Linda Calvey is waiting in the pub parking lot, a few paces away, poised to greet me with a hug and kisses. It’s a mid-July day, the hottest of the year in London, and she’s a vision of pink and floral. The pub’s outdoor garden is crowded, so Linda leads me inside. She kisses the owner’s cheeks and they exchange a few quiet words before he offers us a room to ourselves. Drinks are on the house. It’s unclear whether Linda has earned this hospitality because she’s a nice person, because she’s exceptionally charming, or because she recently held her book launch here. That book is a memoir explaining why she spent 18 years in prison for murder.
Linda Calvey — born Linda Welford in 1948 — was brought up in the East London neighborhood of Stepney Green, a close-knit, working-class community populated by London’s jellied-eel-eating, rhyming-slang-talking Cockneys. Her teenage life was relatively unremarkable. She worked as a receptionist at a paint factory, and often babysat for her cousin. That normalcy all changed when her cousin invited her to a party for the notorious bank robber Mickey Calvey, who was on home leave (he was granted permission to visit his family and friends for short periods of time toward the end of his eight-year stint in prison).
Linda promptly fell madly in love with Mickey.
She was under no illusions about his lifestyle. He told her about how he grew up in a turbulent and desperately poor household where he wasn’t shown much love. His father worked on the London docks, but Mickey wanted more from life. Seeing no other route to getting what he wanted, he turned to robbery.
For a while, Mickey lavished Linda with everything stolen money could buy. Their budding romance did nothing to deter him from his life of crime, and he was back behind bars again by the time she had their first child. That didn’t stop Linda from marrying him while he was in prison.
Less than two years after he was released again, Linda and Mickey conceived their second child, and Mickey dove straight back into robbing banks. In 1978, when their children were 4 and 8, Mickey went out on a big job, one that he said could set their family up for life.
Instead, during an armed raid on December 9, 1978, he was shot and killed by the police’s Flying Squad, a branch of London’s Metropolitan Police Service trained to investigate armed robberies. According to the coroner’s report, Mickey was shot in the abdomen by Detective Sergeant Michael Banks, outside of a supermarket while trying to escape and carrying a loaded sawed-off shotgun. The coroner’s report listed Mickey’s occupation as “painter and decorator.”
Linda is adamant that the killing was unjust. She insisted that he’d been shot in the back, not the front. She says Mickey wouldn’t have threatened the police with his gun and refuted the police claim that it was loaded. Linda vowed publicly that the police “won’t get away with this.” She said she had hired one of the world’s leading pathologists, and claimed that they had found damning evidence. She told the press that the postmortem proved that Mickey had been shot through the back, contradicting the official report that he had died from a gunshot wound to the stomach. But this information was never released to the public. Linda continued to wear black for quite some time, leading the police to nickname her “The Black Widow.”
Banks said in court that he’d shot Mickey Calvey “to protect myself and the public and to save my life. I believe if I hadn’t done it I would have been dead.” The jury returned a verdict — before even leaving the courtroom, according to reports at the time — of justifiable homicide, meaning Banks was exonerated.
“Mickey died trying to give us everything,” Linda says. “When he was in his open coffin, I held his toes and said, ‘I’ll avenge you by carrying on what you did.’”
After Mickey’s death, a bereaved Linda was visited by Ron Cook, a gangland member and associate of Mickey’s. Cook gave her money to support herself. Grieving and overwhelmed, Linda soon began a relationship with Cook, who had a wife and children of his own. Linda says that it wasn’t long before Cook became controlling, telling her what to wear, following her when she went out with friends — and even threatening her son’s life.
“He bought me a ring and said I belonged to him,” she says. “I said I didn’t, then he said, ‘Your son’s such a pretty boy,’ and I knew then he was saying he’d do things to my son, and I was stuck.”
Linda had nowhere to turn. “Even Cook’s friends were frightened of him,” she says. “They’ve since told me they all knew what was happening in our relationship, but they were powerless to help because he’d have turned on them.”
Linda escaped from Ron Cook when he was sentenced to 16 years for taking part in an armed robbery, but she didn’t shake her criminal lifestyle. Between visits to see Cook in prison, Linda quickly progressed from her former role as a gangster’s wife to taking the lead.
She went from hosting robbers in her home as they planned their next heists to serving as a getaway driver, then as an armed robber herself, targeting security vans and post offices.
“In the beginning it was revenge, but then [it] became a way of life; it was normal,” she says. “My brain was so affected by Mickey’s death.”
When her gang was caught trying to hold up a post office in Stepney Green, Linda herself was sentenced to seven years in prison.
“I said I’d never commit another crime again,” Linda recalls. “Then 18 months after I was home, the murder happened.”
This is where one version of the story becomes two. But in both accounts, Ron Cook is shot dead in Linda Calvey’s kitchen.
By her account, Linda is a victim twice over. First from years in an emotionally abusive relationship that endangered her young son, and then from police corruption.
While he was behind bars, Cook tasked his friend Brian Thorogood with looking after Linda. The two soon formed a relationship, and when Thorogood himself was sent to prison, he in turn introduced Linda to his friend Danny Reece, who was also in prison for armed robbery. He asked Linda if she could spend time with Reece, who could use the company — his son had been killed in a traffic accident while Reece was behind bars, and he didn’t get many visitors.
Reece and Linda became friends, and their friendship soon developed into a relationship. In December 1990, while he was on day release (a common practice in England; inmates are allowed to go home for the day before returning to prison that evening), Linda picked up Reece from prison and took him back to her house before going on to his place. She told Reece that Cook was coming over on day release the following day.
The next day, she picked up Cook from prison. According to Linda, just after they’d arrived home, Reece snuck in and shot Cook dead while she cowered in the corner.
“He looked at me, and I recognized him. He smiled at me and said, ‘This one’s for Mickey Calvey,’ and shot Cook.”
Linda says she called the police and told them what had happened, but she didn’t name Reece as the murderer at the time. “He later told me I should’ve said it was him,” Linda says, “but I couldn’t.” Linda says Reece did it to avenge Mickey — because Cook had taken part in Mickey’s ill-fated last robbery and had alluded to purposely putting Mickey in harm’s way — and also to protect Linda’s son. “He said that Cook had threatened to kill my son, and [Reece] came to shoot him to save [my son].”
Linda says that the police conducted gunshot residue tests on her hands and face and eliminated her as a suspect, then, a few days later, interviewed her again and arrested her. (The Metropolitan Police declined to comment on any of these details because it is their policy not to comment on closed cases.)
“The police asked me why I didn’t tell them I was the Linda Calvey,” she says. “I asked what difference that makes, and they said it made all the difference in the world, and that I was now a suspect.”
The other version of the story is that Linda Calvey is a dangerous and manipulative woman who paid Reece £10,000 to kill Cook. Reece shot Cook in the elbow, and when he couldn’t go through with it, Linda took the gun and shot him in the head.
Notorious gangster Frankie Fraser wrote in his memoir that Linda killed Cook so that he wouldn’t find out what she’d been up to while he was behind bars. She had “been minding his money and when he come out it wasn’t all going to be there,” wrote Fraser. “She got her new bloke to do him, but he couldn’t bring himself to shoot old Ron so she did it herself.” During Linda’s trial, prosecuting counsel John Bevan said that Linda’s motive was to “simplify the rather dangerous and complex” state of her personal affairs — referring to her romance with Reece.
“Reece hung around on a grass area outside Calvey’s house, wearing black clothes and pretending to be a jogger,” says “Detective Davids,” a former police officer who worked on the case for the Flying Squad at the time of Calvey’s arrest, who agreed to speak in detail about the case on the condition that his real name not be used, in order to protect his privacy. “Calvey had left the door ajar, and he entered the house a few minutes after she went in with Cook.”
“Reece went back to prison and confessed to a private investigator, the only person he trusted at the time,” Detective Davids says. “Reece was a simple man; he wasn’t conniving. He said Calvey took the gun from him and finished the job off.” Reece allegedly told the investigator that Linda ordered Cook to kneel before firing the fatal shot through his head. (Reece later retracted this confession.)
According to Davids, another witness (whose identity is confidential) testified that they heard Linda Calvey shout, “Kneel!” Calvey says that she was calling out for her son, Neil, when she heard Reece kick open the front door to her house.
Reece and Calvey were both convicted of Cook’s murder. The two later got married while they were in prison. Linda says that her mother pleaded with her at the last minute not to, but she decided to go through with it because it was the most exciting thing to happen in her prison unit for a long time.
In 2013, Danny Reece was accused of gagging and sexually assaulting a fellow inmate, which he denied and was acquitted for. The jury in the case also learned that Reece was previously jailed for assaulting a 15-year-old boy and sexually assaulting a woman in her home.
Linda was sentenced to a minimum of seven years before she would be eligible for parole. She served 18 years, and believes she was denied parole for many years because she refused to admit to the crime. After she was finally released from prison in 2008, she divorced Reece and got married for a third time, to George Caesar, a millionaire who’d made his fortune selling bleach and by all indications lived a respectable, crime-free life. The pair met in a restaurant while Linda was on day release from prison, and they were married in a small village church in 2009.
Today, Linda Calvey is 71 and has been out of prison for 11 years. She’s the mother of two adult children in their 40s, a grandmother of seven, and a great-grandmother of five. She lives in a 400-year-old cottage bought for her by her late third husband, who died of cancer in 2015.
Linda spends her days going to lunches with her family and attending meet-and-greet signings of her book in shops across London. She sends signed copies to local celebrities (including former gangsters), goes to boxing matches, and spends time with Freddie Foreman and another former gangster, Billy Blundell. The book launch for her memoir, The Black Widow, was at the Blind Beggar pub — notorious for being the place where Ron Kray shot rival gangster George Cornell in 1966.
“Of course I had to do the launch there,” she says, smiling.
Critics have accused Calvey of glamorizing her criminal lifestyle. She donated one of her bras, along with items she’d collected from several other notorious prisoners, to a controversial museum that was featured on the Netflix show Dark Tourist. She signed each item “The Black Widow.” She’s even sold copies of her book along with a special offer for a free key ring adorned with a knuckle duster — or brass knuckles.
Despite all of this celebration of the underworld that she used to inhabit, Linda is determined to clear her name.
“My family has had to live with the stigma that I’m a murderer. I’m not; I did all the other things, but didn’t do what I got put in prison all those years for,” Linda insists. “My son and daughter said to me, ‘Mum please, everyone writes a load of rubbish about you. Will you tell your story once and for all?’”
Linda says she hopes the publicity around the book will inspire someone involved with her case at the time to publicly support her version of events — someone who was working at the police station at the time, perhaps, even a cleaner who may have overheard something.
“I don’t think Linda will ever give up hope someone will come forward,” says Mel Sambells, communications executive for Mirror Books, the publisher of Calvey’s memoir.
So far, no one has.
Detective Davids is convinced that Calvey wrote her book for the money, but the conditions of Calvey’s parole specify that she could go back to prison if she’s ever seen to profit from her offense. Sambells says that any profits from the book go to Linda’s children, and Linda isn’t paid for media interviews.
Now that publicity around the book has quieted, Calvey plans to take a lie detector test, although they’re not seen as reliable evidence in the English criminal justice system. “I’m doing it so I can show everyone what I say is the truth,” she says.
As for her book itself, it’s revealing, but only in the ways Calvey wants to be revealing. She doesn’t get into the grit of it; she writes the good and the bad, but not the ugly. She admits she wanted a life of luxury, that she knew she had the power to get what she wanted from men. But there are many notable parts of her story that remain unexplained, such as why she married Reece in prison.
Calvey says she was a different person before prison, and now she’s back to being herself: “The person I was then was so alien to me now, people who know me say it wasn’t like me. I’m the kindest, gentlest person they know. They, and I, don’t recognize the person I was.”
Her lawyer, Julian Hardy, says she seemed to be widely liked in prison, even by the prison guards. “She’s clearly bright, and tried to make the best of [the] situation she found herself in. She’s always been respectful, and consistent,” Hardy says.
Sambells agrees. “I really like her. I was pensive about meeting her, but she’s really warm.”
But Detective Davids says she’s dangerous and manipulative, that the kindness is an act.
In her book, Calvey describes moving into the first house she’d ever bought and finding out that the previous owner had killed himself in the bathroom. She writes about how horrified she was, how she couldn’t use the bath without picturing the scene of his death, and how she had to move out immediately.
During the publicity for the book, Calvey explained in a radio interview her adamancy about being falsely accused of Cook’s murder. “I was in my own home; I’d had [the] carpets just done,” she said, before asking, “Why would you want to murder someone in your own home?”
When I heard her comment about the carpets in her radio interview, I realized then that including the bathroom-suicide story in her book was a veiled hint to the reader that she would never murder someone in her own home. It’s a minor detail, but a reminder that she is a master of manipulation.
As we leave the pub, Linda says that she’s booked to talk to an Irish radio station the following week and jokes about whether she’ll be able to understand the host. These interviews seem to have become a full-time job for Linda. The Black Widow is determined to spend the rest of her life proving her innocence or, depending on how you look at it, promoting herself.