Gunsmith raid 'targeted another man'

A RESPECTED gunsmith and firearms expert was targeted by police in a bid to bring down an "untouchable" weapons dealer, a court heard.Richard Ashley, 57, of Fen Road, Pakenham, took to the witness stand at Ipswich Crown Court for the first time in his trial yesterday, as his defence team began their case.

A RESPECTED gunsmith and firearms expert was targeted by police in a bid to bring down an "untouchable" weapons dealer, a court heard.

Richard Ashley, 57, of Fen Road, Pakenham, took to the witness stand at Ipswich Crown Court for the first time in his trial yesterday, as his defence team began their case.

Ashley, who was employed as an armourer by Suffolk and Norfolk police, denies five charges of possessing prohibited weapons without the authority of the Home Secretary.

While the prosecution accepts Ashley is a licensed arms dealer and expert, they claim he had more firearms than permitted, as well as weapons he was not allowed to keep.

His house was raided in February 2001, after months of investigation into arms dealing by customs and police officers.

But, opening the defence case, barrister Martyn Levett suggested to the court that the real police target was Tony Slatter, a firearms dealer from Cambridgeshire, who had dealt with Ashley.

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Mr Levett told the court that Mr Slatter had never been successfully prosecuted despite police concerns that he was exporting weapons illegally.

He suggested that Mr Slatter, whom he compared to legendary gangster Al Capone, was "untouchable" – but that one of the ways of curtailing him was to stop Ashley trading.

"Al Capone was a bad man," Mr Levett said. "The police thought Mr Slatter was a bad man who got away with a lot of things – he became an untouchable person who could not be brought to book.

"In order to get Al Capone, the CIA and FBI teamed together to stifle his business. They got him by going through his books.

"In this case, the defence submits, it was actually Slatter they wanted out of the way. He used other persons weaker than himself who did have the correct authority to trade in guns.

"One way of stopping this method of dealing was to stop Mr Ashley from trading in any way. The effect of that raid was to prevent my client from trading."

Mr Levett told the court that some of the alleged illegal weapons which Ashley is accused of possessing had actually been put together from parts by the police.

"I can't tell you whether it was through a motive or incompetence, but there is no doubt that there were weapons which were not fully assembled in his armoury," he said.

"No-one realised the significance of that at the time. It was only when it transpired that there was no evidence of any crimes being committed that these particular charges were brought."

Mr Levett also spoke of a divide between the "old school and the new" in the police force, and suggested officers may have wanted to "sweep out" old habits and practices.

"Mr Ashley is from a different age," he said. "He is unique. He is in the traditions of an English gentleman.

"It could be said they threw the mould away when he was born and I doubt very much if there are people like him around today.

"When you see the skills he has, I will put my hand on my heart and be surprised if you don't think what extraordinary talent this man has got for being a gunsmith.

"He is prepared to offer his skills and knowledge to fight terrorism and crime – if there weren't people like him then you and I would be at risk.

"You must decide for yourselves whether he is a devious liar or just a decent honest human being who has gone through his life in a rather niche area of interest which you or I might never hear of."

On the witness stand, Ashley told the court how he had been interested in firearms from the age of eight, and regularly gave lectures to the armed forces about terrorism and weapons.

He again stressed that several of the guns removed by the police – including a Browning pistol – were not fully assembled when they were seized.

He described his work as "a rolling conservation" he was very proud of and which had taken 50 years of hard work to collect.

Looking at police photographs of his collection after weapons had been taken, he said: "It's a disgrace.

"I'm not a rich man and my wife has gone without all sorts to get this stuff together. To see these things thrown on top of each other – it's like someone jumping up and down on what I love."

n During yesterday's hearing, Judge David Goodin directed the jury to return a not guilty verdict on Ashley on a charge of possessing a grenade launcher.

But Ashley was then arraigned on a further charge of possessing a Piad gun – a grenade or rocket launcher – to which he pleaded not guilty.

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