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The full, bloody story behind the closure of Hidden Corner Cafe

When a millionaire, yacht-owning rogue landlord evicted the owners of a well-loved St Pauls cafe, it sparked protests. And now, two years on, a clearer picture of the messy situation has emerged…

Illustration: Sophia Checkley

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When the owners of Hidden Corner Cafe in St Pauls were evicted in October 2021, the local community turned out in force to support them. A week of protests were held outside the well-loved and inclusive space, which had been bolted shut with heavy chains by the landlord – a millionaire businessman who would later receive criminal convictions for the deceitful and illegal practices he deployed against his other tenants in the same building.

Aaron Onuora and Sophia Khan, the cafe’s owners, said at the time that they had been turfed out illegally and without proper warning. They said the landlord – owner of Bristol harbour’s ‘Miss Conduct’ yacht, Thomas Flight – had falsely claimed that they hadn’t been paying their rent on time and were in breach of their lease. More than that, they said he had been harassing them and taunting them by washing his Rolls Royce outside their home.

Some of the couple’s claims were reported by local media, but the full story behind the closure of the cafe in the affluent Portland Square, and the relationship between its owners and their landlord, has so far remained untold. Two years on, the Cable can finally reveal what happened, now that a police investigation and criminal trial over an alleged assault on Flight, 56, and his husband, a man in his 60s, has come to an end.

Rogue landlord and ‘Miss Conduct’ yacht owner, Thomas Flight

A week before Aaron and Sophia were locked out of their cafe, punches were thrown, noses were broken and Flight was allegedly knocked unconscious, his forehead split open and left pouring with blood. The landlord told police that he and his partner were the victims of an unprovoked and “savage” attack at the hands of Aaron, a 34-year-old television actor, and his 56-year-old father Ifem Onuora, Premier League football’s head of equality and diversity.

But when their case reached Bristol Crown Court last week, it was Flight’s threatening, deceitful illegal practices and behaviour as a landlord that took centre stage. A jury, after hearing five days of evidence, acquitted Aaron and his father after their barristers argued that it was in fact the landlord and his business partners who were the aggressors. They said their accounts – as landlords known for “deceiving and lying” to their tenants – were not credible.

‘We don’t want to become enemies’

The story begins a couple of months earlier, on a hot summer’s day in July 2021, as a boozy, noisy hen party is in full swing on the roof of the penthouse suite above the cafe. Flight had begun renting out some of his eight apartments in the building on Airbnb – they form just a small part of his large property portfolio that includes a castle and manor house in Frome and the ‘Miss Conduct’ yacht in Bristol Harbour.

The noisy group, who could be heard singing Is This The Way to Amarillo from streets away, sparked complaints from cafe customers below and neighbours in the streets surrounding the square. Aaron, 34, who was working in the cafe that day, forwarded the complaints to the landlord, although he didn’t know his real name at the time.

“Lots of people were coming from streets away, coming into the cafe saying ‘what is going on,” Aaron, told a jury, giving evidence to his assault trial at Bristol Crown Court last week. “I emailed the property management and said there was a very loud party upstairs, to let them know that people were leaving the cafe as a result of the noise and people coming and asking about [the party].”

He didn’t get a response to the email, but a couple of days later received a phone call from Flight on an unknown number. “He said that his management company had been in touch about [Hidden Corner] giving discounts to Airbnb guests, Aaron told the court. “I said it’s not something we could do as a new business, and he said ‘we don’t want to become enemies’, and went on to say that I was in breach of my lease.”

It was this refusal to offer Flight’s Airbnb guests a discount and claims of a breach of lease that was the “catalyst for the dysfunctional relationship” between the landlord and tenant, Judge Michael Cullum, who presided over the assault trial and an earlier case involving Flight’s dodgy landlord practices, told the jury in his summary of the evidence on Wednesday (October 4).

An Airbnb ad for Thomas Flight’s Portland Square penthouse

Asked in court under cross-examination how Aaron and Sophia were in breach of the lease, Flight said the cafe owners had been holding meze evenings and serving alcohol out of agreed operating hours – although Aaron said this was not explained to him at the time. Flight said Aaron was simply against the idea of having Airbnbs in the local area, and did not understand that offering them discounts could benefit him as a business owner.

When Flight called him, Aaron was in Leeds working on the set of Emmerdale. At the time he was playing the role of Ellis Chapman in the soap. “I got a call over the Tannoy,” he said, “and I [told Flight] that I have to go back to work but [said] let’s continue the conversation… When I finished work I had an email saying that the lease had been terminated.”

The next day, when Aaron was back in Bristol, he went to a local shop to get some milk for the cafe. Flight, he said, came in after him. “I asked him about the email, and said this seems very extreme to be terminating our lease… I asked why he made that threat, that I ‘don’t want to become enemies’, and he got pretty agitated.” 

Aaron said that he remained “calm” in that situation but that later he received an email from Flight’s management company. The cafe owner told the court: “[The email from Flight said] ‘after your conduct in the shop, I have no other choice but to put you on a monthly rolling contract with a new lease’… He said that I followed him into the shop, that I seemed angry and that I accosted him.”

The cafe owner said he later asked to see a copy of the new lease that he was never shown. The Cable understands that the new terms were at no point agreed and that Aaron and Sophia remained on their original five-year contract, which according to the couple had a six-month break clause that Flight tried to use against them.

‘If you’re not careful I’ll get the boys round’ 

Fast forward two months, to the morning of 26 September. Aaron arrived at the cafe to find that the electricity meter had run out overnight, causing their fridge freezer to start leaking. There was a pool of water on the floor that he began mopping up. 

The building’s meter system meant he and Sophia had to purchase cards to top up the cafe’s electricity, but the court heard how these cards could only be purchased from an office in the building one day a week – on Wednesdays, between 9am and 5pm. They were forced to pay a surcharge if they needed to buy cards outside of this time. It was never clear to Aaron and Sophia how long the cards would last and impossible to know when they would run out of credit. 

“Flight came into the cafe [that day] talking about this leak into the basement flat,” Aaron told the jury, after explaining the tenants downstairs had already told him there had been no damage. “I said the meter card had run out [overnight] and [Flight] said ‘you just top it up you fucking idiot.”

He said he explained to Flight that had cards been available but that the electricity running out was unavoidable because it happened overnight, when Aaron and Sophia were not around to insert a new card into the meter.

Aaron said that Flight showed him damage to a mattress that he had just removed from the basement property and put in his van. He said the landlord began demanding that he paid for the damages despite it being clear that the damage was not caused from the leak that occurred overnight. The mattress was old and worn out and the stains, he said, were old.

What followed was a dispute in the street. Aaron said he told Flight that he would not pay for the damage he did not cause and that the landlord told him, in a threatening and aggressive tone: “If you’re not careful I’ll get the boys round.” 

Flight, giving evidence in court, denied this. He said that he did not threaten Aaron, and that by “offering to get the boys round” he meant that he would get his maintenance employees to help resolve issues at the premises. He said his words had been “twisted” to make him sound like a “mafia don”.

Protesters with a placard that reads ‘justice for Hidden Corner’ stand in front of landlord Thomas Flight’s yacht, the Miss Conduct, in 2022

But Emma Love, a woman who lived across the street and heard the exchange and knew the cafe owners only as a customer, corroborated Aaron’s version of events. She told the court that Flight appeared aggressive, that she sensed a “landlord-tenant power dynamic”, and that Flight’s words “get the boys round” sounded threatening.

Josh Balker, who used to run a cafe in the building before Hidden Corner Cafe opened, also took the stand as a witness for the defence. After explaining that the reason he closed his business was due to the “difficulty” he had with Flight, he said he had been charged for the water damage to the basement flat that Flight had been trying to get Aaron to pay for.

Sean Sullivan, defence barrister acting for Aaron, accused Flight of trying to “diddle” the couple out of cash, like he had done to his residential tenants in the building, many of whom were young students, charging them unreasonable and sometimes illegal fees and charges. Details of this were exposed when Flight was sentenced for various trading standard offences in January.

“I am a millionaire who made my money fifteen odd years ago through one of the largest video and production companies in the UK,” Flight responded from the witness stand, where he also boasted that he owned not just one by two Rolls Royce cars, adding that he was too wealthy to “bother chasing after a couple hundred quid here and there”.

Sullivan interjected, saying “but diddle them you did,” before explaining to the jury how he set up a complex business structure to hide his identity from his tenants, and from authorities who investigated him over his illegal practices, which included misleading his tenants by hiding behind fake names and addresses.

It was this context that the defence used to convince the jury that the assault allegations Flight and his husband and business partner Steeley were making against Aaron and his father were not credible. But how then did the landlord end up slumped on the floor in the lobby of his Portland Square building, blood pouring from his forehead?

Wildly different stories 

At about 5pm on 28 September 2021, after the landlord and Aaron’s altercation and a week before Aaron and Sophia were locked out of their cafe, Flight, Steeley and their employee and best friend Connor Williamson were moving things from a van into the basement apartment in the building. Like the rest of their residential properties, they were converting it into a luxury Airbnb.

Aaron was in the cafe with his mother Helen and his father Ifem, who was visiting the place for the first time. Ifem had been told that his son was having trouble with the landlord – specifically that he had been threatening him with the termination of his lease.

Ifem decided to speak to the landlords, he said to try to “broker a solution” to the issues, and he approached Steeley on the street while he was unloading items from a van. What followed was disputed in court, which first heard the accounts of Flight and his husband, who said they were victims of an unprovoked and vicious attack.

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Steeley said that Ifem approached him in the doorway of the building, while Flight and Williamson were inside. He told the court: “I told [Ifem] that I am very busy, but obviously I’m very intimidated… I wasn’t happy for him to be inside. He was quite athletic in build and came across as quite aggressive.”

He said that at some point, near the door inside the lobby, Ifem grabbed him by the throat and pushed him against the wall. “He brought his face right up to mine and said ‘I’m Aaron’s father, you need to lay off… I said to [Williamson] ‘please go and get Tom,’ who was down in the flat downstairs.”

The court heard how Flight, after being alerted by Williamson, came rushing up the stairs. Giving evidence, Flight said that he saw Ifem had his husband pinned to the wall and that when he approached them, Ifem turned and began attacking him, punching him twice before his husband grabbed hold of his arms.

“[Ifem] turned around and started laying into me, Flight told the court. “After that it was quite a scuffle, quite a haze… They were both striking me with their fists,” he added, explaining that Aaron at this point had arrived and joined in the attack. “Throughout the whole thing there was one of them on me, both of them on me. Harry [Steeley] would get them off me, he would take some knocks… it was unbelieve, they were like a pack of animals. It was absolutely savage.”

Flight suffered a deep wound to his forehead – it needed 17 stitches –  which he claimed happened as a result of Aaron and or Ifem kicking or stamping on him. Steeley suffered a broken nose, bruising to his neck and a black eye. The Onuoras – according to police reports – suffered no visible injuries, although Ifem said he came out in bruises but they did not show at the time because of his darker skin.

Asked by crown prosecutor Alun Williams if he lost consciousness during the assault, Flight told the jury that he did for a few seconds but that it felt like “ages” and he awoke “seeing stars”. He said that when he came around both Aaron and Ifem had left the property and that Williamson had called the police.

After hearing this version of the story, Sean Sullivan, defence barrister acting for Aaron, described Flight, Steeley and Williamson as a “trio of prosecution witnesses who promised to tell the truth, under oath, but lied.” He told the jury that Flight and Steeley had treated them like they had their tenants — by lying and trying to deceive them. 

Aaron, and then later Ifem, told the jury their version of events, which amounted to a wildly different story, and one that showed Flight and Steeley to be the aggressors who simply “came off worse” when Aaron and Ifem were forced to defend themselves.

“I thought I would go next door and try to broker a kind of resolution,” Ifem said from the witness stand. “I went outside to the van, I said ‘hi guys, listen, can I have a quick word with you’. They [Steeley and Williamson] didn’t really acknowledge me, carried on moving things from the car into the lobby of the premises next door.”

Ifem said that he continued trying to get Steeley’s attention and when they were both in the doorway to the lobby Steeley began trying to usher him outside. It’s at this point, he said, that Flight came rushing upstairs from the basement flat.

“[Flight] started charging towards me with his head down and then his fists came flailing,” Ifem told the jury. “He tried to strike me, it was a bit wild, a bit surreal because I’ve gone from what I thought would be a reasonable conversation to fists flying at me. Some caught me.”

He said Steeley then got hold of his arms to restrain him as Flight continued to throw punches. As he tried to wriggle free, Ifem said, his arm or elbow connected with something and that he lost balance and began stumbling backwards.

“There were punches being exchanged,” he said. “[Flight] was kind of on top of me, and Aaron goes to grab him and throw him off me. I have a pain in my knee that is kicking in, and I’m half stumbling to my feet.”

Aaron separately told the court how he came into the lobby from the cafe after hearing “banging”. He said he arrived in the lobby to find Flight attacking his father, and that he pulled the landlord off of him.

Ifem told the court: “I think it’s hard to try to think about it. I’ve got three guys who I don’t know attacking me, two more than the other, I don’t know if they’ve got a weapon or anything… A little bit of fear kicked in… I started to realise this is kind of a survival situation, I started lashing out, flailing arms… I definitely caught one or two of them… then Helen” – Aaron’s mother – “came in and told everyone to stop, which had the desired effect.”

The injury to Flight’s forehead – the most serious suffered in the incident, which became the focus point of the evidence in the case – was not caused by Aaron or Ifem, they both told the court. Instead the wound was caused when the landlord fell, hitting his head on a fire extinguisher in the lobby. Ifem told the court how he could smell alcohol during the encounter, suggesting that this might have been the reason for his fall.

According to two expert witnesses who gave evidence to the trial – one a consultant in emergency medicine, the other a consultant forensic physician — Flight’s injury was “consistent with a fall or push against the fire extinguisher… there was no bruising or swelling… so this is more likely to be the result of a fall onto an object with a sharp edge rather than a punch or kick to the forehead”.

Defence barrister Sullivan said that if Aaron or Ifem had caused the landlord’s wound by kicking or stamping on him then there would have been blood on their shoes or clothing. The police did not seize any items of clothing when they attended the scene and arrested the Onuoras, he told the jury, because there was no such evidence.

He said the jury ultimately had to decide whose accounts were more credible, landlords known to deceive their tenants, or two men known to be upstanding members of the community with no previous convictions and glowing character references – some from notable public figures.

Character references for both Aaron and Ifem were read to the jury, including one from Game of Thrones Star Faye Marsay, a friend and former housemate of Aaron. She described him as “kind and warm, with a strong moral compass”. Ifem was described by Dr Claire-Marie Roberts, head of elite development for Premier League football, as a “rational, calm and logical” man whose “emotional intelligence and control are valued by our team and myself.”

A two-year nightmare

After about three hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty to all three assault charges brought against Aaron and Ifem – the most serious of which, assault by unlawful wounding, carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

The two of them wept in the dock as the jury’s unanimous decision was handed down. Flight and Steeley were not present in court, which was full of Aaron and Ifem’s family and friends – many who had sat through the entire week of proceedings.

While this brought an end to, as Sullivan put it, a “two-year nightmare” for Ifem and Aaron, this is not the end of the story. A legal battle over the legality of Aaron and Sophia’s eviction, after which the couple lost not just their business but the £25,000 they spent on equipment and refurbishment – is still to take place. 

Meanwhile, despite his convictions, Flight remains in the property business as an Airbnb landlord.

If you’ve been affected by tenancy issues like the ones raised in this article, we want to hear from you. Contact: sean@thebristolcable.org

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  • Brilliant in-depth reporting, Sean, thanks and congratulations! I wish it was indeed the end of the story, but keep up the good work either way!

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