Illustration: Lily Blakely
When police raid a brothel or a drugs factory, one of their first objectives is to work out who owns it. More often than not, the name they get is either the genuine proprietor – who quickly has a lot of explaining to do – or a clueless landlord with no idea of what their place was really being used for.If it's the latter, police demand the letting agent or landlord produces the photo ID that was provided by the tenant. It is this face the criminal investigation centres on – but critically, they only have a face and a name. Putting the human being behind it in cuffs is the hard part.
One of these human beings was the face of an outrageous network of brothels and cannabis grows spanning 446 different addresses from Scotland to Shropshire. But until recently, the National Crime Agency and 34 separate regional police forces couldn't find this "ghost" as he hid behind an elaborate web of 100 fake IDs.When each building was busted, the mystery man and his associates would simply disappear. All the police were left with in every case was a fake ID and a dead end. What they did know is that the ghost charged gangs £2,500 to create a fake identity and become the building's named tenant. He'd spend every waking hour on the phone to letting agencies or criminals, either troubleshooting rent issues or travelling to collect keys and let in pimps, sex workers and weed farmers.Police believe he made well over £2 million before anyone heard of him, but it's impossible to pinpoint how much the gangs he assisted got away with. In fact, it wasn't until his exhaustive network was finally blown that police realised the size of his operation.The ghost had no criminal record and would have a full and varied back story to each ID, complete with pay slips, utility bills and even a network of references."The documents he submitted would have an email address or contact number on it so that, if a verification agent tried to check it out, it would all come back to him," says Daren Nicholls, the senior investigating officer at the National Crime Agency. "He also recorded every document used with each ID so that, if any identity or single document was compromised, he could know to take that out of circulation or not contact that agent in the future."
Police uncovered the link between all of these criminal buildings in September of 2018, and forces across the UK since spent countless hours chasing the trail."It's difficult to say how many gangs he worked with," says Nicholls. "There were 446 properties around the country; that could involve 446 gangs. It's unlikely it's that many, but it's possible."Hiding behind fake Chinese and Portuguese passports, the ghost never used his real name to rent out any of his flats. But each document used either images of him – sometimes taken from different ages – or other Chinese men he could potentially pass for. Once each let was set up using one of these aliases, the gang backing the ghost would start paying the rent to the letting agent.
Lincoln police, investigating calls from neighbours fed up of late-night disturbances from adjoining flats, were first to stumble across the network. Busting one smart but sparsely furnished flat, they found every room converted for the purposes of sex – living rooms turned into bedrooms, each stocked with condoms, lube and tissues.Inside, the Chinese women working for £60 for half an hour, or £100 for an hour, refused to tell police about the man on the building's lease."Initially these were isolated addresses – two to three bedroom apartments with females operating – but then they were being identified across the country," says Nicholls. "Lincoln started talking with their neighbouring police forces and the same names and faces were coming up on the rental of the properties. But these IDs, while they had a real face, were all dead ends."
TO LET: BROTHELS AND CANNABIS FARMS
Every letting agency ID was for a Chinese man who looked broadly the same. Over 30 forces had this man's face, but none had his name. Letting agents would describe the tenant who signed the leases as a polite, softly-spoken businessman who paid on time and never made any complaints.The ideal tenant in some ways; the absolute worst in every other.The next part of the puzzle came in the form of a raid on a six-bed Shropshire farm house that was being rented for £1,800 a month. As police closed in, a figure came crashing out of a rear door and made a dash for safety, before tripping over and being apprehended. Inside were 531 mature cannabis plants spread across five rooms and the bathroom, with the sixth room used for drying the weed. Nicholls says, "There was cabling and ducting all through the house, and they had completely diverted the power from the normal electricity meter."The man arrested was a lone Vietnamese immigrant who claimed he had been trafficked to tend the farm and had no knowledge of who ran the farm, which police said could pull in around £3 million a year.
DCI Neil Smith, who headed up the arrest team, says the perception of cannabis farms being harmless was wrong – that they often rely on cheap labour from trafficked people. "That cash is then utilised to purchase firearms, and is involved in human trafficking, modern day slavery, child sexual exploitation and all other serious and organised crime."
Weed farms were popping up all over the countryside, but while police could catch the farmers, they couldn't catch the leaseholder fronting for the people in charge. So numerous were these rural weed farms that Gloucestershire Police issued guidelines on how to spot them; red flags included piles of furniture being dumped in the garden where tenants had cleared the house out, or addresses suddenly "blacking out windows".When police in Newent, Gloucester located another similar Vietnamese-led farm with 170 plants, they finally got a break. This time, the suspect had made a mistake. Unlike the brothels, the mystery criminal landlord had been paying the rents for the drug dens himself.Once police had the owner of this bank account under surveillance, a fascinating picture of his business began to emerge. The ghost visited letting agents in Hastings, another in Banbury, signing for agreements and taking the keys, always presenting immaculate documents complete with references, utility bills, photo ID and bank statements.Another domino then fell into place. "When you pulled it all together there was a common denominator – the IP address all his correspondence came from was located in the Birmingham block where he was residing," says Nicholls. "This was a guy who was, according to documents, living everywhere around the country, but his computer always said he was in Birmingham."The "landlord for crime" had been rumbled.
Feng Xu, 44, came to the UK in 1996 on a student visa to study at Bedford University. He had his leave to remain extended on a couple of occasions, but beyond 2000 it ran out. Apart from being here illegally since then, he had never done anything to alert himself to police.Around 6AM one May morning, he was awoken by the sound of police crashing into his flat. Feng was sat in bed and offered no resistance. He had no weapons in his flat and, unless you spotted the hundreds of fake IDs in his office, you wouldn't have known he was a key figure for any number of unknown gangs.In Feng's flat and in a nearby storage lock-up, police found wads of cash, 33 false passports and 11 driving licences connecting him to between 70 to 100 different identities and numerous bank accounts. But it was his computer that finally bust the case wide open. Not only was Feng Xu making and creating his own convincing payslips and utility bills as proof of ID, he had let so many flats he'd been forced to record exactly where he "lived", or else the mask would slip for each.
MEETING MR FENG XU
This spreadsheet listed 446 different addresses, from tenancies which began in November of 2015. Many of these buildings are now empty and it's not known what each was used for. Feng also wrote down which identity he had used for which address; which letting agent he had signed with, and also kept account of which reference documents he had sent where. If a drugs den or brothel was busted, he would take that ID and the associated references out of use.
Feng "no commented" every line of questioning from the police and didn't reveal anything about who he was working with or how and why he started. But the sheer volume of information he recorded in order to run his enterprise was enough for him to be taken to trial. He pled guilty to 22 fraud, fake ID and money laundering offences, and today was handed seven years at Birmingham Crown Court. He will face deportation after serving his time.Feng Xu presented himself as the perfect foil – a businessman who pays on time, with good references, asking for nothing from his landlord but a place to stay in."It was only through excellent, old fashioned police work by several forces working together that he was caught," says Nicholls. "I would say, from what I have seen, this was an entrepreneurial opportunity for him. This was something he could do, that he was good at, and that people would pay for."As for how much he was paid – and who paid him – it's unlikely we'll ever know.@andyjoneswrites