Ten years ago today, a group of blaggers from London and the Home Counties pulled off the largest cash robbery in British history. After using an inside man to secretly film the interior of a Securitas depot in Tonbridge, Kent, they abducted the depot manager's family to use as hostages, tied up 14 Securitas staff members, and made off with just over £53 million [€67,8 million]. It was one of the UK's most ambitious crimes – although the perpetrators' competence didn't quite match up to their gall.
Virtually every error imaginable was made, with DNA evidence left on items used in the raid, incriminating information entrusted to a member of the public, and a phone call plotting the heist accidentally recorded. Money linked to the robbery was found in the houses of the culprits, weapons were found abandoned in a van and one of the perps had kept a floorplan of the Securitas depot in his home, covered in his fingerprints, after the heist.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the robbery, I got in touch with some former criminals to get their view on what could have been done differently. Was there a way in which this monumental crime could have been pulled off without the robbers landing themselves with lengthy prison sentences? Former South London villain Johnny Mack, who had taken part in a £250,000 [€320,000] diamond robbery before reaching his 15th birthday, thinks so. He was less than impressed with the depot robber's methods and went so far as to question the logic behind attempting such a large-scale cash robbery in the first place.
"I would never have got involved with something involving that much cash," Mack told VICE. "If someone said to me: 'I've got a £50 million [€64 million] job, are you interested?', I'd say no. The simple reason is that I don't know of one job yet that's gone down involving that type of money, where they haven't been caught. When you rob that much cash, you need to have people outside the country who are going to buy that money. The group that did the Tonbridge Securitas got around £50 million [€64 million]. If they sold it through the black market, they'd be lucky if they got £20 million [€25,6 million] back. They would have been better off going after gold or diamonds."
Stuart Campbell, a criminal jack-of-all-trades who has acted as a fixer for robberies, agreed. "It'd have been easier to get rid of diamonds," he said. "Once they've been cut and polished again, their identity's totally altered." It seems there's a reason why most crimes that target cash are relatively small-scale: it's better to do lots of little robberies and actually get away with it than it is to do a huge one that ends up being the subject of a multi-million pound police operation.
Another major error that the gang made was recruiting hairdresser and makeup artist Michelle Hogg, a policeman's daughter with no experience of crime. She had been on a course that taught her how to apply theatrical makeup, and was used to fit disguises to the robbers. After being leaned on by the authorities during the aftermath of the raid, she testified against her alleged co-conspirators, which helped secure their imprisonment, and is now in the witness protection program as a result.
According to Mack, getting her onboard represented a huge error of judgement. "Would you trust a beautician to be involved in something involving that amount of money?" he asked. "When it comes to things like that, the less people involved, the better. They let far too many people in on it."
Mick Judge, Kent Police Detective Chief Investigator in charge of the case at the time, reflects
These sentiments were echoed by ex-gangster Jason Cook, who was a known face in the London underworld from the age of 17. "Too many people knew what was happening," he said. "There was no need for everyone who was involved to see everybody else. Each person should have just seen one other person so that if one of them went down, the others would have been protected."
So it seems that those in the know don't believe the robbery was as great a crime as it's been made out to be. There was one thing that most of them agreed was a good idea, though: the involvement of an inside man. The gang had recruited Securitas employee Emir Hysenaj to film the inside of the depot using a pinhole camera so that they could gain an insight into the place they were about to rob.
"That's what I would have done," Campbell said. "The bad thing there is that even though they had the camera, they still had to leave behind over £100 million [€128 million] because they didn't bring a big enough van. They should have scoped out the amount that was going to be in there so that they could bring the right size vehicle."
Hysenaj arguably took the biggest risk of anyone in the gang, as his position at the company meant that there was a link between him and the heist. Organised crime expert Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, who's spoken to VICE before, told me that "inside men" tend to get away with their crimes more often than other criminals. This is because the police usually focus on career criminals, allowing grey agents – those within legal organisations who abuse their positions – to slip below the radar.
Unfortunately for Hysenaj, armed robberies are an exception to this rule. In the wake of the convictions of five of the gang members, the Met Police's Flying Squad head John O'Connor told the BBC that there's always likely to be an inside man when a big job goes down. This meant that the police were on the lookout for signs of an inside job, and Hysenaj eventually received a 20-year sentence for his involvement.
Other gang members made the schoolboy error of hiding either money linked to the depot or items used in the robbery at their properties. Van garage owner Roger Coutts stashed overalls and a balaclava that he had worn during the raid at his house in Bexleyheath, and used-car salesman Stuart Royle hid the keys to vehicles used in the kidnapping of the depot manager at his mum's house. Roofer and martial arts expert Lea Rusha left plans of the depot and Securitas note wrappers in his house, and guns and ammunition in his shed. These were the mistakes that most perplexed the former criminals I spoke to.
"I don't know why they did that," Campbell told me. "The money should have been moved to a safe house straightaway, or down to a farm in the middle of nowhere. A few of them left DNA on various different things as well. They should have used gloves whenever they touched anything. The fact that one of them accidentally pressed the record button on his phone when he was discussing the robbery was baffling too, although I suppose everyone makes avoidable errors at times."
John Costi, a reformed character who has since forged a career as a fine artist, believes that the prospect of being millionaires might have gone to the robbers' heads. "They should have buried the money and guns deep somewhere off the radar, but when you've got £53 million [€67,8 million], I think excitement can get the better of you," he told me.
Costi wasn't entirely critical of the robbers' tactics, and pointed out that large sums of money were never recovered. "Even though they got nicked, in the scheme of things they've done pretty well," he said. "The old bill will be all over them when they get out, but the money they're sitting on is more than most will ever make in a lifetime. Now it's just about how they disappear and get the money on release, 'cause they'll have crazy license conditions and the police will be onto them."
One of the ringleaders, Paul Allen, has just reportedly been freed after spending nine years in prison. If he gets his share of the prize, will it justify being forced to endure a decade behind bars? That depends on whether you believe a price can be placed on years of your life. Crime of the century? In terms of scale, maybe, but in terms of attention to detail, it clearly left a lot to be desired.
Thanks, everyone. Mack's currently working on a film about his life of crime, Cook has written a book based on his experiences, Campbell has an autobiographical book on the way, literally called Jibbers, and Salcedo-Albarán's latest book on drug trafficking and corruption came out last year.
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