By Douglas Skelton

He was a big man but he was out of shape.

The famous line from ‘Get Carter’ occurred to me the first time I met Tommy Campbell.

My co-author Lisa Brownlie and I were in Barlinnie’s Special Unit to meet the man who had masterminded a mass murder, according to the authorities.

He towered over us, his long hair and beard making him seem even more fearsome.

But he was soft spoken, funny and articulate. This was not the monster the tabloids had led us to expect.

He was no angel, though. He admitted that himself.

The Unit was designed to calm violent prisoners. Campbell had not been aggressive in jail, although violence had been done to him, but he had been troublesome.

READ MORE: Cleared Ice Cream Wars accused Thomas 'TC' Campbell dies aged 66

Stating that he had not received a fair trial in 1984 for the horrendous murder of members of the Doyle family, he declined to cut his hair or shave and demanded the rights of an untried prisoner. He refused to eat prison food, insisting he be allowed to prepare his own or eat only what family brought him. We called it a hunger strike but he said they were protests.

The Unit as a compromise. In this more liberal atmosphere, inmates were allowed to make their own meals.

The press knew him as TC but he didn’t like that nickname, even though he had it tattooed inside his lower lip. We called him Tommy. John Carroll, his solicitor and the real hero of the campaign, called him Mr Campbell.

Tommy Campbell knew the TC handle was part of the past that had landed him life in jail. He said he was, in part, being punished for getting off on some high-profile charges previously.

He also spoke of his ‘Psycho Stare.’ When I asked what it was like he said he didn’t know, he’d never seen it. At one point, he became heated with me – he thought the book was painting him as guilty – and I suddenly saw something flash across his face.

“There it is!” I said. “There’s the Psycho Stare!”

That silenced him – not an easy thing to do as he could talk a mile a minute – and then he burst out laughing.

He discovered an artistic streak, something else for which the Unit was famed. He loved his family, although his private life could be turbulent, and was loyal to his friends.

And yet, there was violence in him. I spoke to people who had been on the receiving end of that Psycho Stare – and there was no laughter afterwards. When he spoke of youthful deeds and adult crimes, there was an element of pride in his voice.

He was a product of the schemes and the criminal life, though he said he could point to a dozen guys who had the same start in life but didn’t turn to slashing and stealing.

“It was my choice,” he said.

He was a confident speaker and an entertaining storyteller. And yet, when he spoke about the fire that had seen him banged up, he stuttered, his mind reaching out for the words but his revulsion and anger getting in the way.

At the time of the so-called Ice Cream Wars he was going straight.

“Well, straightish,” he said.

That meant that he wasn’t himself stealing anything but he’d happily sell it off the back of his wife’s ice cream van. She didn’t know, of course.

There were no drugs being dealt wholesale from the back of vans, although there have been isolated incidents since. The legend, still being peddled today, was dismissed early in our research by a senior police officer.

If an operator had a good run, they could make a decent living. If they were willing to sell stolen gear at knockdown prices, they could increase their profit margin – and even make a bad run a good one.

If there was any evidence of the drug trade, then the police unit set up to investigate the ice cream van violence in the city – dubbed the Serious Chimes Squad – would have found it and there would have been a charge during the trial.

The drug claims bothered Campbell. A lot of the coverage of the case bothered Campbell.

He always said that when he was released he would have to move away from Glasgow to escape his past. After he was cleared in 2004 I lost touch with him but I knew he eventually did move to Argyll.

However, I don’t think he anticipated such a lonely death.