MARRIED TO THE GOLDFINGER GANGSTER
JOHN PALMER WENT FROM BEING A JACK- THE- LAD TO BRITAIN’S RICHEST CROOK WITH A FORTUNE TO RIVAL THE QUEEN’S. HE BUILT HIS FORTUNE ON HIS CHARM AND WIT. BUT BY THE TIME HE WAS MURDERED, DETECTIVES HAD A LIST OF HIS 17,000 PEOPLE WITH MOTIVE TO KILL HIM
The former wife of a multimillionaire gold robber and con man recalls the day John Palmer was assassinated
For the super- rich like Marnie Palmer, Concorde was the only way to fly. As the young mother with striking Brigitte Bardot looks peered out of the plane’s tiny porthole as the plane taxied from its stand to Heathrow’s runway, she was losing count of how many times she had flown to Barbados supersonically. Once again she had secured her favourite seat on the world’s most prestigious plane –
Row 28, right at the back. You could really feel the thrust of the supersonic engines from the rear of the aircraft.
She was getting very used to this jet- set lifestyle. She was just a few hundred metres away from the scene of that robbery: the ‘ heist of the century’ the tabloids called it. Not that she had known anything about it. But it had affected her life so deeply.
On the seat next to Marnie was her husband John, a short chap with a big smile. It was he who had got mixed up in the robbery’s aftermath. He had always claimed that he hadn’t known about Brink’s Mat, and a jury even found him not guilty. But his name would be forever linked to the stolen bullion. ‘ Goldfinger,’ they called him. And now he was richer still. His business in Tenerife was taking off, paying for the flights to the Caribbean, the yacht, the cars, the chateau in France. There were private jets and helicopters. The Sunday Times had him on the ‘ rich list’, with an estimated fortune equalling the queen’s.
But the die had been cast, and the people John Palmer was mixing with were not to be messed with. The opulence enjoyed by the Palmers was built on fraud, confidence and intimidation too – threats that would have to be followed through with violence. The violence would turn to murder. And bloodshed spreads.
Yet, as Concorde’s engines fired up and this elegant bird took to the skies, Marnie was blissfully unaware of all that. But she would learn in the years to come, as her husband would turn from being Britain’s richest gangster to a hopeless murder victim, in a killing that still baffles detectives.
MEETING A CROOK
“I didn’t think an awful lot of him, to be honest,” Marnie Palmer told Real Crime, as she remembers first clapping eyes on the small wheeler- dealer in a Bristol nightclub. “A bit scruffy. I used to go with a DJ. John came in and would have half a pint. Music was playing, and there was hardly ever anybody in there. I noticed that when he came out he had a nice E- type Jaguar. I was a bit attracted to that. One night he asked me for a drink. We saw each other a couple of times. I had a room in a friend’s house, sleeping on a mattress because I couldn’t afford a flat of my own. I was working as a hairdresser. John and I had seen each other a few times, and then one evening he turned up at the door with a suitcase and said could he stay for a while?”
John Palmer had been born into poverty in Solihull in the West Midlands. Rather than looking like a young gangster kingpin, like a youthful Tony Soprano, his early career resembled more that of English sitcom market trader Del Boy Trotter. He made and sold belts, bottled gas, set up a secondhand car dealership (“they were real bangers” said Marnie), before establishing a carpet firm and finally a jewellers. “John liked the smell of money,” said Marnie Palmer. “Pounds. He used to flick through them and smell them. Anything he did, whatever it was, he did it to earn money from it, with such enthusiasm to earn whatever he could out of it.”
He took on a jewellery shop in south Bristol but soon realised he could earn only so much from selling gold – processing the precious metal was where the riches lay. So Palmer bought a smelter and installed in the garden of their family home. “The scrap they started getting all grew, really,” said Marnie. “To get the most out of the scrap, which was teeth, broken earrings, to bulk all that together and put that with a bar. They were earning fair money – but they had to invest in the gold bar in order to melt everything down.”
THE ‘ HEIST OF THE CENTURY’ WOULD... TURN THIS YOUNG ‘ WIDE BOY’ INTO A VILLAIN WITH AN INTERNATIONAL REPUTATION
BELOW- LEFT Fugitives in the sun, a press photo taken of Palmer and Marnie as they evade police by remaining in Tenerife
BELOW- RIGHT Facing justice: after years on the run, Palmer was finally in custody, here at Kennington Police Station after a court appearance in 1988. He would later be acquitted of Brink’s Mat charges
BELOW- MIDDLE At the height of his criminal success, John Palmer had an Olympic- sized manège built for Marnie, who was a keen equestrian