.
The bloody night had claimed its first victim – the 44-year-old officer was left dying in the rain. His last words, over his personal radio, were: “Oh God… Oh God.”
Now Fenton returned to his home in Falkland Road where he lived with his wife and children, and then set off in a Ford Escort work van for the casino where his target was owner John Tsigarides – the two were in a bitter feud over unpaid bills and gambling debt.
The Herald Express from the time gave a graphic description of what happened next.
“He then came face to face with Mr Tsigarides and pulled both guns from his waistband. Before he could shoot, the casino owner dived right over one roulette table and hid beneath another.
“Then the firing started. A severely shocked Mr Tsigarides said later: ‘I think he was after me. He had two guns. I did not try talking to him. I went straight over the table and the shooting began’.”
Not everyone else was so lucky in the melée that followed. The gunman fired wildly into a crowd of 18 to 20 people. One Torquay man, who had been enjoying a quiet evening with his wife, recalled how close he had come to death.
The shooting halted and, as he lay cowering, the killer came up to him, leaned down and pressed the muzzle of a gun into his back. The trigger was pulled, but nothing happened. All the bullets were gone.
The survivor had the death of another innocent victim – 29-year-old croupière Ann Andre – to thank for his life.
Her calm and courage left an indelible impression on all around her.
For Miss Andre, who had worked at the club for 12 months, had walked up to the gunman as he fired into the crowd and tried to stop the slaughter by soothing him. “Come on, don’t be silly, calm down, calm down,” she said quietly.
Fenton turned the last of his bullets on Ann, shooting her in the stomach then, as she lay groaning on the floor, in the neck.
“She undoubtedly saved my life,” the eyewitness recalled. “She tried to calm him and she took the last bullets.”
Customer Michael Bentley from Paignton seems to have been one of the first of the Casino’s clients to see Fenton. He said that he thought a man entering the club with two guns was, “some sort of clown” . He later recalled: “It didn’t sound like a gun. It sounded like some kind of air pistol.”
That night, which had started so brightly, had turned into one of carnage. As the gunman fled, the terrified customers had run for the nearest door, which led into the ladies’ toilet. They locked themselves in and smashed the light to stop reflections, then cowered as they awaited the police.
It was only when they emerged that they witnessed the full extent of the bloodshed. Five people had been shot and two were already dead – gaming manager Leandros “Leon” Papadakis, who had a wife and two young children, and Austin Webb, who died sprawled in the chair from which he had been playing roulette.
Brave Ann Andre from Paignton died later in hospital.
“No one who was in the fairly crowded gaming room could say precisely what happened,” reported the Western Morning News of June 1974 during the 11-day court case.
“People fled, people hid and people were shot.
“One minute gaming was going on perfectly normally, the next Fenton had gone in holding two guns and the next three people were dead and others wounded. The whole terrible scene lasted just two or three minutes.”
Meanwhile, beyond the club, the police had launched a massive hunt for the killer, who had fled the casino in a van parked outside.
For nearly two hours the police, who had sealed off the resort and set up roadblocks all over Devon, searched for Fenton.
And then, two constables in a patrol car – Tony Woodland and David Morey – spotted the van on the Exeter Bypass. The second chase of the night ensued as the killer repeatedly crashed into their car a they tried to stop him.
The pursuit continued on to the Sidmouth road, where another police car, driven by PC Christopher Tree, was called in by radio.
He headed off the van at Newton Poppleford, nearly 40 miles from Torquay, and forced it into the driveway of a house where both police cars rammed it.
Bravely – for they knew that one officer had already been shot dead – the three officers went up to the van and pulled open the door.
Inside they found Fenton with a long-bladed knife buried in his chest, after trying to kill himself. He was taken to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital where he initially refused a blood transfusion. He survived to face the court.
In the summer of the next year Fenton was sentenced to life imprisonment for the four murders. During his trial, allegations were made of gamblers being cheated at the casino. John Tsigarides (below) later appealed for a renewal of his gaming licence was refused.
A young male eyewitness told the Herald Express that he had pretended to be dead as shots were being fired at the scene: ” I was just changing chips at the roulette table when this man walked in quite calmly with a gun in each hnd.
“My first thought was that this was Christmas and he was having a joke with a couple of kid’s pistols.
“But then he shot a man two yards from me and the man slumped over a table crying ‘Please help me I am hit’.
“My first thought was for self-preservation and together with everyone else in the club I dived to the floor.
“I was under a roulette table with two other people.
“Ann (the croupier) was lying on the floor crying ‘Please don’t shoot me’ but he shot her three times.
“Then he shot Leon twice in the chest. He fired about 10 bullets. At the time there was a deadly hush in the room. It lasted for about a minute – the longest minute of my life.”
And he told how the killer then walked over to yet another man, pointed the pistol right in his face, and pulled the trigger – but the gun was empty.
He did this once more and then walked calmly out of the club.
Ann was posthumously awarded with the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery for trying to stop the shootings.
The luckiest man that night was another croupier, Mr Anthony Caola. He too pleaded with Fenton to stop but when Fenton fired at him the gun jammed, giving him a chance to escape.
Fenton died in prison in 1996 having served 22 years of his life sentence.
(Image: Herald Express)
In 1973, the then chief constable, John Alderson said policemen all knew that perhaps one day, when alone and in a quiet darkened street, the supreme test would come.