Glasgow crime tales: lawyer Joe Beltrami

Glasgow crime stories: lawyer Joe Beltrami

IT was a cry that was heard day and night in police cells across Glasgow for more than 50 years – “Get me Beltrami”.

Between 1956 and 2008, the legal legend defended some of the city’s most notorious criminals and  hardmen.

However, his clients also included more respectable members of society, including ministers and teachers, who had found themselves on the wrong side of the law and were facing ruin and disgrace.

In a glittering career, Beltrami represented more than 500 clients charged with murder.

He also successfully defended a dozen men facing the death penalty, before its abolition in 1965.

That extraordinary feat led to one famous newspaper headline of the day saying: “Beltrami 12-0 Hangman”.

The best known of the 12 was Walter Scott Ellis, accused of shooting taxi driver John Walkinshaw in Castlemilk, in 1961.  Prosecutors called 125 witnesses and Beltrami interviewed each one at least twice.

His mammoth effort paid off and Ellis, 26, escaped the hangman’s rope after the jury at the High Court in Glasgow cleared him of murder.

Joe Beltrami’s most notorious client was the city’s crime godfather Arthur Thompson, who he represented for more than 40 years until the gangster’s death in 1993.

His biggest success was clearing Thompson of the murders of two gangland rivals on 1966 in the north of the city.

His client in turn was never slow to show his gratitude.

He once treated Joe and wife Delia to VIP treatment at the Muhammad Ali versus Joe Bugner fight in Las Vegas in 1973.

But Rutherglen-born Beltrami made a point of never getting close to any of his clients, no matter how rich or powerful they were.

Beltrami once said of Thompson: “I wouldn’t say we were friends. I always insisted on keeping a professional distance.”

His favourite case was defending a Lanarkshire teacher convicted of smacking his eight-year-old daughter in 2000 when she refused to go into a dentist’s surgery.

He was able to return to teaching after Joe led an appeal against a General Teaching Council decision to strike him off.

Two of his cases led to the only Royal Pardons in Scotland in the  20th century.

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The most famous involved safecracker Paddy Meehan (right), jailed for life in 1969 for the murder of Rachel Ross, 72, during a robbery at her Ayr home. Her husband Abraham was left in  hospital.

William “Tank” McGuiness, another of Beltrami’s clients, admitted he was the real killer.

Bound by client confidentiality, Beltrami could do nothing until McGuiness died.

After seven years in jail, Meehan was freed with a pardon and £60,000 compensation – worth £250,000 now.

Another notable client was Gorbals hardman Jimmy Boyle, jailed for life for murder in 1967, who went on to become a successful sculptor and author.

Beltrami’s Italian-speaking Swiss immigrant father ran a fish and chip shop in Glasgow Cross and his parents saved up enough money to send him to the private catholic school St Aloysius’ college in Garnethill.

He qualified as a solicitor in 1956, but at the time many firms would not employ a Catholic.

Instead, he set up his own his own, Beltrami & Company, in 1958, on Buchanan Street.

One of his favourite clients was Partick businessman Colin “Coalie” Beattie, said to be the hardest man in Glasgow.

Beattie, who died in 2015 at the age of 85, was involved in construction, demolition and fruit shops.

He was once charged with killing a man with a single punch in a packed dance hall in the West End of Glasgow – but he was cleared due to a lack of witnesses.

When the police arrested him, they regularly took at least eight men – all armed with wooden truncheons which were often broken while trying to subdue him.

Beltrami once said of his client: “Colin Beattie, to my knowledge, has never been involved in dishonesty or violence with weapons of any type.

“With his height and build, the use of a weapon would not be necessary.”

Glasgow Times:

Glasgow Times:

Another Beltrami favourite was safecracker Johnny Ramensky, who was released from jail during the Second World War to open safes filled with German secrets.

Known as “Gentle Johnny” because he never used violence, he frequently escaped from prison, and Beltrami represented him until his death in 1972.

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His toughest case was that of former policeman Howard Wilson, who shot dead two former colleagues – Detective Constable Angus MacKenzie, below, and Constable Edward Barnett – in December 1969.

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They had caught Wilson in his flat in Allison Street, Govanhill, with the proceeds of an armed bank robbery carried out earlier that day in Williamwood.

Wilson admitted both murders and was sentenced to life two months later. He was released in 2002 after 33 years.

Beltrami, a keen Celtic fan, was never far from the major stories of the day, news or sport.

In 1967, he could be found celebrating in the Lisbon hotel room of manager Jock Stein, shortly after the club had just won the  European Cup.

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He also chaired the testimonial committees for Celtic legends Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Lennox and Danny McGrain.

Despite his allegiances Beltrami also defended Scotland’s most senior Orangeman, the Reverend Alan Hasson.

Hasson, a Church of Scotland minister in Bonhill, Dunbartonshire, was also Grand Master of the Grand Orange Order of Scotland.

In 1971, he was found guilty of defrauding the organisation out of £10,300 (worth £130,000 now) and jailed for three years.

But Beltrami had the conviction overturned on appeal after he spotted a misdirection by the judge to the jury.

His most famous case involved wrestler Andy Robins and his pet grizzly Hercules.

The bear, who appeared in the James Bond film Octopussy, was raised by Robins, but went missing in 1980 while shooting a Kleenex ad on the Hebridean island of Benbecula.

The bear was found after 24 days but Robin was prosecuted for failing to control a wild animal.

Beltrami jokingly insisted on an identity parade for Hercules with other bears.

The move was not necessary as he proved that Hercules was a working bear, not a wild animal, and the case was dropped.

In 2009, Beltrami, living in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, was given the rare accolade of honorary life membership of the Law Society of Scotland.

The society’s then president Ian Smart said: “Joe knows what it means to shape the law and change its future.”

Though Beltrami retired in the mid-1990s, he continued to work as a full-time consultant until 2008.

His three sons have also gone on to have successful legal careers, His eldest son Edwin is Wales’s chief prosecutor. Edwin’s younger brother Adrian is a QC in London. Joe’s youngest son Jason is a successful lawyer in Glasgow.

Glasgow Times:

Glasgow Times:

Following his death in 2015, more than 200 people – including Celtic legend Billy McNeill – attended the funeral at St Aloysius’ Church in Garnethill.

At the time, leading criminal QC Thomas Ross said: “Joseph Beltrami laid the path for all of us to follow.”

The firm Beltrami set up 62 years ago is now run by senior partner Gary McAteer, who he hired as a 20-year-old trainee lawyer in 1983.

Gary added: “Joe hit the headlines at the very beginning of his career with three murder cases in a row where the accused were acquitted. He became a star in the legal profession after that.

“Joe had a certain instinct for people and cases. He had a cleverness and insight into how things worked.

“He was a big bold character with a good sense of humour.

“There will never be another lawyer like him.”

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