Gangland ‘blood brothers’ busted out of prison van for Amsterdam

A pair of gangland 'blood brothers' whose criminal bond ended in a prison shank attack were busted out of a prison van before fleeing to Amsterdam.

Kirk Bradley and Tony Downes were 'thick as thieves' and presided over an underworld network that was involved in a wave of shooting and grenade attacks across Merseyside.

They even escaped from prison together when a masked gang busted them out of a G4S van on their way to a high profile trial at Liverpool Crown Court.

The pair fled to Amsterdam where they lived the high life before authorities finally caught up with them and brought them back to the UK to face justice.

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But their friendship came to a violent end when Downes slashed Bradley with a homemade shank in prison after their exploits turned them into bitter enemies.

Tony 'Fat Cat' Downes had one orchestrated violent gang activity from his cell at Walton jail, while Kirk 'The Turk' Bradley, was paid off by drug lords from Stockbridge Village to target individuals who had antagonised them.

It's been a decade since Downes and Bradley terrorised the streets of Merseyside – and July marks the ninth anniversary of their terrifying prison break which had been arranged from behind bars using a contraband phone.

This is the story of how the pair built a feared criminal empire and how it all came crashing down around them.

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A hand grenade gang offering guns for hire

Bradley and Downes ran a criminal network between 2009 and 2010, with the pair orchestrating a wave of shootings and grenade attacks across Merseyside.

Handgrenades were thrown at family homes, and rivals were kidnapped and shot.

The gang was responsible for 20 separate incidents across Merseyside, which included seven grenade incidents. On one occasion a grenade was accidentally left outside the Birkdale home of Kenny Dalglish.

The 'blood brothers' presided over a guns-for-hire gang which executed contract violence for cash. Rivals were kneecapped, kidnapped and family homes blown up with hand grenades.

Police on the scene in Birkdale in 2009, when a grenade was left on the wall of Kenny Dalglish's home

In one shocking incident, the gang threw grenades into a room where a gran was babysitting a seven-year-old boy. Other victims suffered life changing injuries after being shot.

Downes, described as the gang’s chief executive, was accused of directing much of the violence from his cell at Liverpool’s Walton jail.

Their associates, Gary Wilson, Craig Riley and Joseph Farrell, were given 'jobs' to carry out and would farm some tasks out to younger crooks who wanted to make a name for themselves.

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Prison break

Downes and Bradley escaped from a G4S security van bound for Liverpool Crown Court, which led to the collapse of a high profile trial.

Just after 8.30am on the morning of July 18, 2011, a gang of masked men, armed with a sledgehammer and a gun, ambushed the G4S van containing Downes and Bradley in Trinity Way, Manchester.

The raid took place during rush-hour traffic in front of passing motorists and one of the guards was beaten in the street while a gang member shouted at the driver: “Get the f***ing keys out or I will blow your f***ing head off.”

The gang fled in a Saab, which was found abandoned about a mile away in Barrow Street, Salford.

The ECHO understands elite Manchester criminals carried out prison van escape, which was a high risk operation.

The prison van which Anthony Downes and Kirk Bradley escaped from

Downes organised the escape plot from his cell at HMP Strangeways with a mobile phone which had been secreted in his body.

Prison bosses knew Downes had the phone, despite the fact was suspected of using a phone to organise a city gang war from his Walton jail cell.

Speaking to the ECHO at the time, the prison service said escapes of this type are 'rare' and that they would be launching an investigation to ‘identify any weaknesses in procedure and to learn lessons.’

The pair fled to Holland but were later tracked down and brought back to the UK to face justice.

Downes was arrested in a car near the Belgium border and Bradley was apprehended a couple of months in an executive apartment.

Bradley, who was 26 at the time of his capture, was sitting in his shorts and flip-flops watching TV and smoking a joint in the 2,500 euro-a-month penthouse apartment in Bijlmer when an armed SWAT team burst through the front door in April 2012.

At around 11.30pm, the team closed in on Bradley, who is originally from Huyton but had been living on Birkey Lane, Formby before being arrested.

Bradley spent nine months on the run being tracked by the Serious Organised Crime Agency and police in Merseyside and the Netherlands.

Soca’s top man in Europe told the ECHO at the time of Bradley's capture: “He had no idea we were on to him.”

Dutch SWAT team arrest blindfolded guns and grenade gangster Kirk Bradley in Amsterdam

Although Downes and Bradley were brought back to Britain to serve out life sentences, the gang who freed them from the van have so far evaded justice.

In 2017, police said that they were no longer actively searching for the criminals who executed the escape. However, if fresh information comes available, the case could be looked at again.

In March 2012, Downes and Bradley were jailed for life with a minimum of 22 years after being convicted in their absence of conspiracy to possess firearms with intent to endanger life and conspiracy to cause damage with intent to endanger life.

Their associates Wilson, Riley and Farrell all entered guilty pleas, admitting possessing firearms and causing criminal damage with intent to endanger life and were jailed for life.

Gary Wilson, 27, of Promenade in Southport was sentenced to a minimum of 16 years; Joseph Farrell, 23, of Brandearth Hey in Stockbridge Village, Knowsley, will serve a minimum of 12 years and Craig Riley, 25, of Boode Croft, also in Stockbridge Village, will serve a minimum of 14 years.

The end of the blood brothers

Downes and Bradley are said to have rowed furiously in the street when the armed Manchester gang sprung them from their prison van.

But after months spent on the run, it is understood that he two former friends fell out in prison – with Downes even slashing Bradley in a prison attack.

In a 2012 ECHO article, it was reported that Downes attacked Bradley with a homemade knife in the high security unit at London’s Belmarsh prison.

Highly-trained prison officers managed to intervene and prevent Bradley suffering a serious injury – although Bradley did sustain a knife wound.

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The Ministry of Justice confirmed a knife attack took place – and it was understood that Downes, who was 26 at the time of the incident, was disciplined by the authorities.

Prisoners who breach Belmarsh rules at the time were believed to be sent to the segregation unit where they must spend 23 hours a day in their cell.

Bradley, who was 27 at the time of the attack, was slashed with a “shank” – a knife made from razor blades and plastic.

The ECHO reported that Downes and Bradley’s friendship has disintegrated and the men once described as “thick as thieves pals” are now enemies.