brink’s- mat bullion curse
When six men burst into a security warehouse, they were looking for a stash of used notes. Instead, they found gold. the biggest raid in British history would leave a trail of dead in its wake
It was a £ 26 million score of the century for these crooks until, one by one, they started dropping dead
The assassin looked through the small hole he had drilled into the gangster’s fence. Detectives would later say he had been spying for weeks. His target was approaching, coming to just the right place, a blind- spot in the sophisticated network of security cameras. The man in the expansive garden was not old, but he was definitely slower after his recent surgery. Britain’s richest gangster, they once called him. But that was years ago. And he had abandoned a lot of that old protection with which had lived for the last 20 years. No longer did he wear a bullet- proof vest, nor was he carrying a gun. His dogs, Rottweilers, were not here.
Now, at last, he was in the execution point. The killer leapt over the fence, drew his gun and shot the victim three times. His target slumped to the floor. The killer raised the gun once more and squeezed three more shots before fleeing. As life seeped from John Palmer, perhaps he knew why he was being murdered. He had enemies, not an understatement to say thousands of them. Perhaps it was his timeshare frauds, perhaps it was about a forthcoming trial. Or maybe it was linked to a robbery more than 20 years earlier. The biggest heist of the 20th century. Millions of pounds’ worth of gold taken and spirited away in what police described as ‘ an audacious raid’: Brink’s- Mat.
The man dying in his garden had not been a raider, had not even known about the theft before it happened. But he was one of the many criminals who would later get drawn into the operation to launder the loot. And John ‘ Goldfinger’ Palmer was yet another personality associated with the raid who had met an untimely end. The theft had been bullion. Its legacy was blood.
Bullion by accident
Unit 7, Heathrow International Trading Estate in Hounslow, West London, was as bleak in 1983 as it is forgettable now. It stands among a collection of large sheds made from brick and metal that store goods entering, exiting or transiting through the nearby airport from which it gets its name. The Brink’s- Mat building was as blandly anonymous as the other warehouses on the road, no visible sign of the riches it contained in an ill- guarded vault. Soon after the half-
the brink’s- mat vault held gold – 6,800 bars in 60 boxes worth more than £ 26 million. The thieves loaded it into a van
dozen security guards arrived on Saturday 26 November, six raiders wearing balaclavas and carrying semi- automatic pistols and Browning automatic rifles burst in. One of the raiders smashed his rifle on a guard’s head and ordered him to “lie still and be fucking quiet”.
Bags were placed over the guards’ heads and soon they felt a liquid poured onto their groins. “Do you recognise that smell?” asked one of the raiders. “You’d better do what I say or I’ll put a match to the petrol and a bullet in your head.” Two guards were dragged to the vault where they entered its combination. Inside, the raiders had been expecting to find a million pounds’ worth of used banknotes.
Instead, the vault of Brink’s- Mat held gold – 6,800 bars in 60 boxes worth more than £ 26 million. The six thieves loaded the loot into a scruffy transit van, a vehicle barely capable of carrying the weight of the bounty, and escaped.
“It was called the crime of the century for a reason. It was the most audacious heist. I think it was the sheer scale that sent shock waves through the underworld,” explains Tom Morgan, who co- wrote Goldfinger and Me with Palmer’s widow Marnie.
Brink’s- Mat was more than ten- times greater than The Great Train Robbery, and it dwarfed a £ 6- million East End raid from earlier in the year. Lloyds of London put up a £ 2- million reward the following day. The pressure was on the detectives to track down the band of thieves. “It was the hottest property in the world. The gold was sought- after, the stakes were raised and there was blood shed,” says Morgan.
The blood- letting would not start yet. In fact, it would be more than a year before the first death. But the air of suspicion that engulfed the raiders and their conspirators was there from the beginning. Police looked immediately at the security guards and discovered that one of the men held up, Tony Black, was out of sight of the other five in the moments before the raid. He was also related to a well- known London gangster, Brian Robinson. Robinson was an armed robber who had managed to evade justice with a mixture of luck and insufficient evidence.
Black was brought in for questioning, and soon enough he identified three names: his brother- in- law, Brian Robinson, and two criminals who were already known to the police: ‘ Mad’ Mickey McAvoy and Tony White. The last two were South London criminals well known to detectives. All three were arrested and eventually charged.
Security guard Black was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. The judge said before sending him down, “Never again will your life be safe. In custody you will be segregated at all times, and you and your family will forever be fugitives from those you so stupidly and wickedly helped.”
McAvoy was the brains of the outfit; Brink’s- Mat was his idea. Nearly a year to the day after the raid he was convicted of robbery alongside his co- accused Brian Robinson. Tony White was acquitted. The police had the raiders, but where was the gold?
The thieves had to spirit it away and rely on people who had nothing to do with the Brink’s- Mat raid. How do you make £ 26 million worth of bullion disappear?
Ghosting away the gold
That was where Kenneth Noye entered the picture. He would later be known as Britain’s most wanted man. But in 1984 he was a fence ( someone who knowingly deals in stolen goods), little known outside his native Kent.
A close friend of Noyes was seen buying a smelter from a foundry in Worcestershire, while neighbours of Noye’s parents would see the criminal visit them on Saturdays and observed him carrying what looked like batteries in and out of his father’s garage from his pickup. A surveillance operation on Noye began. Teams followed him for weeks, even setting up watch outside his home in West Kingsdown, Kent, in January 1984.
The Metropolitan Police decided to raid Noye’s home. To do that, they needed to get into the expansive grounds. Two officers would do that. DC Neil Murphy was 37. He was accompanied by his police mentor, a 43- year- old surveillance officer called DC John Fordham. It was only early evening, around 6.30pm, when in the dark the policemen jumped over the perimeter wall and made their way through the gardens of Noye’s property. They knew Noye was at home with his wife Brenda and his business associate, Brian Reader, who would later mastermind the Hatton Garden heist.
Noye had two Rottweiler dogs that were alerted and started barking violently. Murphy started to retreat, thinking Fordham would do the same. But Fordham was getting in closer. Noye came out, searching with his torch when the beam of light came across a darkened figure wearing a balaclava. Noye would later say this balaclava- wearing spectre hit him first. Noye dropped the torch and pulled a knife from his jacket – a blade he had been using as a tool earlier in the day – and stabbed the oncoming spectre.
They carried on fighting, with Fordham eventually slumping to the ground. Reader and Brenda Noye had come
above The gold, diamonds and cash that was seized during the raid on 26 November 1983 would have a value today of around £ 83.4 millionbelow- left The inside man: Anthony Black was the Brink’sMat security guard who police collared within days. He gave up the names of the ringleaders. Sentenced to six years, the judge warned him, “Never again will your life be safe”
above Detectives desperate to find the raided gold showed the press the hoods the guards were forced to wear and images of the getaway van.The pressure was on – Brink’s- Mat was already being called ‘ the crime of the century’below- left Clues may have been scarce, but police came to the right conclusions quickly. They discovered the ‘ inside man’ straight away and had already assumed the raid was a professional job carried out by London underworld figures