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February 11, 2011 10:08 pm
The first time they came, they walked straight into the living room. It was early winter 2008, about 10 past nine on a Friday night, and Ken Crow and his wife, Valerie, were watching television. The couple had their backs to the door, so it was a moment before Crow noticed them: two men in balaclavas, dressed all in black. One had a hatchet; the other an electric cattle prod. Figures from a nightmare, calmly in the room, not shouting, not going berserk, just there, asking where the money was.
They stunned Ken with the prod when he got up to confront them. Paralysed on the floor, he stared at the men’s shoes. “Leather,” he told me. “Not boots, highly polished, cracked in the middle.” The pair were talking, but it was hard to make out what they were saying over the noise from the television. Valerie, a teacher, asked them to turn it down. They did, and then one of the men knelt down beside Ken and said: “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to know where you’ve hidden the money.”
The Crows soon knew which money the men were talking about. For the past 25 years, they have lived on a small farm outside the village of Golden Green in Kent. At 14 acres, it is the nearest piece of open land to a Securitas money-handling depot on Vale Road: the site of the world’s largest cash robbery, in 2006. Crow is a fishery expert who runs coarse fishing on a local reservoir popular among the police, so he was fairly familiar with the crime. Familiar enough, certainly, to know that it had been solved. The money, all £53m, had been stolen almost two years earlier, and the gang – six out of the seven robbers, at least – was in prison. It was over.
The men in balaclavas thought otherwise. “They said they had been watching us for the past 18 months,” recalls Ken. Then they pulled the telephone wires from the walls. They tied the couple up, electrocuting Ken each time he tried to resist, and looked through the house. And then – just as ominously as they came – they went. “They fed our dog and they shut the back door.”
That was the first time. The second time, a few months later in February 2009, began when a young woman left a note in the Crows’ letter box instructing them to take a call at a local telephone box. Ken stood there while police officers watched from the darkness. But it came to nothing. The third time, a mysterious mobile phone addressed to someone named “Paul” arrived in the post. Then, a little over a year ago, Ken found a typewritten note stuck in his lawn. It demanded £3m, put “in the holes”. What holes? Ken went out to his fields and found massive excavations around a large water tank that he had filled with rubble. People had been digging for money. “Huge holes,” he told me. “Must have taken them three nights.”
We were talking in the Crows’ living room. A low afternoon sun was hitting the apple orchard across the road. The Crows have bought new sofas since that night over two years ago, but the shock has not been rubbed out. Valerie had a breakdown and Ken, who appears older than his 60 years, sat stiffly as he spoke, looking at his hands. He was sure that the threats are over, but his head still swims with theories. Several groups of criminals, he believes, have now come to the bungalow. In darker moments, he thinks corrupt police have been involved. “The whole lot is so bloody sinister,” he said. “I don’t know what is going on.” The police are equally baffled. “There’s absolutely nothing to connect them to the case,” says Detective Superintendent Mick Judge, who has led the Tonbridge investigation since it began. “It’s a bit of an odd one; there are some real crossed wires somewhere.”
. . .
The mysterious hounding of the Crows – no one has been arrested for any of the intimidation – is a single fragment from the hard-to-piece-together afterlife of one of Britain’s major recent crimes. The fifth anniversary of the Tonbridge robbery falls later this month. But despite three trials in this country and one in Morocco, 29 arrests, a £6m police investigation and the detention of all but one of the main perpetrators, it is hard to know what to make of it.
On first inspection, the story is straightforward. On the night of February 21 2006, a group of pumped-up young men from the London suburbs, a couple of Albanians and a few habitual criminals from Kent went and stole more money than they knew what to do with. They kidnapped Colin Dixon, the manager of a Securitas cash depot, on his way home from work, and took his wife and child hostage. Aided by the distraught Dixon, considerable luck (a series of security failings) and a certain amount of discipline (the gang’s leader, a former cage fighter called Lee Murray, carried a stopwatch during the heist), they filled a 7.5-tonne lorry with as many £50, £20 and £10 notes as it could carry, and drove off into the night.
However, Murray, the supposed mastermind, managed to accidentally record himself plotting the crime on his mobile phone. Within 36 hours of the heist, detectives had arrested the two hairdressers (later acquitted) who disguised the men; within five days, the police had three of the robbers; and just over four months later, they had six of the seven robbers, including Murray, in custody. A seventh man has never been caught.
The police found a lot of the money too. Tip-offs led to a car park in Ashford, a garage in Tunbridge Wells and a mechanic’s yard in Welling. Some £19.5m was recovered stuffed in suitcases and matching sports bags. Smaller stashes turned up all over the houses of the suspects and their families: under trees, in spare bedrooms, in the form of a desperately needed loan to a friend. By June last year, when Murray, who had successfully claimed Moroccan nationality, was finally sentenced in Rabat for his part in the robbery, the police had recovered or frozen just under £23m of the stolen money. About £30m short, in other words.
. . .
It is this missing money – the stash the black-clad men came looking for – that forms the void at the heart of the Tonbridge case. Whatever has become of it – whether lost, frittered to the four winds, or ticking over in a few well-disguised bank accounts – is the difference between a cracked case and an extraordinary, criminal success. And no one quite knows which it is.
People have ideas, of course. One snowy morning, I went to the industrial estate in Welling, southeast London, where the largest cache – £9.6m – was found in a shipping container. Here I met Nigel Reeve, who fell briefly under suspicion because he knew one of the gang and had driven a van full of furniture to Spain three days after the crime. In the corner of the garage where he had once worked with the now-convicted robber, and where £50,000 was found in a black bin liner, Reeve told me: “They might go on the telly, saying, ‘Oh, it was so badly planned, and this, that and the other.’ But the robbery, they done that to a T, you know?”
Five years after the crime, Reeve said people he knew were impressed, rather than repulsed by the robbery and that his reputation, if anything, had been enhanced by his association with it. “Thirty-two million,” he said, enjoying the number. “There’s money sitting out there for some of them boys, I tell you.”
Even the police admit this. While they claim to know where, in their words, “the big lumps” of money are now hidden – Dubai, Albania, Morocco, northern Cyprus (where a suspect remains at large) and, just possibly, this country – that doesn’t mean they are close to getting their hands on it. “People have made money, clearly got rich,” DSI Mick Judge told me. “We have to accept that.”
At the heart of the mystery is how a group of dangerous, but essentially small-time, crooks managed to make so much money disappear. These days, you are simply not supposed to be able to hide that much cash. With the anti-money laundering regulations devised since the September 11 attacks and the extensive powers granted to the police and courts under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) in 2002, dirty money has never been easier to spot, freeze and recover. More than £800m in criminal assets has been seized in Britain in the past seven years, and the UK Financial Intelligence Unit, part of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, receives a report about the suspicious movement of money every three minutes. But not a penny of the Tonbridge money has been recovered this way. Howard Sounes, who spent years following the case for a book, told me he could not work it out. “It is perplexing, really.”
In money-laundering terms, the first problem the Tonbridge robbers faced was the size of their haul: £52,996,760, in the denominations they stole it in, weighed about half a tonne and was enough to fill 75 suitcases. Worse, thousands of their £50 notes were brand-new, sequential and relatively easy to trace, at least in the UK. From analysis of the gang’s mobile phone signals, police know that they started dividing up the loot as soon as they stole it. Their proximity to the coast gave them a chance of getting the money out of the country that night. But the opportunity also presented a dilemma, according to Detective Inspector Mark Fairhurst, who has led the financial wing of the investigation since 2006: “Do you send it out in one hit, £20m, and if it gets caught, it’s all over? Or do you play the long game – and take out £500,000 every week, a million every week, for the next couple of years? I think they did some, and some.”
Parcelling sums of dirty money into the banking system is known as “smurfing”. Recent cases in the UK have illustrated numerous ways of doing this: from slipping drugs money in among cash remittances, to complex conspiracies involving couriers and bureaux de change, or cash-rich businesses – such as garages or ice cream vans – whose banks are used to them depositing large amounts of cash. The problem, of course, is that the more steps in the process and the more people involved, the more risky and expensive smurfing becomes.
More elegant is to pay the money into a bank. (A lot of the Tonbridge money was paid in over the counter at banks, police told me.) Rowan Bosworth-Davies made this clear one morning in a café near Charing Cross in London. Bosworth-Davies was a Fraud Squad detective in the 1980s and has spent the past 30 years following criminals and their money. Right now he is working for the United Nations in Liberia. “A big mistake that police agencies and the rest of us make is to think that 50 million quid is a lot of money,” he said. “The City of London thinks 50 million quid is chump change. Fifty million quid to the City, depending on how it is presented, isn’t going to turn a hair.”
To illustrate how he might have hidden the proceeds of the Tonbridge robbery, Bosworth-Davies took my notepad and drew a diagram of a “wash sale”, which would achieve both smurfing and “layering”, the second stage of money-laundering, where dirty money is mixed with clean. At the base of the diagram was a single corrupt solicitor, who deposits the dirty money in a client account, and then sets up two companies, preferably offshore. The two companies then open trading accounts with separate brokerages and banks, and (away from prying eyes) carry out a sequence of equal and opposite commodity trades – one going long on a particular oil future, say, with the other going short. Taken together, the trades cancel each other out, but the profits are clean, and wired off elsewhere, while the losses are met with more dirty money. According to Bosworth-Davies, banks ask fewer questions about money coming in to clear a debt. Every few months, the solicitor repeats the trick. “When I lecture to brokers and tell them about this, they sit there with grins all over their faces,” he told me. “It’s going on all the time.”
. . .
In the Tonbridge case, the only piece of financial trickery that the police shared with me was the work of a businessman called Ian Bowrem. Bowrem was arrested on the M25 on a summer’s afternoon in 2006, four months after the robbery. Almost £1m was found in his Mercedes, £380,000 of which was in £50 notes from the Tonbridge depot. This suggests that a large amount of money remained in the UK at that time. Bowrem turned out to have convictions dating from the mid-1990s for a type of VAT fraud, known as “Missing Trader Intra-Community” fraud, or MTIC, which police now believe he was using to launder the Tonbridge cash.
MTIC fraud costs the government between £1bn and £2bn a year. It exploits the way that VAT is paid on imports and exports from the European Union. For example: a container of high-value goods, such as mobile phones, is imported into the UK, and then bought and sold several times between collaborating companies, without ever leaving the quayside. As the purchases mount up, so does the amount of VAT owed to the government; but at the vital moment, one or more of the companies vanishes, making off with the tax. MTIC frauds are notoriously complicated, but they often involve the kind of large, frequent and mostly legitimate transactions within which the stolen money could be concealed. “They have the understanding, they have got the corporate structure, and they know how to use offshore trusts,” DI Fairhurst said of MTIC fraudsters, adding: “Mr Bowrem was very, very good at what he does.”
Proving it has been a different matter. At the beginning of the Tonbridge inquiry, 10 financial investigators were assigned to focus solely on the movement of the money. Fairhurst was in charge. “You’ve got the criminal inquiry knocking down doors and arresting people and gathering evidence and bang, bang, bang,” he said. “And we’re going,” he took an intake of breath: “Stop.” He put his hand down on the table, like a wall, to indicate the difficulty in getting disclosure and freezing orders from banking centres around the world.
In Bowrem’s case, it took the police three years to obtain evidence of his dealings in the Middle East. “We were saying to Dubai, this is the world’s biggest-ever cash robbery,” Fairhurst said, “and they were saying, ‘Yeah, well, we’ve got some other things on as well.’” By the time the evidence arrived, Bowrem had pleaded guilty, admitting that he knew the money in his car was stolen, but not where it had come from. Police believe he may have been taking a 40 per cent cut for laundering money from the robbery. “Unfortunately, the evidence from Dubai was not available to show the full criminality of what had happened,” Fairhurst said. Bowrem was sentenced to three years and nine months. The only money police have ever recovered in connection with Bowrem was the stash found in his car.
But it is not just the opacity of money laundering that has made the Tonbridge millions hard to find. Tracing dirty money requires the ability to think in different ways at once. Several financial investigators told me how they have learnt to allow for nonsensical spending, rash financial bets, the most unlikely things. “One of the great mistakes that people make is to apply our middle-class, bourgeois thinking to the activity of criminals,” said Bosworth-Davies. “You’re thinking: ‘How should I get it invested to get a proper return?’ Criminals don’t think like that. Criminal comes into possession of a million quid, he spends it.” Two of the Tonbridge robbers managed to get through hundreds of thousands of pounds before they were arrested – gambling and buying plastic surgery for their girlfriends.
Reconciling that recklessness with the cunning of some of their enterprises (the same robbers set up trading companies and had the money wired in from Dubai) is not easy. “You have to think like the villains,” Bob McCunn, a lawyer who spent decades tracing the proceeds of the Brink’s-Mat gold bullion robbery, told me. “In a sense you become like them.” But even once you have allowed for topsy-turvy financial behaviour, there is an inherent instability to the criminal world that is sometimes indecipherable – the rivalries, the robbing of robbers, the paying of unknown debts. In the Tonbridge case, it’s unlikely that this side of the story will ever be properly understood, but that has not stopped the unfortunate Crows from being implicated in it – and confounded by it. “I’m a fairly educated person,” Ken Crow told me. “I have an understanding of what goes on in life. But the complications we have suffered, and are still going on …” He paused. “Two and two doesn’t make four.”
So what happens next? Will we ever know what became of the money? As far as the police are concerned, a total of £3.5m in confiscation orders has been placed against the five robbers in prison in the UK, which can be increased if the fortunes of three of them suspiciously improve one day. Efforts continue to repatriate around £2m in assets from Morocco, and the police told me they have an “ongoing inquiry” into how they believe money has been smuggled out of the UK.
But five years on, with the criminal prosecutions now mostly exhausted, and many millions still at large, the search is shifting to the insurance industry and its lawyers. A much quieter process is about to begin. Late last year, I went to see Gary Tredgett, the underwriter for Ascot, the Lloyd’s syndicate that leads the dozens of insurers involved in the Tonbridge loss. “It’s an OK ending,” he said, of what we know so far. “But it’s not over.” And then, just before Christmas, Ascot appointed Clyde & Co, specialist lawyers in this kind of work, and another party joined the hunt.
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