Over the Easter weekend in 2015, an audacious gang of criminals robbed a safe depository in London's Hatton Garden, the center of the UK's diamond trade. Shortly before, electrical cables under nearby Kingsway had caught on fire, disrupting the emergency services in the area. Coincidence? Alarms at Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd went off, but the police ignored them. The burglars were caught on CCTV taking jewelry worth up to $200 million. They had used specialist equipment, taking days to tunnel through the walls of the vault. Within a month nine suspects had been arrested and valuables seized from their homes. They were aged between 43 and 76, including a father and son. The question was, were they the same gang that had made a similar daring raid in Hatton Garden safe, netting £1.5 million over the Christmas holiday in 2004? The culprits then were never caught. In this fascinating investigation of the case and its aftermath, Gordon Bowers digs deep into the history of heists around the world and questions the motives and methods behind diamond theft.
|Publisher:||John Blake Publishing, Limited|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Gordon Bowers is the author of Conspiracy of Silence.
Read an Excerpt
DOWN THE GARDEN PATH
I walked past the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company on that Easter Sunday just a few hours after the diamond heist gang had scarpered with their loot. I was on my way to have lunch with my elderly mother, who lives out in Surrey. To catch the train there, I walked from my flat in Bloomsbury to Farringdon Station. My route took me, unsuspecting, down Hatton Garden. It was unusually quiet. Seventy per cent of the businesses were Jewish. The day before had been Passover and their shops were closed for the holiday weekend.
That particular Sunday I would certainly not have taken my other possible route – that was to take a bus from Southampton Row to Waterloo Station to catch the train there. A few days before, there had been a mysterious underground fire in Kingsway. The street was closed off and the buses had been diverted.
As I strolled through the heart of London's jewellery district on the morning of 5 April 2015, I cannot say I noticed anything suspicious, though just a metre or so beneath my feet there was a ransacked strongroom and a hole in the wall of a vault, whose shape has since become iconic.
The police famously had not noticed anything suspicious either. Two days earlier, the burglar alarm had gone off in the building. The police were informed, but decided not to investigate. They were, after all, busy directing traffic away from the scene of the fire in Kingsway, half a mile away.
The building's security guard, Kelvin Stockwell, was roused from his bed when the alarm went off in the early hours of Good Friday, 3 April. Arriving at the building, he took a look around but saw nothing amiss. Though the crooks were hard at work below street level, the basement appeared secure, so Kelvin went home.
Local residents were well accustomed to the sound of drilling and vibration. Crossrail were tunnelling from Holborn Station, near the Kingsway fire, under Hatton Garden to Farringdon Station, a hundred yards further on. The company had sent out letters warning locals about the tunnelling and the demolition work needed to make way for the new ticket hall at Farringdon so no one thought anything of it and the burglary was not reported until Hatton Garden opened for business again on the Tuesday morning. By then, the burglars had been home, basking in their good fortune, for two days.
Scotland Yard issued a statement saying: 'At approximately 08.10 hours today, Tuesday 7 April, police were called to a report of a burglary at a safety deposit business at Hatton Garden, EC1. The Flying Squad is investigating and detectives are currently at the scene. It appears that heavy cutting equipment has been used to get into a vault at the address, and a number of safety deposit boxes have been broken into.'
At the time the size of the heist was still unclear.
'We are still trying to establish exactly what has been stolen and who the losers are,' said one of the police at the scene. 'It was a chaos inside.'
Insurers said it would be some time before the true extent of the losses was known but no one had been hurt. The police appeared clueless. It seemed like the perfect heist.
'No dealer would be foolish to leave all their stock in one place,' a London diamond dealer observed, 'but even if they left a fraction of the uncut and semi-polished diamonds and other stones in a single box, the value could easily run into millions for one box alone.'
Local jeweller, Norman Bean, who had stored around £35,000 of jewellery there, upbraided Kelvin Stockwell.
'I came down and spoke to a security guard,' he recalled. 'He said he came on Friday, the alarm was going off. He went downstairs, looked through the door, through the windows, and couldn't see anything and came out again. That was it.
'I said, "Well, why didn't you open up and have a look in?" He told me he doesn't get paid enough. They could have been there all weekend. Who knows? It's a disgrace. It's like something out of a film. I can't believe it could happen.'
Defending his actions later, Kelvin Stockwell said: 'You don't know what you're going to walk into. You can't take that chance. Because I could have walked in, I don't know what would have happened to me. I could have been clumped across the head or got tied up, whatever. That's why the policy was you don't go in on your own. You wait and hopefully if the police turn up, you can go in with them.'
But, of course, they didn't.
It was then discovered that the same high-security depository had been raided thirteen years earlier when a thief posing as a customer emptied a number of safe deposit boxes. This time the haul was worth some £500,000. The Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company had also been robbed in 1975, when armed robbers burst in, threatened staff and made off with an estimated £1.5 million in gems, cash and other valuables.
In the first reports of the Hatton Garden heist, it was thought that the haul might beat the estimated £60 million stolen from the Knightsbridge Security Deposit Centre in July 1987, where Italian armed robber Valerio Viccei requested to rent a deposit box. He and an accomplice then pulled guns, subdued the staff, broke into the boxes and made off. While other gang members were soon rounded up, Viccei fled the UK, though the fact that he had left behind one bloody fingerprint assured the Metropolitan Police that he was the ringleader.
With safety deposit box heists, it is impossible to get an accurate figure for the haul. No one but the depositor knows what is in the box. Sometimes they will contain valuables, dubiously obtained or being kept hidden from the authorities, that the owner will not admit to. Then there are other owners who might seize the opportunity to inflate the value of the contents of their box to make a dodgy insurance claim.
The Knightsbridge heist certainly rivalled the burglary of the Banco Central of Fortaleza in Brazil in 2005, where thieves spent three months tunnelling under two city blocks, then through three-and-a-half feet of reinforced concrete to steal some US$72 million in currency. Even this was small beer compared with the most lucrative bank robbery in history, where former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's son Qusay made off with $920 million from the Central Bank of Iraq in 2003.
But when it came to safety deposit box heists, it was thought that Hatton Garden would top the polls. Former Flying Squad chief Roy Ramm said: 'I would not be surprised, given where this one is, in Hatton Garden, if £200 million is around the amount stolen.'
But we may never know.
'The amount of money and the goods that are taken is never fully revealed,' he added, 'and there's a good chance that not everybody would declare.'
However, he told BBC Radio Four's Today programme: 'There's a sort of old-fashioned audacity about it.'
Although the haul in Hatton Garden did not approach £200 million, it did make the record books as the biggest raid in UK history, not that other villains had not tried bigger heists. In November 2000, the police had foiled a gang who tried to steal £350 million in diamonds by ram-raiding the De Beers diamond exhibition at the Millennium Dome using a JCB digger. This led to the classic Sun headline: 'I'm Only Here For De Beers'.
The raid, planned by three local Jack the Lads, was right out of a James Bond movie. The Millennium Jewels collection on display included the Millennium Star, a 203-carat, flawless gem that was considered one of the most perfect in the world, as well as eleven other priceless blue diamonds. Those jewels had played a central role in the spectacular laser light show that took place in the Dome during the Millennium festivities.
However, the Flying Squad was well ahead of the crooks. In the summer of 2000, they received a tip-off that a major armed robbery was being planned, and set up Operation Magician to collate intelligence. A failed £10-million robbery in Nine Elms in February 1999 had come to their attention. Robbers had welded a huge metal spike to the chassis of a lorry, covering it with the foliage of a discarded Christmas tree. The idea was to have been to drive it into a security van trapped at a roadblock, splitting open the doors, but the plan went awry when an irate motorist late for work removed the keys from the unattended vehicle. Thwarted, the crooks made off in an inflatable speedboat towards Chelsea.
'What that day did was inform me that there was a gang with a sufficient organisation and capability to carry off a robbery of an intense magnitude,' said Detective Chief Superintendent Jon Shatford.
A second attempt to skewer a security van was made in Aylesford, Kent, on 7 July 2000. It was foiled when a police car turned up unexpectedly. The robbers loosed off several shots before, again, making off in an inflatable.
The police tracked some of the vehicles used in this raid to two isolated farms in rural Kent, which were immediately put under 24-hour surveillance. By then officers had also received a tip-off about a raid on the Dome from an informer whose identity remains a closely-guarded secret but was thought to be an associate of notorious criminal Kenneth Noye, who was convicted for his involvement in the 1983 Brink's-Mat robbery, where £26 million of gold bullion, diamonds and cash was stolen from a warehouse at Heathrow.
'Most of the Brink's-Mat gold went through the Hatton Garden area,' said Brian Boyce, the senior detective on the case.
Noye was caught at his home in Kent and eventually convicted of handling some of the stolen bullion. When melting it down and recasting it, he is thought to have mixed in some copper coins to disguise the source.
While his home was under surveillance, Noye and an accomplice found Detective Constable John Fordham in the grounds spying on them. Noye stabbed Fordham eleven times, killing him. However, as Fordham was wearing a balaclava, Noye claimed at his trial in December 1985 that he did not realise the intruder was a police officer and he had acted in self-defence. He was acquitted.
After Fordham's death, his colleagues found eleven gold bars wrapped in red-and-white cloth hidden in a shallow gully beside Noye's garage wall. Back in court in 1986, Noye was sentenced to fourteen years for handling stolen bullion, serving eight. Later, he was given a life sentence for the road-rage murder of twenty-one-year-old motorist Stephen Cameron in 1996.
In September 2000, two months before the raid, forty-year-old Raymond 'Black Ray' Betson, of Chatham, Kent – thought to be the mastermind – and his forty-nine-year-old right-hand man William Cockram, from Catford, South-East London, were caught on film visiting the Dome.
At a meeting of detectives hunting the Nine Elms robbers, a detective inspector who had recently visited the Dome quipped: 'Maybe they are after the Millennium Jewels?'
'Christ, that's it,' cried another.
Once the penny had dropped, more than a hundred officers from the Flying Squad were placed on constant standby, backed up by armed officers.
'What I did not know – and I never knew until it happened – was how they were going to do it,' said Shatford.
The gang planned to lead the charge with a JCB, figuring the digger would not attract attention as there was plenty of building work going on in the vicinity. Once again the escape would be made by 55-mph speedboat. Russian gangsters were waiting in the Mayflower pub three minutes across the river in Rotherhithe to receive the stolen jewels. It was thought they were acting for a wealthy client, possibly an Arab.
The gang used pay-as-you-go mobile phones to arrange meetings. Known as 'burners', these could be disposed of after compromising calls to hinder surveillance. Members even posed as tourists with their families to film the diamonds in the Dome's Money Zone. It was noted that their frequent visits were always at high tide and Cockram and Betson were seen filming the nearby jetty and the river.
The villains were nothing short of audacious. Gang member Terry Millman, who died of cancer while awaiting trial, used the name 'T. Diamond' when he handed over £3,700 in cash to buy the getaway speedboat at a yard in the seaside town of Whitstable, Kent. The men were spotted testing it in a harbour in Kent. Ammonia gas was purchased, perhaps to knock out any potential have-a-go heroes, and smoke bombs bought to cause chaos. Equipment was stored in a disused commercial yard in Plumstead, South-East London, and two remote Kent farms near Maidstone.
The raid was planned for 6 October, but had to be called off after the speedboat developed engine problems. A month later, on 6 November, the second attempted was aborted when they miscalculated the tide. But the following day everything was set.
Shortly after 9 a.m., the JCB crashed through the perimeter and the side wall of the Dome's Money Zone. Four gang members dressed in body armour and gas masks leapt from the digger and went about their business. As the crowds were dispersed by smoke bombs, the gang faced their most formidable challenge yet – the diamonds' display cases, which were believed to be impregnable. They were built to resist the force of a 60-ton ram raid. The explosive-resistant glass was also designed to foil any known tool for at least thirty minutes. But Cockram believed he had the answer: he would weaken the glass with three shots from a powerful Hilti nail gun. Then Robert Adams would use a sledgehammer to smash the glass once it had been 'warmed'.
As Adams broke through, the plan appeared to be working to perfection. They were just 27 seconds away from seizing the world's most fabulous collection of diamonds.
'I was twelve inches from pay day,' Adams later recalled. 'It would have been a blinding Christmas!'
In fact, the diamonds had been replaced by replicas, with the originals stored elsewhere. Also, Dome staff had been replaced with armed undercover officers. Forty armed officers from the Specialist Firearms Command, SC&O19, were hidden behind a dummy wall. Sixty armed Flying Squad officers were stationed along the north bank of the Thames, with a further twenty on the river itself. Their commanding officers were in the Dome's CCTV room, watching while the cameras captured every moment of the drama as an army of police officers swooped.
As one member of the gang ruefully put it: 'We would have got away with it but for the fact there were 140 police waiting for us.'
The Dome's executive chairman, David James, arrived on the scene shortly after the men were arrested.
'They were all on the ground, trussed up like Christmas turkeys,' he said. 'It was relatively calm and they were almost joking with the police, who were standing over them with guns. About 150 yards away in the central area there were ninety-six Miss World contestants taking a photocall – this was Monty Python stuff.'
Shatford said that it had been decided to wait until the gang had reached the diamonds before arresting them.
'Our chief concern throughout was public safety,' he said. 'We decided it was better to let the robbers get to the vault, where they were effectively imprisoned.'
When the trial opened at the Old Bailey, Cockram said: 'I couldn't believe how simple it was. I was thinking, this cannot be true; it was a gift. At first I had thought it was pie in the sky, but after going down there, I couldn't believe security was so bad. There was nobody in the vault, no security workers walking around.'
Had the plan succeeded, he said: 'It would have taken a very short time from hitting the main gate to getting back across the Thames – five minutes maximum.'
In his defence he added 'No one was going to get hurt – there was no one to hurt. The Dome was always empty.'
It was an old-fashioned crime that depended for its success on guile, audacity and high-tech Hilti equipment. The nail gun was to be used to break the glass, not to hurt anyone; the ammonia was to contaminate any traces of blood they might have left and the body armour was worn to protect them after the raid, when they were to have met 'Tony' and his associates across the river to exchange the gems for cash.
'We never trusted them,' Cockram admitted. 'They shoot people for anything these days. We thought we could be double-crossed – well, we were double-crossed, weren't we?'
Betson tried to blame his brother-in-law, serving police officer PC Michael Waring, who was working at the Dome as part of the perimeter security. Waring, he said, had told him about a school friend named Tony, who was also working at the Dome and had come up with a plan for the heist. Betson claimed that he had confidence in Tony's plan because the introduction had come through Waring.
'He had a backer – someone to buy the jewellery,' Betson explained. 'He said the security was crap. I had every confidence in him. There was no way I thought he would betray me, not for two seconds. If this had come to me from someone else – in a pub – I would not have gone along with it, but it was the background to where it had come from. It was solid.'
He had every confidence in Waring too.
'I did not think he would try and do me any harm,' Betson added. 'I trusted him.'
Cockram also confirmed that Betson had told him he had inside information.
Excerpted from "The Great Diamond Heist"
Copyright © 2016 Gordon Bowers.
Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE - DOWN THE GARDEN PATH,
CHAPTER TWO - DIAMOND GEEZERS,
CHAPTER THREE - HATTON GARDEN,
CHAPTER FOUR - INSIDE JOB?,
CHAPTER FIVE - JEWEL IN THE CROWN,
CHAPTER SIX - DIAMOND STREET,
CHAPTER SEVEN - THE USUAL SUSPECTS,
CHAPTER EIGHT - SPECIALIST KNOWLEDGE,
CHAPTER NINE - THE PLOD,
CHAPTER TEN - NABBED,
CHAPTER ELEVEN - OLD-TIMERS,
CHAPTER TWELVE - THE CROWN VERSUS ...,
CHAPTER THRITEEN - THE SCENE OF THE CRIME,
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - CALL TO ACTION,
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - BUGGED AND BUSTED,
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - SOMETHING FISHY,
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - BARBECUED,
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - BILLY THE FISH AND FAMILY,
CHAPTER NINETEEN - CLOSING THE CASE,
CHAPTER TWENTY - A MATTER OF TRUST,
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - BAD DAD'S ARMY,
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO - THE HOLE-IN-THE-WALL GANG,
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE - THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY,