Saturday, June 7, 2008

Hidden treasure

Police in London are busy sorting through a treasure-trove of discoveries.

Detectives have found six suitcases packed with gold dust worth £8 million and more than £30 million in cash during raids on three safe deposit centres in some of London's most affluent neighbourhoods.

Last night Scotland Yard said the recovery of such an astonishing haul was being seen as a major victory in the war against global organised crime.

The sheer magnitude of the loot found so far - much of it thought to be the proceeds of international drug smuggling - has stunned police because only a third of the 7,000 suspect deposit boxes have so far been opened.

The unprecedented raids on the safe deposit centres in Park Lane, Hampstead and Edgware has involved more than 300 police officers and followed a complex two-year undercover operation against criminal money-laundering codenamed Rize.

At the heart of the investigation --which is expected to last for at least two more years - is a company called Safe Deposit Centres Limited, set up in 1986 and run by two South African-born men with British citizenship. Both are currently on police bail having been arrested on suspicion of money-laundering.

Police have spent two years closely monitoring the activities of the company and watching the comings and goings of clients at all three centres.

It came to a head on Monday, when detectives obtained a search warrant from a Crown Court judge to target the company on the basis it had allegedly breached anti-money-laundering legislation by not registering with the Financial Services Authority, and failed to conduct identity checks on prospective depositors.

Police say the company directors also failed to file reports of any suspicious activity to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, Britain's equivalent of the FBI, as they were required to do by law.

Commander Allan Gibson, of the Yard's Specialist Crime Directorate, told The Mail on Sunday last night: 'This is very significant and we are aware that what we are doing will have a substantial impact on organised crime. We have been told by our partner agencies that the impact has already been felt within criminal fraternities across the world.

'This is all about criminal networks using alternatives to the usual banking system and they have been assisted by people willing to turn a blind eye.'

Since the initial raids on Monday, police have recovered more than £30 million in cash, much of it in foreign currency and particularly large-denomination bills, such as €500 notes, favoured by money launderers because of their high value and portability.

Much of the cash - which also included gold Krugerrands and US dollars - was found simply stuffed into holdalls and supermarket carrier bags. Other boxes were crammed full with loose notes.

Most is thought to have been the proceeds of drugs deals but detectives say some may be from cash-in-transit robberies.

They are checking for any money that may have come from Britain's biggest robbery, the raid on the Securitas depot in Tonbridge, Kent, in 2006, which netted more than £53 million, much of which was never recovered.

The gold dust - which is actually a mixture of gold particles, flakes and small nuggets - was found in six trolley-style suitcases inside two very large deposit boxes the size of walk-in wardrobes.

It was wrapped in plastic bags the size of big packs of frozen peas and would be worth around £8 million on the bullion market.

One officer involved in the search said: 'When we opened the first suitcase we could see these plastic bundles inside but when we tried to pick them up they were so heavy it needed two of us just to lift one.'

The gold dust has been sent to a specialist bullion dealer for analysis. Where it came from has not yet been established but one theory is that it may have originated in South Africa, one of the world's biggest gold producers.

Gold dust is regularly smuggled by impoverished workers from refining plants to supplement their low wages. Criminal gangs pay them way below gold's official market price and the dust is then cast into untraceable ingots.

Also recovered has been a large quantity of jewellery, drugs such as heroin and cocaine, false credit cards, counterfeit cheque books, forged passports and evidence of links to prostitution.

Police have found a substantial haul of paedophile material --described by officers as of a 'shocking' level of depravity --and paintings by 17th Century Dutch and Russian artists, which have been sent for specialist assessment. Classical artefacts are also being examined.

All three safe deposit centres are under 24-hour armed police guard and the examination of the safe deposit boxes will continue around the clock.

Police are using specialist sniffer dogs inside the vaults to detect drugs and to establish whether any of the boxes have been booby-trapped with explosives. 'The working area is quite small. It is very hot and cramped in there and our men are conducting a difficult task in very difficult circumstances,' said Commander Gibson.

'Every box - and there are 7,000 of them - is a story and an individual investigation. Every one is a potential scene of crime - it has to be opened, forensically examined and the property removed for secure storage.

'The next stage is to try to establish who owns the boxes. We also realise that this operation has had a significant impact on innocent members of the public who have used these facilities for perfectly legitimate purposes.'

He said that so far, 850 people have come forward to claim ownership of boxes at the centres and officers have already given back property in a number of urgent cases.

These have included a woman who wanted to recover some jewellery from a box because she was getting married, a man who needed his passport to travel abroad and a jeweller who wanted items from his box for a special exhibition.

But Commander Gibson said: 'We anticipate that a great deal of the property inside those boxes will not be claimed and the owners will not be coming forward.'

I'll bet they won't! Right now I'm sure there are many international criminals cursing fluently in many languages as they contemplate the loss of their nest-eggs!

However, this is also troubling. What about those legitimate users of safety deposit boxes who are now being inconvenienced, and possibly subjected to police investigation and interrogation? I accept that criminal activity has been uncovered here, but the net is so wide that every user of these facilities, innocent as well as guilty, has now been caught up in the investigation. Is this right? If I were an innocent user, I wouldn't think so.

I'd like to know whether it would have been possible to develop the case further, and target specific safety deposit boxes, rather than grab them all and then sort them out. This is too close to a wholesale infringement of civil liberties for my comfort.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"frozen peas???" Why peas, particularly?

"'The working area is quite small. It is very hot and cramped in there and our men are conducting a difficult task in very difficult circumstances,' said Commander Gibson."

Somebody call a Waaaahmbulance, please.

You noted that, "This is too close to a wholesale infringement of civil liberties for my comfort."

Sorry, Peter; I'm not with you there. It is a wholesale infringement of civil liberties, period. The folks who rented those boxes are not "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."

Of course, they don't use the wording that I've quoted in the U.K. I just like it: I think that it sets a very useful standard. Of course, we're doing a worse job of following those words here than I'd prefer (*cough* D.C. "Neighborhood Safety Zones" *cough* ). Unfortunately, people seem simply to be getting used to such things again.